Seeing What You See

Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.

That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.

I gave a version of this speech to a creative writing class last week. Before I was even finished, one of my students raised her hand. “That’s fine,” she said, “but I went to a high school where everybody actually did fit the stereotypes. There were the jocks, the nerdy kids, the farm boys, the Goth kids . . .” I told her I found it hard to believe that her schoolmates, taken one at a time, fit those stereotypes any better than she did herself. But she was insistent. “The whole town,” she said, “it was like any other stereotypical farm town in Montana.”

I challenged her on that one too. “Tell us about your town,” I said. “Help us understand what’s so stereotypical about it.”

“Think about any farm town,” she said. “Everybody drives around in muddy farm trucks.” We nodded. That did sound maybe a little bit stereotypical. “And at Christmas, everybody goes to the grocery store to drink apple cider and sing Christmas carols.”

“You do what at Christmas?” somebody asked.

“We go to the grocery store to drink apple cider and sing Christmas carols. Like any other small town.” She was astonished to learn that nobody in the room (except for a classmate who happened to be from a town fifteen miles away from her) had ever heard of such a thing. It soon came out that those stereotypical classmates of hers often rode horses to school, and that her stereotypical principal took care of the horses during the school day.

All that to say, there is no such thing as a stereotypical high school or small town or farmer or principal. No stereotype or category can stand against the concrete reality of specific details. This young woman thought she lived in a stereotypical town when in fact she lived in a town where the locals gather at the grocery store to sing Christmas carols, where the high school principal doubles as an hostler.

Writing what you see means, among other things, paying attention to the detail that you couldn’t have known about if you hadn’t been there. I’ve got some ideas about what life in small-town Montana is like, but I wouldn’t have guessed the grocery store hymn sing or the high school horse corrals.

In one of my online writing classes, a Floridian wrote about the morning she woke up to see snow in her yard—the only time she had seen snow in her life. It wasn’t a bad piece of writing. All the sentences were good, each paragraph hung together, there were some good similes and metaphors to liven things up. But something was missing, and it took me a minute to put my finger on it. The problem was this: her story read exactly like it would have read if you or I had written a story about a little girl in Florida who sees snow for the first time. Everything you would expect was there, from her looking out the window and not believing her eyes, to the annoying little brother hitting her in the back of the head with a snowball, then smirking and ducking behind a tree. But I find it impossible to believe that nothing happened on that day that I couldn’t have predicted. I can’t even predict what’s going to happen in Florida on a regular day—but a snow day?

A week or two later, the same writer wrote a piece about watching a lizard shed its skin. She simply told what she saw, and the result was mesmerizing: “Twisting his head as far right as it would go, he grabbed a piece of his skin and pulled it away. It tore with a sound like tissue paper. His jaw moved up and down as he chewed and swallowed. Then he turned his head left, pulled off another section of skin, and swallowed it.” A couple of paragraphs later, the lizard startles and dashes away: “He leaped off the ledge of the porch and into the garden below. A few pieces of skin flew off as he did, but the rest of it stayed on his back as he disappeared into the grass.”

That writing is fresh, vivid, sensory. It invites me to experience something I’ve never experienced before. It had never occurred to me that a lizard pulling off his old skin would make a sound like tissue paper. The flakes of skin flying off as the lizard jumps from the porch—who would have guessed that? And yet it makes perfect sense: of course that’s what would happen. But you would only know it if you had been there.

That description of the lizard strikes me as highly original. But that originality doesn’t derive from a flight of fancy, or an exercise of imagination. It came from a writer paying attention to the world around her and telling us what she saw.

The Return of the Wilderking

There is a moment in Chapter 4 of The Bark of the Bog Owl that makes me cringe a little bit. Aidan and Dobro have gotten mixed up with a panther, which “bared its fangs and wailed a deep rumbling moan that became a piercing scream.” It’s not a bad description, but it’s not what I wrote. The panther wasn’t supposed to wail. Panthers waul. It’s the perfect verb for what panthers do. But a well-meaning editor at B&H Publishing Group changed waul to wail (just as my computer’s auto-correct did just now), and I didn’t notice until after the book was published. So since 2004 that poor panther has been going against his own nature, wailing instead of wauling for nine years.
I have good news for the panther. The rights to the Wilderking Trilogy reverted to me last year after a period in which the books were effectively (though not technically) out of print. The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking are coming back with a new publisher: Rabbit Room Press. And I have been able to fix some of the little things that have been bothering me about the published versions. The new and improved paperback versions of the three books will be officially release on April 1. And in the Rabbit Room edition the panther wauls (though–spoiler alert–he still doesn’t survive Chapter 4).

I am thankful for B&H’s support of the Wilderking in years past; I long ago recovered from the shock of having a B&H salesman suggest that I make Dobro Turtlebane a girl (girls read far more than boys, he reasoned, and they needed a character to relate to). Still, bringing Aidan and Dobro and them to the Rabbit Room Press feels like a kind of homecoming.

You don’t have to wait until April, however. Preorder now at the Rabbit Room store, and you’ll get your books in early March. Just as importantly, preorders will make it possible for us print more books in the initial print run, reducing printing costs significantly. Click here for the Rabbit Room store. Order all three Wilderking books to save 10%.

Feechie of the Week–Peanut Trull

I’ve been seeing a lot of stories recently about hunters taking huge alligators, especially in Alabama and Georgia, but this one, sent in by Christie Mulkey of Texas, seemed especially noteworthy. Peanut Trull of Leslie, Georgia (that’s just around the corner from Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains) captured a 12-foot alligator and, along with a hunting guide, tied the thing to a boat trailer, alive. Said the guide, “We tied him down what we thought was good enough. It wasn’t good enough. He would go to kicking and break everything that we tied him to. Break the tape. Pull the ropes loose. It took us two and a half hours to get him tied down.”
It is also worth noting that Peanut’s girlfriend was along for the hunt, which is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever heard. She also got an alligator tag in the DNR lottery, so the two feechie lovebirds will be going on another outing later this month. Below is the news report, which shows Peanut and the guide and the alligator (still alive, I think) but, alas, does not show Peanut’s girlfriend.

(If you prefer to read the story, here is the link. ).

Sunday School Shooting



Last week my friend John was teaching Psalm 23 in preschool Sunday school–or trying to, anyway. A couple of the boys in the class had made guns out of Legos and were shooting the place up.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” John read.

Pow! Pow! Pyoing!

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside the still waters…”

Bang! Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a! Pow!

It wasn’t going so well. Things had reached the point where I would have snatched the Lego guns out of the boys’ grubby fists and made them sit on their hands while I gave them an earful of the peace of God. But John, as it turns out, is a wiser sort of Sunday school teacher. He looked at the gunmen and said, “I’ll tell you what. We’re going to be sheep. You’re going to be the shepherds. I want you to use those guns to protect us from any wolves or lions that might be a danger to us.”

The boys couldn’t believe their good fortune. John and the other students got down on all fours and foraged around the Sunday school room while the two boys with the Lego guns secured the perimeter, blazing away at wolves and lions and sheep rustlers. That done, the boys led the sheep to green pastures and still waters.

The Scandal of Grace

ice cream

ice cream

A while back I gave the keynote address at the induction ceremony of the Houston County (GA) Educators’ Hall of Fame. Here’s part of that speech…
I once had an ice cream cone with the school bully—a fifth-grader named Jay. I don’t remember how this came to pass exactly—maybe he and I just happened to be at the ice cream shop at the same time. But I remember that he and I and another boy ate our ice cream cones outside, in the grimy hindparts of a shopping center, among the dumpsters and discarded pallets. And I remember Jay swiping the last crumbs of the cone off his hands, then balling up his hard little fist and punching me right below my left eye. I remember the hot shame that burned on my face as I pelted home as fast as my bike would take me.

When my parents asked about the hurt place below my eye, I made something up rather than tell them what really happened. I think I wanted to protect them–didn’t want them to know what a mean world they had brought me into.

But I had a very special teacher that fourth-grade year—Mrs. Romero, a beautiful Cuban woman, so kind and generous-hearted that every kid in the class believed himself to be her favorite. In my case, of course, it was true. She was exactly the sort of person you could give your troubles to.

I didn’t give my troubles to my teacher, however, and she didn’t give me comfort. She gave me something much more important—something I didn’t even want.

Field Day at Miller Elementary fell a week or two after my ice cream outing with Jay. When the fifth-grade sprinters lined up to run the hundred-yard dash, my stomach churned at the sight of Jay taking his place. My loathing was magnified by the knowledge that Jay would probably win. The whistle blew, the boys bolted from the starting line, and my heart sank as Jay pulled into the lead like some sort of flying rooster.

Above the shouts and squeals of children came a delicious Cuban trill: “Rrrrun, Jay, rrrrun!” Jay heard Mrs. Romero’s encouragement. The intent look on his face spread into a grin, and he ran faster, beating his nearest competitor by many yards.

I glared at Mrs. Romero in hurt astonishment. Did she even know what kind of delinquent she was encouraging? If she had any idea what Jay had done to me, her favorite student, she wouldn’t have been so friendly. It was undignified—it was scandalous—for a grown woman to be yelling like that for a little criminal.

But, of course, she knew and understood much more about Jay than I did. She understood that he was still a boy, that his course didn’t have to be set just yet. And she understood how badly a fatherless boy needs for somebody—anybody—to delight in him.

The root of the word ‘educate,’ as I’m sure you know, means literally to lead forth or to draw out. Mrs. Romero drew something out of Jay that day. I had never seen what could happen to his face when he believed that somebody felt he was worth something. I had seen smirks and sneers and the occasional wicked grin on Jay’s face. But I had never seen happiness.

Mrs. Romero drew something out of me too, though she didn’t know it. Quite by accident—just by doing her job incredibly well—she brought an ugly self-righteousness out into the open where I could get a good look at it. She was an agent of grace that day—for me no less than Jay. She showed me that there is a wideness in God’s mercy that is wider than the sea.

I don’t think of Jay very often, but when I do, I try to remember not the beady-eyed sinner behind the ice cream shop, but the Field Day runner taking a boyish joy in the delight of a woman who loved him in spite of all.

Super Spider Powers


“I don’t think it will really work. Do you really think it will work?” If Mark heard me, nothing in his demeanor showed it. He knew it would work. I was still fuzzy on the details, and I was pretty sure Mark was too. But his confidence had nothing to do with niggling details. Mark was an idea man. His confidence came from his grasp of the big picture. And we all agreed on the big picture: when a radioactive spider bites you, you get super spider powers.

From the cartoon on Channel 17, I never really understood how Spiderman got his powers, but Mark had the more authoritative comic books. He explained the whole thing: Peter Parker was in a science lab, and a radioactive spider got loose and bit him, and then he got spider powers. We ate this stuff up.

Mark was the youngest of several brothers, so even in third grade an air of worldliness attached to him. He knew things the rest of us didn’t. It wasn’t just that he knew things; it was his casual, can-do attitude toward life’s great mysteries. This was a young man, after all, who had baptized his own dog.

So when Mark came to school with a plan to give us all super spider powers, he had our attention. He had a spider in a jar. All we had to do was to get the spider radioactive and let it bite us.

I thought getting the spider radioactive would be the hard part, but it wasn’t really. Mark had checked out a book of optical illusions from the school library. On the back cover was a swirling spiral that seemed to spin when you rocked it back and forth. He held it a few inches from the spider’s jar and set the spiral spinning.

This seemed mighty low-tech and dubious to me, and I said so. But the words were hardly out of my mouth when the spider collapsed in a curled-up little heap. Mark raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing nod, as if to say, “This is to be expected.”

“Is he dead?” asked one of the boys.

“Not dead,” Mark answered. “Radioactive. Now, who’s going to go first?”

We all looked at each other. In principle, super spider powers were a good thing. But actually to let a radioactive spider bite you…none of us were very sure about that. Even Peter Parker hadn’t let a spider bite him. It was an accident.

“Look here,” Mark said. There was impatience in his voice. “When this spider wakes up, he’ll only be radioactive for a minute or two.” I’m not sure how he knew this. “We need to decide who’s going to get bit. William, why don’t you go first?”

William appeared to be weighing the pros and the cons. “So what kind of super spider powers will I get?”

“You know, like on the TV show,” said Mark. “You can walk up walls. Jump over buildings. Shoot webs out your wrists.”

William looked carefully at his wrist. “Where’s it going to come out? The web.”

Mark had to think on that one. “We’ll have to cut a little hole. Right there.” He swiped a thumbnail across the soft white underside of William’s wrist.

That’s where he blew it. William wasn’t going to let Mark cut him, and neither were any of the rest of us. Mark cajoled another boy or two, and we all argued back and forth for a while, but negotiations broke off with the recess bell, and we mostly dropped the whole thing.

I don’t know what became of the spider. But I like to imagine him awakening from his swoon and stalking across the Miller Elementary playground, his eyes aglow with radioactivity. He’s looking for an unsuspecting grade-school hero—one who won’t be made to choose greatness or choose against it, but rather will have greatness thrust upon him in the form of a spider bite and the dawn of super spider powers.

Pantsed: A Story of Self-Possession and Sangfroid



Here’s an old favorite from the archives of I hope you enjoy it again.

Think of all the amusing anecdotes you know about junior high football. I’m guessing 75% are set in that “magic hour” when the boys have arrived at the practice field but the coach hasn’t. Thirty junior high boys, no adult supervision. Something’s bound to happen.

In eighth grade, my cousin Brett got his pants pulled down at football practice. The coach was elsewere–wrapping up bus duty or finishing one last cigarette in the teachers’ lounge before facing the barbarians. Frank, the starting fullback, snuck around behind and snatched Brett’s pants in front of God and everybody. It was a beautiful pantsing, not one of those awkward affairs where the victim clamps his knees together and goes into a squat, clutching at his britches and his dignity. No, this was clean and quick. Brett’s pants went right to the ground.

Frank whooped and cavorted in his triumph. It was easily the best pantsing of the season. The other boys howled and pointed at Brett.

Who just stood there.

The hooting mockery swirled around him, but Brett stood his ground–pants around his ankles, arms akimbo, a look of perfect serenity on his face. The howling became nervous laughter as the mockery gave way to confusion. The boys had never seen such a thing before: the one boy who maintained his dignity was the one whose pants were crumpled around his ankles.

Frank looked fitfully toward the school, whence the coach would soon be coming. “Hey, Brett,” he said, his voice broken by a nervous chuckle, “pull up your pants, man.”

Brett crossed his arms and stared off into the middle distance, as grave as a statue.

“Brett, man,” Frank repeated. “Pull up your pants. Coach gonna see.”

Brett shifted his weight but didn’t otherwise move. “I didn’t pull them down,” he said, with withering dignity, “and I’m not going to pull them up.”

Frank looked from Brett to the school building and back to Brett. The fascinated boys had gone silent. The door from the equipment room swung open, and the boys gasped in unison at the sight of the coach’s lanky form emerging. Frank hesitated. For an instant it appeared he would run away. He took one last look at the approaching coach, then circled around behind Brett. Sighing grimly and rolling his eyes, Frank pulled Brett’s pants back up where they belonged.

It was one of the great moments in the history of eighth graders.

Audience Participation Friday: Best Bios

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Flannery O’Connor wrote, “There won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” It’s true that the outward movements of Flannery O’Connor’s life aren’t as exciting as those of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Davey Crockett or Catherine the Great. But such an inner life! As it turns out, her life has made surprisingly exciting copy for three major biographies and several minor ones. I’m in the process of adding to the minor ones. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that. I expect this to be an excellent book, but it’s a small book; the same size as the Saint Patrick bio, if you’ve seen that, and part of the same series–Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series.
It’s daunting to be writing in the shadow of Brad Gooch’s excellent 2009 biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor and Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a quadruple biography paralleling the lives of Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. At the moment, the Elie book isn’t just my favorite biography of Flannery O’Connor; it’s my favorite biography period.

The problem with biographies, however, is that people’s lives rarely conform to Aristotle’s rules for plot making. They get off to slow starts. They drag in the middle. They live another two or three decades beyond the climax of the story. The fiction writer has the luxury of making stuff up, but the honest and thorough biographer faces challenges if he or she wants to tell a compelling story. That’s what some readers love about biographies. They can’t wrap things up as neatly as fiction tends to do.

Let’s talk about biographies today. What are your favorites? Why are they your favorites? What are your thoughts on the limitations of biography as a mode of storytelling?

Feechie of the Week: Cobra Pit Custodian

Author’s note: Yes, more video. I’m up to my elbows in this Flannery O’Connor biography and so don’t have time to compose the thoughtful analyses and soul-baring anecdotes you’ve come to expect at Sorry about that. But I suspect a video of a guy handling cobras is more interesting anyway.
Perhaps it’s the warming weather, but there’s been an encouraging uptick in feechiefied behavior recently. In the previous post, a young man in Florida narrowly escaped an alligator attack thanks to his baggy pants. It wasn’t enough to earn him the honor of Feechie of the Week, but it was a step in the right direction.

Earlier this week I heard about an incident in Memphis in which a policeman got bitten when he confronted a woman in a city park about not picking up after her pit bull. It was the woman who bit him. The pit bull behaved himself. When I heard that story I thought, “Maybe there’s hope that the Feechie of the Week could return.”

Then reader Kenny Clark sent me the video below. It is truly a display of feechie sangfroid:

Thanks, Kenny. And congratulations to the Cobra Pit Custodian, our Feechie of the Week.

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