In today's episode, 7Sage Consultant David Busis talks about one of his favorite personal statements.
I want to share this essay with you because it's an archetype done exceptionally well. We are all familiar with essays about someone overcoming an obstacle, but just because people have written about that before doesn't mean it's not worth writing about again. Every story has been told, but every story becomes alive again in the hands of a skillful teller. As you listen to this one, I want you to think about how the writer takes a story about pain and frustration and makes it about something more. She shows us how it changed her attitude and made her a more resilient person. I call this essay Tarte Tatin—and by the way, I don't speak French, so I am sure I am butchering that pronunciation—but the essay is called Tarte Tatin.
I quickly excused myself from the courtroom, trying to avoid any more attention. I had just dropped a stack of files in front of 36 potential jurors during a voir dire. As I leaned against the glass wall at the end of the hallway, pins and needles crawled up my arms and stabbing pains shot down my legs. I used every last bit of strength to move myself into the elevator, not knowing that this ride from the 14th floor of the Maricopa County courthouse would eventually land me in a wheelchair in Korea.
A week before, my doctor had prescribed me a powerful antibiotic called Ciprofloxacin for a routine infection. Soon after I took the drugs, the FDA opined in an emergency hearing that this class of antibiotic—fluoroquinolones—should not be used to treat minor infections. I was unlucky. As I learned in the weeks after my near collapse, I’d had a toxic reaction to the Cipro and suffered serious nerve damage.
Until my reaction to the Cipro, I’d envisioned my life as a path with regular milestones. I’d been working for a trial lawyer for over a year, and I expected to work there for another year before applying to law school. I had a plan. Cipro was never part of it.
My symptoms got worse and worse for the following weeks. I lost my energy, peripheral vision, and ability to walk. My brain was in such a fog that I could barely read a paragraph without getting a headache. I didn’t even have enough strength to start therapy for two months, and when I did, it was excruciating. Every effort to stand up made my tendons feel like they were going to split. My hands shook so much that I could barely hold onto the crutches. After a month of torturing myself in futility, I gave up everything: my dream of being a lawyer, my adopted country, and my hope of ever walking again. I moved back home to a small southern town in Korea.
A couple weeks after I landed in Korea, my grandma, knowing how much I loved baking, invited me to volunteer with her at a local nursing home kitchen. It all went well for a few weeks. I began to accept my physical limits and feel like a useful person again. One day, though, I was supposed to make 10 apple pies for the afternoon tea. After spending hours washing, peeling, seasoning, and cutting the apples into wedges, I poured the filling into pie pans. Only then did I realize I had forgotten to put a bottom crust in the pie pans, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to get the fillings out, clean the pans, and finish the pies before the afternoon tea.
Heat rose up my neck and tears welled up in my eyes. A few months ago, I’d been following my dreams. Now I was a disabled failure who couldn’t even follow a recipe. I blamed myself for going to the wrong doctor, taking the wrong pills, giving up on my physical therapy, and quitting my job. These botched pies seemed like the final damning proof of my uselessness.
I tried to wheel myself out of the kitchen before anyone checked on me, but I was caught by my grandma. She looked at the counter and said, “I see you’re making tarte tatin. Let me help.” Knowing nothing about tarte tatin, I watched my grandma rearrange the fillings and stick the pans directly into the oven. After twenty minutes, she laid the puff pastry on top of the fillings and put the pans back into the oven. Then she told me the story of how this upside-down tart was created in the 1880s, when Stephanie Tatin overcooked apple fillings while making a traditional apple pie. “It all started from a mistake,” said grandma. She took one pan out of the oven, skillfully ran a knife around the crust, and inverted the tart onto a plate. When I saw the beautifully caramelized apples on a crispy, buttery crust, I felt excited for the first time in months. Although I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, the tarte tatin helped me understand how my rigidity had prevented me from coping with an unexpected challenge. My recipe for success hadn’t panned out, but that didn’t mean all was lost.
A week later, I resumed physical therapy. It did not become easier. From time to time, I still had to hide in the corner, wiping tears and hoping no one would see. But the idea that I might be a trial lawyer in a wheelchair didn’t scare me anymore, and my struggle to stand up no longer reminded me of who I could have been without Cipro. I was working without a plan, now, and I’d have to discover what I could do. Months later, I boarded a plane back to the US, leaving both my wheelchair and my expectations behind.
Thoughts on Tarte Tatin
Wow. That essay gives me chills every time I read it, but I feel like you can't really appreciate how good it is until you try to examine the structure of it. Let's just go through it and talk about what's going on under the hood.
“I quickly excused myself from the courtroom, trying to avoid any more attention.” So begins paragraph one. Now I'll be honest. That first sentence might actually make me a little skeptical—not because it's a bad first sentence, but because you see this sort of thing a lot. I call it the cold open. We are beginning at a moment of high suspense, and the suspense comes in large part from withholding information from the reader. We don't know why we're in a courtroom or what led up to this moment. We have no idea what's going on. All of those basic “who, what, why, where, and when” newspaper questions are left unanswered.
I think suspense shouldn't just be an artificial withholding of information. It should be there for a reason. Suspense is a promise. It's a promise that something bad is going to happen, and I think this kind of opening can be overused, especially in cases where nothing bad happens. Just imagine an essay that began like this: “I excused myself from the courtroom, trying to avoid any more attention. I was so embarrassed that I had just burped.” That would be a huge anticlimax. Now, as it turns out in this case, the suspenseful first sentence is totally justified, because that promise of something bad happening—the writer is going to deliver on it. It's also justified because it's mimicking the writer's epistemic condition. She herself has no idea what's going on, so it's appropriate that the reader is also in the dark.
Okay, let's leave it at that and move on to the second paragraph: “A week before, my doctor had prescribed me a powerful antibiotic called Ciprofloxacin for a routine infection.” We get the personal context in that first sentence, and then we move on to the historical context: “Soon after I took the drugs, the FDA opined in an emergency hearing that this class of antibiotic should not be used for minor infections. I was unlucky.” By the way, I love the short, staccato definitiveness of that sentence. “I was unlucky.” Sometimes, those simple sentences distributed like little gems throughout the longer sentences of your essay can really make it shine. The writer goes on: “As I learned in the weeks after my collapse, I'd had a toxic reaction.” After withholding some information from us in the first paragraph, she gives us all the context we could ask for in the second paragraph, and that's a really good move.
I do read some essays that begin with a dramatic cold open[, witholding information,] and then they just keep us in the dark. I think that's a sign of immaturity or just trying too hard. In a way, it indicates that the writer just doesn't have a lot of confidence in the power of her narrative. She's leaning on this constructed tension to pull you through instead of trusting that the actual story is enough. This writer, by giving us all this context in a no-nonsense way here, shows us that she trusts her story and she trusts the reader, too.
Let's move on to paragraph three. “Until my reaction to Cipro, I'd envisioned my life as a path with regular milestones. I'd been working for a trial lawyer for over a year, and I expected to work there for another year before applying to law school. I had a plan.”
I think a lot of what you can call recovery essays—and I'm not denigrating them—but I think a lot of recovery essays have a really narrow focus. We're always zoomed in on the pain that the writer feels from the acute circumstance, and we don't ever zoom out to the bigger context of her life. That's why this paragraph is so important. It would be hard for anyone to go through what she's going through, but in order to convey how transformative the experience was, she needs to give us a bit of setup. She has to zoom back and tell us that she's a planner, and that she was trying to follow her recipe, so to speak, for her career, and that this threw her off.
Okay, let's move on to paragraph four: “My symptoms got worse and worse for the following weeks. I lost my energy, peripheral vision, and ability to walk. My brain was in such a fog that I could barely read a paragraph without getting a headache.” I think of this paragraph as being part of the downswing. If you think of an essay as a pendulum, we're always moving up or down, and this is where we really start to move down. We have begun [in paragraph one] with a moment of tension, and we're in a specific scene [in the courtroom], and then we zoom out for the personal and historical context that we just talked about, and now things, of course, have to get worse before they get better. Here they're getting worse, and we're establishing how bad they get with some nice specific details. The fact that she gets a headache when she reads is very telling. I also think that word “fog” is really well used here. It's just evocative to me.
Okay. “Every effort to stand up made my tendons feel like they were going to split. After a month of torturing myself in futility, I gave up everything. My dream of being a lawyer, my country, my hope of ever walking again.” That's very powerful to me. I also like the device she's using. We call it a tricolon crescens, if you want to get really nerdy. “Tricolon” comes from that root “tri,” which is three. And then “crescens” means “building” [or “growing”] like the crescent moon. We have three things in a row that are growing in intensity.
“I moved back home to a small Southern town in Korea,” she writes. Now I'm in paragraph five. We're zooming in on the key scene.
[Sidenote:] Another thing I want to point out is that this essay alternates very skillfully between the big narrative of her illness and some key scenes. You can think of those scenes as tent poles. The whole narrative is the tent’s canvas, but in order to keep it aloft, we need these moments of specificity. If you can illustrate the most important moments of your story with anecdotes with scene, then it's going to feel really vivid to us. If you tell the whole thing in general terms—“I got sick, I felt really bad, eventually I felt better”—it might convey your experience, but it's not going to feel as real for the reader. You're not going to put us there. So as a writer you should always be looking for the moments where you can slow down and give us specific details. But you can't do that in every single part of your story because zooming in comes at a cost. When you zoom in, you're taking more time. Summary is fast, and scene as slow. You have to be really careful and selective about where you give us scene. In fact, you can think of the whole art of writing as the art of selecting the moments you want to tell.
Let's look at where the scene begins—and a scene, by the way, or a mini story, is just the time that something happened. She writes, “One day, I was supposed to make ten apple pies for the afternoon tea after spending hours washing and peeling and seasoning and cutting the apples.” She pours them into the pans and she realizes that something went wrong. Looking for the moment when something went wrong is also a time-tested way of honing in on something interesting.
Now it's also interesting to note that from our perspective as readers, this is not a catastrophe. In a way, that's why this moment is really powerful: because she's taking something that objectively doesn't look like a catastrophe and showing us why it felt like a catastrophe for her. It's a triumph of her point of view, and in my mind it does a better job of illustrating how low she had fallen than anything she can tell us about her physical limits.
Okay, so here is the low point, the nadir of her journey. I had said before that the downswing began, but this is where she really reaches the bottom. She says, “Heat rose up my neck. Tears welled up in my eyes. A few months ago, I’d been following my dreams, but now I was a disabled failure who couldn't even follow a recipe. I blamed myself for going to the wrong doctor, taking the wrong pills, and giving up on my physical therapy. These botched pies seemed like the final damning proof of my uselessness.”
That's it right there. That is the low point. But we all know how stories go. Right after you hit your low point, if not in real life, then at least in essays, things can start to turn around. We're looking now for the turning point, and the turning point is what almost every very good narrative-style personal statement is going to end up depending on. “I tried to wheel myself out of the kitchen before anyone checked on me, but I was caught by my grandma. She looked at the counter and said, ‘I see you're making Tarte Tatin. Let me help.’ Here's that seemingly ordinary moment. But now she extends it. She draws it out by giving us some historical context. This is not strictly necessary for the story, but it is a way of deepening the point that she has turned into the essay’s center of gravity. She tells us about Stephanie Tatin and the mistake, and it's a story we're sort of familiar with. It's [a version of] “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” When life gives you an apple pie without the right crust, make Tarte Tatin.
She goes on—her grandma is taking the pie out of the oven, and then she “skillfully ran a knife around the crust and inverted the tart onto a plate. And when I saw the beautifully caramelized apples on a crispy, buttery crust, I felt excited for the first time in months.” This is, by the way, a basic rule of writing, which is that you give sensory description when you can, and it's really well done here. More importantly, as we were saying, this is just a well selected moment. I think the whole genius of this essay is to locate [her recovery in] such a specific sensory experience.
I will pause and note that it probably didn't exactly happen like this in real life. At least, [the author] was not telling this story in her head like this. She probably didn't see her grandma cut into the crust and think, “Ah, my ordeal is over now.” No. [Only later, as the author] looked back through her experience for a way to anchor her recovery to something specific in time, [did she find this moment]. And in that way you can see that this essay, which is so well formed that it almost feels inevitable—it almost feels like the story angel must've dropped it on her stoop—you can see that it didn't just happen to her. She made it. This story is true, but it's also constructed.
If, by the way, you're listening to this and you feel like, “Ah, I don't have anything like this to tell, and I guess that's good for me in terms of my life, but it's bad for me in terms of my personal statement,”—don't worry. Don't think like that. This writer had to construct her story out of that material of her life, and you also have material in your life, and you can use that to construct your own story.
Okay. The writer goes on, “Although I couldn't have articulated this at the time, that Tarte Tatin helped me understand how my rigidity had prevented me from coping with an unexpected challenge.” Here's the money moment: “My recipe for success hadn't panned out, but that didn't mean all was lost.” There's some nice wordplay there right on “panned out,” but what's really good about this line is she's tying everything together with a nice thematic bow. She had already told us that she had a recipe for success in life, and now she is connecting it with the literal recipe for Tarte Tatin, both of which she had to improvise.
All that's really left for the writer to do is clean up. She's brought us to her low point, and now she's given us the turning point. The rest of the essay is there to give us a feeling of resolution. “A week later, I was doing physical therapy. It didn't become easier.” I like that line, because she's not pretending like she was suddenly able to walk again just because she baked a pastry. That's not how life works. She's saying that it was still hard, but it's her attitude that changed.
“The idea that I might be a trial lawyer in a wheelchair,” she writes, “didn't scare me anymore. My struggle to stand up no longer reminded me of who I could have been without Cipro.” This is the part that really gives me chills. I’ve got to read it one more time: “I was working without a plan, and I'd have to discover what I could do. Months later, I boarded the plane back to the US, leaving both my wheelchair and my expectations behind.” What I love about that last sentence is that it's hopeful but open-ended. It doesn't resolve everything perfectly, which again, is true to life. She hasn't solved all of her problems yet, but she's made a start, and that's why we can look at the essay and say something changed. She was in despair, and by the end, she's longer in despair.
One more nerdy thing that I'll point out: the device that she uses in this last sentence is called a zeugma. “Months later, I boarded a plane back to the U.S., leaving both my wheelchair and my expectations behind.” She's using the word “leaving” in two different senses there. The literal sense of leaving her wheelchair behind and the figurative sense of leaving her expectations behind.