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This piece explores Chen’s ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing journey through an evocative story about a girl’s encounter with a wise squirrel. Playing with the conventions of the essay form, Chen demonstrates how an essay can be crafted into a story about school, learning, and life. While engaging with the typical challenges of College Writing, this reflection is also a story about a young adult, finding their way in a new world.
ENGLWRIT 112: College Writing
Day Month Year
The Talking Squirrel
Once upon a time, there lived a student named Shirley who was far, far away from home. It was her first time leaving the family and going on her own. Like many others, going to college was a normal part of being an independent adult. Everyone was busy preparing for the new school year. People were unpacking non-stop, moving their flip-flops and laptops. Cars were going in and out of the campus. The dorms were jam-packed with boxes. While people arranged their furniture, Shirley was too occupied remembering where the nearest bathrooms were.
“There’s too much happening I don’t even know where to begin!” she said to herself.
“Astronomy class over there, and philosophy class here. No wait, it’s the other way.”
She grew more frustrated as she walked in circles for what seemed like hours.
“Gee, I wish I was at home. But at least I can leave everything I hated behind.”
Or so she thought.
College Writing is a course that a lot of first-year students were required to take. What better way to practice writing than making essays – the one thing that Shirley dreaded the most. Going from advanced English classes at the beginning of high school to low standards by the end of senior year, writing had been nothing but a heavy weight that pulled down her grades. What she learned was that without excellent writing skills, her opinions didn’t matter, and were all wrong.
One day, Shirley had no idea what to do after writing the rough draft of one of her College Writing essays. She twirled and twirled on her chair, but no new ideas came. Then, right before she got up for a snack, an acorn was thrown to her head. A squirrel appeared from behind a tree and said to her: “Little human being, why give up on the very first revision of an essay?”
“It’s terrible, I don’t even want to read the replies I got!”
The squirrel eyed the papers on the table and looked at her in disapproval.
“Tsk, tsk. You should not let fear stop you on this crucial step. Listen to what they have to say and take it with a grain of salt.”
The squirrel then went behind a tall tree and disappeared. Shirley gathered up some courage and read the comments on her draft. To her surprise, they were encouraging her to write. One of them noticed a flaw in the final paragraph, which even the author herself did not see.
“How could I have been this blind!” she said.
And thus, she turned over a new page and began writing. “What is my ‘potential happiness’? Well that’s easy!” She extended her thoughts to make them sound more complete. Her readers wanted to know the full picture of those words: “I do want something. I want a happy life, just like others. So I will strive for it, even if life will reach an end.” She continued to write until her arms fell off and grew back.
Later, the squirrel came back a second time and saw Shirley with her face flat on the desk. The squirrel then asked: “What is wrong this time?”
“I’m stumped. I don’t know why the audience matters so much.”
“Well,” the squirrel said, “writing to the right audience is important. After all, you don’t expect adults to believe in fairytales or children to understand advanced scientific journals.”
When the squirrel was done making its point, it dashed behind a trashcan and disappeared.
So Shirley thought about the audience of her essay. She was writing about an essay for consumers in general. “My intended audience seems too broad,” she said to herself. “What kind of consumer is best fit for this, though?” Moments later, she knew what to do. “The audience that I’m looking for is right in front of me. Smartphone users! I just need to specifically include them in my conversations because they can relate to this the most!” Burning with purpose, she proceeded to type at the speed of lightning until her fingers burnt up and grew back.
The squirrel came back for the third time, and saw Shirley sulking at her table. The squirrel questioned her: “Why the sad face? Aren’t you done with the writing?”
“Everything is too different.”
The squirrel looked puzzled and could not understand. The human sighed and explained herself.
“I have never made huge changes to my essays before. So writing like this feels very risky for me. I’m used to little bits of words changing at a time. Not a huge essay makeover.”
The squirrel seemed to sympathize with her. “I can assure you that making big changes to your essays is completely normal. Think of those changes as an essay going through phases of its life cycle. It may not look like what it used to be from the initial draft. But that is fine, too, because amazing things don’t always need to look the same. A caterpillar eventually becomes a butterfly, which looks more beautiful. It is not an easy task, because in order to do that, it must eat, eat, and eat until it becomes large enough to turn into a cocoon. Change is not always easy, and it can be necessary in some situations.”
After the squirrel finished speaking, it scurried across the grass and disappeared. Shirley wondered for a while. One last time, she looked at the revised pages. Then finally, she submitted it.
In the final days of her College Writing class, Shirley was able to conquer vast mountains of drafts. She was no longer afraid of writing like she was before. Instead, she became more confident. She wrote what she thought, she read what others said, and she changed what needed to be changed. It was a miracle: the one thing she hated the most became the one thing she wanted to improve on – all because she never gave up trying in the first place.
To this day, the squirrel may come out from time to time. It likes to hide in the tall trees, watching people from above. It goes around eating nuts. And when it gets full, it travels from one branch to another. Some say that the squirrel can actually talk. Some say that it is just an ordinary squirrel. Whatever people think, the squirrel waits patiently. It is ready to throw another acorn at an unsuspecting student.