By Leslie Lindsay
I am thrilled and honored to have Lacy Crawford, author of EARLY DECISION (William Morrow, 2013) with us today. Being a Chicago-based writer, I related to much to witnin the pages of this book [the novel takes place on the Gold Coast and in the city].
As a mother myself, I can honestly say it begins with daycare. Yes, I am talking about the frenzy to get your child into the best learning institution ever. In fact, as a mother, you may have sauntered into a coffee shop, a belly swollen with baby to interview a prospective nanny. Before the kid is even born! You fret over the experience, snapping knuckles and making lists, scratching things off.
Once you get that taken care of, you realize your prized preschool has a waiting list. Yes, the very one you fell in love with at a preschool fair, stuffing your plastic sway bag with every glossy brochure, every magnet, every bookmark.
“If only there were someone who could help me with this,” you muse. Ah yes…enter Lacy Crawford. For fifteen years she worked as an independent (read: discreet) college entrance mentor. She took pimply-faced peach fuzz boys under her wing, girls lacking ambition and passion and turned their personal mission statements into works of art, landing them into the school of their dreams.
But, no she didn’t write the essays for them, she merely sharpened their skills so they could write their own. Here’s what Ms. Crawford has to say about the process–and more!
Leslie Lindsay: Lacy, what do you think is the #1 reason college-bound seniors don’t know how to tackle that personal essay/mission statement?
I don’t know that there is a #1 reason. But by the time seniors come to work on their applications, almost everything else is set in stone, or will be soon—their grades, their scores, their performance across so many variables. Optional interviews notwithstanding, the essay is the single opportunity for expression offered by the application process, and that makes it singularly daunting. Many students believe that their future is on the line. Writers who are familiar with the challenge of the blank page can relate to this—imagine if it’s not just your novel that might fail, but your dreams of an adult life!
In addition, the personal essay is a form not often taught in high school. Students do a fair amount of writing, but most of it is expository, and when it comes time to write a compelling piece of first-person narrative, they’re stumped. Unfortunately, of course, this piece is critically important. It’s a bit of a trap.
Leslie Lindsay: Likening that personal college essay to the publishing world, would you say that’s almost synonymous to the query letter?
LACY CRAWFORD: No, I wouldn’t. If one were to try to relate the publishing industry and college admissions, I’d say the query letter finds its closest analogue in the quick review that most applications receive in the earliest stages of the process. This varies by school, of course, but often there is a simple reckoning of data points: school, state, class rank (percentile), standardized test scores (if applicable), and various leadership positions held (standout athletic, artistic achievements included). A student who hits the mark in this initial review will be given much deeper consideration in admissions discussions. Similarly, a query to a literary agent that is well-written, concise, and intelligent will often inspire the agent to have a look at the manuscript sample attached.
This doesn’t mean that a college application essay won’t be read if the student’s grades or scores aren’t high enough, but, all things being equal, a Pulitzer-worthy personal statement isn’t going to matter much to the admissions office at Harvard if a student is applying from the bottom quartile of his class.
Leslie Lindsay: And so, it seems as if the college mission statement is almost like flirting…as if you could say, “Hey, baby—what’s your mission statement?” Or, as Joey in Friends used to say, “How you doin’ [on that mission statement?]. In fact, a perfect example in EARLY DECISION is when Anne (the protagonist/admissions whisperer) is working with Hunter on his essay, “Just pretend you’re telling Nicole all about Montana. Write it in an email, just don’t send it.” Talk about powerful! How does that work to woo an institution—or, in our writing pursuits—an agent?
LACY CRAWFORD: Anne doesn’t encourage Hunter to write as though he’s sending an email to his girlfriend because she wants a flirtatious tone in his college essay. She’s trying to help him recognize the subjects that are truly interesting to him. He’s written a first draft that is boring and aimless, and it’s going to cost him in the admissions process. In talking to Hunter, Anne realizes that he was deeply moved by his summer trip to Montana, and that there is passion and unexplored interest there. She wants him to consider those feelings and subjects with an eye to writing with more focus and authenticity. She guesses that what he would write about in an email to his girlfriend is far more likely to be something that matters to him, something that, for whatever reason, caused him to think or feel strongly. Once these subjects emerge in their conversations, Anne can help Hunter to write a well-grounded, proper, formal essay, which is what he does.
One of the aspects of the writing process that may apply to both the college essay hurdle and publishing in general is the idea of an ideal reader. Anne works with students who are laboring under the enormous ambitions and expectations of their parents. Often they’ve had a lot of tutoring, and they have been taught that their own voices are not enough—that they always must be coached and improved upon, in order to be thought worthy. As a result, Anne’s students are frightened, and they produce essay drafts as though they’re going to be graded that very afternoon—rote, dry, pseudo-sophisticated essays that don’t sound like the true voices of the students who wrote them.
Similarly, we might say that the writer who is constantly imagining what an audience wants, rather than working to develop his or her own voice and prose, will deliver work that is flat. The most consistently successful commercial writers, regardless of genre, know exactly what their audiences want, but they know how to deploy their own distinctive voice, diction, and particular dramatic tools.
Leslie Lindsay: There are other books about getting into college—Admission (Jean Hanoff Korelitz), Acceptance (Susan Coll), Dangerous Admissions (Jane O’Connor), Getting In (Karen Stabiner), and there are books about the college experience—J. Courtney Sullivan’s Commencement and The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan, what sets EARLY DECISION apart?
LACY CRAWFORD: I think each of those books is different from the others and has its own integrity and its own pleasures. Each is already set apart.
I wrote Early Decision as a deliberate piece of social commentary, with an eye to the satirical form. I did not form the plot around college or college admissions because of its dramatic possibilities, but as a deliberate effort to question the value of this rather treacherous pass in the life of a large proportion of American families. Rather than adding to the “college admissions” sub-genre, it was my attempt to dramatize the larger discussion around the value of higher education in the formation of young adults and the pursuit of a “good life.” And as with the other authors you name, I hoped to entertain readers, to make the book funny and rewarding.
Leslie Lindsay: EARLY DECISION is smart, witty—a good blend of a fast-moving story with literary fiction. You successfully pull that off by incorporating elements of classic literature into the story through Anne’s former aspirations as a journist/English major. In some regards, it reminds me of ANGRY HOUSEWIVES EATING BON BONS (Lorna Landvik, 2003). What—if any—research did you do as you wrote the book?
LACY CRAWFORD: I’m grateful that you found it smart and witty. I didn’t do any research at all. I had spent fifteen years working with high school seniors on their applications, and prior to that I’d had my own experience at a “trophy” school, and I had some ideas about how such an accomplishment does and does not set one up for a successful life.
Leslie Lindsay: What’s currently obsessing you and why?
LACY CRAWFORD: Parenting, because I’m doing it. Also the question of genre and gender in literary publishing, because I think few people are willing to grasp the nettle and address the complicated issues of subject, style and tone that inform the way the publishing world markets and receives books. VIDA is doing excellent work, and there are wonderful readers and writers grappling with the challenge, but in a sense we are all in thrall to a rapidly shifting marketplace, and it’s a scary and exciting time for those of us who love written stories.
Leslie Lindsay: When will we hear from you again? Any new books in the works?
LACY CRAWFORD: I have a few pieces of narrative nonfiction in the pipeline, and I’ve been working on a new novel for about a year. But my children are very small and I’m their primary caregiver, so I will see what bears out.
Leslie Lindsay: Thanks again for being with us today—it was quite illuminating!
LACY CRAWFORD: Thank you, Leslie!
Bio, Social Media & More:
For fifteen years Lacy Crawford served as a highly discreet independent college admissions counselor to the children of powerful clients in cities such as New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. Her “day jobs” included serving as senior editor at Narrative Magazine and director of the Burberry Foundation. Educated at Princeton and the University of Chicago, Lacy lives in California with her husband and two children.
To contact the author:
Also on Twitter: @lacy_crawford
[With special thanks to Susie Stangland]