Write a narrative of a turning point in your life, focusing on one particular event that changed you as a person.
Here's a very powerful example of a turning point, from poet Countee Cullen:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
You will be tempted to write about the big, sudden stuff—the big touchdown, the terrible car wreck, or your parents' divorce. Don't ignore the smaller things (first time you drove a stick shift, receiving your first paycheck, or befriending a homeless person). Don't ignore things that took a while (learning to play the oboe, losing 50 pounds) or the things that had a negative influence on you (beginning to smoke, losing a friend).
One common characteristic of turning points is that they are quite vivid: you can remember many small details long after the event. Another is their impact: you became (for better or worse) a different person afterward.
This sort of event did something to you. The little boy in the poem was changed in several ways: the racial epithet blotted out everything else that happened in Baltimore that summer, and now as an adult he still remembers it—apparently with pain.
The Middle Distance: Yes, I've received essays about "The Big Car Crash," "The Time My Date Raped Me," "The Time I Accidentally Shot My Little Brother and Killed Him" and "My Parents' Divorce." These were all overwhelming subjects. The rape victim didn't want anyone else in the class to read the essay. The student who shot his brother couldn't think of anything more to say than "I've never been the same." If you are still full of anger and pain because of your parents' recent divorce, perhaps you can't write about it yet because you are too close. It would be better to find a topic that allows you to stand at a slight distance. After losing a close family member, perhaps you would need a couple of years to find that distance—and after all, a life-changing event doesn't have to be a BIG event.
Smaller events can be life-changing too: getting your driver's license, getting your first real job, or moving to a different town. Probably the best "life-changing" essay I have received was from a student who wrote about the time (at about eleven years old) he cooked his own lunch for the first time—his mother surprised him just as he was finishing—and that was the end of free lunches for him.
Positive events can work for this assignment too—it doesn't all have to be car crashes and disasters. I remember another excellent student essay from a student who traveled to Italy and rediscovered his family's roots—that one was filled with sensory images of Italian cooking and scenery.
Think about movies you have seen. Time can be:
Time can slow down. The big touchdown only took a few seconds. Hitting the winning home run was the work of a moment. The big car crash took less than a heartbeat. The essay, though, needs to focus on the event and slow time down (you've seen the technique in movies). At the big moment, you're so focused that you can remember every detail years later. Here's a crash paragraph that slows things down for us:
SCREEECHH!!! AHHH! "Look out for that bumper!" my mind screamed. My heart began to pound. I'd been daydreaming—not a good thing to do on a motorcycle traveling somewhere between fifty miles per hour and the speed of light. I locked up my rear tire—another action that does not register high on the I.Q. test, but which is sometimes necessary when daydreaming while riding a 200 pound piece of metal with fire it its belly. Helpless, I smashed into the rear bumper of a cherry red 1955 Chevy, flew over its white vinyl top, and crash landed on the white stripe of the shoulder lane—essentially becoming one with the concrete.
Keep in mind the changed you as a person part. This essay has a cause/effect component. The change doesn't have to be enormous, but there's got to be a point to the story. Don't just keep piling up description and tiny details to hit the minimum length requirement. (Remember how irritated you get at your Uncle Waldo who tells those long, drawn-out stories at the family picnics, and there never seems to be any point.)
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Revised 7/17/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: email@example.com.