The Get-Well Card

In elementary school I had a friend named Donny—a small, double-jointed fellow who smelled of peanut butter. I remember him as having a fuzz-stache for as long as I knew him, but I’m probably just extrapolating back from junior high. Surely he didn’t have a fuzz-stache in second grade, when this story takes place. In the fall of that year, Donny caught a bad case of pneumonia and was hospitalized for a few days.

“Pneumonia,” one of my classmates intoned, shaking her head gravely. “Your lungs fill up. You drown from the inside out.”

“Your lungs fill up?” one of the boys asked. “With what?”

I didn’t have to ask. I knew what Donny’s lungs would fill up with. Peanut butter. I pictured him in his hospital bed gasping for breath, every wheezing exhalation filling the room with the smell of sorrow and peanut butter.

Read More

S2: Ep42: Anne Snyder Loves Institutions

Anne Snyder is editor-in-chief of Comment Magazine. In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, Anne and I discuss our culture’s antipathy towards institutions, the role of theological reflection during a time of crisis, and her work with Comment Magazine to serve both readers and writers in uniting thought and action.

Cunning and Prudence: Some Thoughts on Persuasion

Through language we are able to create realities. We do it every day. Persuading, encouraging, fear-mongering, story-telling, teaching, selling, insulting, begging—these are just a small sampling of the ways we create and/or rearrange inward realities in other people.

The Puritan John Flavel (quoted in Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here) had this to say on the subject:

Other creatures have apt and elegant organs: birds can modulate the air, and form it into sweet, delicious notes and charming sounds; but no creature, except man, whose soul is of an heavenly nature and extraction, can articulate the sound, and form it into words, by which the notions and sentiments of the soul are in a noble, apt, and expeditious manner conveyed to the understanding of another soul.

It truly is a remarkable thing that by moving air through your larynx and simultaneously moving your mouth and tongue around, or by making marks on a page, you can manipulate the movements of a human soul. It’s not a thing to be taken lightly.

What’s more, to change inward realities is also to change outward realities. Persuasion elects leaders, creates laws, preserves peace, starts wars. Persuasion builds interstates, bridges, prisons, parks. Persuasion builds whole societies and cultures.

And yet…

Read More

S2: Ep41: Brown Bannister Says “There You Are!”

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I talk with music industry legend Brown Bannister about the difference between “Here I am” and “There you are” personalities, the similarities between producing a record and teaching students, and how Brown has avoided cynicism over his long career.

This episode was recorded for last weekend’s Hutchmoot:Homebound conference, where it aired as a video.

Here Be Dragons

For lack of a better category, my Wilderking books get categorized as fantasy-adventure. In truth they’re more adventure-y than fantastical. I made a conscious choice to write “fantasy” stories without wizards or elves or dragons, in large part because I was very interested in the idea that the world where we live is pretty fantastical already. The essay below, which first appeared on the Rabbit Room website six years ago, sheds some light on why I end up writing about alligators instead of dragons.

At the 2014 Hutchmoot, Andrew Peterson and I gave a talk called “Writing Close to the Earth.” Andrew got on the subject of sehnsucht, that unexplained and unsatisfied longing that was for C.S. Lewis such an important clue to the meaning of the universe. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy is punctuated by moments in which some earthly experience awakens him to the truth that there is more to the world than mere earthly experience. A little model garden in a biscuit tin, Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of the Ring Cycle, a flowering currant bush—seemingly commonplace things—each gave Lewis “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” for a world beyond this world.

In Andrew’s words, these episodes are “moments that are lodged in our memories as significant, though we don’t always understand why—moments where the veil is lifted for a moment, and we’re left with longing, or with a new revelation of the wild beauty of the world.”

Andrew asked the audience to describe such moments in their own lives. There were a lot of mountain vistas, sunsets and sunrises, encounters with music and with art. For me, the question brought back a memory that sheds light on all the fiction I’ve ever written.

Read More

Where the Bog Owl Came From

Two weeks from today I’ll start Writing with Feechies, an online creative-writing class based on my first novel, The Bark of the Bog Owl. Writing that book eighteen years ago was my education in fiction-writing. Preparing for class has been a walk down memory lane.

I have often been reluctant to tell how I got out of the steady-job business and into the book-writing business, because I’ve never felt I went about it the right way. Through rashness and lack of foresight, I made things harder on my wife and family than they had to be. But it’s an interesting enough story. If you promise not to behave rashly, I’ll tell it.

I came to Nashville to get a PhD in British Literature at Vanderbilt University. But by the time I finished the PhD, I had a wife and two kids, and we had put down roots in Nashville. We didn’t want to leave for the semi-itinerant life of an assistant professor. So I started looking for a job in town. I hired on at a technology firm as a technical writer.

In the five years I worked at the technology company, my job got less writer-y and more technical. I reached a point where I felt completely cut off from my gifts and talents. None of the work I was doing came naturally for me; I was mostly treading water.

Read More

S2: Ep39: Barnabas Piper Isn’t Afraid to Be Happy

This week on The Habit Podcast, I interview Barnabas Piper, author of Hoping for Happiness.

We talk about the unrealistic expectations that artists can sometimes project onto their craft, how much easier it is to write while sad than while happy, and the distinction between hope and optimism.

Treat Yourself! On Reflexive Pronouns

In last week’s discussion of lie and lay, I mentioned the difference between these two sentences:


1. I can’t wait to lie in my own bed.
2. I can’t wait to lay my body down in my own bed. 

In the second sentence, you use the transitive verb lay because there is a direct object, my body. 

In a reply to that letter, Habit member Matthew Cyr brought up that old bedtime prayer that begins,

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.

There is enough interesting grammar in those two lines to keep us busy for a while. For instance, I often see that second line written as ” pray the Lord my soul to keep,” as if this were a third-person statement that could be rephrased something like, “I pray that the Lord will keep my soul.” When you realize that the third word of the line is Thee, not the, you see that this is second-person, and Lord is a noun of direct address.

By the way, when Shakespeare says something like “I prithee, gentle friend,” that’s essentially the same construction as “I pray Thee, Lord.” “I prithee” is just a contraction of “I pray thee” (which is to say, “I ask you”).

But I digress. I bring up the bedtime prayer-poem because of that first line, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” As you know already, that verb is lay rather than lie because it takes the direct object me. But what about that direct object me? Matthew Cyr noted that this is an archaism. In contemporary English, we would use the reflexive pronoun myself—”I lay myself down”—not “I lay me down.”

Read More

S2: Ep38: Marilyn McEntyre Speaks Peace

This week on The Habit Podcast, I talk with Marilyn McEntyre, author of Speaking Peace in a Climate of Conflict.

We discuss the rich etymological depth of the word “conversation” and its connection to “dwelling with”; the lost art of visiting; transactional speech in a capitalist world; poetry’s abiding danger to the status quo; and the recovery of metaphor.

Main Menu