In Which I Analyze Two Lovely Sentences to Within an Inch of their Lives

My friend April Pickle encouraged me to write an issue of The Habit in which I pick a couple of sentences I like and tell what I like about them. This shall be that issue. And the sentences I shall write about come from Christian Wiman's memoir, My Bright Abyss:

They do not happen now, the sandstorms of my childhood, when the western distance ochred and the square emptied, and long before the big wind hit, you could taste the dust on your tongue, could feel the earth under you--and even something in you--seem to loosen slightly. Soon tumbleweeds began to skip and nimble by, a dust devil flickered firelessly in the vacant lot across the street from our house, and birds began rocketing past with their wings shut as if they'd been flung.

I have never experienced a sandstorm. Dust devils never flicker firelessly in my leafy neighborhood here in Nashville, Tennessee. So, to use a phrase I used a couple of weeks ago, these evocative sentences do something for me that I can't do for myself. They invite me into a scene that I don't otherwise have access to.

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On Receiving (and Ignoring) Criticism

Every time I start a new online class, I send my students an introductory email that includes the following "Word About Feedback": 

I am working on the assumption that you signed up for this course because you genuinely want to improve as a writer. And if you really want to improve as a writer, you need criticism. You need encouragement too, but you need criticism a lot more. I used to put a lot of time and energy into softening my criticism so that my writing students wouldn't get discouraged. I have decided that this not a good use of my time and not a service to my students. My critique of your writing will be direct and blunt--and, I'm quite confident, on-target. I should also say that if you're farther along the path as a writer, you can expect my critique to be even more direct and more blunt. I criticize because I care. I'm not joking. I trust that you care enough to take my critique in the spirit in which it's given. If that's not what you want from this course, please let me know.

I realize that it can be hard to receive criticism. Offering up a piece of writing feels a lot like offering up a piece of yourself, so "There are a few things wrong with this piece" can sound like "There are a few things wrong with you." 

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On Not Being the Smartest Person in the Room

In a recent interview with Terri Gross, the writer David Sedaris remarked, "I'm rarely the smartest person in the room. I have other qualities, but searing intelligence is not one of them." 

David Sedaris is a hilarious writer and an excellent prose stylist, so it is tempting to chalk this up to false humility. But I've been pondering his remarks in my heart, and I think there's a lot of wisdom in separating excellent writing from "searing intelligence." 

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Narrowing and Expanding: Essential and Non-Essential Elements

This week one of my online students wrote, "My friend, Monique, became a certified naturalist last year." This sentence put me in a bit of a quandary. I try to care about the whole person (as you will find if you register for my upcoming Writing with Flannery O'Connor class), and I didn't know whether this writer needed punctuation advice or relationship advice. The commas around Monique suggest that Monique is the writer's only friend. If, however, the writer has other friends besides Monique, those commas are extraneous and misleading. I hope, for my student's sake, that this is merely faulty punctuation, which is easy to fix. There are worse things than punctuation errors, and being nearly friendless is one of them.

Today I am talking about punctuating essential and non-essential elements. One of the eight or ten uses of the comma is to set off so-called "non-essential" words, phrases, and clauses in a sentence. I'm not crazy about that terminology "essential" and "non-essential." It makes one think "important" and "less important" or, perhaps, "adding meaning" and "not adding meaning." If you add any word, phrase, or clause to a sentence, hopefully it is important and has meaning. If not, my advice to you is to leave it out of the sentence entirely, not to set it off with commas. 

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Flipping the Switch

"If you want to be a writer, be a reader." This may be the most commonly-offered writing advice of all. And it's good advice as far as it goes. But encouraging writers to read has always felt to me like encouraging teenage boys to eat three meals a day and maybe a couple of snacks. People who want to write tend to be people who are already reading. I think. Right?

So if you want to write and you don't already read voraciously, you should probably start. But for me--and, I suspect, for many of you--the big question isn't How do a read more? The bigger question is How do I stop reading and start writing? Or, to put it another way, How do I flip the switch from consuming to producing?

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Begin without the End in Mind

Begin with the end in mind. That's Habit 2 of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In most human endeavors, this is excellent advice. In large matters and small, beginning with the end in mind helps ensure that the steps you take move you in the right direction. I heartily commend this advice to all areas of your life besides writing.

This letter is Part 2 of a series about getting started on a new story or essay. Today's advice is this: Be willing to begin without the end in mind. And if you do have the end in mind when you begin, hold it very loosely.

Of the four novels I've written, only one ended the way I originally thought it was going to end. You can't be sure how a story ends until you get into it. As I said last week, you have to trust that once you get the pen moving and the neurons firing, good things are going to happen.

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Make Friends with the Inner Critic

I’ve gotten a few questions lately about how to start writing a book or story or essay. For many writers, the blank page or blank screen is a terror and a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So how do you get started?

There are a million substitutes for starting. You can outline, you can puzzle out plot problems, you can research. For years I’ve been wrestling around with a particularly sticky point-of-view problem for a novel that I “want” to write. I put “want” in quotation marks because if I really wanted to write it, I would be writing it instead of wrestling around with point-of-view problems. 

So, again, how do you get started? You start wherever you can start. What captured your imagination in the first place? What image or idea made you want to write a particular story or essay? Start writing there, and see what happens.

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There's Always More Where That Came From

I worked for a while at an advertising agency, writing ad copy and brochures and lots of direct mail (an art form that the unwashed masses sometimes call junk mail).

One day on my way home from the office I drove past a man checking his mail. It happened to be trash day, and he had wheeled his trash can out to the curb, right by the mailbox, so there he stood pulling junk mail out of his mailbox and depositing it directly into his trash can. I couldn't help imagining my own carefully crafted prose meeting a similar fate in trash cans throughout this great country.

In short, writing brochures and junk mail wasn't what I had in mind when I first thought about getting into the writing racket (though I should point out that if you're hoping to get paid for your writing, you might want to skip juvenile swamp fiction altogether and go straight to junk mail).

But I digress. I bring up my stint at the ad agency because during that time I learned a lesson that has shaped my work ever since.

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The Next Telephone Pole. Writing Books by Writing Sentences.

We have a tradition in our house: whenever one of our children turns fifteen, he or she has to train for and run the Music City Half-Marathon with me. It's an opportunity for regular father-juvenile time, but just as importantly it's an opportunity for my kids to experience the truth that they can do something seemingly impossible (running 13.1 miles doesn't come naturally for anybody in the Rogers family) if they start small and keep making cumulative gains.

I came to running rather late in life. I was 38 when a friend and I decided to train for the half-marathon together. We started one cold January morning by running one mile (or maybe it was a half-mile?), and it left us both gasping and wheezing by the end. But we soldiered on and managed to run the half-marathon in April. We were gasping and wheezing by the end of that, too, but still...

As it turned out, that was an important thing for me to do. I needed to try something new, to realize that I could do things I didn't think I could do. I was in the middle of a paralyzing bout of writer's block (which should probably be the subject of a future issue of The Habit), and learning that I could push through to finish a half-marathon helped convince me that I could also push through to finish a couple of books that were bedeviling me. 

Anyway, the Music City Half-Marathon is this upcoming Saturday, and I have a fifteen-year-old this year, so we'll be two of the 40,000 or so people running the streets of Nashville that morning. To commemorate the day, I am reproducing a piece I wrote for the 
Rabbit Room a few years ago after running the half-marathon with another of my sons. 

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My love is, like, a red, red rose. Concerning similes.

Simile and metaphor require just as much precision as literal language.   (I’m tempted to say they require more precision.) Figurative language isn’t a hiatus from verbal rigor. I will grant that when you put different writers’ similes next to one another, you can get the impression that anything goes. Robert Burns says “My love is like a red, red rose.” Sir Philip Sidney says “My love is like to ice and I to fire.” I might say my love is like a summer’s day. Or I might say my love is like a hurricane. So which is it? you might ask.

Well, if you have ever loved anybody for any length of time, you already know that your love is sometimes like a red, red rose, sometimes like to ice, sometimes like a summer’s day, sometimes like a hurricane, and at other times like any number of other things. (I recently saw something thing that said, “My love is like a candle: forget about me, and I will burn your house down.”) 

If I say, “My love is like a hurricane,” in one sense I am broadening the reader’s conception of what love (or, perhaps, a lover) is like. But in another, very important sense, I am focusing and narrowing the reader’s attention on one particular aspect of what it is like to love another person.

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