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 Charlatan’s Boy: Table of Contents

The Charlatan’s Boy releases five weeks from today, on October 5. By way of foretaste, I offer up the chapter titles for the first half of the book. They should give you an idea of what you can expect. So might the illustration to the left. It is the frontispiece, done by the exceedingly talented Abe Goolsby. Here’s something you probably didn’t know about Abe: he taught himself Latin, which he speaks with an Italian accent. And why shouldn’t Latin be spoken in an Italian accent? If you’re a publisher, you need to know Abe. He does great work.
Now, for those chapter titles…

Chapter 1:
In which I jump out of a box and play the Wild Man of the Feechiefen Swamp

Chapter 2:
In which we get out of the feechie trade and I begin my formal education

Chapter 3:
In which I take up a new trade and get flabbergasted

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Susan O’Farrell’s Notebook

Note: This is another re-run from The Rabbit Room. This piece originally ran in that august website in February 2008.
Fifth grade wasn’t kind to Susan O’Farrell. No longer an undifferentiated mass of squirming humanity, our class at Miller Elementary began to sift itself into the social haves and have-nots, the in-crowd and everybody else. Susan O’Farrell, a plain and unremarkable girl, suddenly found herself on the outside of friendships she had never had reason to doubt.

And even I, oblivious as I was, became aware of the growing sadness that seemed to be the central fact of her life. The angles of her face got sharper, and the dark circles under her eyes got darker, giving the impression that she was sinking more deeply into herself. I was a nice boy, and I tried to be nice to Susan. I imagined myself one of the few rays of sunshine in this girl’s darkening existence.

Why, then, did I wrong her so unaccountably?Read More

Feechie of the Week: Jake



For this week’s FotW we have to go way back into the archives, to the man who inspired Dobro Turtlebane. When I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt, I went back to my hometown in Georgia to work on a remodeling crew. One of my crewmates was a boy named Jake. He was seventeen and skinny but tough as beef jerky. He was so country that the dash and bustle of Warner Robins, GA made him gape the way you might gape at Times Square, and any time we went to a restaurant for lunch, he had the unsettling habit of telling the town girls how pretty they were.
Most mornings Jake came to work bleary-eyed, as if he had stayed up all night. I asked him what that was about, certain there was a good story behind those red-rimmed eyes.

“I hunt wild hogs,” he said. “Me and my buddies spend most nights in the swamps, either at the Ocmulgee or the Flint.”

“Boar hunting!” I said. This was interesting. I didn’t figure it would be hard to get him going on that subject. A question or two, and he would be off. “So, what kind of gun do you use?” I asked.

“Gun?” he scoffed. “We don’t take no guns!”

“Then what do you take?”

“Dogs. Rope. A flashlight.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, not sure we were talking about the same thing. “What did you say?”

“We got these dogs,” Jake said. “Mostly bulldog. We slog through the swamp until they bay up a hog. Then a catch dog grabs holt of his ear.” He paused, basking in my fascinated attention. “And then I whirl in with the rope to tie him up.”

“Tie him up?” I asked. “Tie who up?”

“The hog! Who else?”

“You mean like calf-roping at a rodeo?”

“About like that. Except that a calf aint slinging five-inch tusks around and kicking like a roto-tiller and squealing to deafen a feller. It’s some excitement, I don’t mind telling you.”

I gaped. “So you tie him up,” I said. “What do you do then?”

“We carry him out on a pole, kicking and squirming.”

I didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but the next day he brought me pictures of the dogs, the hogs, and the hunters, both in the swamp and in the pen where they fattened up their captured hogs.

Jake came to work one morning more red-eyed than usual. Obviously he had been crying. I put a hand on his ropy shoulder. “What’s wrong, Jake?” I asked.

He gave me a doleful look, then busted out crying again. “We were hunting last night,” he sobbed. “And an alligator ate my dog.”

I thought, What a world is this? I was living this suburban, academic life, and yet there was this alternate world swirling just around the corner where men wrestled wild boars in the swamp and alligators ate their dogs. I decided that if I ever wrote a book, Jake would have to be in it. And he is. He is the original feechie.

Jake, wherever you are, congratulations on being named Feechie of the Week.

Beautiful Someday

ugly duckling

ugly duckling

I love that moment in “The Ugly Duckling” when the poor, persecuted duckling, set upon on every side by ducks and hens and cats and henwives, sees a flock of swans:

“The duckling had never seen anything so beautiful. They were dazzlingly white with long waving necks. They were swans, and uttering a peculiar cry they spread out their magnificent broad wings and flew away from the cold regions to warner lands and open seas. They mounted so high, so very high, and the ugly little duckling became strangely uneasy. He circled round and round in the water like a wheel, craning his neck up into the air after them. Then he uttered a shriek so piercing and so strange that he was quite frightned by it himself. Oh, he could not forget those birds, those beautiful birds.”

Was there ever a better depiction of what it’s like to be a child? The duckling, so full of self-doubt, marvels and trembles at the thing he is destined to become. We know what he doesn’t know: he will be that beautiful someday.

Beautiful someday. The duckling’s great revelation is that he is himself a thing of wonder. He admired the swans, but it never occurred to him to aspire to swanhood. When he finally comes face to face with the swans, he assumes that they will kill him for his ugliness. Bowing his neck for the fatal blow, he sees his reflection in the water. And there he sees a swan.

It’s the divine comedy. Our wildest dreams turn out not to be wild enough. Our fondest hopes turn out to be pale beside the truth. And we long and ache for that which turns out to have been true all along.

The Charlatan’s Boy: Release Date

It occurs to me that some of you may wonder why you aren’t seeing The Charlatan’s Boy on store shelves. The release date, after all, was supposed to be August 10. The release date is now October 5. This is a good thing. I turned in the manuscript very late–so late, in fact, that Waterbrook’s sales, marketing, and publicity teams didn’t really have time to pave the way for the book in the way that they would have liked to. So they moved the date to give themselves more time to do what they need to do–getting reviews, lining up bookstore orders, etc.. The people at Waterbrook and Random House might have said “Too bad” and let the book limp out into the world. But they believed in The Charlatan’s Boy enough to back up and take their time. For which I am very grateful.

In Which My Cousin Is Mistaken for a Poacher



One Mother’s Day my cousin Todd went out to see our grandmother, who at the time lived halfway to Hawkinsville. The visit was uneventful enough, but on the drive home Todd saw something he had never seen in his life: a roadkill alligator. He stopped the car and got out to get a good look at the poor alligator. It was a big one–eight or nine feet long with a great scuted tail and the same dreamy smile in death that it had worn in life. Todd marveled at the thing for a while, then got back in his car. His friend Brad was expecting him.
When Todd got to Brad’s apartment, the television was on, tuned to a National Geographic nature documentary called “Realm of the Alligator.” Brad, fascinated by the program, didn’t even take his eyes off the screen as he greeted Todd and motioned for him to join him on the couch. A scientist was swimming in a lagoon full of alligators and snapping their pictures. “Look at him,” Brad said, gesturing toward the screen. “They could eat him right now. Can you imagine?”

“That reminds me,” Todd said. “I saw a dead gator on the side of the road today.”

Brad snapped around and stared wide-eyed at Todd. “A real alligator?” he breathed. “Dead?”

Todd nodded.

“It was there today?”

“It was there half an hour ago. On 247, almost to my Granny’s house.”

Brad was already getting up from the couch. “We’ve got to go get it!” he said. “We’ve got to go get it this minute!” Brad was a young man of great enthusiasms, almost to a fault. He was determined to wring every bit of life out of each day. That particular hour he was more interested in alligators than anything else in the world; he wasn’t going to let an unclaimed alligator molder by the side of the road.

It took some doing to get the alligator in the back of Brad’s truck; an adult alligator weighs several hundred pounds. But they managed. Todd’s dad’s house wasn’t far from where they picked up the alligator, so they went there to skin it out. Todd got the alligator hide, since he was the one who found it. Brad got the head; he hadn’t decided exactly what he was going to do with it, but at the very least he planned to scare girls with it. They cut up the tail meat and put it in Todd’s dad’s refrigerator to marinate, planning to reconvene in a couple of days for a gator fry.

Todd didn’t know much about tanning an alligator hide, but he figured drying it out was surely one of the first steps. So he flopped it over the privacy fence behind his apartment.

When Todd left for work the next morning–he was assistant manager at a shoe store–the flies were already buzzing around the gator hide in the growing warmth. Hmm….he thought to himself as he got into his car. I probably need another plan for curing that hide.

Shortly after lunch a man in khaki came into the shoe store. “I’m looking for a Todd M______,” he said.

“That’s me,” Todd said. “I’m Todd M_____.”

“Mr. M_______,” the man said, “I’m Officer Osborne from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Could you step outside with me?”

Somebody from the apartment complex, perhaps offended by the smell and the fly-buzz around Todd’s gator hide, had ratted him out.

“Mr. M_____,” said the game warden, “did you know it is a violation of Georgia law to possess an alligator carcass?”

“I didn’t know that,” Todd said.

“Well it is,” said Officer Osborne. “It’s a serious violation. I confiscated an alligator hide from from a fence in the Sandpiper Apartment complex. I have been given to believe that it was your alligator hide. Was it your alligator hide, Mr. M_____?”

“Well, yes, it is. But…”

“I’m going to need to confiscate the remainder of the carcass,” Officer Osborne said. “And I’m also going to confiscate the vehicle you were in when you harvested the alligator, as well as the gun you shot it with.”

“The gun I shot it with?” Todd fairly shouted. “I didn’t shoot any alligator! I found it. Dead. It was roadkill.

A sneer curled the game warden’s lip. “Roadkill,” he said. “You’re not the first to tell me that one.”

“It’s the truth,” Todd said. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“Can anybody corroborate your story?”

“Sure. Brad W______ was with me. He helped me get it in the truck. Or I helped him.”

“This Brad W_______,” the warden said, “you tell me where I can find him. If he tells the same story you tell, you might be off the hook.”

It was a long and worrisome hour that Todd waited for Officer Osborne to talk to Brad. He hoped Brad would just tell the truth and tell it straight. But Brad, in his youthful exuberance, had had occasion to speak with officers of the law before this. He could be a little cagey.

In the end, Brad’s story and Todd’s story and Todd’s father’s story all checked out, and all was well. But Officer Osborne insisted on confiscating as much of the carcass as he could. He already had the hide from his initial visit to Todd’s apartment. He drove to Brad’s place and pulled the alligator head out of the freezer, never to frighten a girl or anybody else. He even drove out to Todd’s dad’s house and got the tail meat out of the bowl in which it was marinating.

The gator fry was cancelled.

What Did You Expect?

“The key to a successful blog,” said my friend S.D.,”is to set low expectations.” I suppose that’s good advice any time. He was mostly referring to the frequency with which a blog is updated. I don’t reckon I have it in me to blog every day. Two or three times a week seems much more manageable. And I certainly don’t want to be one of those apologetic bloggers who starts every post by saying, “It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog, but…”
Perhaps we can make this deal: if you, dear reader, will keep your expectations low with regard to the frequency of my posts, I’ll try to live up to your highest expectations with regard to the quality of the posts.

So what, exactly, can you expect?

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Feechie of the Week: Carp Man

A lot of people assume you have to go to the swamp to find feechiefolks. But as we learned in Nashville this past May, sometimes the swamp comes to you. When the Flood of 2010 inundated much of Nashville, a neighbor of my friend Thomas McKenzie got in touch with his inner feechie. Here’s the footage, taken by Father Thomas himself.

Art, Generosity, and the Airport Shuttle



My flight arrived at 10:30 at night. There were about a dozen of us on the shuttle bus to long-term parking, and I was careful not to make eye contact with anybody, lest I find myself engaged in a conversation. Across from me sat a man with a banjo case. To my right, one of those old boys–a salesman type–who’s always striking up conversations with strangers who would just as soon be left alone. He started egging on the banjo picker to play us a song.
To my surprise, the man opened up his case, pulled out the banjo, and played us a ripping rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” It was an amazing thing, to be cruising around the airport parking lot in a bus with this banjo picker playing his heart out for us.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget how that little space was transformed the moment the first few notes rang out. At the risk of overstating the case, something resembling a community began to emerge among people who would have normally treated one another with jealously guarded indifference. In one of most impersonal, clock-managed, overly technologized settings you can imagine, humanity exerted itself.

When the banjo picker packed up and got off at his stop, one of the remaining passengers on the bus turned to me and said, “You know who that was, don’t you? That was Bela Fleck.”

I hesitate to provide that detail, lest this story come across as a celebrity-spotting, my-brush-with-greatness anecdote. That’s not the point at all. The music did its work on us just fine without our knowing we were being treated to a private concert by a celebrity virtuoso.

But knowing that it was Bela Fleck who played for us only amplified what I already understood: his performance on the bus was an act of generosity. Mr. Fleck was coming off a concert tour of Asia and Australia; if I’m not mistaken, when his plane landed that night, it was the first time he had been home in over a month. And yet he pulled out his banjo and played a song for a dozen people who had no way of knowing what they were getting.

Why would he do that? I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if it was because he was the only person on the bus who could do it. The artist’s imperative, at its heart, is to give what nobody else can give.

An artist does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Blogging, Frictionlessness, and Hell’s Housing Crisis



In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis describes a housing crisis in hell. It’s not that houses are too hard to come by, but too easy. Don’t like the house you live in? Just imagine yourself a new one, and, poof, there it is.
It sounds like a dream come true, this world where material comfort isn’t constrained by the laws of physics or economics or the time-space continuum. If you can imagine a house, you can have a house. No contractor. No mortgage. No zoning hearings. Poof.

The problem is that the homeowners are never content with the homes they own. This is hell, after all. You quarrel with your neighbors, so you imagine yourself a new house, out in the suburbs where you can have a little more room for yourself. But that new house doesn’t make you happy either, so you move again, a little farther out. Even there in the exurbs, new neighbors arrive, disgruntled before they get moved in. You quarrel, you move… Lewis’s hell is forever expanding.

Friction and gravity and inertia–the physical facts of the universe–may be a drag, but I will say this for them: they make it hard to pursue every bad idea that crosses our minds, every self-indulgence that darkens the heart’s door.

The Internet reminds me in many ways of Lewis’s hell. It promises us a frictionless existence. It makes it so easy to put your ideas into action. Easy to buy stuff. Easy to say stuff. Just look at your email inbox. How many of those jokes and hoaxes and heart-warming (if not quite true) stories would you have gotten if the sender had to ask himself, “Is this really worth a 43-cent stamp and the trouble of finding an envelope?”

Which brings me to the matter at hand: blogging. Setting up a blog is only a little more difficult than imagining yourself a new house. I’ve accidentally set up about five just in the process of starting this one. There are no barriers, no friction, nobody to say, “That’s not good enough for public consumption.” None of that is bad in itself, but I’m a little daunted by the thought of having so little friction to slow the progress of a thought from the mind to the public domain.

Strange to say, but the ease of entry for a blogger is a big part of what has kept me from entering. I’ve been afraid that I would, like the failed tower-builders Jesus talked about, find it easy to start but impossible to continue. I started a blog, in fact, in 2006. When technical difficulties caused it to crash a month later, I was so relieved that I wasn’t able to make myself start back until now.

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