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The Habit Blog is the archive of The Habit Weekly. It is a trove of insight, wisdom, and practical advice on a variety of writing topics.

The Trouble with Lie and Lay

Last week I marked a batch of stories from my college students. I marked so many lie/lay/lain – lay/laid errors that I got confused myself. I ended up “correcting” at least one lie/lay problem issue that turned out to be correct already. So I figured we could all use a refresher on this perennial trouble spot.

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs

Let’s start with the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs. A verb is transitive if it can take a direct object. Eat is a transitive verb because it takes a direct object, as in the sentence “Clarence eats an egg every morning” (the direct object is egg). Sleep is an intransitive verb because it doesn’t take a direct object. You can say “I slept this afternoon,” but not “I slept a nap this afternoon.” Note that a transitive verb doesn’t always take a direct object. If you say “I still haven’t eaten,” there’s no direct object, but have eaten is still a transitive verb.

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S2: Ep37: Irwyn Ince and the Beautiful Community

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I speak with Dr. Irwyn Ince, pastor and author of The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity, and the Church at Its Best.

We discuss the truth that beauty refuses to be possessed, the aesthetic impact of pursuing racial justice, and the joy to be found in responding to God’s calling—even and especially when that call entails “divine dissatisfaction.

It’s Not Your Job to Be a Genius

The first TED talk I remember ever watching was “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” by Elizabeth Gilbert, in 2009. If you aren’t among the 19 million people (literally) who have watched this talk, or if you just want to relive the magic, here’s the link. There’s a lot of good stuff in that talk, but the thing that has most stuck with me these eleven years is Gilbert’s account of the way the word “genius” has changed through the centuries.

The ancients believed that “creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.” The Romans called this attendant spirit a “genius”:

They believed that a genius was a sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So, for the Romans, “genius” was something that existed outside the artist. But around the Renaissance or soon thereafter, people started to think of creativity as something that comes from the individual instead of something that comes to the individual. “And from that time in history,” says Elizabeth Gilbert, “you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius instead of having a genius.”

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What Is Creative Non-Fiction?

In recent weeks I’ve had a few people ask me about the term creative nonfiction and how it is different from other, presumably “non-creative” nonfiction. Alice LaPlante offers this definition in The Making of a Story:

Creative nonfiction is generally agreed to be nonfiction that is rendered using fictional techniques: dialogue, and narrative, and imagery, and other elements that are leveraged to evoke a certain emotional response.

In short, creative nonfiction is nonfiction that reads like fiction. It’s still nonfiction: the writer of creative nonfiction doesn’t suddenly have permission to make up facts or invent scenes that didn’t happen. But the presentation of those real-world facts and scenes closely resembles the presentation you would find in a novel or short story.

Creative nonfiction is not a sub-genre distinct from, say, journalism or biography or persuasive essays. Journalists, biographers, and essayists always have the option of using the techniques of creative nonfiction in their work.

Rather than thinking in terms of genre and sub-genre, think in terms of objective fact vs. subjective experience. (Stay with me: by using the term “subjective experience” I’m not talking about throwing away facts or truth; rather, I’m talking about the way we experience facts and truth.) Traditional journalism, textbooks, op-ed columns, biographies, etc., derive their authority from the marshaling of objective facts. It is true, of course, that this “traditional” kind of nonfiction might have an emotional impact on readers. This should come as no surprise, since we have emotional responses to objective facts all day every day. But for the writer of a textbook, the goal is to stand outside the scene at a healthy objective distance; any emotional impact is a byproduct.

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S2: Ep35: Vesper Stamper

I talk with Vesper Stamper, illustrator and author of A Cloud of Outrageous Blue. We discuss how illustration became for Vesper a doorway into storytelling, what her research into the Middle Ages for her new book has taught her about plagues, and synesthesia as the beginning of metaphor.

Looking Like a Dog

Last week I got a puppy. In preparation for the blessed event, I read a book by Alexandra Horowitz called Inside of a Dog: What Dogs Smell, See, and Know. If you are interested in dogs, I commend it to you. It is full of fascinating insights, not only about dogs’ perception of the world, but also about human beings’ perception. 

As you probably remember from Psych 101, human beings are “gestalt” thinkers and lookers. When we survey a scene, we don’t typically pay attention to every detail—even when we think that’s what we’re doing—but instead see the big picture, the whole pattern or shape of things (gestalt is German for “shape”). As Alexandra Horowitz puts it, “Every time we enter a room, we take it in in broad strokes: if everything is where we expect it to be…we stop looking.”

Given the complexity of the human world, gestalt seeing and thinking can be a huge advantage. Imagine how overwhelming a trip to the grocery store would be if you were actually seeing and processing every sensory stimulus that presented itself. But the disadvantage of gestalt seeing and thinking is that we tend to see what we expect to see or what we are looking for rather than what is actually there. At the big-picture, philosophical level, this is true in the way we interpret facts. But it’s also true in a more immediate sense, in the way we perceive visual images and other sensory inputs. By way of example, I offer this basketball-related awareness test (it’s only a minute long and well worth watching):

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S2: Ep34: Gina Dalfonzo on Dorothy and Jack

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I talk with Gina Dalfonzo about her new book, Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis. We discuss the often overlooked friendship between Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis, Sayers’ innovative depiction of Jesus in The Man Born to Be King, and her lifelong wrestling with Lewis on the issue of artistic conscience and calling.

Realism of Presentation, Realism of Content

In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis puts a finger on one of the things I love so much about Tolkien, though Lewis is not specifically talking about his good friend Tolkien’s stories. In the chapter “On Realisms,” Lewis distinguishes between what he calls “realism of presentation” and “realism of content.” Realism of presentation refers to those little concrete details that give the world of a story the textures that make it feel like the world God made. Realism of presentation, writes Lewis, “Is the art of bringing something close to us, making it palpable and vivid, by sharply observed or sharply imagined detail.”

Lewis lists several examples of realism of presentation, but my two favorite are the dragon in Beowulf “sniffing along the stone” and the fairy bakers in a French fairy tale rubbing the paste off their fingers. Neither of those examples are remotely “realistic” in the usual sense. Neither fairy bakers nor dragons exist in the real world. And yet those great little details—the dragon sniffing like a dog and the fairy bakers rubbing their fingers the way regular bakers do—make those fantastical worlds feel palpable and vivid.

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S2 Ep33: Daniel Darling Has a Way with Words

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I speak with bestselling author, pastor, and podcast host Daniel Darling about the complex mix of motivations that go into online interaction, the double-edged sword of content curation, and how to communicate well in an age that prioritizes communicating quickly above all else. Daniel Darling’s new book is A Way with Words: Using our Online Conversations for Good.

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