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.

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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