How Grumpy Old Men Can Help You With Your College Essays

There once was an Internet article about writing tips that I particularly like. Its advice applies not just for the college essays that students are writing, but also for anything written in class this year and in college. It also gives a nice perspective on what we all experience in life. The article, which I no longer can find,  refers to a term by playwright Lillian Hellman. The word is pentimento, in which a painter repented or changed his mind. That’s often evident to art conservators who discover, for example, another painting or figure underneath the one on view to the public. In particular, underneath Picasso’s painting, The Blue Room, lies another work – not an innocent and contemplative girl but a grumpy middle-age man.

What does that have to do with writing? I defer to the article:

“If great artists can’t get their creations right the first time, what makes the rest of us think we have to? All of our writing – articles and books, reports and briefs, memoranda and proposals – should start as grumpy old Pentimento Men, and as we transform them on the way to our final draft, they will evolve into lovely figures captured in contemplative moments. Every article, book, and tip I write begins as a grumpy old man. Or a cat, or a peach.”

I can hear some students grumbling, “Well now, I am not Picasso, but I do have a personal essay to write.”

If that is you or someone you know grumbling, remember two things: One, CREATIVITY REQUIRES FAILURE. Every great artist has learned this lesson. So jump in unconcerned that you might fail, because you may, at least initially. It’s part of the process.

Two, DON’T STOP WRITING. It’s okay if you first write a one-page grumpy old Pentimento Man. Then come back and stretch him and mold him and take him from sitting to standing. Then turn him into that beautiful person underneath. Refine his look.

Only your finest words will now cover your earlier attempts. Failure and genius lie in the same report, except that no one will see the failures, your pentimenti, because all that shows in the end is your final composition.