Applying to College by Hannah Duane

I write this blog post from a cafe in Mammoth Lakes, CA, having just completed the final step in my applying to college, a visit to a ranch out in the White Mountains for an interview. When I embarked on this process, I had no idea how completely Creative Writing would shape my ability to apply to other schools. One of the first essays I wrote, which I will attach below, was from the prompt:

A mathematician and a poet walk into a bar, and strike up a conversation about what they do. As they leave, the poet thinks to himself, alas, I lack the creativity for mathematics. The mathematician thinks alas, I lack the rigor for great poetry. Assuming they are not confused, explain what each party means.

I was, at first, rather dumfounded by how to go about this prompt. In the creative writing department, we deal constantly with esoteric or confusing prompts, and so I did what I know best to do with such an idea: write a story.

Writing creatively is not just an art we do a few hours a day at SOTA. It’s a way to think about framing the world. To understand what one thinks and develop ideas. Writing allows me to be confident and argue with myself, finding the holes in my own arguments and strengthening my convictions.

I hope you enjoy:

Anne Sexton and Copernicus meet in a dingy pub. Say Sexton sits on an upholstered stool in a white blouse, black hair bouncy, eyes tragic and tired. Brandy in hand, she is writing “Christmas Eve.” From across the room, Copernicus notices from the lines in her face that she’s straining toward precision and clarity. Intrigued, he walks over, trying to appear casual. 

Grappa ordered from the bar, one arm casually in Sexton’s space, he asks what she is working on. Annoyed, she pushes the work towards him. He reads the first line: 

“Oh sharp diamond, my mother!”

Copernicus is taken aback. The line is strangely compelling. He feels her longing, and wonders how she manipulated his emotions with such subtlety. How did she condense so many ideas? Balance allusion and originality, denotation and connotation? He deals with absolutes and natural law; he has never had to ponder such artistic questions.

“Why do you equate your mother with a diamond?” he asks. “Why the ‘Oh’ at the beginning of the line and the exclamation point at the end?”

First of all, Sexton explains, the word “Oh” has a long history as a literary motif signifying tragedy. The comparison of her mother to a sharp diamond adds a quality of hard and cutting beauty. The word “my”  introduces a possessive: Sexton’s mother belongs to her. Yet “Mother” is formal and distancing, thus creating tension. The final exclamation point conveys passion, although it could be read as mocking. 

Copernicus immediately grasps the rigor and relentless editing required to achieve such density of meaning. 

Now Copernicus produces from his bag an early manuscript of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, his magnum opus detailing heliocentric theory. He is embarrassed to be sharing an unfinished, unproven work. Still, he shows Sexton his now famous drawing: eight concentric circles, with the sun in the middle. 

“This is lovely,” she says looking over the neat Latin script. “How did you know it’s right?”

“Parallax,” he says. “Hold your arm straight in front of you, thumb pointing up. Close one eye and block a beer bottle with your top knuckle at the end of the bar.” She does. “Now switch which eye is open and which is closed, without moving your thumb. Can you see the bottle now?” She does.

“It’s all about perspective. From Earth, yes, everything seems to move around us. But that does not make it true.” 

Then he produces his list of formulas to calculate the orbits of other planets. First is d=Dsin𝜃, where d is the orbit of an inferior planet, and D is the earth’s orbit or one AU. Sexton is out of her field of expertise. But as she listens to Copernicus, she understands this work is a thing of beauty. Solving an equation is simple. Creating one—in this case, an equation that presumes Earth as one of eight planets orbiting the sun, and asks the orbital period of each— is the real feat.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines imagination as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” Sexton’s great subject is herself. Much of what she explores in her poetry has been “present to the senses.” Her job is to ponder, probe, and record. But Copernicus has no concrete perceptions to draw on. Standing on Earth, the ground does not seem to move. He cannot see, even through a telescope, the planets orbiting the sun. He, not Sexton, had to create and define a new perspective, one never “wholly perceived in reality.” 

And so Sexton and Copernicus part, each having realized their respective disciplines are not intellectual opposites. Instead, like the circular scale of political ideology, they meet in extremity. Both conjure new meanings by arranging letters and numerals in a precise form, respecting the laws of nature, bringing clarity to the world.

By Hannah W. Duane

Class of 2020

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