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.

Audience Participation Friday: Meta-APF

At the risk of blowing everybody’s mind, the topic for Audience Participation Friday this week is Audience Participation Friday. I realize this is more postmodern than what you’re accustomed to at, but I’m running a little short on insightful and entertaining discussion topics. I thought I’d open things up to you, the audience. What do you think would make a good topic for an upcoming Audience Participation Friday, and why? To prime the pump, I’ll offer a couple from Aaron Roughton. To wit:

  • How did you find out that Santa wasn’t real?
  • What was the goofiest white elephant gift you’ve ever received?
  • What are three things you want to do in 2011?

If this goes well, I may not have to come up with any more APF topics this year. I’m counting on you.

Flannery, Milton, and Me





Most of you probably don’t know that I’m working on a biography of Flannery O’Connor to be released in 2012. This will be part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series of short biographies. (My 2010 Saint Patrick book is from the first round of the same series).
Flannery O’Connor, like me, was a Middle Georgian. She’s always been one of my favorite writers. But she’s more than a favorite writer; she is one of the twin poles of my writerly world, the other being John Milton.

I was in tenth or eleventh grade the first time I read Milton’s Paradise Lost. As they say in the romantic comedies, Milton had me from hello. His language soars so high, plunges so deep. Whole worlds opened up as I immersed myself in that strange music.

Milton’s language was foreign enough to stretch me, and his allusions were just obscure enough to make me long for the erudition required to enjoy Milton fully. My academic path was set: I wanted to know enough to understand Milton.

Readers of fantasy fiction talk about fantasy taking them to other worlds. That’s exactly what Paradise Lost did for me. I can’t say I mean that literally, exactly, but I do mean it more than metaphorically. I don’t quite know how to articulate this, but something about the foreignness of Milton’s language propelled me, for better or worse, beyond Middle Georgia’s gravitational pull.

My academic career was a journey away from home. Being a scholar is mostly a matter of talking smart—which is to say, talking less and less like I talked normally. As it turned out, I was a skilled enough linguist to pick up this second language quite easily. And as a specialist in Milton, I burned with an Anglophilia that was tinged with a disdain for American arts and letters. Twain was nice. Faulkner was brilliant. Can you imagine, I thought, what they could have been if only they spoke the Mother Tongue?

But if Milton took me to another world, Flannery O’Connor brought me home again (this was years after my academic career was over and I was again free to read what I wanted to read and like what I wanted to like). It was Flannery O’Connor who made me see the artistic power that inheres in my native tongue. I don’t just mean American English, or even Southern English, but Middle Georgia English.

There are turns of phrase in O’Connor’s stories (and even more in her letters) that I’ve heard all my life but never expected to see on a printed page. I’m not talking about local color. I’m talking about a writer giving voice to the deepest of truth in speech that is beautiful and soul-stirring, but not elevated. It’s earthy speech, O’Connor’s native tongue. And the fact that I share her native tongue has made a huge difference for me as a writer. It has given me tremendous confidence to know that my lived experience—the language, the people, the social dynamics, the landscapes—is the stuff of great art. I don’t make any particular claims for Middle Georgia. My native tongue is no better than anybody else’s. But to see what Flannery O’Connor did with it was a gift and a legacy.

Unsolicited Writing Advice: On the Real World

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

I was reading some writing blog or listserv a few years back, and I ran across a fellow–a writer of espionage-action thrillers–who was trying to work himself out of a plot dilemma. His characters were schlepping across an arctic waste in Norway or Finland or someplace, and there they had been schlepping for a good long while. He felt he needed something to happen, so he was going to drop a village onto this vast arctic waste, a place where his characters could meet some new people, maybe get into a scrape or two.
I urged the fellow not to do it. The arctic waste in question is a real place, and there are reasons there are no villages there. I challenged the writer to spend some time pondering a) why there are no villages where he wished there was a village, b) what is there instead of villagers (smugglers? moonshiners? hermits?), and c) what narrative possibilities present themselves. Plopping down a village would be the easy and convenient thing. But by taking that easier route, the author may miss out on some real rewards. Aren’t smugglers and hermits more interesting than villagers anyway?

The fiction writer has the luxury of not sticking to the facts on the ground. He can change whatever he wants to change in his fictional world; who’s going to stop him? Writers of fantasy fiction have even more freedom in that regard. But there are dangers therein. Imaginative worlds are frictionless worlds. And frictionless is another word for slippery.

I’m a big fan of creative non-fiction. A good essayist limits himself to the facts as he finds them, then rassles around with those facts until meaning reveals itself. The facts on the ground become metaphors and symbols for deeper truths that lie behind and beneath them. There’s a whole worldview there. I really believe that good fiction–including fantasy fiction–begins with a willingness to search, like a non-fiction writer, for the meanings that inhere in the facts of the world around us. Different writers will choose to disguise the facts on the ground to a greater or lesser degree. But when they unmoor themselves entirely from the facts of our shared world in the creation of their own, the story suffers.

I’m not through articulating this idea. I imagine there will be two or three more posts on these topics in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the “real world” in imaginative fiction.

Strawberry Girl: Pay No Attention to the Cover



A reviewer on Amazon mentioned that Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl has the most misleading cover ever. I completely agree. The cover (not to mention the title) of this Newbery novel from 1945 gives the impression that this would be a sweet little book of exactly the sort that never quite makes it to the top of my stack. Nevertheless, I read it a few years back because I was reading everything I could find about pioneer Florida. This book astonished me. The same Amazon review I mentioned called the book “a seething concoction of barely contained violence and danger.” I agree with that too.
The Strawberry Girl of the title is Birdie Boyer. She and her large family are new to the barely settled Polk County, Florida, where they intend to grow strawberries and other fruit. They are hard-working and thrifty, very capable and determined to bring beauty and civilization to the scrubby pine and palmetto forests of Central Florida. Their nearest neighbors are their polar opposites. The Slaters are lazy and shiftless, convinced that the sandy soil of Polk County can’t yield produce. “Can’t raise nothing on this sorry piece o’ land but a fuss,” one of them says. As was the custom in Florida at the time, the Slaters let their cattle roam free, catching them about once a year to sell or butcher. Which leaves them the rest of the year to drink and fight.

The Slaters’ free-range principles collide with the Boyers’ horticultural efforts, and things get ugly in a hurry. Not what you would expect from that Strawberry Shortcake cover illustration. There’s a lot of meanness and ugliness in this book, and a sweet, lovable protagonist trying to pick her way through the middle of it. I wouldn’t recommend handing this book off to your fourth-grader to read on her own, but it could make for some great conversation if you read it together.

I think of Strawberry Girl as The Yearling lite. Like The Yearling, it’s a very accurate and un-sentimental depiction of frontier life in Old Florida. It’s not even half the length of The Yearling, which can a little long for young readers. I do have one quibble, however, and it concerns the dialect. Lois Lenski obviously did good research and took good notes when she visited with “Cracker” families in Florida, but in a number of places their language doesn’t quite ring true in her story. The rhythms aren’t quite right. And for some reason, non-native speakers of Southern English have a devil of a time with the “fixing to” construction. They know that Southerners say “I’m fixing to,” but they have a hard time knowing exactly when and under which circumstances they say it.

City Scenes: The Subway

I walked past a Subway sandwich shop in downtown Nashville the other day. In the booth by the window sat a lovely young woman in a sequined dress. She had the saddest look on her face–a look that said, “You put on a sequined dress, you expect good things to happen; you don’t expect to find yourself in the Subway eating a sandwich at two o’clock in the afternoon.”
The young woman raised her sandwich from the table, but before she got it to her lips, her courage failed her. Her face crumpled, he sandwich dropped to the formica, and she gave herself over to a piteous sobbing.

A New Thing

“I am doing a new thing,” God said. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” The weak things of the world will shame the strong. The foolish things of the world will shame the wise. And the King of Heaven will be born in the muck and filth of a stable, attended by goats and jackasses and hardscrabble shepherds. The hope of Christmas is that God has done a new thing—that he has made a home among people who have a hard time feeling at home here themselves.

In the midst of ambition and striving and disappointment and homework and housework, it all seems very unlikely. As Chesterton wrote, “our peace is put in impossible things.” So rather than wrestle with impossibility, we enfeeble our expectations. We reduce Christmas to an experience we can stage-manage, something we can make marvelous for our children, something we can do something about. That sort of Christmas can’t begin to bear the weight of our longings.

Let’s all remind each other of what we often forget: God is forever at work, bringing wild impossibility to bear on the things we struggle to keep under our own control. Here’s to something new, even impossible this season and in the new year. Merry Christmas.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader Movie: My “Review”

I went to see the Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie over the weekend. I liked it. I thought Will Poulter, the boy who played Eustace Scrubb, was brilliant. I would go so far as to say his Eustace Scrubb is better than the Eustace Scrubb in my head when I read the book. He will henceforth be the Eustace Scrubb in my imagination in a way that, say, the Prince Caspian (or, for that matter, the Reepicheep) from the movie won’t be.
The things I love most about Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader are things that simply don’t translate to film. I’ve always loved the fact that for all the outward splendor of the story and for all the conflict and potential for conflict, the most interesting action happens within the characters. So, for instance, in the battle with the sea serpent, Eustace strikes a blow that makes absolutely no difference in the outcome of the battle, but it’s hugely significant insofar as he doesn’t run from the battle but enters in–and we know we have a whole new Eustace. Or consider Lucy’s inner struggle when she reads the spell for surpassing beauty in Coriakin’s book of incantations. I love that scene in the book, but I don’t know how it could be conveyed in a movie. And, for the most part, I don’t much like movies that are about people’s inner states. I’ll read a book if that’s what I want. Certain scenes felt “messed up” to me, but once I thought about why they didn’t feel right, I couldn’t make any suggestions as to how they might be fixed.

Like a lot of Narnia fans, I was disappointed in the “un-dragoning” of Eustace. It seemed to have been stripped of much of its spiritual significance. If I didn’t have to get ready for a Christmas party, I would get into it. I will say, however, that if I had taken my six-year-old to a movie and she saw somebody getting his skin peeled off, I would have been barking about that too.

So to summarize: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie is good. There were some things I didn’t like, but for the most part those things simply come down to the fact that movies are different from books. I’m stating the obvious here. I hope you’ll forgive me.

A Christmas Poem from GK Chesterton

I have seen this Chesterton poem several places on the World Wide InterWebs, but I don’t know the original bibliography. Anybody know where this poem came from? In any case, I love it. Its title, apparently, is “The House of Christmas.”
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Audience Participation Friday: Christmas Stories

Read-aloud at the Rogers house the last few nights has been The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. It’s a hilarious story about a family of juvenile delinquents named Herdman who hijack a church’s Christmas pageant to the shock and horror of all the nice people who have always run the show. The girl who plays the part of Mary smokes cigars in the church bathroom. Half the shepherds want to quit out of sheer terror of the Angel of the Lord. Never having been to church, the Herdmans know nothing about the story they’re acting out. But as they act it out, a couple of things happen. First, they strip away all the sentimentality that clouds the significance of the Nativity. The rag-tagginess of the original Christmas comes to life in the Herdmans’ off-the-mark interpretation. And second, as the Herdmans experience the Christmas story for the first time, they are moved in ways that the church kids never have been. They get it wrong in a dozen different ways, but they are deeply affected by a story story that is just water off a duck’s back for their self-righteous peers.
I have the occasional quibble with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever; but I love the fact that it shocks the reader. The Christmas story is supposed to be a shocking. To sentimentalize the story, to make it sweet and palatable, is to strip it of much of its power. By the way, this is why I love Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” sung like an angel by Jill Phillips on Behold the Lamb of God, my favorite Christmas album ever. Here’s the first stanza and chorus:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.

Anyway, that brings us to the audience participation portion of our program. What are some of your favorite Christmas stories (besides THE Christmas Story), and why?

Great New Christmas Music for Juveniles: A Slugs and Bugs Christmas

If you have juveniles in your life, you need to know about Randall Goodgame and Andrew Peterson’s Slugs and Bugs CDs. The original–Slugs and Bugs and Lullabies–came out a few years ago and quickly became a standard at the Rogers house. These guys have a gift for talking about the world in ways that make sense to kids–not the way kids ought to think about things, but the ways they actually do. “Bears,” my favorite from the original Slugs and Bugs, says,
Bears, bears, they’ve got no cares,
Bears don’t drink from a cup.
Sharp teeth and claws and furry paws
To catch you and eat you up.

To me that sounds about right for children’s music. It says what we’re all thinking about bears. They’re kind of cute. But they’re also kind of dangerous. That’s the ethos of Slugs and Bugs: straight-ahead, not too cutesy. And musically excellent. These are very fun songs that take their young listeners seriously. There’s no talking down or preaching.

I’m happy to report that there is now a Slugs and Bugs Christmas record, titled, appropriately enough, A Slugs and Bugs Christmas. It has all the humor and wisdom you would expect from Randall Goodgame and Andrew Peterson, and the music is surpassingly good. I’m talking about Ron Block on banjo, Buddy Greene on harmonica, and other equally talented musicians playing a rich and varied collection of other instruments. Plus a children’s choir that includes three of my kids.

Here are a couple of samples to whet your appetite for this great Christmas CD.

The first track on the CD is “Happy Birthday Jesus.”
[audio: Happy Birthday Jesus.mp3]

Track #2 is “Building a Gingerbread House.”
[audio: Building a Gingerbread House.mp3]

And I was trying to resist, but you have to hear “The Camel Song,” which is perfectly ridiculous. And hilarious.
[audio: The Camel Song.mp3]

It’s not too late; go buy your copy of A Slugs and Bugs Christmas at The Rabbit Room Store. You can get it as a digital download or they’ll ship you a CD (though they can’t promise the CD will get to you in time for Christmas).

BONUS VIDEO: Here’s a short video of the Slugs and Bugs children’s choir in the recording studio.

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