Here’s to Failed Resolutions

It’s the last day of 2019. Are you thinking about your goals and resolutions for 2020? This time last year I wrote about the importance of focusing more on habits than on goals in our New Year’s resolutions–that is to say, focusing on process rather than results (or, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, “take no thought of the harvest/ But only of proper sowing.”) There’s nothing wrong with goals, of course. I’m just suggesting that if you do have writing goals for 2020 (completing a manuscript, for instance, or getting an essay published), think about the daily habits that will move you toward that goal, and make those habits the focus of any resolutions you make.

For many years I gave up on New Year’s resolutions altogether. One can only fail so many years in a row before one starts to feel like a fool for making grand declarations. I can very much relate to these remarks from Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me (she’s talking about spiritual disciplines, but her insights apply just as well to writing):

I may be struck with a vigorous desire to do things differently from now on. How easy it will be, I think, to change my habits, to be more attentive and prayerful. Yet if I am not careful, this little surge of vanity will dissipate into nothingness in the daily grind.

A “little surge of vanity.” Yow! It’s painful but also helpful to acknowledge that there is real vanity in the idea that I will suddenly become a different kind of person simply because the calendar has flipped from one year to another. 

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Mordor, Then Mowing

A couple of weeks ago my friend John Hendrix posted this excerpt from JRR Tolkien’s journal:

Friday 14 April: I managed to get an hour or two’s writing and have brought Frodo nearly to the gates of Mordor. Afternoon mowing.

Books like The Lord of the Rings, take us to other worlds. But they aren’t written in other worlds. They’re written in this world, where grass still has to be mowed.

The next entry is just as good:

Tuesday 18 April: I hope to see C.S.L. [C.S. Lewis] and Charles W. [Charles Williams] tomorrow morning and read my next chapter — on the passage of the Dead Marshes and the approach to the Gates of Mordor, which I have now practically finished. Term has almost begun: I tutored Miss Salu for an hour. The afternoon was squandered on plumbing (stopping overflow) and cleaning out fowls. The are laying generously (9 again yesterday). Leaves are out: the white-grey of the quince, the grey-green of young apples, the full green of hawthorn, the tassels of flower even on the sluggard poplars.

We remember Tolkien the writer, but he was also Tolkien the friend, the teacher, the amateur plumber, the poultry-keeper. He was also Tolkien the observer of the actual world around him–the world God made, not just the one in his head. 

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The Desk in the Corner

Over at The Habit Book Club we’ve been discussing Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In the more autobiographical first section of the book, before he gets to the writing advice, he discusses (among other things) his addictions and other counterproductive attitudes and behaviors. And he ends with this remarkable reflection on his writing desks:

The last thing I want to tell you in this part is about my desk. For years I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room–no more child’s desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house. In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study… For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.

A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity and put in a living-room suite where it had been… In the early nineties, before they moved on to their own lives, my kids sometimes came up in the evening to watch a basketball game or a movie and eat pizza. They usually left a boxful of crusts behind when they moved on, but I didn’t care. They came, they seemed to enjoy being with me, and I know I enjoyed being with them. I got another desk–it’s handmade, beautiful, and half the size of the T. Rex desk. I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave…I’m sitting under it now, a fifty-three-year-old man with bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover. I’m doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to do it. I came through all the stuff I told you about (and plenty more that I didn’t), and now I’m going to tell you as much as I can about the job…

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.

My desk, as it happens, is right in the middle of things, but I take Stephen King’s point: if writing is the center around which one organizes a life, the writing will inevitably collapse on itself. Your writing has to be aboutsomething. It’s the rest of your life–the non-writing part–that gives you something to write about. 

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Be More Brilliant: The Back-to-School Issue

All right friends, we’re on the wrong side of Labor Day, and schools just about everywhere are back in session, so I’m devoting this episode of The Habit Weekly to academic writing. 

“Love your reader.” If you’ve heard me talk about writing very much at all, you’ve probably heard that one. You’re not really going to grow as a writer until you stop thinking about what you’re going to get out of writing (significance, respect, love, money, recognition, etc.) and start thinking about what you can give through your writing. What do you have to give to your reader that he can’t get for himself?

Most of us learn to write in academic settings. And in academic settings, the carrots and sticks are set up in such a way that you are almost always writing to get something. If you write well enough, you get gold stars, you get good grades, you get to move on to the next grade, you get into a good college. If you are a professional academic, you write to get published, to get a job, to get promoted, to get tenure. When there’s so much to get from writing, what does giving have to do with it? How do you love your reader when your reader is a teacher or professor?

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Spending Our Days, Spending Our Lives

I’ve been reading through Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and I just got to that oft-quoted chestnut, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that hour, is what we are doing.”

I have had ample opportunity to reflect on these ideas these last three weeks. I’ve been the “Writer in Residence” at Furman University (my alma mater), teaching a creative writing course three hours a day and staying alone in an apartment near campus. The demands on my time are probably less than usual, but they are different demands, and I am just now settling into a routine that feels steadily productive. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not settling into a steady routine so much as producing from a sense of urgency; now that my days as Writer in Residence are almost done, I need to do more writing and less residing.

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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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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.

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