“Look in thy heart, and write.” Or, failing that, look in the refrigerator.

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow (also Ash Wednesday. I shall resist the easy joke; I recommend that you do too). If you haven’t finished your love letter(s), it is now time to hunker down and put some words on paper.

Sir Philip Sidney, the sixteenth-century poet, began his sonnet cycle Astrophil and Stella with a love poem about the difficulty of writing love poems. If you only read one Sidney poem in Survey of British Lit, it was probably “Loving in truth, and fain in truth my love to show.” After listing the various ways the poet has failed to find inspiration (mostly by reading other poems), the sonnet ends with this memorable couplet:

     Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
     “Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

I appreciate Sidney’s reminder that looking to other writers can only get you so far. Eventually, you’ve got to stop reading and face the blank page or the blinking cursor. But I’ve got some things to say about that advice, “Look in thy heart, and write.” 

If you find that looking into your own heart yields consistently good writing, I don’t have much to say to you on this Valentine’s Eve. The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine on you. For my part, looking in my heart tends to be the cause of my love-letter writing problems, not the solution. I usually don’t know what’s going on in my heart, and the more I do know, the less I’m able to put it into words. There are plenty of heart-related cliches ready to form up and march out, but my beloved deserves better than that, and so does yours.

Here’s my advice to the love-lorn writer: stop trying to describe what’s going on inside you, and instead depict what you see when you look out from your eyes. I am forever telling my writing students to use language that is concrete and sensory instead of abstract and emotional, and that advice is just as relevant for love letters as for any other kind of writing. In fact, I would say that the more emotional your subject matter, the more important it is that you keep to the discipline of concrete, sensory writing. 

In both my online writing classes and my live writing workshops, I have my students depict a highly emotional scene without using any emotional language. You’d be amazed at what comes out of that exercise; almost without exception, the effect is more sentiment with less sentimentality.

Last week I held a couple of workshops in South Carolina. One of my attendees was an accounting professor who told us that she wasn’t a writer and didn’t quite know what she was doing there. But she proved herself to be more of a writer than she knew when she read a short piece about putting her dog to sleep. On the way to the vet, she stopped at the McDonald’s drive-thru and bought her dog a last meal of chicken nuggets. When she read that, everybody in the room gasped; the look of surprise on her face was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a writing class. This writer hadn’t even tried to put her deep emotion into words. She didn’t have to. The emotion was all right there in that gesture of feeding chicken nuggets to a dying dog. She simply told what happened and let the emotion take care of itself.

On NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, there was a feature about love poetry (you can listen to it or read the transcript here). Consider this beautiful bit of love poetry by Jennifer Gresham:

     “Missing You”
     The blue cheese dressing rattles
     inside the refrigerator door, half-empty.
     I thought about opening it,
     drenching each red-green leaf,
     just to fill my mouth
     with something that you loved.

You don’t write that kind of poem by looking in your heart. You write that kind of poem by paying attention to what you see when a heart like yours looks out on the world.

A Last Word of Encouragement
A love letter or love poem is a daunting task. You feel that your beloved deserves better than you can give. If you don’t feel that way, you either underestimate your beloved, or you overestimate your writing ability. But beloveds are very forgiving when it comes to these things. They’re just glad you tried. A bad love letter is a whole lot better than no love letter at all. You’d better get writing.

Think Outside the Quotation Marks

In last week’s letter about “strong” verbs, I made a few remarks about verbs of attribution–those verbs by which a  writer identifies the speaker of a piece of dialogue. As I considered the topic over the last few days, I kept coming back to a truth that I often tell my writing students: In dialogue, the words outside the quotations marks are just as important as the words inside the quotation marks. 

I have written before about the importance of inviting your reader into a scene rather than simply conveying information. Inviting a reader into a scene means allowing him to collect information through what he sees or hears or (to a lesser extent) smells, tastes, or feels. This, after all, is how we collect information in real life. In a stretch of dialogue, the words inside the quotation marks give your reader something to listen to. The words outside the quotation marks give your reader something to look at. 

As I said last week, I keep my verbs of attribution very simple (usually said or asked). I’ll go further and say that I omit as many attributions as I can. I recommend that you do too.

When writing dialogue, you have ample opportunity to use vivid, interesting verbs–verbs that invite your reader into the scene. You need those verbs; you just don’t need to turn them to verbs of attribution.

Consider this bit of dialogue: 

     “You are the best IRS agent in the world,” Curtis smiled.

Here “smiled” is used as a verb of attribution. (That comma at the end of a quotation magically turns the next verb into a verb of attribution. A comma before the quotation does the same thing, as in “Curtis smiled, ‘You are the best IRS agent in the world.'”)

I have said already that you should keep your verbs of attribution simple and that you should omit as many verbs of attribution as possible. Does that mean you should get rid of that phrase, “Curtis smiled”? By no means. Watch what happens with a small change in punctuation and word order:

     Curtis smiled. “You are the best IRS agent in the world.” 

“Smiled” here isn’t a verb of attribution. It’s just a regular verb; it gives the reader something to look at. And it identifies who is about to speak. (If you are unsure on that point, you can write, “Curtis smiled. ‘You are the best IRS agent in the world,’ he said.” But that “he said” probably isn’t necessary.)

Once you start thinking outside the quotation marks, you start asking yourself, what else the reader would see if he were in the room with Curtis and the IRS agent. Once you’ve changed “Curtis smiled” from a verb of attribution to a verb of action, it becomes more obvious that “Curtis smiled” is just a tad flat. So you go back and add in some more detail:

     Curtis smiled and reached out to embrace Mr. Chickering. “You are the best IRS agent in the world.”
     Mr. Chickering shrank back against the filing cabinet. “Don’t mention it?” he said. There was a quiver in his voice.

Dialogue is not just an exchange of utterances between characters. Dialogue is something that characters do to one another. Dialogue is action. If that is a law, here are two corollaries to that law:

  1. A great deal of that action happens outside the quotation marks.  
  2. Don’t expect your verbs of attribution to carry that action. That’s what regular verbs are for.

An couple of exceptions to the rule
It’s not quite true that I always keep my verbs of attribution boring. I occasionally use a verb of attribution that is more interesting than said, asked, replied, etc., but only if it helps the reader envision (or hear) the way a character is speaking. In other words, I might say that a character snorted or screeched or ululated or harrumphed or rasped, but I probably wouldn’t say she apologized or explained or asserted or denied. As always, it’s about inviting a reader into a scene, appealing to his senses. (And having said that, I would still make sure I had a good reason for not using “said” or “asked.”)

Also, in academic writing, which is more cerebral than sensory, it is often helpful to your reader to say that a person you are quoting argues or asserts or contradicts or denies.

A few technicalities
I will close with a few dialogue-related technicalities that you might find helpful.

  • When you use a verb of attribution after a quotation, use a comma to separate the attribution from the utterance.

               Wendell said, “This book changed my life.”
               “You’ve got to be kidding,” Martha said.

  • The exception is when the utterance ends in a question mark or exclamation mark and the attribution comes after the utterance. Note, however, that you don’t capitalize the attribution:

               “Is this the right address?” the mailman asked.

  • When you aren’t using a verb of attribution, the utterance is its own sentence (or sentences) with its own end-punctuation. 

               “This book changed my life.” Wendell stroked the cover lovingly.
               The mailman leaned out of his truck. “Is this the right address?”

  • The punctuation at the end of an utterance, whether it’s a comma or end-punctuation, always goes inside the quotation marks.
  • When the speaker changes in a dialogue, insert a line break. This helps your reader keep up with who is speaking and often makes attribution less necessary.

One of these weeks I’ll write about what needs to happen inside the quotation marks, but for now, pay attention to what’s happening outside the quotation marks and see how your dialogue comes to life.

Sidney towers five feet tall. Some thoughts on strong verbs.

“Use strong verbs” is the kind of oft-repeated writing advice that might help a bad writer become a mediocre writer, but it won’t do much to help a good writer become an excellent writer. This old chestnut is an oversimplification–or, one is tempted to say, a debasement–of some excellent writing advice: For every sentence you write, figure out where the action is, and use the verb that most precisely depicts that action. Don’t worry about whether the verb is strong or unique or engaging or unusual. Ask only whether it is the precise verb that helps your reader envision the action that you wish to portray.

Consider the sentence, Fernando went away. That sentence conveys a certain amount of information, but it doesn’t give the reader a whole lot to look at. There are lots of ways for Fernando to go away: Fernando left. Fernando absconded. Fernando split. Fernando vamoosed. Fernando hightailed it. Fernando slunk off. Fernando stormed out. Fernando vanished. Fernando was called away.

Is absconded a stronger verb than slunk off? Is hightailed it stronger than stormed out? These aren’t helpful questions. The helpful question is, which verb most precisely depicts what you mean for your reader to see?

Every now and then I run across a list of strong verbs offered as a resource for writers (usually young writers). The problem with such lists is that they suggest that if you plug better words into your sentences, you can expect to have better sentences. But good descriptive writing starts with vision, not with word choice. You have to forget about words long enough to envision the scene you’re trying to depict. As you get better at picturing what is happening in your sentences, the right verbs begin to take care of themselves.

Saying ‘say’

One of these weeks I plan to devote a whole letter to verbs of attribution, but since we’re talking about strong verbs, I should say at least a little on this subject now. Verbs of attribution are those verbs that tell you who is speaking a bit of dialogue (“Linda said” or “the old man warbled“). Some writing teachers treat attribution as an excellent opportunity to trot out strong verbs. It is not. “Don’t say ‘say,'” they might say. I have also heard “Said is dead.” Ignore this advice. I usually stick to the straightforward verbs of attribution, such as said, asked, answered, shouted (I’ll get into the exceptions, as well as my reasoning, in a subsequent letter).

I ran across one dispenser of writing advice who offered up the following sentence for improvement:

     Cindy said she was tired of hiking.

Lame, he said. What this sentence needs, he said, is a stronger verb to jazz things up. Like this:

     Cindy contended that she was tired of hiking.

I can imagine a situation in which contended is the better verb in this sentence, but only just barely. Who would be contending against Cindy on the subject of whether or not Cindy is tired of hiking? This is the kind of strangeness that ensues when we are more committed to strong verbs than to precise verbs.

Some thoughts on ‘to be’ verbs

The to be verb (is, are, am, was, were, be, being, been) is the whipping boy of strong verb enthusiasts, so I feel I must say a word or two in its defense. 

The conventional wisdom is that cutting down on to be verbs is a way of making your sentences more active. That’s true enough. Last week’s issue of The Habitlooked at the way the passive voice attenuates the action in a sentence. In a coming week I will discuss nominalization (the habit of turning, say, “Leonard knew…” into “Leonard was conscious of the fact that…”), which also neutralizes action in much the same way. Both of these troublesome writing habits depend on the to be verb. So, yes, it is a good practice to go back through your prose and identify to be verbs as a way of identifying such writing problems as passive voice, nominalization, and stasis where you could have activity.

But that is not to say that the to be verb is itself a writing problem. 

There are two main kinds of verbs: action verbs, which communicate action (Martha ran, Martha sits, Martha slept, Martha feels, Martha strove), and linking verbs, which communicate states of being (Martha is light on her feet, Martha was the mayor of Tullahoma, Martha smells like peanuts). To be is by far the most common of the linking verbs.

There is no shame in communicating states of being. It’s one of the main things writers do. And the main way writers communicate states of being is by way of is, are, am, was, were, be, being, and been

Insofar as the to be verb becomes an accomplice in neutralizing active verbs, it’s a writing problem. But if you are using to be to communicate states of being, do so with my blessing.

Consider the sentence, 

     Sidney is five feet tall. 

You could get rid of the to be verb (is) by writing,

     Sidney stands five feet tall. 

That’s a perfectly good way to put it, and I would call it an improvement, though I wouldn’t call it a huge improvement. But what if you’re really serious about using strong verbs? You could write

     Sidney towers five feet tall.

Towers is a strong verb to be sure–much stronger than is or stands. The only problem is that we don’t think of five-footers as towering. We have again traded “strength” for precision.

One last thing about states of being: the to be verb isn’t your only option for communicating a state of being. You can use an adjective, a prepositional phrase, or really any other modifier. 

     At five feet tall, Sidney towers over his fellow kindergarteners.

See what I did there? Sidney’s height ends up in a prepositional phrase (At five feet tall), and I still get to use that nice strong verb, towers.

So, to repeat and to conclude, there’s no shame in using the to be verb to express states of being, and there’s no glory in using strong verbs if they don’t precisely depict the scene you’ve envisioned. Focus on figuring out where the action is, then find the verbs that express that action.

Mistakes Were Made: Using the Passive Voice

The passive voice is a favorite of academics (“A study was conducted…”), politicians (“Mistakes were made…”), business memo writers (“The shipping department will henceforth be outsourced…”) and other communicators we love to hate. Indeed, the passive voice causes a lot of heartache for readers and writers alike. Somewhere along the line, you have probably been told to avoid passive voice. That’s not bad advice, except for the fact that sometimes the passive voice is exactly what you need. I just used it, in fact, in the sentence before last.

“Avoid passive voice” is a helpful rule of thumb; but it’s only a rule of thumb. The deeper rule is this: Make active voice your default. And the rule has this corollary: Use passive voice only when you have a good reason to.

A Working Definition

Every sentence describes an action. Every action has an actor. If the grammatical subject of a sentence is the actor, the sentence is in active voice. If the grammatical subject is anything besides the actor, the sentence is in passive voice. We could get into the technicalities of switching the verb to the fourth principle part (from, say, “ate” to “was eaten”) and inserting a to be verb, but if you are a native speaker of English, you do that grammar instinctively. For our purposes, it is much more important that you be able to see the difference between a sentence in which the actor is the grammatical subject (active voice) and a sentence in which the actor is not the grammatical subject (passive voice).
Consider this sentence:

     Ken gave Barbie flowers.

Is that active or passive? It’s active: Ken is the subject of the sentence, and Ken is the person who is acting.

But English grammar is flexible. It doesn’t require that the actor be the grammatical subject. If you want the recipient of the action to be the grammatical subject, English allows you to do that.
     Barbie was given flowers by Ken.
The action hasn’t changed in that sentence. There is still a handoff of flowers from Ken to Barbie. But the actor, Ken, is no longer the grammatical subject. Barbie, the recipient of the action, is now the grammatical subject.
I can even put the flowers the subject position, even though they are an inanimate object:
     The flowers were given to Barbie by Ken.

You can do this with any sentence that has a direct or indirect object. “I took the bull by the horns” becomes “The bull was taken by the horns by me.” “Martha ate the cake” becomes “The cake was eaten by Martha.”

If you get in the habit of thinking in terms of actions and actors, and if you clearly distinguish between the actor and the grammatical subject (which may or may not be the same), it’s relatively easy to move back and forth between active and passive voice.  

The Problems with Passive Voice

Good writing is largely a matter of managing your reader’s expectations. That doesn’t mean you always have to meet those expectations; in fact, good writing requires that you often surprise your reader. But you need to be aware that any word, phrase, or clause that doesn’t meet your reader’s expectations (including unconscious expectations), attracts her attention.  
Extra Work for Your Reader
Our brains are wired to expect the actor to sit in the subject position of a sentence. When the actor is the subject, we feel that things are moving right along. We feel that the grammar is guiding us toward that burning question, “Who did what?”

The reader, of course, is fully capable of mentally flipping a passive sentence back to active and knowing who did what. In spite of the grammar differences, everybody knows that the following three sentences all describe the same action, the same actor, and the same recipients of the action:

     (A) Ken gave Barbie flowers.
     (B) Barbie was given flowers by Ken.
     (C) Flowers were given to Barbie by Ken. 

But you need to be aware that if you phrase that sentence as either (B) or (C), your reader has to translate it back to (A) in order to decode the sentence. If you ask your reader to go to that extra trouble, she is going to want to know why (if only at subconscious level). Granted, it’s a tiny amount of extra trouble you’re requiring of your reader, and there can be good reasons to ask it of her, as we’ll see below. But unless you have a specific reason to use the passive voice, stay in the active voice. Save the reader’s energy and attention for those moments when you really need it.

Fuzzy Agency
Let us return to that passive sentence, Barbie was given flowers by Ken. As I mentioned above, Ken is still the actor. But where is Ken in this sentence? He’s tucked away in that prepositional phrase at the end of the sentence. The actor is now a lowly object of the preposition by.

Or what about this version? 

     Barbie was given flowers.

Who is the actor here? Presumably Ken. But maybe not. We have no way of knowing from the sentence. 

Ken went to all the effort here. He spent his hard-earned money. He drove to the florist. He walked up Barbie’s driveway and handed over the flowers. And yet the passive voice relegates him to a prepositional phrase, or perhaps even erases him completely. This is what I mean by “fuzzy agency.”
Extra Words
Generally speaking, you don’t want to add word-count without adding additional meaning. It takes more words to describe an action in passive voice than in active voice. 

The active sentence Ken gave Barbie flowers is four words long. The passive sentence Barbie was given flowers by Ken is six words long. That’s 50% more words for 0% more meaning. Or consider the passive sentence Barbie was given flowers. At four words, it’s the same length as the active sentence, but it conveys significantly less information (specifically, it doesn’t identify the person whom Barbie has to thank for her flowers).

When is Passive Voice Useful?

Every problematic construction in the English language exists because there are times when it’s not problematic, but exactly what a writer needs. Yes, you should treat the active voice as your default mode. But there are plenty of situations in which you’ll find it best to switch from default mode into the passive voice. Here are three of those situations.

Passive voice is perfect for expressing passivity.
Maybe this one is self-evident. Consider this sentence:

     Andrew was bullied as a child.

To be a victim of bullying is to be in a posture of passivity. In this case, it doesn’t matter who the bullies were, even if the writer happens to know the bullies’ names. The important figure here is Andrew. The passive voice allows the writer to put Andrew in that important subject slot, even though he is not the agent in this situation. A sentence like Pete was convicted of perjury works in much the same way. It was a jury that convicted Pete of perjury (or was it a judge? or the state?). What matters is that Pete was convicted, not who convicted him. Here the passive voice has the added bonus of saving me from having to figure out exactly who convicts people of perjury (though, now that I think of it, probably the reason I don’t know the answer to that question is that people always frame that idea of “conviction” in the passive voice. Hmmm….)
The passive voice is helpful when I don’t know the actor.
Consider this passive sentence:

     My bike was stolen yesterday.

I don’t know who stole my bike. If I did, I’d be reporting them to the police instead of writing sentences about them. So this is a perfect opportunity to use the passive voice. If I’m really being a stickler for the active voice, I suppose I could say, Some jerk stole my bike yesterday.

The passive voice is a great way to conceal or deny agency.
This is where the passive voice can get nefarious. When I’ve broken a lamp, I can say The lamp was broken. That’s not a lie. It’s just that the passive voice allows me to leave out one of the most important bits of information. I call this the “Mistakes were made” use of the passive voice. It is the refuge of obfuscators, politicians, deadbeats, self-pitiers, and the passive aggressive. This application  largely accounts for the passive voice’s bad reputation.
Passive voice can be a way to direct your reader’s attention.
The subject of sentence enjoys a place of privilege in the reader’s mind. The reader pays extra attention to whatever noun is in that slot. The passive voice allows you to bring some noun besides the actor into that place of prominence. We have already looked at the sentence Andrew was bullied as a child, in which Andrew, not the bullies, is the focus of the sentence. 
Here are two sentences that describe the same action, the first in the active voice, the second in the passive:

     An unusually large piano player ejected Clarence from the saloon.

     Clarence was ejected from the saloon by an unusually large piano player.

There’s not a huge difference between those sentences. But you can feel a difference, can’t you? The first sentence asks you to give a little more attention to the piano player. The second sentence asks you to give a little more attention to Clarence. You have the passive voice to thank for that slight change in emphasis.

This is just nuance. But the difference between good writing and great writing is largely nuance.

If You Ask More of the Reader, You Have to Give More

Remember, every time you use the passive voice, you’re asking something of your reader. You’re asking her to take an extra step of decoding. Do you have a good reason for asking your reader to go to that extra trouble? If so, by all means use the passive voice. But if you don’t, stick with the active.

Conveying Information, Building a Scene

This week one of my writing students submitted a very moving story about the fallout that occurred in a family when a boy received a Christmas present that his parents couldn’t afford. The story started with a great image: “The catalogs arrived in the same truck that brought the bills–a pile of shiny magazines full of things the Kramers would never afford, topped by a pink envelope that read, ‘FINAL NOTICE.'”

Every time you write, you are doing at least two things: you are conveying information, but you are also creating an experience for the reader. To put it another way, you are conveying information, and you are inviting your reader into a scene. I am forever urging my students to focus on creating scenes and to trust that the information will take care of itself. 

By “inviting a reader into a scene” I mostly mean giving the reader something to look at (or perhaps listen to or feel or smell or taste). If you give the reader the right things to look at, you can trust him to collect the information he needs. Which is to say, scene doesn’t happen at the expense of information. It’s just another way of communicating information–a way that feels more like the way we typically receive information in real life. 

How do you know the house down the street is on fire? You hear the fire trucks. You smell the smoke and see it. The information comes to you as sensory impressions. How do you know the dog is hostile? You see his posture. You hear him growl. You don’t have a narrator behind you saying, “This dog is hostile; stay away from him.” You don’t need a narrator. You have your own two eyes.

My writing student could have started her story with information: “The Kramer family was in constant financial difficulty.” Instead, she dropped me right into the scene and gave me something to look at–a pile of catalogs and overdue bills–and let me decide for myself that the Kramer family was in financial difficulty.

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The eye is an organ of judgment.” You give the reader a gift when you invite him into a scene, give him something to look at, and let him exercise his judgment, just as he would in real life.

On Finding Your Voice

Kayla C asked, How do I find my written voice, and how will I know I have found it? Sometimes I have a difficult time figuring out whether I am actually writing in my own voice (and what exactly that voice sounds like) or just emulating the voices of writers I admire.
“Finding your voice” feels like a monumental task, but here is a simple place to start: in your writing, weed out every sentence and phrase that you can’t imagine saying out loud with a straight face. Expect to hear echoes of your spoken voice in your written voice. 
Obviously, written language is typically more formal than spoken language. So I’m not suggesting that your written voice should sound exactly like the way you talk on a daily basis. That’s why I say you should be writing sentences that you could imagine saying out loud, not sentences that you actually do say out loud. Imagine how the most brilliant and articulate version of you would talk, and write like that. I’m joking–but I’m only half-joking.
There’s no shame in emulating good writers; give yourself that freedom. But if you’re going to give yourself that freedom, you also have to be committed to cutting out whatever doesn’t work. If you end up writing a sentence that would make your friends laugh at you if you said it out loud, get rid of it–or rephrase in language that sounds more like you.

Part of the way I settled into my own voice was reading a whole lot of Flannery O’Connor (her letters even more than her fiction). As her writing influenced my writing, I realized that a lot of what she did felt natural to my own way of using language. On the other hand, as much as I admire Faulkner as a writer, his voice is so alien to mine that he hasn’t had much impact on my writing, one way or another.

One more thing…when you do settle into your voice, expect your voice to change over time. Your voice is not a static thing. This is true of both your spoken voice and your written voice. If you ever hear a recording of your voice from an earlier phase of life, you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

On a Wedding

A few years back, some friends–Boris and Martha–asked me to give the charge at their wedding. To commemorate my own wedding (21 years ago today), here’s part of what I said… 

The old wedding ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer says that Christ “adorned and beautified” marriage “with his presence and first miracle that he wrought in Cana of Galilee.” You know that story. The wine had given out, so Jesus turned six big stone pots full of water into wine. A hundred gallons of wine.

When they served it out, the guests were astonished—not because Jesus had turned water into wine (they didn’t know that), but because it was better than the wine the host had served first. The steward marveled, “But thou hast kept the good wine until now.”

Richard Wilbur wrote a poem about that miracle. It was a wedding toast for his son and daughter-in-law, and the two middle stanzas go like this:

It made no earthly sense, except to show
How whatsoever love elects to bless
Brims with a sweet excess
That can without depletion overflow.

Which is to say that what love sees is true,
That the world’s fullness is not made, but found.
Life hungers to abound,
And pour its plenty out for such as you.

In one sense, the miracle at Cana isn’t as outlandish as it seems. God turns water into wine every day. I’m not speaking metaphorically here. I’m speaking as literally as I know how to speak. The rain falls to the earth by God’s grace, and it travels up the vine to plump the grape. And then, by some process that none of us understands, the drop of rain is translated into a drop of wine, that maketh the heart glad.

The miracle at Cana is a picture of God doing what he does all the time. And yet, there’s no mistaking that on that wedding day, the grace of God was multiplied to an extravagant, an almost embarrassing degree. A hundred gallons of good wine! And the deliberate, sometimes slow process by which God blesses was foreshortened into a single, transformative moment.


I heard about a man in Nashville who had the floor of his study covered in Moroccan leather. Can you even imagine that kind of extravagance, that kind of luxury? The very ground the man walks on is Moroccan leather! But it’s no more extravagant than what the two of you are doing. By taking the vows you’re about to take, you’re declaring that the very foundation of your life together is a promise more precious than any Moroccan leather. The ground that you walk on, the roof over your heads, the walls that surround you—the raw material for all of it is a love that is both rich and enriching. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

If you don’t believe that—if that sounds like gross hyperbole—then what are you doing here? Why are you standing here in front of God and everybody, putting all your eggs in this one basket? “Forsaking all others.” Why would you do that, unless you really believed you were moving from glory unto glory—from good water to a hundred gallons of good wine. No, you must believe it.

Martha, Boris, I don’t know what you deserve. You don’t either, by the way. But if marriage has taught me anything, it has taught me how little deserving has to do with it. Love is a kind of grace: the worthiness of its object is never what matters. No, worthiness is a poor basis for love. Rather, the worth of the beloved is revealed in the mere fact of being loved. Ahead of you stretches a whole lifetime of learning what it was that made you love one another. Maybe you think you know already. If you do, you’re the exception.

None of us knows what lies ahead. I don’t know what kind of trouble and heartache lie ahead for me. But I know there’s a balm. And she’s the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning, the last thing I see before I go to sleep at night. That is an astonishing thing to think about. If life offers any richer blessing this side of heaven, I surely don’t know what it is.

By standing here and taking the vows you’re about to take, the two of you are putting yourselves in a position to lay hold of more happiness than you deserve. Not everybody gets that chance. Plenty of people have the chance and they blow it.

So here’s my charge to you: Live in the grace you’ve been given. There’s not much hope for a person who won’t live in the grace he’s been given. “Life hungers to abound / And pour its plenty out for such as you.” But life doesn’t usually force its plenty down your throat. If you would rather have your own way than be happy, life doesn’t mind shrugging its shoulders and saying, “Okay, have it your way.” Martha, Boris, I hope you won’t clutch so tightly to your own agenda, your own idea of the way your life ought to be, that you don’t have a free hand to scoop up the blessings that are being poured at your feet.

Marriage is a state of grace. And it’s a great mystery. And Christ adorned and beautified by  his presence and first miracle that he wrought at Cana of Galilee—by turning good water into good wine, that maketh the heart glad.

The Man Who Planted Trees

Until recently, my in-laws had a farm in South Georgia. When they bought the place, its charms weren’t altogether obvious to the casual observer. It was scrubby where it wasn’t planted in pines and swampy where it wasn’t scrubby. But my father-in-law made it the work of twenty years to beautify the place.

When he planted pines, he planted longleaf, the tree that once shaded all of South Georgia–indeed, the tree that towered over nearly every mile of Hernando Desoto’s path from Florida through the Deep South to the Mississippi River.

By the time my father-in-law was born, the longleaf had been logged to near-extinction; when the trees were replaced at all, they were replaced by faster-growing slash and loblolly pines, which produce income twice as fast as longleaf, but always fall well short of the longleaf’s native majesty. Much of South Georgia’s wealth and beauty had once been attached to the longleaf pines, before they were felled and floated down the Ocmulgee and Altamaha to the ocean, then shipped away to be the ribs of great buildings far away from Georgia.  My father-in-law loves his native country; no wonder he planted longleaf. If they take forty years to grow to maturity–well, then, they take forty years. He is a man of imagination and hope.

A bare, sandy road ran between two fields on my in-laws’ property. My father-in-law always envisioned it as a grand avenue lined by spreading live oaks festooned with Spanish moss and resurrection ferns. So he went to the tree nursery to buy a few dozen baby live oaks. The nursery man squinted at my father-in-law, who was well into his sixties at the time. “You realize,” he said, “that it takes a live oak a hundred years to grow up?”

“A hundred years?!” my father-in-law answered. “Then we don’t have a day to waste!”

That’s vision.

Those longleaf pines on my in-laws’ farm will one day tower straight and high like the pillars of God’s own house. But the man who planted them will never see it. That avenue of oaks will be a sprawling marvel one day–but not during my father-in-law’s life or his children’s lives, and maybe not in his grandchildren’s lives. 

Still and all, it is a good work to plant a tree. We don’t have a day to waste.



Regarding Texas–Or, What Love Sees Is True

“Texas longhorn” by Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

There are a lot of things to love about Texas, including breakfast tacos, beef brisket, and Lyle Lovett. When I was in Austin last week, Lyle Lovett stood behind me while I waited in line for beef brisket; my heart grew two sizes that day. But the loveliest thing about Texas is the fact that Texans love it so much.

Chesterton wrote, “Men did not love Rome because she was great; she was great because they had loved her.” The same is true of Texas. I have come to love the state my own self, but I must say, to a visitor from Tennessee, the glories of Texas are not self-evident. One suspects that in a place so beloved, there must be more than meets the eye. So one looks again, and glories begin to reveal themselves. As Richard Wilbur says, “What love sees is true.” 

On my recent trips to Texas, I have often thought of the first chapter of Robert Farrar Capon’s Supper of the Lamb, in which he speaks of the value of the amateur–literally, the person who is motivated by love of a thing:

The world…needs all the lovers–amateurs–it can get. It is a gorgeous place, full of clownish graces and beautiful drolleries, and it has enough textures, tastes, and smells to keep us intrigued for more time than we have. Unfortunately, however, our response to its loveliness is not always delight: it is, far more often than it should be, boredom. And that is not only odd, it is tragic; for boredom in not neutral–it is the fertilizing principle of unloveliness.

In such a situation, the amateur–the man who thinks heedlessness a sin and boredom a heresy–is just the man you need… The graces of the world are the looks of a woman in love; without the woman they could not be there at all; but without her lover, they would not quicken into loveliness. There, then, is the role of the amateur: to look the world back to grace.

Texans are forever looking their dusty country back to grace, and it quickens into loveliness like the bluebonnets. God bless them for it. God bless Texas.

On the Greatness of Saint Patrick

This homage to Saint Patrick is derived from my biography, Saint Patrick (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010)

Patrick lived at the end of the world. A Roman citizen, he was born and raised in Britain, the northern- and westernmost extremity of a Roman empire that extended (overextended, as it turned out) south to Africa and east to the Tigris and Euphrates.

I often run across people who are convinced that our culture is running hard toward rack and total ruin, but any sense of cultural doom that keeps you up at night is nothing to what a Roman Briton of Patrick’s era must have felt. The exact date of Patrick’s birth is unknown, but he was probably born within a decade of 410 AD, the year the Vandals sacked Rome. That same year the Emperor Honorius sent a letter to the cities of Britain putting them on notice that they were officially on their own; they could expect no more help from Rome. The letter was only a formality. The Roman army had withdrawn from Britain three years earlier; the Roman Britons were keenly aware of the fact that they were on their own.

Patrick’s real name—his Roman name—was Patricius, as in patrician, noble-born. A scion of a wealthy family, he grew up in a Roman villa, surrounded by British barbarians (the island was never very Romanized), who were themselves surrounded by Irish barbarians, Scottish barbarians, and Angles, Saxons, and Jutes on the continent. At the beginning of the fifth century, these barbarian tribes saw significant Roman wealth in Britain and no Roman army to protect it. You can probably guess what happened next.

Patrick was a teenager when Irish pirates kidnapped him, brought him back to Ireland, and sold him as a slave. He spent six years tending his owner’s sheep, often in very harsh conditions. Though he grew up in a Christian home (his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest in the Roman church), it was in the spiritual isolation of his Irish captivity that Patrick began to own his faith. He wrote, “I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”

Six years into his slavery, Patrick heard a voice in the night suggesting that it was time to leave Ireland, so, to borrow a phrase from Raising Arizona’s Evelle Snoats, he released himself of his own recognizance. Through much hardship he made his way back to his family in Britain.

It was a joyous reunion. But Patrick hadn’t been home long when he had another dream-vision, in which he heard the voice of the Irish people saying, “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” You may not be surprised to hear that his family was not happy when he told them that he intended to return to the island where he had been a slave and preach the gospel to the people who had enslaved him.

After a few years training as a priest, Patrick got himself appointed to a post in Ireland and spent the rest of his life there. He didn’t actually “bring” Christianity to the island. There was a small Christian population when he got there. Patrick, after all, was one of thousands of Roman Britons who had been carried off to Ireland by pirates and raiders, and many of those people would have been Christians. Those Christians began to have families; no doubt they converted some of their Irish neighbors. On top of that, merchants and sailors coming back and forth from the Continent and Britain may have added to the small population of Christians in Ireland. In any case, by 431 AD, there were enough believers in Ireland that Pope Celestine gave them their own bishop, a man named Palladius. So not only was Patrick not the first Christian in Ireland; he wasn’t even the first bishop.

Nevertheless, Patrick was immensely important in the spread of Christianity through Ireland. When his superiors sent him to Ireland, they were sending him to minister to the Christians who were already there, not to convert the barbarians. His insistence on reaching out to the pagans kept him in constant trouble with Church authorities. One Church official in Patrick’s time asked, “What place would God have in a savage world?” Another wrote “How could the Christian virtues survive among barbarians?”

By Patrick’s time—a century or so after Emperor Constantine gave official sanction to the Christian religion—a de facto orthodoxy had emerged that conflated Christianity with Roman civilization in much the same way that first-century Jewish Christians assumed that Christian practice would and should be shaped by Jewish cultural mores. By the end of the fourth century, the Church was as big as all the empire—but, it appeared, no bigger. It wasn’t obvious whether, in this close association between Church and state, the Church had conquered the empire, or the empire had conquered the Church. As the Empire began to crumble, the Church took on an even more important cultural role. In Britain, as in many parts of Northern Europe where the civil structures of Roman authority had evaporated, the Roman Church was the only significant Roman institution left.

In reaching out to the heathens of Ireland, Patrick was up against not only the hostility of the Irish themselves, but the hostility of his own Church. But the very thing that drove his superiors crazy is what the Irish loved about him. In bringing them the gospel, this Roman Briton left their Irishness intact. He was making Christians, not Romans. In the Western tradition, at least, the Irish were the first people ever to submit to Christianity without first submitting to the Roman Empire.

We could hardly overestimate the uniqueness of Patrick’s work among the Irish. As a pioneering missionary, his only real precedent was the apostle Paul. When Patrick took it upon himself to make disciples among the Irish, he became, so far as we know, Western Christendom’s first missionary to the world beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. Paul’s journeys were an astonishing achievement, but even Paul never ventured beyond the empire of which he was a citizen. For that matter, Paul’s travels rarely took him even a hundred miles away from the Mediterranean Sea, the center of the Roman world. In reconciling Jew and Greek, Paul already had his work cut out for him; the barbarians hardly figured into the equation for him. For Patrick to reach out to the barbarians as he did was almost as radical as Paul’s outreach to the Gentiles.

So raise a glass of green beer to St. Patrick, patron saint of the Emerald Isle and, more importantly, a man who loved the gospel enough to rebel against his culture–and in doing so changed the world.

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