Outlines are friends, not foes

Illustration of your writing on and off outlines

“I don’t use outlines. I just like to write and let it all flow out,” my 13-year-old cousin told me.

We were on the phone brainstorming her essay for a contest, and I had to laugh when I heard what she said.

“Let me stop you there,” I said. “You need an outline.”

I told her I understood. I soooo hated outlines in high school. They were like insulting paperwork that I was supposed to do when I just wanted to write and write and write. Outlines were The Man, and I was sticking it to him by not writing one. They were only used by boring writers who had no imagination.

Ohhh how the winds of time change opinions I once thought absolute.

Outlines are now my friend. I carry them around in my pocket like little writing superheroes ready to come out and make my thoughts gel. Years of writing have taught me that I am not good enough to forsake humble tools, like outlining and expect words to fall gracefully from my fingers.

So I told my cousin she had to write an outline. For heaven’s sake, she only has 1700 characters. She needs an outline. Beginning. Middle. End. It can be that simple.

The winning argument for outlines, I told her, is that it focuses the writer back on the audience. Outlines make me boil down my story to the main points so that my readers understand why I’m writing in the first place.

(Is this where I say I didn’t outline this post? I bet you can tell.)

It seemed counterintuitive to me as a teen, but turning the focus away from myself makes my writing better. I’m the only one who wants to read my first draft madness (“want” is a strong word) so any time dedicated to outlining is well spent.

Go forth and write. But outline first.

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Being stubborn is my positivity hack

Gallant Gabe. Energetic Eileen. Devious Devin. “Devious” is THE D-word that I picked to describe myself while playing a ‘get to know you’ game In high school. I also subscribe to the Irish sense of humor — the darker, the better. And strange men have been known to tell me to smile.

I’m not what you’d describe as a person overflowing with positive vibes. But, semi-secretly, I am.

It’s not that I believe everything will go my way magically. It’s not that I have an innate ability not to get discouraged.

It’s that I refuse to believe bullshit reasons for why I shouldn’t do something. I refuse to let other people or my own weak and easily scared mind bully me into inaction. If I stop, it’s because every option has been explored. When I quit knocking, it’s because the door has been slammed shut in my face.

I am determined not to let people or institutions convince me that the world is a giant dumpster fire and my life is meaningless. I may not smile incessantly, but I do wake up each morning in awe that I get to be alive today. And by God, I want to make each day inch me closer to my goals.

My own mother has described me as “prickly” (and I take no offense), but I know that thinking of positivity purely as a personality trait is an easy way out.

Aiden, my closest in age brother, has always been the light to my dark, the angel food cake to my devil’s food cake. We were talking recently, and he said that even though his personality leans positive, it’s still an active choice — not an easy state of being — to remain hopeful and determined.

So among all the valid approaches to achieving goals and living life happily, I suggest just having a really stubborn attitude about the things most important to you. It works for me.

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A lesson about humility from the 1940s


While reading The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis a point leaped across the page at me seeming incredibly pertinent to 2017, and not like it was written in 1942 at all.

The Screwtape Letters is a satirical novel from the vantage point of a high-ranking assistant to the devil (or “Our Father Below” in the book.) Screwtape, the assistant, writes to his nephew giving advice on how to tempt the “patient” (unwitting human) away from the Enemy (God.)

It was the following passage (read it all, it’s so good) that caught my eye:

“You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. … The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.” (Pages 70-71)

The searing truth in these words hit me like an unliked Instagram post.

We’ve probably all seen selfies with captions like, “I’m so ugly but oh well #uglyface” or “Finally dyed my hair #bluehair #blackhair #ugly #sorrynotsorry.” Without fail, each post has comments affirming the poster’s beauty (because you’re beautiful!) Depending on how stubborn the poster is, she or he may or may not accept the compliment and deny their beauty in the comments.

So, like Screwtape wrote, denying beauty feeds self-absorption, and the person who thinks they’re humble is prideful. It’s a wicked game we play.

It’s damn hard to avoid altogether the trap of spending too much time peering into the mirror, criticizing our looks. Yes, we’ve all come to agree that physical beauty isn’t most important, but it can be a struggle to put it into practice.

The truth, though, is we are beautiful, but that shouldn’t be the focus. Post the selfie and then stop thinking about it. Accept compliments and in the same breath return them. I believe that we actually achieve humility through action, not detraction.

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You are doing your best

How do you balance working toward goals with being kind to oneself?

In college, especially, I was working at a breakneck pace to graduate, and I constantly felt underwhelmed by my efforts. I never thought I was studying, or researching, or writing enough — or well enough.

My goal of graduating in three years was everything to me, and I loved a lot of my time at school, but I often felt like I was falling short.

Looking back, I see that I was doing my best. My expectations were ridiculously high, and my self-care was abysmal. Those two parts warred against each other and left me feeling depleted. But, I still did my best. And I am now. And I’m going to venture to say that you’re doing your best too.

Sometimes my best exasperates me because I want to do more. But file that day away, Devin, and start again tomorrow.

The best one can do isn’t a benchmark determined by an institution or another person (or yourself.) It’s a lot more humble than that because it’s merely what you do, given the circumstances and your willpower (and probably 9 million other things unique to each person.)

One’s best is what we all do every day assuming we try hard most of the time (which most of us do.)

It reminds me of the Standardized Achievement Test. Originally, the SAT was just a test that young people took to see how well they knew that particular material. Now, it’s a bit of a racket. Before the SAT there’s the practice SAT. And before and after the PSAT there’s SAT books and tutoring and classes. Then if a student’s best isn’t good enough, she takes the SAT again (and possibly again.)

I took the SAT twice because if everyone else got to make their best better, I wanted to as well. I think that’s fair. It’s just a far jump from the original purpose and design of the test.

Looking at my three-year-old son, it’s clear that he’s doing his best every day — and that he’s content in that knowledge. He can’t say strawberry perfectly (it’s more like “straw-she-she”) but at the moment, straw-she-she is his best, and he says the word with delight.

So I try to give myself that same space to do my best and not judge myself if it isn’t as good as I might want.

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