Blog

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.

Talk to Strangers

I’ve heard a lot of people say that when the time for social distancing is over, they’re going to do a lot more hugging. I don’t know how much hugging I’ll do, but I do plan to talk to a lot more strangers. As I have written elsewhere, talking to strangers opens up whole new vistas for a storyteller. Everybody has a story–many stories, actually.

For me, talking to strangers comes pretty naturally. What doesn’t come naturally is writing down what they say. Something remarkable happens, or I hear a remarkable story, and I think, “I’ll remember this for as long as I live.” But it’s not true. I’m amazed at what remarkable things I manage to forget when I don’t write them down.

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In Praise of Limits

At the Rogers house we’ve been working on a big thousand-piece puzzle. If you’ve done a big puzzle, you know how this goes: you round up all the edge pieces, and put them together, and then you have a frame to work in. You go from “This is altogether bewildering” to “Okay–maybe we can do this after all.”

I have heard it said that the most important part of a picture is the frame. The frame says, “Yes, there’s a whole world out there. It’s more than you or I can handle. So let’s handle this right here.” The edges of the canvas allow the artist to focus, to tend to his business. Artists have a reputation for dreaminess, expansiveness. But art starts with limitation. Art (like every other tangible good in the world) starts when you leave limitless potentiality behind and say, “I could do a billion different things. But right now, I’m going to do this one thing.”

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Don’t Waste Your Quarantine!

In this time of social distancing, I am exceedingly grateful for social media and videoconferencing and other online technologies that allow us to have some human contact without, you know, human contact. Nevertheless, I hope you’re using this time to root down, to connect more fully with the life you actually live in the flesh (and not just on the computer).

I have loved looking out my front window and seeing families and couples and individuals walking and biking and scootering up and down our quiet street. These people have been here all along, but they’ve always had more pressing things to do. Those kids, I imagine, were running from school to sports to chess lessons to violin lessons. Now they’re riding their bikes and scooters.

My wife and I went for a walk a few days ago with our neighbors (we in the left lane, they in the right lane). We’ve lived three houses apart for ten years, and it was the first time we had ever taken a walk together. We found a walking path none of us even knew about. It’s one street over! We saw bluebirds and an American redstart, just back from Mexico. I’ve been saying for a while now that I need to get more serious about my “local life,” since my paying work doesn’t require much in the way of locality. Things have gotten a little more local than I was imagining, but this limiting of scope has been doing good work in me. 

Over at The Habit Membership forums, I asked folks what they were doing to redeem the time during their quarantine, and I got some great answers. People are going outside more, writing letters by hand, journaling, home-improving (you should see our closets!), praying, going out on the porch to sing the Doxology with neighbors (who are on their own porches), reading “someday books,” doing crafts and puzzles with their kids. 

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S2 Ep13: Trillia Newbell Endures

Trillia Newbell is the author of several books including United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity, and, most recently, Sacred Endurance: Finding Grace and Strength for a Lasting Faith. She is a former journalist and currently the Director of Community Outreach for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention. Jonathan and Trillia discuss the role of endurance in a writer’s life, the importance of being realistic about what it means to do the work, and writing as bearing witness to reality rather than inventing it.

Walking Around in Other People’s Skins

I’ve been re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my upcoming Writing With Atticus class. A well-known line from Atticus seems especially relevant in these unusual times: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The ability to see things from other another person’s perspective is Atticus’s superpower. It keeps him from despising his opponents, or even his enemies. Just as importantly, the ability to walk around inside another person’s skin gives him (and the rest of us) a way to strike a balance between the individual liberty that we value and the common good, which we also value.

I thought about that line from Atticus last week when I read an Atlantic article called “A Trick to Stop Touching Your Face” (subtitle: “Instead of thinking about your health, think about the well-being of your community”). The gist of the article is this: when it comes to getting people to change their health-related behaviors it turns out an appeal to self-interest (“Wash your hands or you might get sick and die”) isn’t as effective as an appeal to altruism (“Wash your hands or the people around you might get sick and die.”)

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S2 Ep12: Lee Camp’s Controversial Orthodoxies

A man of many interests, Lee Camp is a theology professor, the host of the Tokens variety show, and the author of Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians. In this episode, Jonathan and Lee discuss Lee’s controversially orthodox assertions, the necessity for a hermeneutic of love, and the inextricability of true hope and the courage to encounter a new story.

On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen

I once sat next to a writer at a school concert. I knew she was a writer because she had her notebook and pen and was actually writing during the concert. She looked to be about ten or eleven, and she was essentially live-blogging the event, writing down everything she noticed. I could hardly watch the concert for looking over to see what my neighbor was writing. It was this kind of thing:

  • After the violin players are finished, some singers come up and sing a song about the red river valley.
  • Then a band comes and sings a rock and roll song. They all have glasses except for the drummer.
  • Two boys come up to play a song, but one of them forgets his guitar and has to go back to his seat and get it. Everybody laughs, but not in a mean way.

I love the fact that this young writer wasn’t waiting for something fabulous to happen before she started writing. She just gave an account of what she saw. There’s a whole worldview there: she believed that the things she saw in the world around her were sufficiently meaningful to be worth writing about. And in writing about them, she dignified those seemingly mundane events.

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