A couple decades ago (and it’s weird to think of it in those terms) I had to write a personal essay to get into college. By the time I was at the personal essay stage I was several months behind my friends who had already sent out their college admission materials. College was an afterthought for me, because I had a counselor who told me my high school academic career showed a person better suited for local junior college and perhaps a life in the hotel industry down the road.
In short, I was a fuck up.
But I had a dream, and some promise in the creative department, and a couple of schools to apply to that didn’t give a rat’s ass about my academic standing so long as I was talented… and could come up with the scratch to pay for school. One of those was the California Institute of the Arts — CalArts — the college founded by Disney located in beautiful Valencia, California. A cutting edge art campus, I was looking to make my way into their film program. Others who were students around that time (and possible classmates) were John Lassiter who later founded Pixar and Tim Burton who probably needs no further explanation.
No, I wasn’t that talented, but they would have made nice classmates.
Anyway, on the application they asked for the standard personal essay, 2 to 3 pages, only being an art school and all it came with a twist: “In the essay please answer the following question: Where do your creative ideas come from?”
What. The. Hell.
I’m an 18 year old kid, at best I barely understand the shifting friendships and social strata at school, much less ponder where my creative ideas come from. My muse? How about, I sit at my desk in art class and knuckle down hoping that they’ll extend second period all day because drawing all day is all I can handle. Why do I choose the colors I do for my self portrait? Because those were the only ones left in the supply cabinet after all the good colors had been raided by the other vultures in class. An essay on that?
I know I was tempted to bullshit my way through, to paraphrase an old National Lampoon Radio Hour sketch where Bill Murray is playing a jazz bass player being interviewed on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I could follow Murry’s line of “I sometimes think about how much I’m gettin’ paid, break it down by the note” or Mr. Roger’s take “I like to think of sheep… candies, fresh little candies…” You know, the smart ass.
No, instead I think to my most recent project, a goof of a film that I made with my friend Carlos the previous summer called Beethoven in Westwood. (For non-Angelenos, Westwood is the area located along the southside of the UCLA campus). My idea was to take the opening movement of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (the Pastorale) and start by showing the man himself (my friend Carlos as a youthful Beethoven) enjoying nature. Then, among the bushes, he finds a bike, rides down a hill out of control and… hilarity ensues!
Watch as he rides the bike through the lobby of a movie theatre! Laugh as he shops for his own music in a Tower Records store! Thrill as he find inaccuracies about his life in a biography in Brentano’s Bookstore! Sigh as he finds culinary delight at Falaful King and then gasp as he commits a Federal offence disposing of his trash in a mail box on the corner!
Well, our friends liked it.
But for my essay — back to that — I decided to talk about how inspirational classical music was, how we tried to match the mood the way the Disney folks did with Fantasia, how music has always inspired me to want to make short films (in that, I was ahead of music videos by a few years) and on and on and on. I showed the essay to Goldie, my journalism adviser and she lifted an eyebrow “You’re comparing that film with Fantasia?” “It’s not like they’ll ever see it!”
Oh, but they did. Because as part of the admission process I had to include a portfolio, and in addition to some traditional 2D artwork I included some of my photography and… Beethoven in Westwood! There was nothing I could do about it, all my other films up to that point were exercises in experimental animation, a bit of claymation and surrealism that I thought would make me look like a loon; in retrospect I probably should have included them as they were fairly sophisticated in their execution and showed something beyond the norm. Hindsight.
The essay was crap and I knew it. I gave it a couple of drafts and ignored it until the last minute, hoping it would rewrite itself and make me a better artist in the process. Months later when my portfolio return via return post I was surprised to find that they had offered me the opportunity to attend not in the fall but a year later, if I was still interested. There was a postcard for me to return indicating my intention to accept or decline. I thought about it for a long time.
I mailed it the next day. I knew if I didn’t go to college immediately after high school I would chicken out, talk myself out of it, become a bum and wind up as a district manager of the Seven-11’s in my home town, dressed in a cheap suit with a sleazy moustache. I declined.
All of this came rushing back to the fore as I was in Europe, pondering my application to graduate school. All I could think was stay calm, you’re older now, you can do this, you can write an essay that isn’t crap…
And so I did. Or so I keep telling myself. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.