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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On the Verbing of Nouns

A couple of weeks ago, a reader suggested that I devote an issue of The Habit Weekly to the verbing of nouns and the nouning of verbs. Not a bad idea, I said, except that I have devoted earlier issues to the nouning of verbs (or nominalization), so this one will mostly be about verbification.
Especially in or hyper-technological era, the verbing of nouns seems to be happening at record speed. Email started out life as a noun. In the nineties we used to say things like, “I’ll send you an email,” in which the noun email was the direct object of the verb send. It wasn’t long at all, however, before we started using email as a verb: “I’ll email you.”
[Bonus question for grammar nerds: What grammatical function does ‘you’serve in the sentence, “I’ll email you”? If I say, “I’ll send you an email,” ‘you’ is an indirect object. I’ll send the email (direct object) to you (indirect object). In the sentence “I’ll email you,” it’s as if we have an implied direct object; ‘you’ is still behaving like an indirect object, even though it looks like a direct object. What I really mean is something along the lines of “I’ll email you (indirect object) an email (direct object).”]

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The Fondue Pot Principle Continued: More Practical Applications

In last week’s episode of The Habit Weekly I introduced The Fondue Pot Principle, which states that you can only give what you have—and that’s just fine. I discovered The Fondue Pot Principle when I put out a call on Facebook asking to borrow a fondue pot. Only one friend was able to come through for me…and yet that was enough. My delight at the one friend’s having what I needed was unsullied by the fact that a hundred or more friends didn’t have what I needed.

At the end of last week’s episode I promised to apply The Fondue Pot Principle to two specific writing-related questions that recently arose in my Writing with Flannery O’Connor online class. Three seemingly unrelated question elicited the same response from me. So either I’m a one-trick pony, or there’s a principle at work here. 

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The Fondue Pot Principle — Or, Just How Harshly Is the World Judging You?

One day I needed a fondue pot. A fondue pot is not something one wants to buy. I have lived over 18,000 days now, and on exactly ONE of those days have I wished I had a fondue pot. But the day in question was that day. So I went to Facebook and put out an all-call for a fondue pot.

Within minutes, my friend Matthew Sullivan had offered to make his fondue pot available. Within a couple of hours, cubes of gruyere cheese were melting in my borrowed fondue pot, and my kids were spearing bread chunks to toast over a Sterno flame.

Matthew Sullivan brought great joy to the Rogers house that day because a) he had what we needed, and b) he was willing to offer it. And I’m pretty sure Matthew got some joy too. (I don’t have any data to support this, but I suspect that at least 2/3 of the pleasure of owning a fondue pot derives from letting other people borrow it; after the first couple of months of ownership, nobody has ever eaten enough fondue to justify the storage space for all those accoutrements.)

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Be More Brilliant: The Back-to-School Issue

All right friends, we’re on the wrong side of Labor Day, and schools just about everywhere are back in session, so I’m devoting this episode of The Habit Weekly to academic writing. 

“Love your reader.” If you’ve heard me talk about writing very much at all, you’ve probably heard that one. You’re not really going to grow as a writer until you stop thinking about what you’re going to get out of writing (significance, respect, love, money, recognition, etc.) and start thinking about what you can give through your writing. What do you have to give to your reader that he can’t get for himself?

Most of us learn to write in academic settings. And in academic settings, the carrots and sticks are set up in such a way that you are almost always writing to get something. If you write well enough, you get gold stars, you get good grades, you get to move on to the next grade, you get into a good college. If you are a professional academic, you write to get published, to get a job, to get promoted, to get tenure. When there’s so much to get from writing, what does giving have to do with it? How do you love your reader when your reader is a teacher or professor?

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What Love Sees Is True

My wife Lou Alice and I got married twenty-five years ago today. I won’t say we were children, but we were barely not-children, and we hardly knew what we were promising to do, but we promised anyway. Then we went home and started trying to figure out how to make a life together. I have often heard that marriage is hard work. I don’t disagree. To borrow a phrase from the philosophers, however, hard work is necessary but not sufficient. In any creative endeavor (and a marriage is a greater creative endeavor than War and Peace and the Sistine Chapel combined), the real work is to make room for grace to intervene, to have eyes to see see the deeper truth, to stay alive to the fact that a reality we didn’t make will triumph every time over the shriveled and shriveling narratives of self-absorption.

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On the Impracticality of Beauty

A cynic remarked that last week’s fire at Notre Dame has turned out to be an excellent excuse for social media users to post pictures of their vacations in Paris. A less cynical interpretation is that the fire at Notre Dame prompted social media users to memorialize an encounter with a work of art and beauty that reminded them that they were living in a bigger story than they typically thought.

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Writer’s Block: A Tale of Woe

For a long time, I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was on intimate terms with unproductivity, to be sure, but for the most part my failure to produce was a function of laziness and ill discipline. I didn’t want to dignify my bad habits with a name so glamorous as writer’s block. “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block,” I used to say, “and lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. If you’re a writer, sit down and write.” 

I do find it helpful to be as matter-of-fact and workmanlike as possible in my approach to writing. Showing up for work is a vital skill, no matter what your work happens to be. Nevertheless, the writing process is mysterious in ways that the plumbing process isn’t. (I mean no disrespect to plumbers; I worked on a plumbing crew for a couple of summers in my youth, so I can say from experience that plumbers’ inner lives are as rich and mysterious as anybody’s.)

Around 2009, however, I came to believe most earnestly in writer’s block; I was afflicted with a case of it that went well beyond mere laziness or ill discipline. I would sit at my desk for hours, for days, for weeks, and produce nothing. 

I should mention that I was under contract to write five books at the time. So I’m not talking about being unproductive in my weekend hobby. Perhaps you can imagine the shame and self-loathing that piled on top of the frustration of being a writer who wasn’t writing. If I could have paid back the advances, I would have given up and picked up my plumbing career where I had left off twenty years earlier. 

In the fall of 2009, I was past deadline on two books. I don’t mean I was behind schedule. I mean the deadline for one book came and went, then the deadline for the next book came and went (also deadline extensions–those came and went too). I was supposed to be well into the third book when I took my wife Lou Alice for coffee and explained to her how much trouble I was in. She knew, of course, that things hadn’t been going well. But she didn’t know that I had been spending whole days playing online dominoes rather than working. I don’t know how much online dominoes you’ve played. It’s not especially fun and not at all rewarding. Certainly not as rewarding as, say, providing for one’s family. It was pretty humiliating to have to tell my wife what I had been wasting at her expense and at the expense of our family. Come to think of it, it’s painful to write it here–but this was a long time ago, and hopefully it will do somebody good to hear the story.

Lou Alice was characteristically understanding and supportive. Then she told me go somewhere to write and not to come back until I came back with a finished book. Friends of ours owned a cabin out in the boonies with no phone, no television, no internet, and no cellular service to speak of. I went there with a pile of books about Saint Patrick, a laptop computer, three dozen eggs, a few loaves of bread, some pizzas, and a large bag of grapefruit. 

It was a pretty miserable couple of weeks. Accustomed to a household of eight robustious people, I was terribly lonesome. My sleep got all messed up. In the quiet of the cabin, I had an auditory hallucination or two. I ran out of grapefruit. But I did finish the book–a biography of Saint Patrick.

I finished the book, but I didn’t really get over the writer’s block. In the cabin I had created an artificial environment in which the pain of not-writing was greater than the pain of writing. So I wrote. When I got home, life was good again. Back in the bosom of my family, the pain of not-writing wasn’t nearly so painful. So I didn’t write. 

But then I got a life-changing email from a reader. (I told this part of the story in an earlier issue of The Habit). This reader simply said that my earlier books had meant a lot to her, and she really needed this next one. She also said that she would be praying for me.

I had been thinking of this writer’s block as an individual tragedy, a kind of one-man show of heartache in which I wasn’t getting what I needed from the writing process. It was no coincidence that my writer’s block had come along when I had five book contracts. I was finally a “professional writer” by any reasonable definition. But being a professional writer hadn’t turned out to be the shangri-la I had told myself it was going to be. Up to that point, I always thought contentment with the writing life was just around the corner. When I wasn’t happy to have five book contracts, it didn’t look like I was every going to be happy with the writing life. 

That email reminded me, however, that I wasn’t writing for myself, but for people who, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, needed what I had to give. That reminder broke the log jam. I knocked out the rest of The Charlatan’s Boy in a few weeks.

Saint Augustine spoke of sin as incurvatus in se–curving in on the self. Writing, if you’re not wise, invites a kind of self-absorption that never ends well, whatever area of life or work we’re talking about. Self-forgetfulness is the rarest of jewels for the writer, but what a blessing when you get it.

I get a good many questions about overcoming writer’s block, so I’ll wrap things up with a few additional thoughts on the subject, some of which count as advice, some of which don’t:

  1.  Ask whether your failure to produce actually is “writer’s block” and not just laziness.

  2. Real writer’s block is usually a function of fear. It’s worth asking what you’re afraid of. Are you afraid that you’re wasting valuable time that you could be devoting to something more worthwhile? Are you afraid that you will somehow be exposed as a fool for even thinking you could write? Interrogate your fears. If you can say them out loud, it helps. If you can say them out loud to another person, that helps even more.

  3. Give yourself permission to write badly.

  4. Give yourself very small writing assignments. Nobody writes books. They write sentences.

I’m no expert on books about writing, but I found Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird to be very helpful (#3 and 4 above come pretty much straight from that book). Also a lot of people have benefitted a lot from Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, which is all about overcoming “Resistance.” It’s a little New-Agey, but if you can spit out the bones, there’s lots of helpful stuff in there.

Tom Wolfe and the Audience of One

Tom Wolfe died earlier this year. He was one of the originators of the so-called New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s (so, yes, he inspired a lot of really bad imitations, but I don’t see how we can blame him for that). His novel The Bonfire of the Vanities was an important chronicle of the excesses of Manhattan’s financial class in the 1980s. Also, he was exceedingly good at putting sentences together when he had a mind to.

My first exposure to Tom Wolfe was an article, originally published in Esquire, called “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” By telling the story of NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, the piece traces the origins of stock-car racing, which grew out of moonshine-running in much the same way that rodeo grew out of cowboying. It’s a pretty fascinating read; I commend it to you.

Tom Wolfe was famous for his dapper clothes. But when he went to the wilds of North Carolina to write the Junior Johnson story, he decided to dress down, the better to fit in with the locals. He wore a green tweed suit and a black knit tie to various garages and diners and moonshine operations around North Wilkesboro until Junior Johnson pulled him aside and asked him to reconsider his wardrobe. Junior had grown tired of answering questions about the “little green man” who was following him around.

According to Tom Wolfe, that was the last time he ever tried to fit in with his subjects while doing research for a story. At some point, in fact, he started wearing a white linen suit everywhere he went. Since he seemed to be terrible at fitting in anyway, this was probably a good decision. But more importantly, he found it helpful to come into a situation as “a man from Mars” who didn’t even pretend to know what was going on. It gave him permission to ask dumb questions. So if you’re a journalist or otherwise have reason to ask questions for your writing, there’s a pro-tip you can try.

But there’s another thing I learned from Tom Wolfe that has broader application for writers. One of his first big articles for Esquire was “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” about the custom-car culture of Southern California. After spending four weeks at an expensive hotel in Los Angeles, burning through lots of his publisher’s money, and taking pages and pages of notes, he was flattened by a bad case of writer’s block. He had piles of ideas and facts, and some great turns of phrase, but he just couldn’t seem to find the place to start. After weeks of wrestling around with it, he finally gave up. He told his editor, Byron Dobell, that he needed to drop the assignment. According to an interview Wolfe did with Terry Gross, Dobell told him just to hand over his notes so they could find a “competent writer” to make an article out of them.

So at about 9:00 that night, Tom Wolfe started writing a memo to his editor: 

Dear Byron,
The first place I saw customized cars was at a teen fair in North Hollywood, California…

He wrote through the night, producing fifty type-written pages. He sent them over toEsquiremagazine in the morning. Later that day, Byron Dobell called to say that he was just going to remove the “Dear Byron,” and run the whole memo as the article. 

As Tom Wolfe told Terry Gross,

By writing what I thought was a memorandum to a single individual who was about my own age, I had liberated myself from all the fears and all the constraints that you feel when you’re writing something as formal as a magazine article for a national audience.

Most of us aren’t writing magazine articles for national audiences. Nevertheless, there are all sorts of fears and constraints that can keep a writer from writing. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, many of the blocks go away when you write directly to or for a real person. Tom Wolfe said it can work for anybody once.

I can attest that it has worked for me at least once. When I was writing (or, rather, failing to write)The Terrible Speed of Mercy, a “spiritual biography” of Flannery O’Connor, I spent hours and hours of desk time thinking of people who were more qualified for the task than I, then wondering what they would think of my book if they read it. I also spent more hours than I would care to count wondering what Flannery O’Connor would think. 

At the time I was in a lunchtime bowling league with Andy Osenga (Andy, by the way, now has a podcast called The Pivot that you absolutely have to listen to). He asked what kind of book I was writing, and I told him it was a book for intelligent, well-read Christians who had heard they were supposed to like Flannery O’Connor but could never quite managed to do so. Andy said that described him exactly. 

So when I went back to my desk that afternoon, instead of wondering what the “real” Flannery O’Connor scholars would think about my book, or, worse, fearing that they would never think about my book one way or another, I wrote some things I thought Andy Osenga ought to know about Flannery O’Connor. And the next morning I wrote some more things for Andy. And I kept on that way until I had written a whole book.

I don’t know whether Andy ever read it or not.

On Not Being the Smartest Person in the Room

In a recent interview with Terri Gross, the writer David Sedaris remarked, “I’m rarely the smartest person in the room. I have other qualities, but searing intelligence is not one of them.” 

David Sedaris is a hilarious writer and an excellent prose stylist, so it is tempting to chalk this up to false humility. But I’ve been pondering his remarks in my heart, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in separating excellent writing from “searing intelligence.” 

What does “excellent writing” even mean? Because this is a letter and not a book, I’m going to grossly oversimplify:

  • Excellent writing is technically proficient, at the sentence level and at larger organizational levels.
  • Excellent writing gives the reader something he couldn’t have gotten for himself.

Technical proficiency requires practice, and while I concede that it also requires a certain amount of intelligence, the threshold isn’t especially high. You can learn the technicalities of writing just as you can learn the technicalities of basketball. People who can make 80% of their free throws look like wizards to me, but only because I’ve never learned the basics of free-throw shooting–or, rather, when people have tried to teach me the basics of free-throw shooting, I have never followed up with practice. 

I’m not talking about the technicalities of writing this week, except to say that they are teachable and learnable, and to put them into practice requires commitment more than intelligence. 

But what about that other requirement of writing excellence, to give the reader something that he couldn’t get for himself? The great pleasure of reading is to have an idea or image put into your head that you would have never thought of yourself. Doesn’t that require searing intelligence, to come up with ideas and images that your reader has never considered before? 

In short, no.

I am fully convinced that if you will simply pay attention to the world as it presents itself to you and write what you have seen, you can hardly help but give your reader ideas and images he has never considered before. To put it another way, if you see what you see and write what you see, originality will take care of itself.

Last week one of my online students wrote a piece about the basement of the church where her father preached when she was a little girl. This sentence fairly jumped off the page:

On Fridays, the basement echoed with the thump of the mimeograph machine as Dad printed the church bulletins, cursing under his breath at the spread of slippery purple ink. 

At that moment I felt that this writer was giving me access to a world that I otherwise had no access to. A preacher cussing the office equipment is something most of us won’t see first-hand. But this writer has seen it and remembered it, and when she offers it up to the reader, it feels as if we’ve been let in on a secret.

If someone assigned you or me the task of writing about a church basement, it would never occur to either of us to depict the preacher quietly cursing a mimeograph machine. But once you see it in this writer’s story, it is entirely believable. 

Unexpected but believable. That sweet spot is the essence of what we call originality in writing. And the most reliable path to that sweet spot is to pay attention to a world that is forever serving up the unexpected.

Later in the same piece comes another great image from the church basement: 

Martha brought cakes tasting of cigarette smoke, a pretty pattern swirled into the nicotine-tainted frosting.

Again, unexpected but entirely believable. Was the preacher’s daughter being original when she depicted her father cussing at the mimeograph machine or a cake that tasted like cigarettes? In her mind, probably not. She was just telling what she had seen. But the reader experiences those images as fresh and original. The writer has given us something that we didn’t have any way of getting for ourselves.

That kind of writing has nothing to do with intelligence. I’m not commenting on this particular writer’s mental capacities one way or another; she could be the next Einstein for all I know. All I’m saying is that this kind of writing doesn’t require towering intelligence any more than shooting free throws does.

I don’t wish to oversimplify the very complex act that is writing, nor do I wish entirely to demystify a process that is mysterious. But as a writing teacher, I see my role largely a matter of helping my students relax into the confidence that their unique experience and their unique view of the world are the raw material for excellent, original writing.

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