The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment

I often tell people that Flannery O'Connor once wrote "the eye is an organ of judgment." Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed "the eye is an organ of judgment" into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O'Connor. Sorry about that.

In my defense, however, I will say that my misquotation is a pretty good distillation of something that Flannery O'Connor actually did write, in her essay "Writing Short Stories," which you can find in Mystery and Manners

For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be gotten into it. It involves judgment.

She goes on to say that the student-writer is often so interested in thoughts and emotions that he neglects the concrete and sensory details where storytelling actually happens: 

He thinks that judgment exists in once place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

The eye is an organ of judgment. O'Connor is specifically talking about fiction-writing in these passages, but she could be talking about any kind of writing. In fact, she could just as easily be talking about everyday life.

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Beauty that Goes Beyond Taste

When I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, a friend got to telling about the neighbors along her block, just off Magazine Street. One of the more memorable characters was a woman who invited the whole street to her sixtieth birthday party--a party that started at 11pm. Another of her neighbors was a young woman who had late-stage cancer. When she was finally done with hospitals and went home to die, her family came down from whatever northern state they lived in and painted her house for her--blue and purple and white with gold trim. "It was so beautiful," my friend said. "There is a beauty that goes beyond taste."

That phrase stuck with me--"a beauty that goes beyond taste." For one thing, the phrase exposed me utterly. My first reaction to the purple paint and gold trim on one of those lovely old New Orleans houses was, "How tacky." But if a dying woman wants purple walls and gold trim, and the people who love her most give them to her, tacky is an odd judgment indeed. I've been doing some soul-searching, I don't mind telling you.

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The Creative Cave Man

How did it come to be a foregone conclusion that cave men spent their days clubbing one another and dragging women around by the hair? As GK Chesterton remarked, "I have never happened to come upon the evidence for this idea; and I do not know on what primitive diaries or prehistoric divorce-reports it is founded." 

In truth, cave men and women left precious little documentary evidence to show what they were doing in their caves. The documentary evidence they did leave, however, reveals that, whatever else early people might have been, they were definitely artists.

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Actors and Actions, Subjects and Verbs

A recurring theme in my teaching is the importance of aligning the grammar of a sentence with the action that the sentence depicts. I am forever trying to get writers to stay in the habit of expressing action in the form of a verb, with the actor as the subject of that verb. Your reader burns to know the answer to the question "Who did what?" and her eyes and her brain are wired to seek first the subject position (who) and the verb position (did what) in every sentence she reads.

If this idea of expressing actions as verbs and actors as subjects seems self-evident, it's not. Language is exceedingly flexible, and it provides a multitude of ways to express action in ways other than a good old-fashioned Subject-Verb-Object main clause. The following list is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • The passive voice places somebody besides the actor in the subject slot: I took the bull by the horns becomes The bull was taken by the horns by me.

  • Nominalization turns the verb into a noun: I failed completely becomes My failure was complete.

  • A gerund also converts a verb into a noun: I swim constantly because I love it becomes Constant swimming is my passion or I love swimming.

  • Once you have turned the verb into a noun, you can make it the object of a preposition, so turning it into a modifier: My love of swimming keeps me in the water constantly (In this example, note that both actions I swim and I love get turned into nouns). The completeness of my failure became obvious to all.

  • A participle also turns a verb into a modifier: I went upstairs and sulkedbecomes Having gone upstairs, I sulked.

  • A subordinate clause pulls action out of the main through-line of a sentence and makes it a modifier: I went upstairs and sulked becomes I went upstairs, where I sulked.

The astute reader will notice that in some of these examples, the sentence actually works better when you move the action out of the subject-verb nexus. "I love swimming" turns the subject-verb I swim into a gerund, but it's at least as good a sentence as "I swim because I love it."

As I often say, every "problematic" construction in the English language exists because there are situations in which it's not problematic but exactly what you need.

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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 you...in 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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