Joy Is One Kind of Courage

Richard Wilbur is one of my favorite poets. This lovely remembrance by Christian Wiman articulates some of the reasons I love Wilbur so much. In short, for Richard Wilbur, creativity and productivity didn't come from deep within the subconscious of the tortured artist, but from gratitude and wonder at a world he didn't make. His gaze was outward, not inward.

What was revolutionary about Wilbur's work, Wiman writes, is the light--in spite of the fact that Wilbur himself dealt with depression and addiction and the losses and hurts that we all deal with.

I recently spent a couple of hours at Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West, Florida. Our tour guide lovingly told the stories of Hemingway's drunkenness and self-indulgence and all the wreckage he left in his wake. I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if Hemingway--obviously a writer of towering ability--hadn't spent so much of his creative energy on self-dramatization.

I know the story: that Hemingway (and all the other self-absorbed artists) needed the drama and the demons and the self-indulgence, that they wouldn't have been able to create without all of it. I'm just not sure I believe it.

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New Writing Habits for 2019

I named my weekly letter The Habit as a reminder to my readers and to myself that good writing is a matter of habit. True, writing often involves such things as inspiration and brilliance and raw talent--mysteries over which we have no real control. But there are factors that we can control. As you commit to the slow work of habit, you create places where the mysteries can find purchase.

When I speak of writerly habits, by the way, I mean more than the habits by which we organize our time and orient our efforts. I'm also talking about habits at every level:

  • the habit of ignoring the inner critic during the first draft;

  • the habit of re-engaging that same inner critic for the second and third drafts;

  • the habit of writing those second and third drafts;

  • the habit of keeping verbs close to subjects and modifiers close to the words they modify;

  • the habit of paying attention, of seeing the stories and images that unfold around us all day, every day;

  • the habit of staying in the chair and turning off the devices, not finding something easier to do when faced with the hard work of putting words on the page.

Now that we're past Christmas and approaching New Year's, we almost inevitably start thinking and talking about what we hope to accomplish in the coming year. But when it comes to writing (and to many other things), end results depend on mysteries that none of us have a handle on. My unsolicited advice is this: think in terms of habits, not goals. Process, not results.

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Boredom and Creativity

“Only boring people get bored.” I’m sure you’ve heard that old chestnut before. I’ve repeated it myself, many times. But in the era of the smart phone and social media, we need to rethink and refine our relationship to boredom. 

I started thinking about boredom and creativity when somebody posted a video of a TED talk by Manoush Zamorodi, a podcast host and author of the book, Bored and Brilliant (see below). Boredom is good, she argues, because it ignites a network in our brains called the “default mode network.” In short, when we daydream, when we stare blankly out the window, when we perform mindless tasks in which our bodies operate on auto-pilot, our minds start making unexpected connections and solving problems. Some of this kind of sub-conscious or semi-conscious thought happens in our sleep (yet another reason to get plenty of rest), but the default mode network operates during our waking hours, and it doesn’t kick in if our brains are being constantly bombarded by external stimuli. In that un-stimulated, un-entertained state that we commonly call boredom, our minds do some of their best work. Smartphones and the Internet keep us from having to endure the discomfort of "boredom," but in so doing, they cut us off from some of the richest veins of creativity. 

The mind, it turns out, won’t stay un-stimulated for long. In the absence of external stimulation, it will create its own.

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Punctuation, Episode 3 of 3: A Word About Dashes

Language is one of those things that come naturally to human beings. People are born without the ability to talk, but as they hang out with people who cantalk, the vast majority pick it right up. I know people who could talk all day--often in complete sentences--having never spent a day in school. Some of these people aren't even potty trained yet. 

And, by the way, even if you think of yourself as being bad at grammar, it isn't true. You get your grammar correct almost all the time. For instance, you have never accidentally placed an adjective after the noun it modifies. That is to say, you have never said "llama disgruntled" when you meant to say "disgruntled llama." And even if you can't identify an adjective clause, you have never made the mistake of putting one before the noun it modifies. You have never said "the who teaches my karate class retired librarian" when you meant to say "the retired librarian who teaches my karate class."

But if spoken language comes naturally and organically to human beings, writing doesn't. Punctuation certainly doesn't. It's something you have to learn. And, unfortunately, writing is not merely a matter of putting down on paper the words that you would utter if you were speaking. Spoken language is incredibly rich and layered--more rich and more layered than can be expressed in writing. Besides the words themselves, the speaker has at his or her disposal a number of tools: intonation, facial expressions, hand gestures, pacing, and other tools that I am no doubt forgetting. Furthermore, the hearer's capacity for interpreting all those signals is equally astonishing. 

Writing, by comparison, is pretty flat. I find that about half of writing instruction is helping people make their writing feel less flat and more like spoken language. But the other half of writing instruction is making sure that writers stay within the comparatively narrow confines of intelligibility

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The Uses of the Colon

Last week I started a short punctuation series on semicolons, colons, and dashes. I had said it was going to be a two-part series, but I was only kidding myself. Once a person starts talking about colons and dashes, it's hard to stop. So we find ourselves not at the end of a two-part series, but spang in the middle of a three-part series: colons today, dashes next week.

By way of review, the semicolon is not a very flexible punctuation mark (though I have lots of students who find very creative uses for the semicolon). A semicolon can be used to separate items in a complex series (that is, lists in which one or more items includes a comma) or it can be used to join two independent clauses into a compound sentence. That's it: any other use of the semicolon constitutes a punctuation error.

Colons and dashes, on the other hand, are both a little more flexible than semicolons. For the purposes of this letter, I am going to stick to the uses of the colon within prose sentences and skip the many specialized uses in business memos, titles, bibliographical citations, scriptural citations, etc.

In preparing for this letter, I ran across a summary of the colon that I found very helpful: a colon signifies expectation or addition. In every proper use of the colon, you are adding something to a sentence that is already (grammatically) complete without it. The colon, then, either sets up an expectation that is fulfilled by the information after the colon, or it signals that you are about to give the reader bonus information that will add to his or her understanding of what you just said.

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What Are Semicolons for?

Habit reader recently asked about the use of semicolons, colons, and dashes. These punctuation marks can be exceedingly helpful for expressing nuance in your prose. But if you misuse them, bad things can start happening to good people. Nuance is a delicate flower; it wilts in the presence of faulty punctuation. This week's issue of The Habit is the first of a two-part series on the effective use of these three punctuation marks. We'll talk about semicolons today and colons and dashes next week.

The semicolon is not an especially flexible punctuation mark. In fact, it only does two things:

1.A semicolon separates items in a series IF at least one item in the series contains a comma.
This is sometimes called the "complex series" use of the semicolon.  

2.A semicolon joins two independent clauses into a compound sentence.
An independent clause is simply a clause (that is, a string of words containing a subject and a verb) that can stand on its own as a sentence.

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The Man Who Planted Trees

My father-in-law died yesterday after a long and courageous fight with cancer. He was a man of remarkable imagination and vision, and his sanguine attitude toward long-term projects is an example to writers and to anyone else who might feel called to bite off more than they can chew. In his honor, here's a piece I wrote about him a few years ago.

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren't altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn't planted in pines and swampy where it wasn't scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

When he planted pines, he planted longleaf, the tree that once shaded all of South Georgia--indeed, the tree that towered over nearly every mile of Hernando Desoto's path from Florida through the Deep South to the Mississippi River.

By the time my father-in-law was born, the longleaf had been logged to near-extinction; when the trees were replaced at all, they were replaced by faster-growing slash and loblolly pines, which produce income twice as fast as longleaf, but always fall well short of the longleaf's native majesty. Much of South Georgia's wealth and beauty had once been attached to the longleaf pines, before they were felled and floated down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha to the ocean, then shipped away to be the ribs of great buildings far away from Georgia.  My father-in-law loves his native country; no wonder he planted longleaf. If they take forty years to grow to maturity--well, then, they take forty years. He is a man of imagination and hope.

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The Stories We Live In

Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it, Orwell makes the case that vague, abstract, usually Latinate language is an important tool in the dishonest politician's tool-belt. 

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

If you've read more than two or three issues ofThe Habit, you are probably aware of my ongoing campaign against vague, abstract language. I agree with Orwell that fuzzy, imprecise language fosters the kind of fuzzy, imprecise thought that allows the worst kind of politician to flourish. 

But lately it has occurred to me that my exhortations to clear, concrete storytelling are incomplete. If storytelling is the most effective vehicle of truth (and I believe it is), it is also, and for the same reasons, the most effective vehicle of falsehood. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," Orwell wrote. True enough. But that doesn't mean that all clear, concrete, specific language is sincere.

Storytelling, whether fiction or non-fiction, has a unique power to reframe a reader's or listener's sense of reality. It says, in effect, "I know you have a lot of ideas about the story you're living in, but consider the possibility that you are living in a different story altogether."

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Write Better Description

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted my first webinar, on writing vivid description. I wanted to share an example from that webinar with those of you who weren’t there.

I try not to teach from negative example, but this one sentence manages to violate all four of my guidelines for good description, so I thought you would find it instructive. Allow me to mention that this sentence was written by a person who actually writes quite well. We all have our slip-ups; and as you are about to see, this sentence is only a slip-up, not a spectacularly bad piece of writing. Here it is:

Humble little town homes sat situated above unique cafes on these quaint roads, right where renowned scholars and thinkers and poets had once walked.

See? This isn’t flagrant. It’s the kind of writing you see all the time, and under normal circumstances you might pass right by it and not think about it one way or another. And that’s part of the problem—the reader wouldn’t think about this description one way or another, or envision anything either.

Remember, when you write, you are inviting a reader into a scene. Good description offers experience to the reader in a way that approximates the way experience comes to us in the world God made—through the senses.

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