Personal Statement – Other People Helped Me Do It Better

It seems appropriate today, on my first day of school (how quaint that phrase is!), to reflect upon how three years after graduating from college, I ended up in a small but airy classroom on the fourth floor of Columbia’s Dodge Hall. Let me, for a moment, pretend that this is an award acceptance speech (because you know, it’s so almost the same thing): I’d like to thank my friends for their undying support in my “craft” (even though I’d throw up before I referred to it that way without quotes), my family and especially my parents for acknowledging that hey, I’m probably not suitable for anything else, my professors for taking the time to write recommendations (or not – incidentally if you’re wondering how much weight Columbia’s MFA program places on letters of rec, one of my professors completely forgot to submit the letter, leaving me with two out of three required letters), and of course, I’d like to thank every darling who reads my blog.

Your readership means plenty if not everything because I don’t have other writing to show my dedication or seriousness. What you see here is what I write. On top of that, I’m a bit of a philosophical ham, which means if I write but no one reads it, it’s like that proverbial tree felled in the proverbial forest: is it really written if it’s not read? Didn’t think so. In short: thank you. A million thanks for taking the time.

And, lastly, for the nuts and bolts required to build the actual application, most painful of which is the Personal Statement, I’d like to thank Adam Gopnik.

It is not a stretch to say that Adam Gopnik helped me get into Columbia’s MFA program. I thought briefly about lifting entire passages from his book, Through the Children’s Gate and pawning them off as my own in my personal statement, but disgraced plagiarists told me that wouldn’t be a wise course of action. Instead, I used his book as a jumping off point, allowing his insightful paragraphs to act as muse:

What New York represents, perfectly and consistently, in literature and life alike, is the idea of Hope. Hope for a new life, for something big to happen, hope for a better life or a bigger apartment. When I leave Paris, I think, I was there. When I leave New York, I  think: Where was I? I was there of course, and I still couldn’t grasp it all. I love Paris, but I believe in New York and in its trinity of values: plurality, verticality, possibility. 

In the end, Gopnik gave me more than a leg up. This is what I submitted:

I did not start writing in New York, but in New York I began to see myself as a writer.
I was unhappy when I first started college eight years ago and blogging seemed to be a respectable way to broadcast it to friends back home and random web surfers who were interested to know how life was for a NYU freshman from SoCal. In New York, I learned the benefits of writing for oneself yet at the same time, discovered a small audience. Rather than attend class I began to explore nonfiction and often browsed independent bookstores around the city. I discovered Russell Baker and David Sedaris at the Strand; Adam Gopnik and Betsy Lerner at Shakespeare and Co., and heard chef Anthony Bourdain speak at Barnes and Noble in Union Square – a big chain store, but it stayed open late – before returning to the Strand to buy his books. Theirs was great stuff, much like the essays I aspired to write.
I ended up dropping out of NYU and six years later, graduated from UC Berkeley, where I was admitted to a creative nonfiction workshop taught by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. In their workshop, I gained confidence practicing a well-worn cliché: writing what I know. It is the one thing I have done consistently, day after day, year after year. Some would say I know very little, but what I do know – my work history and its carnivalesque collection of colleagues; my family, divided amongst sprawling Orange County, the tiny island of Taiwan and the glitteriest of all glittering metropolises, Shanghai; and the myriad of tiny moments observed at home and abroad – I know quite well.
On a recent trip to New York I revisited the Strand, where Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate lay on a display table. I had recently quit my job as Executive Assistant to focus on MFA applications, but visiting friends and eating cupcakes in New York was not particularly conducive to this. However, standing in the Strand and reading Gopnik’s descriptions of New York after having been away, I found myself immersed in his and his wife’s hilarious apartment hunt, their first Thanksgiving, and the beauty of New York’s “quiet places” of which Gopnik had lost sight until his children pointed them out again. He writes, “We fill our eyes and head with things already seen and known, and try to see them and know them again.” This, I think, is a writer’s – especially of nonfiction – ultimate goal. I was reminded of why I started writing in the first place, and why I want to do so at Columbia University. 

I’ve just been in the classroom for a day – not even, just a mere two hours – but I felt not-so-strangely (despite the presence of my strange-looking classmates – but that’s MFA superficiality for you) that it was a sort of homecoming. I’m not an academic (at least not yet?) but there’s something right about the classroom. A writer is always learning. Should always be learning. The classroom offers but a facet, but when it comes to writing and reading and talking about both, the classroom is probably a good place to start what I’ll never finish. So it was the right thing to do. A year ago, it was the right thing to write, and now I’m in the right place. 

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