Show, don’t tell

As I handed my Hold Mail card to Bruce, the post office clerk, I casually mentioned that I figured I’d save my mother the trouble of checking my mail while I was away.

“Who’s your mother?”

“Cecilia Mullen.”

Eyes big, recognition dawning, “You’re Nibs’ daughter? Of course, you look just like her.”

Eyes growing bigger, locking on my face, “And you look just like your father too. You’re the perfect blend of the two of them. I’ve seen you so many times before, and now it’s all coming together. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.”

There’s so much for me to mine in this little moment:

  • I love living in a small town.
  • I love being reminded that I am both my mother’s and my father’s daughter.
  • I love the image of the pieces coming into focus for Bruce.
  • I love how that image of integration is a visual metaphor for my own journey towards wholeness.

Show, don’t tell. Pay attention to the stories in the little moments of your day. Jot them down. Reflect on what they mean to you. Sharing your stories, and their significance, are what people mean when they say “show, don’t tell.”


A few days ago, I sent out a survey to parents asking about their children’s recent college application experience, specifically seeking information about the essay writing process, and what kind of support, if any, their children received.

I’m still sifting through the responses, but there’s clearly a degree of cynicism and concern about kids being slickly packaged to gain an edge with admissions officers.

How about sending our kids another message? You are enough. You have value just the way you are. Communicate your truth. Effectively tell your story. Trust that you, imperfections and all, are enough.

How about sending ourselves another message? Our kids are enough. They have value, just the way they are.  Help them communicate their truth. Help them effectively tell their stories. Trust that they, imperfections and all, are enough.

Learn more about “I am enough.” 

Learn more about what makes Montauk Writer’s essay support different.

And the survey’s still open! I’d love to hear what you think! 

Listening to the moments

“Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”  This is one of the new essay prompts for the 2013-2o14 Common Application.

For the past several months, I’ve spent some time each morning reviewing the events of the prior day, using the practice of the daily examen.  As I reflect upon my day, I ask, “Where did I feel most alive?” — and “Where did I feel drained of life?”

It’s interesting to see the moments that surface in that brief period of morning quiet. As I notice the places where I feel at home, as well as the places where I feel alienated from myself,  patterns begin to emerge that help me live more purposefully.

Listening to the moments helps us listen to our lives.  As Annie Dillard wrote so eloquently, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

How are you spending your days? Where are you finding life, peace and contentment in those days? Where is the life being sucked out of you? I invite you to listen. Write down what you hear. It will be time well spent. You might even jumpstart your way to a great Common App essay.

Easy isn’t always better

Those words I heard from Pastor Bill this morning linger in my ears as I wrap up another day of writing.  I’ve asked a friend to be my writing coach, to help me get my book It Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This closer to the finish line. Or at least closer to a complete first draft!  I committed to send her a detailed outline and a couple of sample chapters by the end of the weekend. It’s been hard work.

Easier isn’t always better. And when it comes to writing, easier is almost never better. Sure, every once in a blue moon we may experience the gift of a letter, an essay, or a paper writing itself — but I know it doesn’t usually happen that way.  Even the most celebrated writers struggle with putting pen to paper, or today, putting fingers to the key board. A recent NY Times article noted that “On the computer in Philip Roth’s Upper West Side apartment these days is a Post-it note that reads, “The struggle with writing is over.”

So don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t come easy.  It doesn’t come easy to most of us.

Embrace the Detours

I don’t know about you, but my heart sinks when I see a DETOUR sign ahead, especially when I’m in a hurry. I don’t like the unexpected. I don’t like being forced to travel on a different and unfamiliar road. I don’t like my trip taking any longer than anticipated.

Today I’m thinking about the detours in my own life. Unlike the detours on the road, life’s detours don’t announce themselves on large black and neon orange signs.  They sometimes appear as tantalizing, left-field opportunities where I find my heart wondering, is this it? Is this the one? Is this the way?  Most of the time these opportunities don’t turn out to be “the one” or “the way,” but I’ve noticed that when I give myself the space and time to explore, these detours almost always take me to a new place or a new direction I wouldn’t have discovered on my own.

Detours can’t be planned or rushed. I’m learning to leave more white space on my calendar to embrace the detours as they surface for me. The same principles apply to good writing.  I bring this approach to my college application essay guidance.  I help high school students head down the road with an essay writing plan — and I build enough time and space into our process for them to explore any detours that emerge along the way. Sometimes the detours will take them exactly where they needed to go all along.