THE BLOG
11/07/2013 02:36 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Secret to Essays (College Edition)

Depressingly dark with merciless rain beating down on the roof of the admissions office at Brown University. The nighttime effects a sense of desolation for its residents. In comes a member of the admissions team, here to review her last application for the day. She stifles a yawn as she heads toward her private office, a coffee mug in one hand and a manilla envelope in the other. In the envelope contains your application, the 30th for her that day. She opens the folder to the essay and starts reading: "I believe I am a good fit for Brown University because I'm dedicated, hardworking, resourceful..." Eyes drooping and barely able to stay awake, she survives through the essay. Taking out a pen she prints: Waitlist...

Pretty terrifying, huh?

This scenario was posed to me in class by my English teacher, along with the following quote: "No ideas but in things." -- William Carlos Williams (a terrific name, by the way).

Williams was an American poet during the 20th century, although his formal occupation was pediatrician. He would keep a notebook at hand, while performing various operations on his patients, and jot down lines of poetry that came to his mind, which was something unexpected, considering the lack of time he had during his work to contemplate anything other than the medical procedure at hand.

In one of his poems "A Sort of a Song," he famously summarized his method of writing poetry with the aforementioned quote: "No ideas but in things." His message was not to start directly at the idea that you are trying to formulate when you start writing. Ideas themselves are not physically visible, so you should first find their origins in things, and then clearly develop and define the idea. This way, it's so much easier to go about your busy day without having to set aside time to do nothing else but sit in front of the computer and think about a topic to write about. Plus, once you find an idea to write about, you already have a way to start your magnificent piece -- the thing your idea originated from, whether that be a description of someone or a personal experience.

Funny how applicable and relevant a quote from 150 years ago can still be today.