Don’t Waste Your Quarantine!

In this time of social distancing, I am exceedingly grateful for social media and videoconferencing and other online technologies that allow us to have some human contact without, you know, human contact. Nevertheless, I hope you’re using this time to root down, to connect more fully with the life you actually live in the flesh (and not just on the computer).

I have loved looking out my front window and seeing families and couples and individuals walking and biking and scootering up and down our quiet street. These people have been here all along, but they’ve always had more pressing things to do. Those kids, I imagine, were running from school to sports to chess lessons to violin lessons. Now they’re riding their bikes and scooters.

My wife and I went for a walk a few days ago with our neighbors (we in the left lane, they in the right lane). We’ve lived three houses apart for ten years, and it was the first time we had ever taken a walk together. We found a walking path none of us even knew about. It’s one street over! We saw bluebirds and an American redstart, just back from Mexico. I’ve been saying for a while now that I need to get more serious about my “local life,” since my paying work doesn’t require much in the way of locality. Things have gotten a little more local than I was imagining, but this limiting of scope has been doing good work in me. 

Over at The Habit Membership forums, I asked folks what they were doing to redeem the time during their quarantine, and I got some great answers. People are going outside more, writing letters by hand, journaling, home-improving (you should see our closets!), praying, going out on the porch to sing the Doxology with neighbors (who are on their own porches), reading “someday books,” doing crafts and puzzles with their kids. 

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Walking Around in Other People’s Skins

I’ve been re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my upcoming Writing With Atticus class. A well-known line from Atticus seems especially relevant in these unusual times: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” The ability to see things from other another person’s perspective is Atticus’s superpower. It keeps him from despising his opponents, or even his enemies. Just as importantly, the ability to walk around inside another person’s skin gives him (and the rest of us) a way to strike a balance between the individual liberty that we value and the common good, which we also value.

I thought about that line from Atticus last week when I read an Atlantic article called “A Trick to Stop Touching Your Face” (subtitle: “Instead of thinking about your health, think about the well-being of your community”). The gist of the article is this: when it comes to getting people to change their health-related behaviors it turns out an appeal to self-interest (“Wash your hands or you might get sick and die”) isn’t as effective as an appeal to altruism (“Wash your hands or the people around you might get sick and die.”)

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On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen

I once sat next to a writer at a school concert. I knew she was a writer because she had her notebook and pen and was actually writing during the concert. She looked to be about ten or eleven, and she was essentially live-blogging the event, writing down everything she noticed. I could hardly watch the concert for looking over to see what my neighbor was writing. It was this kind of thing:

  • After the violin players are finished, some singers come up and sing a song about the red river valley.
  • Then a band comes and sings a rock and roll song. They all have glasses except for the drummer.
  • Two boys come up to play a song, but one of them forgets his guitar and has to go back to his seat and get it. Everybody laughs, but not in a mean way.

I love the fact that this young writer wasn’t waiting for something fabulous to happen before she started writing. She just gave an account of what she saw. There’s a whole worldview there: she believed that the things she saw in the world around her were sufficiently meaningful to be worth writing about. And in writing about them, she dignified those seemingly mundane events.

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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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“You don’t have to monetize your joy.”

Have you given any thought to the possibility of turning your love of writing (or some other creative pursuit) into a source of income? Of course you have. It’s the spirit of the age. The Internet makes it easy (supposedly) to monetize your talents and interests and creative output. But more than that, somehow it has become an expectation that you will turn your avocations into money-making schemes. 

I recently ran across an article by Molly Conway titled “The Modern Trap of Turning Hobbies into Hustles.” She tells about a time she discovered that an acquaintance had actually made the beautiful dress she was wearing:

“Wow!” I said. “It’s gorgeous. Do you have an Etsy shop or…?” And suddenly, it was like all the light went out of the room. She looked down despairingly. “No,” she sighed. “Everyone keeps telling me I should, but I just wouldn’t know where to start.” I recognized the look of a woman suddenly overwhelmed by people’s expectations of her.

Isn’t that the way? “I like what you’ve done” becomes “So you should sell it.” “I loved your Christmas letter” becomes “You should write a book.” For that matter, “You’ve had some interesting experiences” becomes “You should write a book.”

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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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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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On the Physical Facts of Writing: Habits, Spaces, Tools

Where does writing happen? Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said that writing happens—really happens—between the writer’s ears. I wasn’t especially interested in the physical process by which ideas get out of a writer’s head and onto a sheet of paper or onto a computer screen. 

There is a tinge of gnosticism in this view of writing as a disembodied act—and maybe more than a tinge. Of course writing is brain work. But we are more than brains on a  stick, to borrow a phrase from James K.A. Smith. Our brains exist in bodies, which exist in a temporal world, where habits shape us, inside and out. So it is exceedingly important to recruit our whole bodies to the cause of brain work. 

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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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