Joy Is One Kind of Courage

Richard Wilbur is one of my favorite poets. This lovely remembrance by Christian Wiman articulates some of the reasons I love Wilbur so much. In short, for Richard Wilbur, creativity and productivity didn’t come from deep within the subconscious of the tortured artist, but from gratitude and wonder at a world he didn’t make. His gaze was outward, not inward.

What was revolutionary about Wilbur’s work, Wiman writes, is the light–in spite of the fact that Wilbur himself dealt with depression and addiction and the losses and hurts that we all deal with.

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New Writing Habits for 2019

I named my weekly letter The Habit as a reminder to my readers and to myself that good writing is a matter of habit. True, writing often involves such things as inspiration and brilliance and raw talent–mysteries over which we have no real control. But there are factors that we can control. As you commit to the slow work of habit, you create places where the mysteries can find purchase.

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The Uses of the Colon

Last week I started a short punctuation series on semicolons, colons, and dashes. I had said it was going to be a two-part series, but I was only kidding myself. Once a person starts talking about colons and dashes, it’s hard to stop. So we find ourselves not at the end of a two-part series, but spang in the middle of a three-part series: colons today, dashes next week.

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What Are Semicolons for?

Habit reader recently asked about the use of semicolons, colons, and dashes. These punctuation marks can be exceedingly helpful for expressing nuance in your prose. But if you misuse them, bad things can start happening to good people. Nuance is a delicate flower; it wilts in the presence of faulty punctuation. This week’s issue of The Habit is the first of a two-part series on the effective use of these three punctuation marks. We’ll talk about semicolons today and colons and dashes next week.

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Write Better Description

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted my first webinar, on writing vivid description. I wanted to share an example from that webinar with those of you who weren’t there.

I try not to teach from negative example, but this one sentence manages to violate all four of my guidelines for good description, so I thought you would find it instructive. Allow me to mention that this sentence was written by a person who actually writes quite well. We all have our slip-ups; and as you are about to see, this sentence is only a slip-up, not a spectacularly bad piece of writing. Here it is:

Humble little town homes sat situated above unique cafes on these quaint roads, right where renowned scholars and thinkers and poets had once walked.

See? This isn’t flagrant. It’s the kind of writing you see all the time, and under normal circumstances you might pass right by it and not think about it one way or another. And that’s part of the problem—the reader wouldn’t think about this description one way or another, or envision anything either.

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A New Thing: Field Notes for Writers

I am doing a new thing. I am happy to announce an online subscription plan I call Field Notes for Writers. It’s an ever-growing library of writing resources—online courses, podcasts, videos, teaching webinars—and (hopefully) a hub of community for writers of all skill levels. 

The cornerstone of the subscription is Grammar for Writers, a new 42-lesson course designed to help writers fear less fear about getting grammar wrong and instead feel the freedom in the flexibility that our complicated language affords. 

This 3-and-a-half minute trailer gives a good idea of what you can expect from Grammar for Writers.

Grammar for Writers, as I mentioned, is 42 lessons long. But not all of those lessons are currently available. (As it turns out, writing and filming a course goes quite a bit more quickly than video editing). I am releasing the first five lessons now and will be releasing five to eight new lessons a month for the next several months. Field Notes members will have early access to the lessons as they are released, and will continue to have access to all 42 lessons after they are available in early 2019. 

But Grammar for Writers is just the beginning. Each week I will add new content to the library according to the following rotation:

Week 1: Live Teaching webinar. In these webinars I will cover topics suggested by Field Notes members. Webinars will be recorded and added to the content library. The first of these webinars will be this Thursday night, September 27, at 7:30pm Central. It will be open to all, not just subscribers. (I’ll send out an email with more details and a registration link in the next day or so.) I should point out that this is a webinar for teaching, not for selling. I will offer a subscription link at the end, but I promise this won’t be one of those webinars that purport to teach but end up being a hard sell. 

Week 2: Line Edits Video. From teaching my online classes, I have quite a collection of student papers. Once a month, I will be taking one of those papers (with the permission of the writer) and walking through my suggested revisions—what I suggested and why I suggested it. 

Week 3: Comparing Notes Podcast. Once a month, I will release a short podcast episode in which I sit down with a writer friend and compare notes about writing. (I am happy to report that I have quite a few very interesting writer friends.) The first episode, which is already up, is my conversation with Rebecca Reynolds, author of the newly released Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World. If you don’t have this book, you need to get it immediately

Week 4: More lessons from Grammar for Writers.

Then cycle starts again. That’s new content every week. I’m mighty proud of this content. I think you’re going to get a lot out of it. I have put together a free sampling of the content that’s on offer—one lesson from Grammar for Writers, one episode of Line Edits, and one episode of Comparing Notes; within a few days of this Thursday night’s webinar, I plan to add the recording of the webinar to the sampler.

The cost of the subscription is $11.95 a month. You can save 17% (and help me pay the video editor) by subscribing for the year at $119. If you’re ready to subscribe, you can do that here. Or, again, you can check out the free content here, and if you like what you see, you can subscribe from there.

I’m excited about being able to offer this subscription at such a low monthly rate. Hopefully it’s not a painful entry point, and I feel quite confident that I can offer you enough value that it seems like a no-brainer to keep your subscription. 

I should mention that Writing Close to the Earth and Writing with Flannery O’Connor, my “legacy” online offerings, will not be included in the subscription library. Those courses require weekly involvement from me that I won’t be able to offer to a large group (or at such a low price!). There is still a section of Writing Close to the Earth coming up before the end of the year. I have not yet decided how often I will offer Writing with Flannery O’Connor and Writing Close to the Earth after the New Year.

Finally, a word about The Habit. Nothing will change about this weekly newsletter. You will still get it on Tuesday mornings, and it will still be free, just as it has been from the start. Field Notes for Writers will be a little more intense and will provide opportunities to interact with other writers, but if The Habit is all you want, that’s fine too. I’m just happy to be able to give you something that does you good.

Actually, there’s one more thing. It’s not easy to get a new project like this off the ground. Would you be willing to help spread the word about Field Notes for Writers? If you were to forward this letter to somebody who might be interested, or share it on social media, that would mean a lot to me. Or you could just share the Grammar for Writers trailer by sharing this link:  https://vimeo.com/291583956. Or both! 

Gamble, Gambol, Ham and Gambrel: In Praise of Inefficiency

The great thing about Google is that it takes you straight to the information you want to find (or, in any case, straight to the information that the Keeper of the Algorithm wants you to find). The great thing about every other method of organizing and/or delivering information is that it DOESN’T take you straight to the information you want to find. 

Back when I was walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways, if you wanted to know something you had to go to the library and get a book. And in order to get that book, you had to walk past a lot of other books. This quaint fact accounts for a good 20% of my education. Fetching a book about, say, Shakespeare required me to scan whole shelves of other books about Shakespeare—books I didn’t even know I wanted or needed to read. In graduate school it wasn’t unusual for me to emerge from the stacks with six or seven books, but not the one I originally went looking for. You don’t know what you don’t know, and sometimes the only way to find out is through that highly inefficient, often inconvenient process known as wandering around. But as GK Chesterton observed, an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered; an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered.”

I thought of those old pre-Internet wanderings yesterday when my children were discussing the French and Spanish words for ham

Back before merriam-webster.com was a thing, I used to noodle around in the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED. The OED is a miracle. (The Professor and the Madman, by the way, is a fascinating little book about how the OED came to be.) The OED, according to its own website, is “the most complete record of the English language ever assembled.” At twenty volumes, I should think so. I have the “compact” edition, which crams all the entries from twenty reasonable-sized volumes into two huge folio volumes, each three inches thick and weighing fifteen pounds together. Either of the two would be the biggest book in my house. They come with a magnifying glass. 

The dictionary websites are incredibly efficient. You want to know what a word means or where it came from? You’re only a couple of seconds away. Not so with the OED. The OED is a place to ramble (especially if your eyes are still young).

One of my favorite rambles came when I was curious about the words gambleand gambol. I figured they both came from whatever root gave us the word game, since to gamble is to play games of chance, and to gambol about is to run and jump and play games, probably in a meadow. I was curious as to how and when the meaning diverged between playing dangerous games on the one hand and playing innocent games on the other. That is exactly the kind of information that is on offer in the OED.

But the OED surprised me. The two words, though homophones, are unrelated. Gamble does ultimately derive from the Anglo-Saxon root that gave us game. But gambol has a more interesting history that leads down quite a rabbit trail. 

Gambol is more closely related to the word ham than to the word gamble. The late Latin camba or gamba means leg. Hence the French jambon, the Spanish jamon, and the English ham—the cut of meat that comes from the leg of a hog. This root is also the source of the now-obsolete gam, meaning the leg of a human being, and especially an adult female human being, as in “The palooka elbowed the wise guy and said, ‘Get a load of the gams on that dame.’”

To gambol is to kick up one’s legs. A form of the word originally came into the language from the French gambade, which describes the curveting of a horse. 

The same root, gamba, also gives us jamb, the leg that holds up a doorway, and iamb, a metrical foot of poetry (as in iambic pentameter). A gambrel roof is that barn-style roof that has an extra bend between the roofline and the eave, like the bend of a horse’s back leg. 

I’ll conclude this discourse with the word gambit (not to be confused with gamut, which has its own fascinating story). A gambit is a stratagem or a calculated move. The word is often associated with chess, in which a player will put a pawn at risk in order to gain an advantage against an opponent. So where do you suppose the word gambit comes from? Is it more closely related to gamble and game, or to gambol and ham? You would think gamble, wouldn’t you? A stratagem is always a gamble, a risk. And chess, of course, is a game.

But before gambit referred to a chess strategy, it referred a wrestling strategy—the strategy of gaining an advantage over one’s opponent by tripping up his legs. The Italians called it a gambetto

Thanks for indulging me (if, indeed, you are still indulging me). You had more efficient ways to use your time than to meander along the various paths that derive from the late Latin word gamba. But this letter is a celebration of inefficiency. When we don’t know what we don’t know, an efficient search often turns out to be a case of making better time to a place you don’t need to be. 

I am highly grateful for the efficiency of Google and merriam-webster.com. I used both to check my facts about gamble, gambol, ham, and gambit. But without that old inefficient, inconvenient (and time-honored) tradition of flipping through a dusty book, I don’t suppose I would have ever known about the connections between those words. I take that back: one could definitely discover those connections via the Internet, but only if one were using the Internet inefficiently.

But why, you may ask, is it necessary to know these things about ham and gamboling? That one is easy to answer: It is not necessary. But the unnecessary is the most important thing about us.

Which Writers Make You Want to Write?

When I teach writing seminars, my favorite “introduce yourself” question is Which writers make you want to write? This is a different question from Who are your favorite writers? or Who do you think the best writers are? I love John Milton, but Paradise Lost has never inspired me to try my hand at epic poetry. And as much as I admire Faulkner’s writing, I’ve never wanted to write like Faulkner. (Surely we can all agree that one Faulkner is plenty.) 

There are writers I read when I want to read, and there are writers I read when I want to write. Charles Portis is a writer who makes me want to write. Portis is best known for True Grit. His lesser-known novel The Dog of the South is one of my all-time favorites. I make no claims for Charles Portis’s greatness. I never put his books in people’s hands and say, “You have to read this!” I just know that when I read The Dog of the South or True Grit, I feel emboldened to sit down and try writing another story. 

One thing I’ve learned from years of teaching is that writers have different gifts. It seems obvious when I put it that way, but when people self-evaluate, they tend to think in terms of being good at writing or less good at writing—as if writing were a single skill. Writing is a lot of skills, some of which will come more naturally to you than others. Part of my job as a writing instructor is to help writers realize what they’re good at, and to encourage them to build on those strengths. Some people have an ear for dialogue. Some people naturally think in terms of metaphor. I recently had a student who was outlandishly good at conjuring up sensory images. Describing a visit to a nursing home she wrote, “The room became warm and fusty and smelt like ham and moist bandages.” That’s an excellent sentence, and it was important for that writer to know it. We don’t always value the skills that come naturally to us, but those skills are exactly where we need to start. 

If you don’t have a good writing instructor or an insightful (and honest) writing partner in your life, it can be hard to know what you’re good at. That’s one reason I think it’s helpful to pay attention to which writers make you want to write. 

I will never write like Annie Dillard. I don’t mean I will never be as good at writing as Annie Dillard is (though that is also true). I mean that if by some miracle I became as good a writer as Annie Dillard, my writing would still look nothing like hers. The same is true of Faulkner and Shakespeare and David Foster Wallace and most of the poets of the world. But when I read True Grit or The Dog of the South, I think, “If I were better at what I do, I think I could do this.” I can easily imagine writing sentences and paragraphs like Portis’s. That realization motivates me to go write, to get better at what I do. The key phrase here is what I do. To write like Nabokov, I would have to be a different kind of writer and thinker—probably a different kind of person. To write like Charles Portis, I would just need to get better at what I do. 

So which writers make you want to write? Of all the writers you enjoy and appreciate, there are probably a few who make you say, “I want to try doing that.” Recognizing those writers might help you understand what kind of writer you are, where your gifts lie. I don’t recommend comparing yourself to other writers, but if you insist, compare yourself to those writers—the ones who inspire you to sit down and get better at what you do.

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