Episode 77: "All Art Is Mapmaking"

Episode 77: "All Art Is Mapmaking"

Date of Publication/发布日期
April 29, 2022
Curtis Westbay
Files & media
Volume 2 2021-2022
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

This is one of the seven Common App essay prompts. I’m not a big fan of these prompts, but at the very least, they’re not very restrictive. Just about anything a student wants to write about fits with one of the prompts.

What follows is my description of one of the simpler methods I use with students (”BOD”— “brainstorm, outline, draft”); it’s a process plan to help them write personal statements. After describing this process, I will show you how it might look by trying it myself. BOD is one of several approaches that I might take with students, but it might not be the best approach for them all. This process plan is written from the perspective of an adult, so it’s just meant to show the process to get through the nascent stages of writing a personal statement, it’s not meant as a template for students, nor is it meant to imply that this is what student writing will sound like. Students can’t just follow a template and expect to produce good writing.

This will be a long post, so I will only model brainstorming and outlining, right up to the point where I would begin a first draft.


Step 1

Read the prompt, reduce ideas as much as possible

Students will almost always start with an impossibly big idea. A captivating idea, they reason, has to be big enough for the importance of it to be obvious. Asked this question, their first stab at a topic, idea, or concept that makes them lose all track of time is something that people puzzle over every day— e.g. climate change, artificial intelligence, the vastness of the universe. Students think that musing on a topic like this will leave a good impression on the reader: “Look how ambitious this student is! They contemplate the same big ideas that geniuses do!”

But our students know (as all of them are required to take AP English Language) about SOAPSTone: speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, tone.

As a speaker, the student is an unknown— do I, as a reader, have any reason to assume that their unique insights into big ideas are their own? It would be safer to assume they are parroting things they have heard elsewhere.

The purpose of the personal statement can be boiled down to this: the writer wants to convince the reader that they deserve a spot at an institution of higher education. It would stand to reason that an essay that showcases your intellectual nature would be a good thing, but I don’t see it that way, and I don’t think application readers do, either.

Especially when the subject of the essay is some overbroad topic and the space of the essay is devoted to some theatrical display of critical thinking, the student has trivialized the problem— if they cared about the complexities of a big problem like climate change, they will take action better exhibited by their activity list than a personal statement. Actions speak louder than words.

This assumption that this personal statement prompt expects students to showcase their intellectual bonafides is one of the pitfalls of personal statement writing. (There are about a dozen common pitfalls, all of which will be covered with rising seniors in the College Essay Workshop they will attend in English and history classes after AP exams this year— 5-23 to 6-24.) The personal statement is not an occasion to show the application reader how strong a student you are— that is what the transcript is for. It’s an occasion to highlight your most notable qualities.

The audience, here, is an application reader who knows that students want to convince them. Whenever you know that someone is trying to sell you something, you become more guarded. Application readers are no different. And so, we can’t try to sell readers on an idea so overtly. Musing over an unresolved problem in an academic field is not only something that anyone can do, it’s also a transparent attempt to sell.

A student’s tone in writing their essay— what we call their “voice”— can’t really be contrived. That voice is part of who they are, and it emerges over the course of long-term drafting. At the very least, students are made aware that their tone in this essay is unlike the tone they’ve maintained in academic writing. In contrast to that detached, logical, procedural style used in academic writing, this writing will be narrative, first-person, and human.

Okay, great. We’ve established what not to do. But... what should students do? What should they write about? I don’t know! It varies from student to student. Every student has a different experience. That experience and the way it’s reflected in their thought process is the heart of an effective personal statement. It can’t really be based off some template. In fact, no matter how well I know a student, I can’t really offer a starter idea that takes off with any sort of momentum. There is a huge gulf between the way a person is known to others and the way they know themselves.

And so, to get students off and running on a personal statement, I can offer three things: stimulus, refinement, and time. We will give them a lot of questions more interesting and granular than those offered by colleges or the Common App; we will help them reframe their ideas to make a compelling essay; and we will give them a schedule that allows for a more organic process from inception to finalization. An essay that isn’t organic— one that is forced because of procrastination or inauthentic because of excessive input— just won’t win a student admission at selective colleges.

So, maybe we start somewhere inauthentic, because a student is trying to write the essay they think that an application reader wants to read instead of the essay that is true to themselves. We will root out approaches like these pretty quickly when we work with students one on one. For this exercise, here is where I will start: “all art is mapmaking.” It’s something my mother said to me when I was 13 years old, and for the last 18 years, I haven’t forgotten it.

Step 2

Choose one idea and extend it through brainstorming

Let’s assume, however, that students don’t have one inescapable idea that was introduced to them by someone else, that has stuck with them through the years. They might instead start with a true fascination, even a dreaded overbroad idea that they haven’t taken the time to truly explore or understand. How can we get them to arrive at a place where their writing doesn’t sound like a performative display of intellect? To a point where the essay couldn’t have just been written by anyone, but is unique to their life and experiences? Here, pre-writing can save students a lot of pain and time later on. With a half-baked idea, they might keep revising and revising the essay, frustrated with their counselor who tells them that what they’ve written just isn’t hitting the mark. At a certain point, we might even ask a student to abandon the idea altogether, if, despite repeated revisions and versions, the superficiality of the underlying idea is still all too obvious. We have to take our time in the brainstorming stage, lest the foundation of an essay become too shaky to build upon.

Students will take an abstraction and make it real with narrative as a vehicle. Maybe they can’t find that one idea, yet, but as they extend their idea, they find that reminders of this preoccupation are strewn about their daily life. Maybe a student’s initial response to this question was “climate change,” but as they journal, they find that they can’t walk through the school without contextualizing every physical object they see in terms of consumption and waste. How much of harvested lumber, as a percentage, is discarded in order to produce the 25 desks in my classroom? If I stack up the wooden slabs, they are smaller than even one oak tree... but how many oak trees were felled in order to make them? Should I even care about that, if we can plant more? Or should I only care once consumption outpaces production? What about plastics? Is it so important that the walls of every classroom be adorned with laminated materials?

We could then ask, what led you to this place where your environmental conscience is so well-developed? What was the catalyzing event? Maybe a student saw a documentary. Maybe they just saw plastic takeout containers stacked on their kitchen table one day, then mentally multiplied that by the number of people in a city, in a province, in a country. Then, they really got curious and went down a rabbit hole, watching videos about the production of plastic. Then, they really became outraged when they read a news story about a massive heap of trash floating through the Pacific. Then, they cried when they saw a turtle with a misshapen shell, having been caught in the plastic rings. A casual throwaway, a byproduct of consumption, literally chokes wildlife to death. And with that concern so far away, so invisible, we go on about our daily business. This, yes, is captivating.

To stick to my own experience, here is how I would extend my answer to the question through brainstorming:

  • When I was 13, I was at my mom’s office in the courthouse. She was a part-time receptionist, part-time cartographer. She had been sent to training to learn how to make technical maps for the local government with software.
  • I remember that it was hard for her to use computers, but not hard for her to pull the right map upon request. “Can you find such-and-such plot, out near such-and-such road?” one of her supervisors would ask. And my mom seemed to have a sixth sense for it.
  • I was 13, killing time at my mom’s office until 4:30PM when she would end her shift and could drive us home. “How do you do that?” I asked. Mom was never a super reflective person, and in retrospect, I don’t think that she cared to take time to question why she was good at the things she was good at.
  • She was good at painting. Our house was decorated with her handiworks, both cute seasonal craft projects and with watercolor paintings she had made.
  • When my mom was in high school, she told me, there was no art class. There was just drafting— drawing for engineers. Because that was the closest she could get to an art classroom, that’s what she took.
  • But I still remember not being satisfied with that answer. How did my mom have this ability, to hear a place and pull its map with surprising accuracy? It was true that she had lived in the same place (and still has) for her entire life. I suppose it helped to be so familiar with that place...
  • But the maps weren’t named after places! They were just coordinate pairs. There was no way that she could just have an intuitive sense for which map contained these landmarks, I reasoned.
  • And then mom said the most intelligent thing I think she ever said: “It’s just like painting. I have a feeling where things go. It just makes sense. All art is just mapmaking, anyway.”
  • I never saw my mom sketching a grid onto the watercolor paper before she started painting, but I guess the grid was in her head. It also made sense, later on, that she hated painting portraits. The instant recognizability of a face to someone who sees it every day requires a level of precision and planning that mom didn’t care to employ when she was painting.
  • Did she just have preternatural spatial reasoning skill? Maybe. This skill was never manifest in mathematical reasoning, though. (Often, my mom would spend many frustrated hours trying to catch the mistake she had made in balancing her checkbook.) Was it really possible to demystify the artistic talent she had like this? Could I recreate every brilliant painting she ever made with enough measuring, patience, and mapmaking?
  • Is that what separates an artist from an artisan? In Dafen, talented people sit around, churning out Picassos and Van Goghs and Monets with ease. Is the genesis of an idea the only thing that separates a visionary from a mapmaker?

Step 3

Center idea on a desired message

Alright, great! We have some ideas! But oh... wait. The personal essay is supposed to be personal! It’s supposed to be about me! And right now, all of the brainstorming is about ideas and something my mom said. Uh oh.

That’s okay. That’s how this usually goes, at first. Now, I have to focus a little bit. Before I start writing this essay, let me consider an important question: what do I want the reader to think about me from this essay? It’s a question that, surprisingly often, becomes an afterthought.

But I don’t even know what I want to say just yet. I’m honestly still sitting here, thinking about it. I read back through my brainstorm writing, and I don’t know how to make these ideas cohere around a theme. And our students probably won’t know at first, either. This is where the drafting process will come in. Even from the start, with experiences from which to draw and a desired message around which to center the essay, the personal statement doesn’t always come together at first. That’s okay. But our seniors will start writing in early June, and their earliest applications will usually be due on November 1st. Five months is an adequate amount of time to tease out an idea through several revisions, and then pivot to another version if the revisions aren’t leading somewhere good. That’s why we start so early.

Okay, as I am writing this, I think I have somewhere to start. (Sometimes, ideas take time... another good reason to start early.)

Even fine art can be reduced to a science. In my life, awash in information and data, we face pressure to be motivated to design our lives and make our decisions in an urgent, deliberate, informed way, even at the expense of happiness and humanity. In a new world where the best outcome is income, where context-less maximization is what motivates so many, I want to find the happiness of simplicity.

This message may go nowhere, but at least I have an objective in mind as I write a first draft.


Step 4

Make minimal 5-paragraph format outline

There is no pattern to follow to guarantee that a personal statement is good. It’s not about the structure of the essay. That said, students can follow a pretty standard five-paragraph format on the way to accomplishing many of the goals of the personal statement.

¶ 1: “The Hook”

Capture the reader’s attention. Draw them in. Your essay is only as strong as its opener. You want someone to keep reading your essay because they can’t help themselves, not because it’s their job to do so.

For my essay, my first hook might be something like, “My mom’s most profound and memorable quote felt like a baby’s accidental first words. ‘All art is really just mapmaking,’ she said, and ever since, I have puzzled over what she meant.”

At this point, I’m not refining anything. I’m just trying to get the idea into form. A rough hook is fine, even if it’s just a placeholder.

¶ 2: “The Context”

The reader might be feeling a little bit lost, even if a hook is really strong. That’s sort of the point of the hook— the reader is curious enough to keep reading because they want resolution. So, in the second paragraph, we won’t keep them in the dark any longer.

For my essay, here is where I get into the idea to which my mom was alluding, that just about anything can be modeled in a spatial sense, from artwork to novels to athletics, and so on. In this paragraph, I present the possibilities that were opened to me, and the places where I saw mom’s idea come into clear view.

¶ 3: “The Expansion”

As the subject of the essay is confronted with the idea, they have to try to understand it. However, the longer the idea sits with the subject, the more complex it becomes to understand it.

In this paragraph, I would expand on my experience with this idea, pivoting to the myriad negative consequences of seeing the world through this new explanatory framework. If all art is mapmaking, then all business can be, too. As I came of age, it was hard to ignore all the times I could see that profit maximization was more important than humanity. These decisions were based on a concept of mapping information to project outcomes; the map of business can show you the path to happy shareholders, even if that path leads you to trample others on the way.

¶ 4: “The Realization”

And now, the subject of the essay has to come to terms with all of this. The incipient idea, the new world that it explains, and the nuances that can’t be neatly explained have led you to this realization, and you have to put a bow on the story’s arc.

Here, I would talk about contentedness. It’s something my mom understood really well. She could handle the realization that art could be reduced to a simple spatial plot without sacrificing the magic of the creative process. She wasn’t out to try to paint her paintings in the most efficient, accurate way to make the most money. She found joy in it, so she did it, and that’s all there was to it. The maximization maxim was for other people. It was one of the things I admired about her the most.

¶ 5: “The Forecast”

And in closing, you need to show the reader where this all will take you. As a person who wants to join their community, you have to forecast where this experience might take you in the future.

Step 5

Consider beginning and end— hook and full-circle closing

We can refine the outline a little bit before we start writing. One way to do this is to bring the essay full circle, from the roots of the outline. However you open the essay in the hook, you want to echo that message in the conclusion. You will be echoing it in a new light, however. Where I might have sounded harsh and arrogant with my hook the first time around, now I can close on a more understanding note.

The irony of my mom’s quote wasn’t that she, herself both a mapmaker and an artist, was the perfect messenger for an idea that stuck with me, nor that there was some truth she gave voice to that she failed to fully grasp and capitalize upon. In the end, the irony was that I saw her as a simpleminded person who rarely had anything deep to say, but she saw the world in that moment more perfectly than I could see it then, maybe better than I have ever seen it. I don’t think that she ever applied this idea in a cross-disciplinary way, the way I did. But still, maybe that’s what makes the hook just right— the words she let into the world were something of an accident. I couldn’t get her to repeat them, let alone expand on them, if I tried. But I have that moment.

In the opening, the hook is brash. It should be a little abrasive, if only to brush the reader back out of their comfort zone. In the end, the same speaker has underwent transformation. They seem humbled, reflective, and capable of growth. That’s someone you want in your school.