The following is my personal account of my writing process for the My Life Chassidus Applied Essay Contest:
I got the text from my mother first. “There’s an essay contest online, with a chance to win $10,000. Go for it!” And later in the day my friend Baruch texted me the link well: “This is right up your alley.”
I like to write, and sometimes I write quite well. That’s the reason I got these texts, because my friends know this about me. And, well, my mother too.
So I went online to check it out. The contest seemed simple — not easy, just simple: Take an idea of Chassidus and show how, when applied, it can solve contemporary problems. The first place winner would receive $10,000, second would get $3,600, third, $500.
All in all, not a bad gig. Especially if you enjoy writing. Little did I know what was coming. And I wasn’t without doubts. By the time I printed out the contest Rules and Guidelines, I was one massive sinkhole of doubt.
First of all, realistically speaking, there were tons of writers “out there” with more experience and writing ability than me. Second, and maybe not as realistic, I didn’t think this was the ideal time to write a $10,000 essay. My writing goes through phases, just as any art would, and this was a particularly dry spell. And this essay was not one I could take shortcuts with; no amount of fluff would make up for actual content, even if my writing was in top form. Applied Chassidus is the real deal and my topic would have to be strong and well researched. In this field too, I was not at my best. It’s not that I don’t believe in it — I do. Chassidus has enriched my life and become synonymous with my Judaism and my connection to God. I also believe it’s our best shot at getting the world from a state of exile to redemption. The issue is that applied Chassidus requires… applying Chassidus, which means knowing and learning Chassidus. I hadn’t been learning so much.
And who said I was such a good writer anyway? Two people texted me, and one of them was my mother. But this last doubt was the easiest to expel, because I’m pretty confident in my writing ability overall. I just needed to get back into the swing of things. And what did it matter that only two people had texted me? I didn’t need fifty people to think I’m good. Just the judges. And it was hard. I was going to have to learn more. One couldn’t expect to just sit down and conjure up a winning essay without any effort.
There were some complications however. The Spring college semester was about to start, and I besides for the time that would take out of my days, it would divide my mind into compartments. And I knew I couldn’t do this halfheartedly (Chassidic pun). The rules were long and comprehensive; they covered every possible detail. This wasn’t surprising, considering the $10,000 prize. I had to get to work.
I decided that my writing style would have to be Easy-Read. Those other experience writers would probably be going with Scholarly or Academic. My best shot would be with clear speech which borderlined on actual dialogue. Nothing says Applied Chassidus like the friendly tone of real life human being. I just hoped I qualified.
I began listing topics I was sure I’d be able to write about: keeping a beard, having a Mashpia, practicing hiskafia… but they weren’t speaking to me. These weren’t ‘contemporary problems’. And besides, I was coming up with these ideas when I was supposed to be Davening. It doesn’t get more hypocritical than that. But I kept running back to my notebook, trying to formulate the best idea possible. Maybe… maybe I could write about Davening! And banishing foreign thoughts, even if they’re about Chassidus! The obvious problem was that I wasn’t doing that successfully at that moment, so that was out.
While the initial fire may have died down to a manageable inferno, the ideas kept coming. Depression. Anxiety. Chassidus was all around me. I kept thinking of topics. And so I decided to write out short paragraphs to test drive each idea. If I could write it out in my voice, that would be a starting point. One idea that almost made it was Mo’ach Shalet Al Halev — that the brain rules over the heart. I was going to incorporate the story of Moshe Meisels who spied on Napoleon, and how he controlled his reaction to being accused. The punchline is: “Mo’ach Shalet Al Halev is the Aleph Beis of Chabad Chassidus.” What does that mean? Well, it would be easy to take it from there. But nothing came of that, either.
The going wasn’t great. More than a week has passed and I had yet to pick a topic. Nothing to show for the time ‘Essay’ spent at the top of my To-Do list. No terrible first draft. All I had was written about how I’d written nothing. At least it wasn’t negative, right? No bad feelings. Right?!
So, I decided then that I needed to up the tempo, raise the temperature of the fire under my chair until I got up screaming and my voice was heard even if my pain was unfelt. I would sit down to write and produce random fragments…
“Snow was falling, not in big clumps, but rather in small steady flakes, content and patient with confidence that that it would cover all the land in whiteness.”
How was I going to pick a topic? I needed to learn more. What should I learn, how should I learn? With whom? When? I didn’t know the answers, but I was honest enough to know I was in the midst of a thick cloud of procrastination.
I kept going back to the conviction that I would use my Easy-Read style. That would save me, surely. Simon Jacobson added in his weekly video series, “The essay should come from the heart, should not be overly scholarly, and that anyone could do this.”
Nothing. No magic. Dead time. “I really should start,” I told myself. Daily. But no ideas were coming to me. And then… It came like any other writing urge, squirming around inside me trying to get out, causing me to twitch and shudder until I safely got to a paper and poured it out like vomit, and only some of that is figurative. I sat there until I was spent, with (figurative) drool dripping off my chin. It was raw and messy. That’s how all rough drafts work. The topic was Inspiration, what to do when you don’t have it. It was weak, but at least I had something. You can’t critique a blank canvas. Still, I looked back on those weeks as drifting despair, weeks of procrastinated confusion.
I had my essay all typed up on Google Docs, trying hard to ignore the incoherence, the ugliness. I printed out what I had from the computer lab in college, complete with a little title graphic: Inspiration with a clip-art feather icon attached to the N’s tail at the end of the word.
With less than a week left, I began to get desperate. True, I had a second draft, but it wasn’t much better. It was just typed and had a few of Uri Perlman’s gentle criticisms. I kept dragging the papers around with me everywhere, so every time I did homework, they were right in my face, or hiding behind a textbook in my bag. I kept avoiding the essay, even as I spent so much thought on how I needed to work on it.
It was by mistake that I stopped into the writing center at college. The kind lady there read over what I had and encouraged me to keep going. I printed out a revised version and felt that much less anxious that the final time to submit the essay was only 2 days away.
Toughest essay in my life? I would never know for sure, but even as I clicked ‘submit’, I knew I was making personal history. 7 Drafts.
Draft #1 was written in zal, Draft #2 was printed from college, with minor edits. Draft #3 incorporated the story of Elisha and the woman, and was edited a bit more. By Draft #4 I thought I had it down. Then I called Baruch on the bus heading home the day before it was all due. The result of the conversation was that I covered the pages in red ink till it looked like I had killed a small animal on them. I showed this version with all the marks to J. E., who gave it a cursory glance and wasn’t very helpful. I showed it to S. T., who was entirely too helpful. It took me a while to recover.
Nighttime, February 19th. I went to sleep sad. Tired, feeling worthless. Aware of the work ahead, and the 24-hour window. Taking into account the hours of sleep, the hours of college, plus Davening and chitas, there were some 6 hours of actual time I could invest in this essay. It was a countdown.
Draft #5 received all the changes, and still there were mistakes. I was missing little spelling typos, grammar inconsistencies. I was in it too deeply to see the mess-ups. But Mary was a counselor at college and she saw them. She was frank with me. She said, if I wanted to win $10,000, I had to do what the judges wanted. She was right, of course. I edited some more, trying to find the structure within my artistic barf.
I turned to Draft #6. It was based on an outline I created haphazardly during Speech class at 3:00, and it was printed at 3:30. It cut down a lot of what gave the essay character, Easy-Read style be damned. This version followed a format of problem/solution, and anything that was fluff or didn’t belong was tossed. In essence, I didn’t do much more than copy and paste onto a new document, with minor additions bridging the void of what was chopped. But Baruch wasn’t convinced. Neither was Yakov. They thought that Draft #5 had more of a chance. That it spoke a more powerful message. At the time, I was ready to be done. I had zero faith in my own writing, and my own judgment. I was truly relying on other people, and now based on what other people had said (Baruch’s mother and Mary from college), Draft #6 was better off. I spent a long time being indecisive. Time I didn’t have.
So I made Draft #7, which was took the good parts of Draft #5 and added them to Draft #6. I still had the structure, now I was trying to stitch in the character. It was a lot like trying to keep a dying cow alive and patching it up with the right organs, rather than giving birth to something new, something beautiful.
In the last hour, my father literally walked me through it over the phone. We went over the entire essay, fixing the dumb mistakes, editing the grammar issues, trying to make it flow seamlessly. It wasn’t my best work. But the whole process was pretty impressive. And then it was 11:59, and I sent it in right in middle of making corrections. There was a bit of panic: I was using an older Mac, and the document editing program was ‘Pages’ and I was barely able to export it back to Word before the end. No time left. Submit, that’s it. Over. Breathing. Laughing even. Expelling the nervous laugh gas that was bubbling up inside me. Now I had to wait until March 18th.
I thought about this essay a lot, going over what went into it. The frustrations. All the people who helped me. Baruch went above and beyond in his editorship, responding to instantaneous corrections in real time. His help was invaluable. I couldn’t have submitted anything decent without his involvement. And with everything, it wasn’t an essay I wrote easily, or even that well, necessarily. There was less of “I’ll write an original essay and it will do fine in the contest” and a lot more of “do this because they want me to”. I had foolishly entertained the thought of winning until the very last day, and by then I was past any hope. At the end of it all, I just wanted to be done, finished. And I when it was finally over, I was exhausted. And possibly a bit relieved.
I didn’t even make the finalists. I saw the essays that won, and decided that some of them were true winners, and others were rather dry, and not to my taste at all. I think the lessons I learned from this essay experience were best taught through my utter lack of mention at all. It forced my essay’s message to be worthy by its own virtue, rather than just the right words at the right time, judged by the right people. The essay reverted back to its original message of something to be applied, not just distilled into an essay format. When the fantasy of winning subsided in disappointment, all that was left was the original idea, compelling it to be true for its own sake. And that made it all worthwhile.