What I didn’t like about writing my college essay was hearing everyone else talk about their common app essays. I remember being very jealous when rumor had it one girl’s essay made her college councilor cry it was so beautiful. I felt like shit because I thought of myself as a good writer, and my essay wasn’t making anyone cry. Nonetheless, we both got into college.
I loved actually working on that essay, and I think that more than anything made it the right topic for me. As you will see there was so much I cut out of my first draft and things that were there by my final draft, and it didn’t feel like I was working when I was just gushing about this person I had known since I was 13.
I would also like to point out that, even though I did not have to write an essay that fit into any of the listed categories, mine still would have fit, and I think many people could make any initial idea fit into one of the required categories. Mine would fit wonderfully into “write about someone you admire,” and that was not necessarily the goal of my piece. The trick that my college councilor, my dean, and the volunteer reader my school assigned me all tried to get me to pull off was show yourself by talking about something you love.
So here it is:
An energetic twenty four year-old orients herself at the keyboard. The cluttered stage does not faze her as she plunges into her song. Her left hand flutters on the piano while her eyes focus on her right hand as it flicks up the drumstick, beginning an irregular beat on a chair. Without stopping the intro, she calls out to the soundman, “More drumstick…!” A few more chords, and at last she leans into the microphone perched above the piano and begins to sing.
Even though I only watched Regina Spektor’s one girl band performance on YouTube, I knew I was hooked. Her whimsical voice entranced me with its childlike tones that could sink into the rounded depths of a blues singer. While that first moment was years ago, Regina’s lyrics continue to ring through my ears both for the sound of her words as well as the meaning behind them.
When I begin to write anything from an analytical essay to a creative story, I must put on her songs “Oedipus” and “Samson.” Each is a reference to a literary character, Oedipus Rex from Sophocles’ plays, and Samson from the book of Joshua. Not only does her portrayal of their stories through flowing rhymes amaze me, but the tunes emphasize the emotions evoked in the lyrics. Writing has always been a way for me to take what I feel and think and make it something enjoyable and understandable for someone else. But sometimes it can be hard to start the process. The stories Regina tells with her music challenge me to create something of equal depth and imagery, compelling me to write.
Regina’s songs often personify a character from the past, introducing me to historical periods that my voracious love of history has yet to lead me to. I first stumbled upon the dark life of Ezra Pound in Regina’s “Pound of Flesh.” The only concrete hint of him that I gathered was that he was a writer, but I had to discover why she chose him. I conducted my own investigation into the past, intrigued not just by his work but more with how he suffered for it, being pursued by the American government during World War II for his “treasonous” opinions. While I had always preferred earlier eras, Ezra Pound’s story ignited a newfound interest in yet another pocket of history. To me, history is like an endless book with infinite subplots and perspectives which I never tire of. When I recognize or discover some new subplot, it feels as though Regina and I are enjoying a secret seated in our shared love of forgotten times.
Regina’s own story as an immigrant and her palpable love for her adopted hometown of New York are also very easy for me to relate to as a native New Yorker and first generation American. Regina immigrated to New York from Soviet Russia at age nine, the same age my mother was when she left her native country of Romania for similar reasons. Regina’s songs often discuss the effects of this transition, giving me further insight into an aspect of my mother’s personality that is hard for me to understand. Her songs serve as a bridge between my cultural past and family, and my modern life in Manhattan. I have walked over a hundred blocks across the length of the island, seeing how neighborhoods have transformed in just my lifetime and throughout New York’s history. Regina’s songs have nourished my love and respect for the city we grew up in without losing where we come from.
That first video introduced me to my favorite artist and continues to inspire me to write with pieces of myself in each work. Written words are as essential to my stories as lyrics are to her songs. Historical context plays the part of the piano, setting the tone and establishing my written work in the reader’s mind. The underlying beat on the chair is the random Regina flare that makes the song stick out in my mind, as I hope my experiences in New York and the history behind it mark my writing.
and now this is on my dorm room wall.
Those heading into their senior year of high school are probably realizing that they have to get on top of their common app essay. This is no easy task. I spent days, weeks just tossing around ideas, and then one day I sat down and just word vomited all over a document. I have decided to share that mess with you in the hopes that you will that it’s okay if you’re first draft isn’t anywhere near acceptable. In a few weeks I’ll post what ended up being my final draft, so you can see the before and after editing.
The first time I ever heard a Regina Spektor song, I was in seventh grade. One day my friend decided to compile a list of songs that I absolutely had to listen to, and the first one was Ms. Spektor’s “Fidelity.” That afternoon as I listened to it on youtube, I knew I was hooked. Though my friend has long since forgotten the days we sang “Summer in the City” on our way to the subway station, Regina Spektor has been my favorite artist of any genre for the past five years. So when asked to describe myself to a stranger such as yourself, the best glance at my personality can only come from a description of my relationship with another stranger, who has altered my perception of myself and my city without knowing me beyond a single chance encounter.
If anyone cared to ask, I could easily give them at least one song from this Russian-American to fit nearly every situation. Whenever I begin to write, be it an essay for school or a short story I’ve been mulling over for days, I put on “Oedipus” and “Samson,” and listen to them until I cannot help but put words to the page. Each is a reference to a literary character, Oedipus Rex from Sophocles’ plays, and Samson from the bible. First I begin to think how I would take her interpretation and turn it into a story of my own style, and then eventually concetrate that energy on the task at hand. The stories she has wielded motivate me to create a piece of equal depth and creativity. I also love whenever one of her songs alludes to a historical period that I am familiar with. Her song “Apres Moi” is a nod to Louis XV who uttered those same words, and “Call them Brothers” is thought to be describing the split of Berlin by the Berlin Wall. When I recognize a reference to history, it feels as though she and I are sharing a secret seated in our mutual love of forgotten times.
Her own story as an immigrant and her obvious love for her adopted hometown of New York strengthen the feeling of a relationship. Regina Spektor immigrated to New York from Soviet Russia at age nine, the same age that my own mother left her native country of Romania for similar reasons. Her songs often discuss the effects of this transition in her life that give me further insight into an aspect of my mother’s personality that is hard for me to understand. In these same songs that discuss a love of her former country, she is sure to emphasize her intense appreciation for the vibrant Manhattan. As some might say Woody Allen’s movies make you fall in love with New York, so Regina’s Spektor’s songs make me realize the unique privilege I have of growing up in New York. As I walk down bowery, lexington, or delancey, her playful melodies surface in my head and I smile to think that two total strangers can connect simply by having seen the same things. Her spoken word poem “Consequence of Sounds,” without mentioning New York at all, so clearly fits the feel of some parts of the city that it summons images to fit the description she gives of anonymous faces on streets in the summer. While anyone from anywhere can identify with her music, her songs have nourished my love and respect for the city we grew up in.
After years of cultivating a relationship with this woman I never met but whose voice was as familiar as my own, I did in fact come across her in our city by total accident. This past summer I had decided to see a comedy show that her husband and another singer I enjoy, Jack Dishel , was performing in. Given that her new album, What we saw from the Cheap Seats, had just been released, I assumed it would just be a lovely opportunity to meet and listen to the snarky Jack Dishel. As I waited outside the comedy club with a few friends I had dragged with me, I saw her. Immediately recognizable to me, she walked in by herself , presumably looking for her husband and friends. I knew that tonight was the night I was going to meet my best friend. The show was good and Jack Dishel was hilarious, but the entire time I could hardly breathe. There she was, a few rows down and to my left, laughing and smiling and real. I could not decide what I would say, there was so much to choose from. I wanted to tell her about how the night before my AP European History exam I had listened to all her songs that discussed what we covered in class. I wanted to tell her that she made me realize how much I love New York, and how her words never cease to inspire my own artistic endeavors. At the end of the show as everyone mingled, I got up my courage. My friends had to nudge me over I was so nervous. Ultimately I decided to keep it short and simple and stuck to what was most important to me. I told her that I loved her music as well as that of Jack Dishel, that my mother was also an immigrant and that we both listened to her music all the time. Regina smiled and squeezed my arm in understanding, and then my friend volunteered to take our picture. Dishel came into the shot as well, and it was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life.
I can hardly go a day without listening to Regina Spektor, and I cannot imagine myself without at once thinking of her music. In her songs I see my creativity rise and my passion for history and New York flourish as a single piece of art. As I thought about what I might write for my college essay, I listened to her music to get ideas until I saw no other possibility but to write about the songs themselves and in doing so, write about me.