A Word of Thanks for Eugene Peterson

Yesterday one of the dearest saints of our era stepped into the Long Hello. Eugene Peterson, a pastor, teacher, theologian, and writer died after a long illness. Here’s the story from Christianity Today. It draws on a beautiful account by the Peterson family, which reads, in part:

Among his final words were, ‘Let’s go.’ And his joy: my, oh my; the man remained joyful right up to his blessed end, smiling frequently. In such moments it’s best for all mortal flesh to keep silence. But if you have to say something say this: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy.’”

Yes. Holy, Holy, Holy. But also, I want to say a few words about what Eugene Peterson’s work has meant to me. 

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Some Tips for Portraying People

Last week one of my Writing with Flannery O'Connor students asked,

Do you have any tips for describing people's physical appearances and expressions? I've been trying show, not tell, their personalities and emotions, but I'd like to avoid cliches such as 'she had a heart-shaped face' or "his eyes shone." 

That's an excellent question; it can be very hard to convey a character's physical appearance. So I thought I'd share my answer with the rest of you.

When you are describing anything in writing--a person's face, a room, a landscape, anything, really--it is important to ask yourself how much description you need. Your goal is to give your reader just enough to look at so that he feels that he can envision the scene. But it's a bit of a magic trick, and a bit of a balancing act, because you are actually just giving the reader the impressionthat he can envision the scene. If you provide too much detail, you actually pull the reader out of the scene. 

When it comes to describing a person's physical features, one or two interesting or unusual features are worth a whole lot more than five or six forgettable physical features. 

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In Which I Shape Young Minds

I once gave a class of creative writers an assignment that required them to write about their hometowns. There was some groaning, so I reminded them that while many of us tend to think of our hometowns as ordinary places not worth writing about, in truth there are no ordinary places, and every place, if you just pay attention, will give you more than enough to write about. I don’t remember specifically, but I probably quoted Wendell Berry: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.”

It wasn't long before one of my students raised her hand: “But what if you’re from a place that actually is just a stereotypical little town?”

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Every Sentence Is a Promise

Last week’s issue of The Habit had a typo in the subject line. THE SUBJECT LINE! “A New Way to Grow as a Writers,” it read. A typo in a subject line is painful in any case, but given the fact that the whole purpose of the email was to announce Field Notes for Writers, my new subscription-based model for online writing courses—well, the phrase “dark night of the soul” comes to mind. Almost none of you have mocked me to my face, however, and for that I am grateful.

I’ve been telling myself what I would tell anybody in the same situation: typographical errors happen to us all; it's nothing to get too exercised about. Still, I’ve been thinking all week about why that phrase, “A New Way to Grow as a Writers” is so bothersome. It is bothersome in the way that the phrase 2+3=6 is bothersome.

We human beings crave symmetry and harmony and balance. We can tolerate discord, but only for so long: we want resolution. 

The equal sign in the middle of a math equation is a kind of promise. It says, Whatever the complexity that appears to the left of this sign, I can show you a simpler, more comprehensible equivalent to the right of this sign

The equal sign is also a commentary on the powers of the human mind. It says, The world is a complicated place with an impossible number of variations. But watch what happens when the human mind goes to work on it: Symmetry. Order. Harmony. 

When you see that an equal sign has not kept its promise, you feel the inequality as unresolved discord, just as surely as you feel it when a piece of music fails to resolve. That is to say, the trouble you feel when you see 2+3=6 is aesthetic trouble, not just cerebral trouble.

Like the equal sign, every sentence makes a number of promises. At every level, writing promises to bring order out of chaos.

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A New Thing: Field Notes for Writers

I am doing a new thing. I am happy to announce an online subscription plan I call Field Notes for Writers. It's an ever-growing library of writing resources—online courses, podcasts, videos, teaching webinars—and (hopefully) a hub of community for writers of all skill levels. 

The cornerstone of the subscription is Grammar for Writers, a new 42-lesson course designed to help writers fear less fear about getting grammar wrong and instead feel the freedom in the flexibility that our complicated language affords. 

This 3-and-a-half minute trailer gives a good idea of what you can expect from Grammar for Writers.

Grammar for Writers, as I mentioned, is 42 lessons long. But not all of those lessons are currently available. (As it turns out, writing and filming a course goes quite a bit more quickly than video editing). I am releasing the first five lessons now and will be releasing five to eight new lessons a month for the next several months. Field Notes members will have early access to the lessons as they are released, and will continue to have access to all 42 lessons after they are available in early 2019. 

But Grammar for Writers is just the beginning. Each week I will add new content to the library according to the following rotation:

Week 1: Live Teaching webinar. In these webinars I will cover topics suggested by Field Notes members. Webinars will be recorded and added to the content library. The first of these webinars will be this Thursday night, September 27, at 7:30pm Central. It will be open to all, not just subscribers. (I'll send out an email with more details and a registration link in the next day or so.) I should point out that this is a webinar for teaching, not for selling. I will offer a subscription link at the end, but I promise this won't be one of those webinars that purport to teach but end up being a hard sell. 

Week 2: Line Edits Video. From teaching my online classes, I have quite a collection of student papers. Once a month, I will be taking one of those papers (with the permission of the writer) and walking through my suggested revisions—what I suggested and why I suggested it. 

Week 3: Comparing Notes Podcast. Once a month, I will release a short podcast episode in which I sit down with a writer friend and compare notes about writing. (I am happy to report that I have quite a few very interesting writer friends.) The first episode, which is already up, is my conversation with Rebecca Reynolds, author of the newly released Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World. If you don't have this book, you need to get it immediately

Week 4: More lessons from Grammar for Writers.

Then cycle starts again. That's new content every week. I'm mighty proud of this content. I think you're going to get a lot out of it. I have put together a free sampling of the content that's on offer—one lesson from Grammar for Writers, one episode of Line Edits, and one episode of Comparing Notes; within a few days of this Thursday night's webinar, I plan to add the recording of the webinar to the sampler.

The cost of the subscription is $11.95 a month. You can save 17% (and help me pay the video editor) by subscribing for the year at $119. If you're ready to subscribe, you can do that here. Or, again, you can check out the free content here, and if you like what you see, you can subscribe from there.

I'm excited about being able to offer this subscription at such a low monthly rate. Hopefully it's not a painful entry point, and I feel quite confident that I can offer you enough value that it seems like a no-brainer to keep your subscription. 

I should mention that Writing Close to the Earth and Writing with Flannery O'Connor, my "legacy" online offerings, will not be included in the subscription library. Those courses require weekly involvement from me that I won't be able to offer to a large group (or at such a low price!). There is still a section of Writing Close to the Earth coming up before the end of the year. I have not yet decided how often I will offer Writing with Flannery O'Connor and Writing Close to the Earth after the New Year.

Finally, a word about The Habit. Nothing will change about this weekly newsletter. You will still get it on Tuesday mornings, and it will still be free, just as it has been from the start. Field Notes for Writers will be a little more intense and will provide opportunities to interact with other writers, but if The Habit is all you want, that's fine too. I'm just happy to be able to give you something that does you good.

Actually, there's one more thing. It's not easy to get a new project like this off the ground. Would you be willing to help spread the word about Field Notes for Writers? If you were to forward this letter to somebody who might be interested, or share it on social media, that would mean a lot to me. Or you could just share the Grammar for Writers trailer by sharing this link:  https://vimeo.com/291583956. Or both! 

Gamble, Gambol, Ham and Gambrel: In Praise of Inefficiency

The great thing about Google is that it takes you straight to the information you want to find (or, in any case, straight to the information that the Keeper of the Algorithm wants you to find). The great thing about every other method of organizing and/or delivering information is that it DOESN’T take you straight to the information you want to find. 

Back when I was walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways, if you wanted to know something you had to go to the library and get a book. And in order to get that book, you had to walk past a lot of other books. This quaint fact accounts for a good 20% of my education. Fetching a book about, say, Shakespeare required me to scan whole shelves of other books about Shakespeare—books I didn’t even know I wanted or needed to read. In graduate school it wasn’t unusual for me to emerge from the stacks with six or seven books, but not the one I originally went looking for. You don’t know what you don’t know, and sometimes the only way to find out is through that highly inefficient, often inconvenient process known as wandering around. But as GK Chesterton observed, an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”

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Which Writers Make You Want to Write?

When I teach writing seminars, my favorite “introduce yourself” question is Which writers make you want to write? This is a different question from Who are your favorite writers? or Who do you think the best writers are? I love John Milton, but Paradise Lost has never inspired me to try my hand at epic poetry. And as much as I admire Faulkner’s writing, I’ve never wanted to write like Faulkner. (Surely we can all agree that one Faulkner is plenty.) 

There are writers I read when I want to read, and there are writers I read when I want to write. Charles Portis is a writer who makes me want to write. Portis is best known for True Grit. His lesser-known novel The Dog of the South is one of my all-time favorites. I make no claims for Charles Portis’s greatness. I never put his books in people’s hands and say, “You have to read this!” I just know that when I read The Dog of the South or True Grit, I feel emboldened to sit down and try writing another story. 

One thing I’ve learned from years of teaching is that writers have different gifts. It seems obvious when I put it that way, but when people self-evaluate, they tend to think in terms of being good at writing or less good at writing—as if writing were a single skill. Writing is a lot of skills, some of which will come more naturally to you than others. Part of my job as a writing instructor is to help writers realize what they’re good at, and to encourage them to build on those strengths. Some people have an ear for dialogue. Some people naturally think in terms of metaphor. I recently had a student who was outlandishly good at conjuring up sensory images. Describing a visit to a nursing home she wrote, “The room became warm and fusty and smelt like ham and moist bandages.” That’s an excellent sentence, and it was important for that writer to know it. We don’t always value the skills that come naturally to us, but those skills are exactly where we need to start. 

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Defenestrate. Pulchritude. Skunk. A Few Thoughts About Word Choice

In 1618, a crowd of angry Protestants threw two Catholic regents and their secretary from a third-story window at the Castle of Prague. All three survived the 70-foot fall, either because they were caught by angels or because they landed in a dung heap; you can probably guess which side of the conflict told which story. This act, which came to be known as the Second Defenestration of Prague, sparked the Thirty-Years’ War. The word ‘defenestration’ means the act of throwing a person out a window. It comes from the Latin de (from or away) + fenestra (window).

Every now and then somebody on Facebook will ask people about their favorite words. I always like looking at those lists. The word ‘defenestrate’ inevitably appears, and often quite early in the proceedings. I recently asked a friend why she liked the word. She wrote back, “I just love that such a word exists. It’s so remarkably specific.” I agree. It’s funny that such a specific word has made its way into our language. I also think it's funny that the word didn't get coined until the Second Defenestration of Prague. The First Defenestration of Prague, in 1419, sparked the Hussite War. At the Second Defenestration, the people of Prague apparently realized that starting wars by throwing people out windows was becoming a thing, and they should probably have a word for it.

I suspect people also like defenestrate because of the ironic distance that’s built right into it. It’s a Latinate, coolly rational word describing a violent act that one associates with hot-headed haste. It seems like a word that was invented to be used by Bertie Wooster.

As my students are no doubt tired of hearing, language conveys not only information but also experience. In defenestrate we have a big gap between the information conveyed (that is to say, the information you would find in a dictionary definition) and the experience depicted. There are words that sound like they were made up by somebody sitting at a desk, and there are words that sound like they grew out of the hurly-burly of human experience (hurly-burly, it occurs to me, belongs to the latter category). 

As the Bohemian mob closed in on the poor regents, nobody was saying, “Come on, boys, let’s defenestrate them!” If some rabble-rouser in the streets of Prague had said, “To the Castle! Let’s defenestrate the regents!” the members of the rabble wouldn’t know whether to bring pitchforks or brickbats or ropes. Or a box of Valentine’s candy. No, the word defenestration came into being when some pamphleteer sat at a desk and wrote, “In light of last week’s unfortunate defenestrations…”

For lack of a more precise way of putting it, some words just sound like what they are, and some words don’t. The word mellifluous is mellifluous, and the word lugubrious sounds melancholy and gloomy (and possibly even boo-hooey). If you fling somebody out a window, that verb fling matches the action in a way that defenestrate doesn’t (and never claimed to).

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Writer's Block: A Tale of Woe

For a long time, I didn't believe in writer's block. I was on intimate terms with unproductivity, to be sure, but for the most part my failure to produce was a function of laziness and ill discipline. I didn't want to dignify my bad habits with a name so glamorous as writer's block. "Plumbers don't get plumber's block," I used to say, "and lawyers don't get lawyer's block. If you're a writer, sit down and write." 

I do find it helpful to be as matter-of-fact and workmanlike as possible in my approach to writing. Showing up for work is a vital skill, no matter what your work happens to be. Nevertheless, the writing process is mysterious in ways that the plumbing process isn't. (I mean no disrespect to plumbers; I worked on a plumbing crew for a couple of summers in my youth, so I can say from experience that plumbers' inner lives are as rich and mysterious as anybody's.)

Around 2009, however, I came to believe most earnestly in writer's block; I was afflicted with a case of it that went well beyond mere laziness or ill discipline. I would sit at my desk for hours, for days, for weeks, and produce nothing. 

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Tom Wolfe and the Audience of One

Tom Wolfe died earlier this year. He was one of the originators of the so-called New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s (so, yes, he inspired a lot of really bad imitations, but I don't see how we can blame him for that). His novel The Bonfire of the Vanities was an important chronicle of the excesses of Manhattan's financial class in the 1980s. Also, he was exceedingly good at putting sentences together when he had a mind to.

One of his first big articles for Esquire was "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," about the custom-car culture of Southern California. After spending four weeks at an expensive hotel in Los Angeles, burning through lots of his publisher's money, and taking pages and pages of notes, he was flattened by a bad case of writer's block. He had piles of ideas and facts, and some great turns of phrase, but he just couldn't seem to find the place to start. After weeks of wrestling around with it, he finally gave up. He told his editor, Byron Dobell, that he needed to drop the assignment. According to an interview Wolfe did with Terry Gross, Dobell told him just to hand over his notes so they could find a "competent writer" to make an article out of them.

So at about 9:00 that night, Tom Wolfe started writing a memo to his editor: 

Dear Byron,
The first place I saw customized cars was at a teen fair in North Hollywood, California...

He wrote through the night, producing fifty type-written pages. He sent them over toEsquiremagazine in the morning. Later that day, Byron Dobell called to say that he was just going to remove the "Dear Byron," and run the whole memo as the article. 

As Tom Wolfe told Terry Gross,

By writing what I thought was a memorandum to a single individual who was about my own age, I had liberated myself from all the fears and all the constraints that you feel when you're writing something as formal as a magazine article for a national audience.

Most of us aren't writing magazine articles for national audiences. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of fears and constraints that can keep a writer from writing. For reasons I don't entirely understand, many of the blocks go away when you write directly to or for a real person. Tom Wolfe said it can work for anybody once.

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