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The Message Hidden in a Stained Glass Window

Admission essay by Nathaniel Kennedy / Haverford College

Photograph by Diana Levine

Every day of high school, I walked by the same stained glass window. Resplendent in brilliant colors, the window depicted a lush, idyllic landscape surrounding a peaceful cove. I had walked by the window dozens of times before I saw a detail that stopped me. Partially obscured by the window frame was a biblical quotation etched in gothic font. I was stunned that I had never noticed something I passed so regularly. The words, however, were less important to me than the idea they represented: that one could hide messages in the most ordinary of places.

After graduating college, I began my career in finance at Vanguard. I soon realized that, in order to be effective in my particular role, I needed to embrace an investigative skill set. It was essential that I determine why a client’s portfolio was underperforming and what investments suited a client’s risk tolerance and time horizon. Yet, as I developed and honed my investigative skills, and my passion for analytical thinking grew, I became dissatisfied with my career in finance. Inspired by my memory of the message hidden within a stained glass window, I decided to translate my passion for investigative work into writing a mystery.

Although I had written many academic papers in college, even publishing a few when I interned at a think tank, I had never written any fiction. My approach to mystery writing was methodical: I spent months reading and analyzing different mysteries to identify the features I liked best. I discovered that, much like compiling a financial report for a client, planning a mystery requires anticipating questions, addressing weaknesses, and piecing disparate information together into a rich, detailed narrative. Using my long commutes on the train, I outlined chapters and devised scenes, researched potential settings and edited drafts. Much to my surprise, I found joy in the exhaustive, iterative process of mystery writing. When the COVID-19 lockdown began, I redoubled my efforts, working remotely in finance by day and writing creatively in the evenings.

While compelling characters, a coherent plot, and convincing twists are essential elements of a good mystery, for me, these were necessary, but not sufficient. As a seventh generation Philadelphian, I sought to write a story where my hometown played a leading role; a story where the city itself was a character. Furthermore, I found great purpose embedding in my mystery novel the people I care about most. For example, describing the neighborhood where my grandfather grew up and the cemetery where many of my relatives are buried helped me to memorialize my family within the pages of my book and, in doing so, acknowledge how much they mean to me.

Writing a mystery also exposed me to diverse fields of law. I researched property, trust, and estate law to illustrate the machinations of my book’s antagonist; criminal law to explicate interactions between Philadelphia’s police force and organized criminal elements; and municipal law to illuminate the city’s sometimes hazy inner workings. What I discovered is that law and mystery writing appeal to me for many of the same reasons. Both promote analytical thinking and compelling storytelling; both are driven by the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, the thorough research and meticulous attention to detail necessary to write a good mystery complement the discipline and rigor required to construct an exhaustive legal argument.

Reflecting on my book, now that it is finished and represented by a literary agent, the lessons I learned from this experience are far from what I expected. Initially, I thought the process would be like building a skyscraper, each phase meticulous and linear. Yet, as I demolished and reconstructed this skyscraper several times, I realized that writing fiction is largely about embracing uncertainty and maintaining a fresh perspective. The revelation has been instrumental in encouraging me to explore new areas of interest with curiosity and purpose, most notably law.

From walking by a stained glass window, to working in the financial industry and writing a mystery, I have admittedly taken a circuitous path to law school. Yet, as I consider the next phase of my career, I am confident the lessons I have learned from the meditative and analytical process of mystery writing, coupled with my passion for investigative thinking, will enable me to contribute meaningfully to the study and practice of law.