Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cheesy Ending Syndrome

I was just browsing along some stories of amateur writers online, and something occurred to me that had been swimming just below my conscious grasp for many years. Much of the writing of our generation is infected with Cheesy Ending Syndrome (CES). I'm speaking particularly of personal stories, accounts of important life experiences. The most common reason anybody writes such stories is that they are requested as part of application processes for college, jobs, internships, etc. You know, some position for which there is a lot of competition asks you to describe an important moment in your life. It's a test of how well you can write and a crude, counterproductive way of gaining a window to your character. I say crude and counterproductive because, as everyone who has ever written one of these essays knows, at the end of the writing process, there is little left that resembles actual life experience.

During my personal college application hell, I wrote an essay I was convinced would blow people away. The prompt was something vague and uninspiring -- something like, "share an important experience" or "describe an event in your life that has made you who you are". There is a formula to answer such queries, distilled long ago when students and job applicants were first asked such rubbish. You are supposed to tell some story about your past in which you faced a new and/or challenging circumstance, personally or professionally. You are supposed to describe the flash of insight during which one aspect of Reality was laid bare to your virgin mind or heart, and you go on to detail how that experience and insight have made you into such a better or more complete human being, and how much you care about this or that issue, and how dedicated you are to something now.

These were more or less the lines along which my essay proceeded. I went to Hungary, witnessed rampant homelessness, had an encounter with a homeless girl, was shaken up, lost a piece of my youthful naiveté, realized I wanted to do something to fight homelessness. Except it was five hundred and fifty words, narrative, and well-written. But cheesy as a fondue dinner.

The point of these essays is to build yourself up, show that you're a person of intelligence, depth, and character. That was the point of my story. But after slaving away at it for many, many hours over the course of a week, I was left with a document so polished and shiny that, looking back on it, all I can see is my own, fraudulent reflection.

Because let's get real: I had an experience that affected me and that caused me to contemplate for a long time afterwards. But it didn't happen in this dream setting, and it didn't happen all at once. It didn't happen in a perfect narrative form, and it didn't fundamentally change me and inspire me to be an upstanding moral crusader forever-and-ever-amen.

I know it may be a stretch to apply my own experience to everyone else's writings, but I just can't bring myself to take seriously these exaggerated stories following the same, trite blueprint: You had a tough experience, and then in a blinding moment of Dostoevskian clarity, your whole world was changed and you were left a more complete person. ...yes, yes, I'm sure you were. NEXT! It's really just an extension of every cheesy ending we see in Hollywood films. Character is one way, character faces major challenge, character acquires depth and wisdom.

But here's the fact: Life continues, and we are never perfected. We are shaped by hundreds of small experiences every day of every week. There is no silver bullet that cures immaturity. When you read past the end of every essay with Cheesy Ending Syndrome, looking more closely at the reality, you see that we still face challenges and lapses of character, moral conflicts, moments of selfishness or naiveté.

Yet as a society we are obsessed with the happy, cheesy ending. How utterly boring it must be to read over dozens or hundreds of application essays, the vast majority of which arise the same hackneyed template. Real life is far more interesting -- it's choppy and grey and endlessly inventive. I'm beginning to think that universities and employers request cheesy essays so they can more easily separate them from the people who have the initiative and originality to write something that is actually interesting.

Digression/Aside: If there were a law against composing cheesy endings, probably every sports columnist would be in jail alongside most romantic writers. Sportswriters love to tell stories of growth and maturity. It's usually just when you read that a certain athlete has finally set his priorities straight or shed his troubled past that you hear they've gotten arrested or tested positive for this or that substance. And shame on those romantic writers for print and screen that truncate the story just as the couple gets together. All obstacles overcome, they are free to live their life happily ever after. Is it any wonder the divorce rate is so high when people are fed such an infantile caricature of human love and companionship? End of Digression/Aside

No comments:

Post a Comment