Bookishness and Tookishness

I often run across articles and interviews in which published writers are asked the one piece of advice they would give to young and aspiring writers. The most common advice seems to be to read voraciously. By reading the work of other writers, you absorb techniques, strategies, rhythms, vocabulary…You think you’re just enjoying yourself when in fact you’re getting an education. I suppose “read voraciously” is as good a tidbit of advice as any. It might be wasted advice, though, for the simple fact that writers tend to be voracious readers already. 

But while bookishness is a necessary condition for writerliness, it’s not a sufficient condition. That is to say, while you can’t be much of a writer without being a reader, you also won’t have much to write about if you don’t get up from your desk and pursue a life outside of books.

It is your job as a writer to give the reader something she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get for herself. If you are just recycling the things you’ve read in other books, no matter how skillfully, you probably aren’t giving your reader something she couldn’t get for herself.

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S2 Ep32: Christine Flanagan on Flannery O’Connor’s Mentor

We often think of Flannery O’Connor as a lone genius. But her genius was shaped by a (now) less well-known writer named Caroline Gordon. Christine Flanagan, English professor at the University of the Sciences in Pennsylvania, collected and edited The Letters of Flannery O’Connor and Caroline Gordon. These letters paint a fascinating picture of a skilled and generous mentor pouring into the creative life of a younger writer.

Christine Flanagan is my guest on this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast. This was a fascinating conversation. I commend it to you.

Recovery, Escape, Consolation: Tolkien On Fairy Stories

In preparation for Writing with Hobbits, I’ve been reading Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories,” in which he makes a case for his kind of fantasy. It gets pretty technical, but there are also some real gems in there. Dear reader, I have waded through the technicalities, and here I offer some of Tolkien’s gems.

Most of the essay is very specifically about fantasy storytelling, which, Tolkien points out, is as old and as natural as any other storytelling, which is as old and as natural as language (and people). Toward the end of the essay, however, he makes some observations whose relevance extend beyond fantasy.

Three benefits of fantasy stories, according to Tolkien, are Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. I’d like to think about how these benefits apply to stories more broadly.

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S2 Ep31: Sandra McCracken

In this week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, I talk with singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken. Wee talk about the formative power of hymns, the ancient balance established by the psalms between lament and a vision for what lies ahead, Sandra’s first book, and the role of true confidence in human flourishing.

So You Want to Be a Published Author . . .

I met once with a friend of a friend who was writing a book and wanted to talk about getting it published. I make it a policy not to give publishing advice, mainly because I don’t have any reliable advice to give. But for some reason I met with this writer. Perhaps I had not yet established my not-talking-about-publishing policy. Perhaps this meeting was the very reason I established the policy.

This writer was getting close to the end of her manuscript, she said, and getting it published was the most important thing in the world.

The most important thing? I asked. In the world?

Yes, she said. She had poured her all into this book, and she would be crushed if it never got published.

I asked her what she thought publication was going to do for her.

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S2 Ep30: Cindy Bunch

This week, Jonathan Rogers talks with Cindy Bunch, author of Be Kind to Yourself and associate publisher and director of editorial at InterVarsity Press. They talk about how to maintain a healthy relationship with the inner critic, the many misplaced wishes that writers often throw onto their writing, and the mystery of which readers resonate and which readers don’t.

Cyborgs. Spies. Overly Correct Grammar.

A few weeks ago I got an excellent question from a Habit Weekly reader named Todd Thurston. His question came in response to my discussion of subordinating conjunctions during a three-week series on clauses. I had been talking about the fact that subordinating conjunctions (like when or because) are one way of joining one clause to another:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder, I am sad.
  • I am sad because the squirrel raids my bird feeder. 

Those subordinating conjunctions when and because turn the independent clause “The squirrel raids my bird feeder” into a dependent clause that can’t stand alone as a sentence. These are now sentence fragments:

  • When the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
  • Because the squirrel raids my bird feeder.
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Where Does Originality Come From?

Why do you want to be original? That may sound like a rhetorical question, but it might do you some good to answer it.

We appreciate and admire originality when we see it in other writers. One reason to be original, then, is to be appreciated and admired. But that’s not an especially good or sustainable reason. You’ll never know whether you’ve been original enough…or, for that matter, whether you’ve been appreciated and admired enough.

A less self-centric, more reader-centric approach will be helpful here. Why do you as a reader appreciate original writing when you see it? I think it’s because you feel that the writer has given you something that you couldn’t or wouldn’t have gotten for yourself.

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Love and Assent

While reading Wendell Berry’s story collection, That Distant Land, I was struck by this description of a character named Martha Elizabeth Coulter:

She was a woman always near to smiling, sometimes to laughter. Her face, it seems, had been made to smile. It was a face that assented wholly to the being of whatever or whomever she looked at.

I don’t know whether Wendell Berry is a student of Thomas Aquinas, but that description of Martha Elizabeth as a person who “assented wholly to the being” of the people and things around her sounds like the kind of thing Aquinas would say.

That idea of assent is key to Aquinas’s understanding of love. And, as I will argue, it’s a major reason to write; in fact, assent may be the writer’s most important reason of all.

I’ll be paraphrasing and quoting from Josef Pieper, who was himself paraphrasing Aquinas. (The page numbers below refer to Faith, Hope, and Love, which collects three of Pieper’s long essays.)

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