Remembering Charles Portis: A Writer Who Makes Me Want to Write

I am forever asking writers, “Who are the writers who make you want to write.” For me, the first and best answer to that question is Charles Portis, the novelist best known for True Grit. I don’t suppose I could ever do what he did as a storyteller, but he has always made me want to try. I am sorry to say that Mr. Portis died yesterday, at the age of 86, in Little Rock, Arkansas.

In 1998, Ron Rosenbaum published a paean to Charles Portis in Esquiremagazine, praising him as “our least-known great writer”: 

Perhaps the most original, indescribable sui generis talent overlooked by literary culture in America. A writer who—if there’s any justice in literary history as opposed to literary celebrity—will come to be regarded as the author of classics on the order of a twentieth-century Mark Twain, a writer who captures the soul of America, the true timbre of the dream-intoxicated voices of this country, in a way that no writers’-workshop fictionalist has done or is likely to do…

Tom Wolfe once spoke about the way city-born creative-writing types go directly from East Coast hothouse venues to places like Iowa City, where “they rent a house out in the countryside, and after about their fifth conversation with a plumber named Lud, they feel that they know the rural psyche.”

Charles Portis is the real thing to which these grad-school simulacra can only aspire in their wildest dreams. He is a wild dreamer of a writer.

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On Love Letters: Start With Memory, Not Emotion

In August of 1988 I went to a watermelon social on the back porch of Furman University’s dining hall. I was more or less minding my own business when across the way I saw a girl who was so beautiful I could hardly believe she existed in the same world where I lived and moved and had my being. I don’t even know how to talk about this without sounding like the worst sort of Hallmark card, so I’ll spare you.

I didn’t speak to the aforementioned girl at the watermelon social, but I spoke to her eventually, and eventually we got married and raised six children together. That face that was such a marvel to me in August of 1988 is now more familiar to me than my own face.

But every now and then, when we arrive separately at a party or a school event or church, I’ll catch a glimpse of my wife from across the room, and I’m astonished all over again. I’m that nineteen-year-old boy, and she’s that eighteen-year-old girl. The amazement that such a creature exists at all is compounded by the amazement that she’s the most familiar thing in the world to me.

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Our peace is put in impossible things

It’s Christmas Eve, friends, and I want to share with you my favorite Christmas poem. Out of curiosity I looked back to see what I did for last year’s Christmas edition of The Habit Weekly. Turns out, I shared this poem. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a holiday tradition!

The House of Christmas
by GK Chesterton

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.

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The Habit Weekly Turns 100. Thanks to You.

Last Tuesday marked the hundredth issue of The Habit Weekly. This is the hundred-first Tuesday in a row that I’ve sent one of these letters out. This one is a thank-you note to you, the readers of The Habit Weekly. If you hadn’t been here to read these letters, I wouldn’t have written them.

When I started the Tuesday letter in January 2018, I was afraid I was biting off more than I could chew. I’ve been writing for a living, one way or another, since 2002; I have missed many, many deadlines in those seventeen years. To take on a weekly deadline that nobody was asking me to take seemed possibly crazy. Or, as they say in caper movies, perhaps it was so crazy that it just might work.

I have often heard people say, “I can’t NOT write.” I’m not one of those people. In fact, I’m an expert at not-writing. Not-writing is my main hobby. Writing is hard. I realize that it’s not as hard for me as it is for some people. But it’s hard enough. And sometimes painful. I need a good reason if I’m going to do it.

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Gratitude is a greedy kind of love

I bet you’ve done this before: you’re standing alone in the kitchen eating something good–pie, banana pudding, boiled peanuts, whatever. And you enjoy it so much that you say to nobody, “Mmmm….that’s good.”

Why do you do that? You’re not congratulating or thanking the cook. You’re not recommending this delicious food to another person who might enjoy it. You’re right by yourself.

You say “Mmmm…” when you’re alone, I think, because putting words to your pleasure amplifies the pleasure. Indeed, your enjoyment of a thing can’t be complete if you don’t say something about it.

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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 Fondue Pot Principle — Or, Just How Harshly Is the World Judging You?

One day I needed a fondue pot. A fondue pot is not something one wants to buy. I have lived over 18,000 days now, and on exactly ONE of those days have I wished I had a fondue pot. But the day in question was that day. So I went to Facebook and put out an all-call for a fondue pot.

Within minutes, my friend Matthew Sullivan had offered to make his fondue pot available. Within a couple of hours, cubes of gruyere cheese were melting in my borrowed fondue pot, and my kids were spearing bread chunks to toast over a Sterno flame.

Matthew Sullivan brought great joy to the Rogers house that day because a) he had what we needed, and b) he was willing to offer it. And I’m pretty sure Matthew got some joy too. (I don’t have any data to support this, but I suspect that at least 2/3 of the pleasure of owning a fondue pot derives from letting other people borrow it; after the first couple of months of ownership, nobody has ever eaten enough fondue to justify the storage space for all those accoutrements.)

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On the Thinginess of Things

I’ve been thinking about the word “reality.” It derives from the Latin word res, which simply means “thing.” (The word republic, for instance, comes from res + publica—the thing of the people). Etymologically speaking, reality means something like “thinginess.” A real thing is a thingish thing (which suggests that the phrase “real thing” is redundant).

What, then, is a thing? I don’t quite know what to say to that, except that I know a thing when I see one, and so do you. You can look up thing in the dictionary, but I don’t think you’ll find it very helpful.

In the absence of a good definition of a thing, allow me to highlight one important facet of thinginess: A thing must exist outside the human mind (and outside of language) in order to qualify as a thing. Consider this utterance: “Pumpkin-spice bacon frappuccino donut—is that even a thing?” The speaker is asking, “Does this concoction exist in the physical world where you and I live, or is it just a string of words, or a figment of your imagination?”

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“These things were here, and but the beholder wanting…”

One autumn day, after fishing in the Elwy River, Gerard Manley Hopkins walked home past the gathered sheaves (stooks, as he called them) beneath a sky of high, shifting clouds. The experience engendered “half an hour of extreme enthusiasm” that found expression in a sonnet called “Hurrahing in Harvest.” I love the first stanza:

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

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The Leaf-Mould of the Mind: On Influence, Conscious and Unconscious

Speaking of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote,

 it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps.

I think of this remark whenever people ask writers about their “influences.” Writers aren’t always aware of their most important influences. Their answer will always be incomplete because they can only speak to their conscious influences–to the writers that they are trying to be influenced by, that they hopeto be influenced by. As Tolkien says, everything you observe, think, or read goes onto the compost heap that decomposes into a humus that ultimately nourishes new life. 

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