Finding my voice in an opinion essay

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This post shows how I was able to take a personal writing session and transform it into an opinion piece for a college class. I took real events and feelings and, by writing a first person narrative while fictionalizing some details, I found a sense of voice in my writing. It marked the first time I truly understood what that literary term meant.

I didn’t score well enough in my AP English class to earn college credit. Before taking English classes in college, I had to complete two introductory writing courses.

This is where I learned I could handle essay writing. These courses weren’t about reading literature and writing analytical papers. We could take more everyday topics and write about it. I wrote essays that, for the first time, were not modeled after the five paragraph approach.

In this Writing 101 class, we had some basic one- or two-page papers to get us started, perhaps working on our observational skills and descriptions. I think the first big assignment was to write an opinion piece. This meant deciding on a position and defending it, which in turn means displaying some sense of confidence in what you’re writing about. When attempting an analysis essay, I always felt like my argument was wrong.

At least with this assignment we approached it in stages. The first big hurdle was to prepare a draft that met the assignment objectives so we had something concrete to work from in one-on-one sessions with our professor. She didn’t want an idea but a fully formed and executed draft that could be graded.

The biggest restriction that she placed on us was not to write about a hot button topic where you’re just going to rehash the same old arguments. If you chose to write about abortion or capital punishment or incarceration or another equally controversial topic, it had better be in a new way.

I went into my weekend having to make a major decision. I could stay on campus and brainstorm ideas for this paper, since my draft was due Monday or Tuesday and I had no idea what to write about. Or I could participate in a statewide retreat of fellow Catholic college students, knowing I’d return on Sunday exhausted and likely still clueless about the paper.

I went on the retreat.

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It was a great opportunity to see other colleges represented. To pray and worship with others my age, establishing a sense of solidarity for those moments when I felt alone on campus. And to hear talks from students about issues I could relate to: the search for who I am, how to discern where God is calling me and identifying different forms of prayer. Prayer can seem very abstract at times. It can be discouraging to hear someone’s approach and try it without getting the same results.

Just like my experience at Disney, I reached a point on the weekend where I needed to get away from the crowd. As exhilarating as it was, I also found it draining. With my notebook, pen and flashlight, I sought refuge on a dock because the campsite was on a lake. Nearby others enjoyed the campfire with singing and s’mores. I could see and hear them, but I wasn’t in the middle of it.

Instead of talking out loud to myself or even just mentally thinking about things, I had my discussion on paper. Whatever I was thinking about, I wrote it down. No filter. Earlier I had recorded thoughts about the weekend itself and took some notes during a breakout session when someone gave a talk. But at this point, I began dialoguing with God, praying.

Lord,
I don’t know what my barrier is nor why I can’t (don’t have the courage) to be more open and willing. I haven’t figured it out, but I do know there is a wall blocking me and I need to break it down. I’m lost. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going anymore. I’m confused. Why am I pushing people away from me? Why must I do this? I don’t get it.

Please help me be more like you. Help me to follow you without fear. Help me to stand up to be a witness of my faith. I think I’m meant to be single. Maybe for just right now. Help me understand what you want me to do. Help me to be a friend to those around me. Help me to be as good of a friend as I can be to the guys in my life so I don’t scare them off (or scare myself). I need to be friends. I don’t think I can handle a relationship. I’m not ready to fill the position of a girlfriend or anything of that sort.

SIDE NOTE: Pushing people away and recognizing a communication barrier were definitely related to my Sensory Processing Disorder. I guess, without having that label, this was the best way I had of explaining my trouble with opening up to others.

And for some reason, I didn’t understand the concept of dating. It was like going out with someone once meant declaring it a relationship. As I struggled to understand how to effectively relate to guys, I can take comfort in the fact that I recognized a need to get to know them better, to be friends, before jumping into something more serious.

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… and then that reflection led to a drastic change in thought …

One of the strongest bonds a person can have in her life is the friendship of a sibling. Honestly, what closer relationship could grow out of a household than from two sisters or two brothers or a brother and a sister? Even though my relationship with my sister is nonexistent, I still feel a strong connection with her that I see in other close friends. 

My sister Lauren would turn 23 this April if she were alive. She would be finished with college and going on to her career. Maybe she would have been a teacher, following in Mom’s footsteps. Maybe a nurse, taking after most of my relatives who have gone into the medical field. Maybe she would be a psychiatrist, trying to help others through her words of wisdom and strength.

It’s hard to guess at what her future might have been. She never got the opportunity to learn English, never once was able to utter a cry. She didn’t get a chance to walk or go to school. Never had a bicycle or a pair of tap shoes. She never made friends or smiled. I didn’t get a chance to run to her with my problems, never was able to ask for her advice on fashion or makeup. I didn’t get the chance to turn to her for a hug when I felt lower than dirt nor was I able to go to the movies with her, laugh at the corny jokes. (Reminds me of the poem “If.”) I haven’t been able to celebrate birthdays with her, sharing cake and ice cream. She didn’t teach me tricks about getting along with my parents or give me advice about boys. I couldn’t send her a letter from Girl Scout camp or watch the sunset at the beach with her. Never once did we get a chance to watch the clouds float above, changing shapes.

In fact, I never got to meet her. I don’t know what her face looks like, what color her eyes are, if she’s taller than me, what her favorite song is. Her life ended on her birthday from the struggle with the umbilical cord. It was tangled around her leg, cutting off her circulation. I’m sure she wanted to breath, cry, laugh, smile, cough, feel a hug. She wasn’t able to. (NOTE: Apparently I was still a bit fuzzy on what exactly it meant to be stillborn.)

I wasn’t able to get to know my sister. Her life will always be remembered. My mom and dad didn’t end her life. It was a natural process and it happened for a reason that some day will make sense to me. However, how can someone purposely end a child’s life?

Our lives were all affected without personally getting involved. Being the one in charge of initiating the act is incomprehensible.

An innocent life is gone. One choice can be made and that one choice has endless consequences.

The act of abortion means the intentional killing of an unborn baby. 

What about the child who is killed? He could have been the friend of someone battling depression or a good friend of a person who lost a close relative. By killing the child, you not only affect his life and your life, but also the lives of countless others.

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And there’s the basis of my opinion piece. I actually wrote, in the top right corner of the page: Maybe write essay from point of view of the sibling of an aborted child.

That’s what I did. I wrote in the first person and pretended that my parents had aborted my older sibling. I gave some reasons of why this decision was made. I took all the moments that I detailed about Lauren, using it to describe how my fictionalized parents’ decision had altered the family dynamic. Of the relationship that I missed out on and the life this older sibling could have had. I called the paper “The Effects of Choices: Abortion and the other Sibling.”

It was an easy paper to piece together once I returned to campus. I was thankful that I only needed to turn in a draft.

The meeting with my professor really left an impression on me, and I assume on her too. She had been critical of anyone writing about abortion in particular. Since I wrote the piece in the first person, she read it as such. I thought for sure maybe she would find something that indicated an exaggeration of some kind. But she was moved by the paper. She commented on the emotion of it.

And I walked away finally realizing what my high school teachers meant about voice. I had assumed a persona, loosely based on real events, and had presented it as truth. And it was convincing. It’s easy to assume that a character’s perspective and opinions reflect the author’s, but that’s not always the case.

My words have power. Wow. What a cool thing to learn!

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