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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 Draft and the Marathon: Hierarchies and Territories

Last weekend was probably the busiest ever in my town of Nashville. The picture above shows what Broadway looked like on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

The two biggest events of the weekend were the NFL draft (200,000+ people per day) and the Nashville Marathon and Half-Marathon (19,005 runners, plus at least that many spectators). Both events were highly competitive, and both involved athletes who had worked very hard for the big day. But two different kinds of competitive spirit prevailed at the NFL draft and the Nashville Marathon, and the difference is relevant to the writing life. 

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The Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Okay. Clear your desk and pull out a pencil. This post starts with a pop quiz. For each of the following scenarios, answer 1 or 2.

Scenario 1.
You’re on vacation in Florida. You have reserved a spot on a snorkeling expedition. But when the big day arrives, you wake up and realize that you have a cold. This cold won’t make it impossible for you to make the trip, but it will definitely make for unpleasant snorkeling. You would prefer to stay at the hotel and read a book. But you’ve already paid $150 for this snorkeling trip, and the money is non-refundable. Do you:

  1. Spend a miserable day snorkeling so as not to waste the $150, or
  2. Spend a relatively pleasant day by the pool and forget about the fact that you spent $150 that you will never seen any benefit from?
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Writing Dialogue that Doesn’t Sound Written

One of the most common criticisms of bad dialogue is that it “sounds written,” which is to say that it sounds more like the way people write than the way people talk. This creates a dilemma for the dialogue-writer, if not an existential crisis: your job is to write something that sounds as if you didn’t write it. Add to that the fact that you spent your whole career trying to learn how not to write like you talk, and you have a recipe for heartache.So how do you make the people in your stories talk the way people talk in the world God made? I have written on this topic in earlier issues of The Habit, so I will quickly recapitulate the big ideas and direct you to those letters. Then we will hunker down and talk about some practicalities with regard to sentence-structure and word-choice.

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Put on the Tennis Skirt

Years ago, my wife Lou Alice took up tennis. She played two or three times a week, went to the clinics, jumped in on the Saturday round-robins. By any reasonable definition, she was a tennis player. But she was reluctant to buy a tennis skirt. It too much like a declaration. More than that, it seemed presumptuous to her. There was always that chance that somebody might say, “Why are you wearing a tennis skirt? You’re not an expert tennis player.”

Eventually I just went up to the sporting goods store, bought a tennis skirt, and brought it home to my wife. Because if you play tennis, you’re a tennis player. You can have a skirt.

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Mystery and Manners

“There are two qualities that make fiction,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.” Since yesterday was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (she would have been ninety-four), I thought this would be a good week to think about mystery and manners.

Mystery and Manners, as you may know, is the title of a collection of O’Connor’s “occasional prose.” It contains some of the most insightful writing about writing that you can ever hope to read. I commend it to you.

But what does O’Connor mean by those terms “mystery” and “manners”? The gist is that the fiction writer is always looking to approach the deepest mysteries through the surfaces of things. A storyteller may be interested in big, abstract ideas about ultimate meaning—love, hatred, sin, judgment, grace, etc.—but those big ideas are not the raw material of a story. The raw materials of a story are found in manners, not mystery. Manners are what we see with our eyeballs when we look out at the world of human interaction. “You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you,” writes O’Connor.

The quotes above come from “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners. So does this remarkable passage:

Fiction operates through the senses, and I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience is required to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel, the story is going to believe anything the fiction writer merely tells him. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.

The essay is a form that allows a writer to go straight to the big idea (though I encourage even essay writers to be as concrete as possible). Fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t give the writer nearly so much leeway. Fiction demands that we deliver meaning through experience—through manners.

O’Connor was never shy about the moral dimension of storytelling. She could be judgmental in her stories; but more to the point, she expected her readers to exercise moral judgment. The fiction writer’s job, according to O’Connor, is to present to the reader a sequence of experiences that will engage his (the reader’s) moral judgment.

The [inexperienced writer] thinks that judgment exists in one place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.

It is hard to resist the urge to tell the reader what to think. It is so easy for a writer to pass judgment and hope that the reader falls in line. But unless a reader agrees with you already, he is rarely so cooperative. As O’Connor said, if the reader doesn’t experience a story, doesn’t feel it, he isn’t going to believe anything the writer tells him.

And yet…when you present the right images to the reader, those images are persuasive in ways that mere persuasion can never be. Judgment doesn’t exist in a separate place from sense-impression. If you can believe that, it will transform your storytelling. The sensory experience of a story isn’t window-dressing; it’s the story’s truest machinery. (I have discussed this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit, so I will refer you to it rather than go through it all again).

Do you believe that the world is shot through with meaning? If so, you can trust that all you have to do is to give a true account of the world as you have experienced it. You just tend to the manners. The mysteries will take care of themselves. This should give you freedom and hope in your writing.

Bonus Quotation:
This idea of mystery and manners, by the way, is important not just for writers, but for readers as well. If you feel insufficiently literary to “get” serious fiction, consider what O’Connor says on the subject:

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.

Yes and amen.

“I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.”

When I was in high school, Bon Jovi had song called “Wanted Dead or Alive.” I’m sure you know it: “I’m a cowboy. On a steel horse I ride…”

Even when I was seventeen years old and spang in the middle of the target demographic, that claim always struck me as odd: Jon Bon Jovi, this Jersey boy with enormous, teased hair, announces that he’s a cowboy. It seems to me a person should have to choose: you can either be the front man for New Jersey’s greatest glam rock band, or you can be a cowboy, but you can’t be both. 

But that’s not even the most remarkable claim in this remarkable song. In the last verse, Jon Bon Jovi sings,

I’ve seen a million faces,
And I’ve rocked them all.

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Connecting in Real Time: Some Thoughts on Sentence Structure

One of my favorite paintings is Landscape with Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Breughel. In the foreground is a farmer’s field on a seaside cliff, and a farmer plowing the field behind a horse. In the middle ground, on the right, a big merchant ship is sailing on a beautiful blue-green sea in the direction of a crowded port city. In the background, other tall ships sail across the sea.

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Five Lessons on Writing from Jerry Seinfeld

This NY Times video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining his joke-writing process has been floating around the Internet for years, so you may have seen it already. But it’s well worth revisiting, especially on Fat Tuesday, a day devoted to jollity.

Watching this (for the umpteenth time), I’m struck by how many of Seinfeld’s lessons for joke-writing apply to writing of all kinds. Here are a few: 

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Writing Hospitably

A while back one of my online writing students asked the following question:

I’m finding that I’m having trouble striking a balance between too much scene-setting (delaying the really important action) and too little scene-setting or detail (so that the reader has difficulty knowing why the main action is important). Do you have any advice on either how to mentally frame things when starting to write so that there’s room for the complete action to unfold, or for how to approach the editing/revising to more clearly see what’s lacking and why?

I love this question because it gets at a core principle of good writing: you are forever balancing some tension (and usually more than one tension at a time). This writer is struggling with the tension between the need to set the scene–both literally, showing the reader where the action is taking place, and figuratively, giving the reader why some context for why this action is happening and why it’s important–and the need to get on with the action.

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Love Letters–Valentine’s Day 2019

When I was a much younger man, I found myself in the greeting card section of some store or other while my young bride was shopping. To pass the time, I started reading the greeting cards–first the funny ones, then the lovey-dovey ones. And what I saw among the lovey-dovey ones shocked and mortified me: Every idea or feeling expressed in every one of those cards was an idea or feeling that I had, at one time or another, considered putting into a poem or letter to my wife.

Somehow we get it in our heads that our emotions are unique. It was a blow to my ego to stand there in the greeting card aisle and realize that all those highly refined feelings I felt about my wife had been felt before–and by enough people that those feelings could become the basis of a mass-market product! 

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