Write Now!

just do itThe Meetup name caught my attention: Lancaster Writes Now!  A monthly gathering of writers at The Candy Factory,  a co-working space, located three minutes from my new home.

On the day after I moved to town! I had to check it out …

I mingled with other writers, heard their stories, drank wine, ate pretzels. I’m learning that in Lancaster there are always pretzels, which suits me just fine.

Then at 7 pm, we were asked to settle into our workspace and start writing.

For one hour. 

The room was silent, save for the tapping of keys and the scratching of pens. I left my laptop at home, deciding I’d write more freely by hand.

Sixty minutes later, I was astonished. I’d written ten pages. Of the variety of what Anne Lamott used to call a sh–ty first draft but now calls a terrible first draft.

Ten pages!!

One hour was all it took. One hour without checking email, surfing Facebook, getting up to move the laundry into the dryer.

I just did it!

Next step for me: Find a way to “just do it” more than one hour a month.

Comment on this post and share your tips for getting your work done.



My birthday twin

I turned eighteen on my father’s forty-first birthday.  Every year on March 6th, he would say the same thing to me: “You were the best birthday present ever.” When my sister Beth and I were teenagers, we dubbed him “J,” a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life


My task: use a simple object as a prompt and “free write.” Allow the writing to go where it wants to go … When I began writing yesterday afternoon, I had no idea I would end up writing an essay about my father. I give this same advice to the students I coach through the college admissions process … in the beginning, just write and see what story emerges.

I turned eighteen on my father’s forty-first birthday.  Every year on March 6th, he would say the same thing to me: “You were the best birthday present ever.” When my sister Beth and I were teenagers, we dubbed him “J,” a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Beth and I were into nicknames then, called our mother “Madre,” why I can no longer remember. J was short for John Boy, the earnest eldest son played by Richard Thomas in the 1970s TV series, The Waltons. I guess our J reminded us of John Boy—honest, solid, kind, optimistic—or maybe Beth and I were just being smart alecks.

My dad died too young, a couple of months after my fiftieth birthday, his seventy-third. He had lived with Parkinson’s disease for twenty-two years. He’s buried in Montauk, New York, where my mother still lives. I visited his gravesite this Monday, after another burial, the dad of my good friend Christine and her three siblings. Their father, Jack, eighty-seven, had lost his wife to cancer many years ago. Jack loved to stand at the top of the bluff of our neighborhood beach, fishing pole on shoulder, checking to see if “the blues were running.” My dad liked to do that too, or fish from his friend Lou’s boat, or dig for clams in Napeague Bay. He’d come home and cook linguini with clam sauce, opening those clams with determination, despite his limited dexterity.

The man loved to cook, and he loved to eat and garden. And he loved his wife, his daughters, his four grandchildren. He’d get all choked up as he exclaimed about Will, Patrick, Rob, and Claire. Wow, if he could only see them now.

I miss him. Birthdays are different now.

On my eighteenth birthday in 1979, J probably wrote “You were my best birthday present ever” in a card, enclosed in the airmail package that also contained the silver “Happy 18th Birthday” pendant pictured above.  I was an exchange student that school year in Knutsford, a small town halfway between Manchester and Chester, in northwest England. Went to the local pub on March 6th and drank my first legal beer. Didn’t get carded.

I did get carded, however, in late March 2000, on opening day of what was then known as Enron Field (now Minute Maid Park), in Houston, Texas, where the Astros played. In most cases, this would have been flattering at age thirty-nine, but that day, the first the ballpark was open, I was not flattered.  I didn’t have my driver’s license with me.

The well-meaning employee, her first day on the job, as it was for everyone, refused to serve me. I refused to leave. I had waited twenty minutes in line for that beer! I pulled off my baseball cap, showed her a few gray hairs that had sprouted. I pointed to the crow’s feet on the edges of my eyes. She wouldn’t budge. I asked to speak to her supervisor, who took one look at me, and said: “It’s okay, you can serve her.”

I probably told my dad that story, and I’m sure he chuckled. He was my number one fan, told me I was beautiful. And I felt beautiful when I was around him.

I made it to his bedside two days before he died. His eyes were shut when I arrived and never opened again until he took his final breath.  “J, I’m here,” I said when I entered his bedroom, saw him lying peacefully in his hospital bed. He lifted his head ever so slightly, pursed his lips, and tried to kiss me. I leaned over and he did.

His final offering to me.

John Joseph Mullen, March 6, 1938-May 20, 2011.

My birthday twin. A life well lived, in love.



Small objects, big stories

A small red silk bag caught my eye. I unsnapped it and found these pendants—ones I had acquired from age eighteen through my mid-forties.

jewelryboxThe other day, I sorted through my jewelry box. Found lots of costume jewelry I rarely wear anymore. Time to donate to my church’s weekly rummage sale.

Then, a small red silk bag caught my eye. I unsnapped it and found these pendants—ones I had acquired from age eighteen through my mid-forties.

I spread them out on the floor, not sure what I would do with them. But being a writer, I knew there was meaning to explore. This morning, as I ran 5.4 miles (!) home after leaving my car at the repair shop,  I thought about the pendants again. Soon, memories, connections, and stories flooded in. Each piece was an entry point into one of the chapters of my life.

The birthday when I was an exchange student in Knutsford, England. The silly nicknames my sister Beth and I had given our parents, inscribed on the back.

The bent nail from the Habitat for Humanity blitz build during Super Bowl XXXVIII, Houston, Texas, 2004. That crazy morning when my spouse and I had to be at the build site, and one son had a wrestling match and the other had an admissions test at the same time. To top it off, we had just moved ourselves, and that morning I couldn’t find a single darned #2 pencil in the entire house.

As I made the turn for home today, I knew what I wanted to do. I’d write a short essay about each pendant—they would be my prompts, like the ones students use as jumping-off points for their college admissions essays. I’d cradle each pendant in my palm and see where it took me. And like the students I work with, I’d do it in 650 words or less.

This is going to be fun!



Is this within your control?

whyworryI recently spent a week at one of my happy places—Rancho La Puerta, a wellness resort in Baja, California, Mexico.

Early morning mountain hikes, healthy smoothies by the pool, challenging yoga practices, and talks on nurturing your emotional health.

We become stressed when we focus on situations where we have no control, like the weather. Or the number of students from your high school who are applying to the same colleges you are.

We manage our stress better when we focus on the things we can control or we have influence over. Like deciding to apply to a broader range of schools than your classmates. Like choosing to get to bed earlier, exercise smarter, or eat healthier.

Next time you find yourself getting stressed, ask yourself whether the situation is within your control or influence. If the answer is yes, then take action. If the answer is no, do your best to let it go.

As Śāntideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist monk, wrote: “If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.”

Show the Real You

realyou“Sheila” bounded into our first meeting with a wide smile across her face, but that smile soon disappeared when I asked her about her essay. She’d been trying to write it for weeks but had gotten nowhere. “I don’t know what to write about!” she sighed.

We started to talk. About the subjects she enjoyed. About how she spent her time outside of school. She mentioned a summer job as a waitress, which had turned into a year-round gig. She’d been at it for four years. The restaurant had a funny name and the story of how she got the job was also funny. She mentioned once overhearing a customer talk about writing a Yelp review, and then how she started regularly reading Yelp and Trip Advisor, trying to guess which customers had written which reviews.

In that moment, I knew she had a topic for her essay. I didn’t know right away how she would structure the essay, but I knew this subject matter would show the real Sheila— go-getter, people person, hard worker, someone with a sense of humor.

“Can I really write about that?” she asked

I smiled. “Yes!”

Is that enough?

Yes, it would be enough. Rising seniors, you don’t have to cure cancer or develop a life-changing iPhone app. You just have to find a story that shows the real you in action, a story that demonstrates your strengths, your best qualities.

The real you is enough!

You can’t hide who you are

true character“Samantha” was one of my favorite clients last year. A hard worker with parents who had endured multiple layoffs, she wanted to write about what she had learned from her family’s experience.

There was great material here—she had stepped up to help take care of her younger brothers; her parents’ struggles had motivated her to work even harder; and she had written about a tender moment with her dad at the dining room when he was surrounded by job applications.

But the essay didn’t work—at least not at first.

It was a dull read. Too negative, too much about her family, not enough about her.

We worked together through multiple drafts and eventually came up with a creative way to present her story.  Great admissions results: Samantha was admitted to nearly every school she applied to.

But what stuck with me the most was Samantha’s attitude. The kind and thoughtful girl who showed up in her essays was the same girl in real life.

Her emails responding to my feedback were filled with gratitude for my help. She shared her acceptances with me as they arrived. She wrote me a thank you note when the process was over. This girl, so lovely on the page, was also so lovely as a person.

I’m guessing the college admissions officers felt the same way.

The Bad Essay

accept or deny designIn last week’s post, I discussed whether an essay can make or break an admissions decision. The answer: it depends. If you don’t have “the goods”—the grades and test scores—a good or even great essay will rarely push you from the “Deny” to the “Accept” pile. But if you land in the “Maybe” pile, a strong essay can make a difference.

How about if you write a “bad” essay?  Can it push you from “Accept” or “Maybe” to “Deny”?


Bad essays come in many forms:

  • Poorly written:
    • Careless grammar, misspellings, incorrect vocabulary usage, convoluted.
    • Solution: Do a careful self-edit and ask a teacher or essay professional to review your draft.
  • No point or no story:
    • Wanders, recounts a history rather than telling a story, leaves reader at end wondering what was the point.
    • Solution: Be very clear on the point you are trying to make. Can you say it in one sentence? If not, keep working until you can. Then edit your essay to ensure that every sentence is helping you make this point.
  • Clichéd:
    • Tired topics that make admissions officers’ eyes glaze over, such as:
      • “I tried out for the team and didn’t make it, and then I tried out again and I made it. I am really determined and work really hard.”
      • “I went on this community service trip and discovered that everyone is really the same. And I got more out of the experience than the people I was helping.”
    • Using clichés in your essay, such as:
      • cutting edge, I learned my lesson, I always learn from my mistakes, I know my dreams will come true, I can make a difference, _________ is my passion, I no longer take my loved ones for granted, these lessons are useful both on and off the field, I realize the value of hard work and perseverance, was the greatest lesson of all, I know what it is to triumph over adversity, xx opened my eyes to a whole new world.
    • Solution: If you write something you’ve heard said the same way before, it’s probably a cliché. Circle those phrases and try to make the same point in an original way. Ask a teacher or essay professional to review your essay for clichés.
  • Unflattering self-portrait:
    • Tells a story that shows you in a poor light and makes you unlikeable, such as:
      • “I used to be a mean girl. (75% of the essay is spent on all the “bad” things the student used to do). Then I changed and I became a compassionate leader.” (25% of essay devoted to the “good,” to the change.)
      • “I used to be a selfish player on the soccer team, only thinking of myself. (75% of essay.) Then I saw the light and I became a selfless leader and was elected captain.” (25% of essay.)
    • Solution: Choose a story that focuses on your strengths, not your weaknesses. If you choose a story that shows how you have changed, make sure the vast majority of the essay is dedicated to the “new” you, the “changed” you, the “positive” you.

The “Bad Essay” is to be avoided at all costs. Even if you are qualified academically, if you come off as unlikeable, arrogant, careless or lazy, your admissions file can easily be tossed into the Deny pile.

Don’t self-sabotage and give colleges a reason to deny your application! Take advantage of  Montauk Writer‘s free tips for writing effective essays.

Contact Montauk Writer today for more information on fees and services for the Class of 2018.

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