In this blog post, Alan Jacobs casually quotes Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Robert Conquest, W. B. Yeats, and Christopher Hitchens, and makes several references to George Orwell. I have benefited from Dr. Jacobs’s writing over the years primarily, I think, because of his incredible range of reading and the ease with which he can tie together disparate threads of thought. It’s a skill to aspire to.
Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (via)
The first issue of my newsletter went out this morning, including a short essay I called “Writing in War-Time.” You can read it below, and, if you so desire, you can subscribe to the real deal here.
In 1939, almost two months after England declared war on Germany, C. S. Lewis gave a lecture about the importance of studying the humanities during a World War. Why waste time with such “placid occupations” as philosophy and literature, he asked, when men are dying in battle and the threat of invasion hangs over the nation?
We’re not in the middle of a World War, thankfully. But many of the same conditions that Lewis was concerned with exist today. A lot of people around the world are in very real danger, if not from the mysterious plague known as COVID-19, then from riots and civil unrest. It’s hard to read the headlines without dread. In such an environment, we may ask the same question Lewis poses: why spend time doing anything but the most essential activities?
Of course, what activities qualify as “essential” changes depending on who you ask (shopping? protest? worship?), but the question remains the same. In extreme circumstances, how do we justify wasting time on non-essentials? In Lewis’s lecture, “non-essentials” include studying the humanities. For me, they include writing children’s fiction and mulling over poetry while staring at the wall.
In his typical fashion, Lewis reframes the whole conversation. It’s wrong to ask whether studying (or writing) is the right thing to do in the middle of a war, he says, because the question assumes that war presents an unusual danger that must be met with an unusual response. The reality is that we are always in danger of our lives. None of us can be sure that he will be alive tomorrow. A better question, then, is whether studying or writing is ever the right thing to do. Why spend time reading Aristotle when you could be protesting? Why spend time writing poems when you could be saving souls? Why not do things that matter?
Lewis answers the question from many angles, but part of his answer is this: we waste time on “non-essentials” because we can’t help it. It’s human nature to play cards on the eve of battle. When city workers tore down a Confederate memorial in Birmingham in the middle of the night last week, they stopped for a pizza break. Even SWAT teams crack jokes on duty.
In the direst circumstances, people stubbornly remain people. They keep on humming, snickering, debating, reading, reciting, and contemplating. This means that they need good songs to hum, good jokes to laugh at, good ideas to debate, good books to read, good poetry to recite, and good art to contemplate. As Lewis says, “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the [battle] line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. if you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”
Writing in the midst of pandemics and protests is, from the vantage point of eternity, not that different from writing at any other time. The only difference is that it’s much easier to get distracted. But the importance of the work remains unchanged. The world will have stories, and those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to write them must give the world good ones.
The world is calling us to action. But what should the artist do? Should artists set aside our pens and paintbrushes and pick up swords? The answer is far simpler and far more difficult. In times like these, the artist ought to stick to his work. Are you a chef? Make delicious food. Are you a musician? Play beautiful music. Are you a filmmaker? Capture moments in time. This present moment needs good works of art no more or less than any other, which means that it needs them vitally.
I’m working on my laptop at the card table we have set up in our dining room, which wiggles whenever I hit the space bar, and my three-year-old daughter asks what I’m doing. Well, I say, I’m writing a story. Tell me the story, she says, and I crack my mental knuckles, ready to wow her with the complex urban fantasy I’m weaving.
I struggle. Quickly I realize that mythology doesn’t interest her. She wants to hear about the main character (a twelve-year-old girl). What is she like? What is she doing? What happens to her? What is she trying to do and what stands in her way? My daughter wants me to put the story in terms she can understand. And it hits me: I can’t answer the most basic questions about my story.
From now on, I plan to hold all of my stories to what I’ll call the three-year-old test. If I can’t put my story in a form that interests a three-year-old, I don’t understand it yet.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
I don’t know how I made it to thirty years old without reading this book. I saw the movie many years ago, so I’ve known the story. The book is almost perfect. Certain scenes, like Atticus shooting the dog, had me grafted to my seat. Who could wish for a better character than Atticus?
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
I went into this expecting six hundred pages on the depravity of man. Who would’ve imagined a 20th century writer so full of life! Anybody who could write a character like Sam Hamilton had at least part of his head on straight. (Part of his head…? Like the nose?) If the whole book had just been an extended conversation with Sam Hamilton and Lee, I would’ve still loved it. The story didn’t stick with me much, and Catherine/Cathy/Kate is just plain silly, but Steinbeck’s Bradbury-like verve won me over. I’ll read more.
New Kid, Jerry Craft
The first graphic novel to win the Newbery. Graphic novels are great at some things, bad at others. Sensations, impressions, and feelings are in the first category. This book was fun there. Subtlety is in the second category. But who cares? You’re reading a graphic novel!
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Because these aren’t real book reviews, I don’t have to talk about everything in this book. There’s a lot. One thing that stuck out to me is how often Raskolnikov gets tangled up with other people’s affairs despite his attempts to separate himself from humanity. But the scene that I will carry with me is the one in which Raskolnikov prays on the bridge. The minute he finishes praying, he realizes that he will carry out his gruesome plan. How often this happens! The very moment we ask for God’s help in fighting temptation is the moment in which we give ourselves over to it.
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
For a book that was supposed to be silly and disposable, this one has remained with me. I can’t call my daughter without thinking of Hester the governess, who is strictly committed to her policy of never chasing down her charges. They will come to her eventually, she says. And they do.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
My friends told me this book made them weep. That’s usually a guarantee that I will finish the last page with a clear countenance and dry eyes. Well, I cried. Tommy and Kathy bemoan the shortness of their time together, but how much longer do the rest of us really have? One of the great joys of the resurrection will be the reunion of soul and body, not only for each of us ourselves, but for those who love us. More than beating Death is the knowledge that Death will no more take away those whom we love.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
I get something new out of this every time I read it. This time around, I was struck by Hamlet’s wit. He’s fairly lightning. “‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” Also, thanks to the Ignatius Press edition I was teaching from, I recognized more Christian imagery than I have before. Specifically, I am convinced that the story takes place during Lent, and that Hamlet is a type of reluctant Christ.
Blood Will Out, Walter Kirn
Not sure what I was expecting. I picked it up because Kirn apparently spoke at a Wordsmithy a few years ago. It’s the story of Kirn’s friendship with a man who called himself Clark Rockefeller, but who turned out to be a psychopath named Christian Gerhartsreiter. The “reveal” was old news when Kirn wrote the book, so he doesn’t expend any effort setting it up or dramatically pulling back the curtain. It’s mostly about Kirn, actually, asking himself whether writers and shape-shifting con-artists really are so different after all. There’s a disconcerting thought.
H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald
Began this ages ago on audio, finished it in print. Print helped me appreciate the writing more. It is, as Alan Jacobs said, “magnificent.” One oddity of MacDonald’s style is that her descriptions come in great blocks of prose. You’d expect more white space for such a dynamic subject as goshawks. But the formatting lends her words a weight and inevitability (dareisay, naturalness?) that really fits her story.
Girl at the End of the World, Elizabeth Esther
As my wife said, it’s amazing that this woman is still a Christian. A testament to the grace of God.
Miracles, C. S. Lewis
I had begun this book years ago and never made it past the first few chapters. For Lewis, it’s dense. Finally got through it this time, stumbling over a few complicated logical blocks. Definitely worth reading closely. May do a blog-through of it someday (ha, as if!).
Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh
Another one that needs more in-depth analysis. Check the tag at the bottom of the post.
Heretics, G. K. Chesterton
Reading Chesterton is an ongoing habit for me, one I pray I never drop. Here’s a quote to tide you over: “Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”
Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp
Read this again for an online book club I’m doing with David and Jon, a couple of high school friends who are also dads to young kids. Recommended.
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
Half whisky, half hogwash.
Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon
Austin’s book makes me want to be messier in my art. Which, I think, is a good thing.
Show Your Work, Austin Kleon
Long Live Latin, Nicola Gardini
I heard about this book through Prufrock News and thought, as a Latin teacher and a lifelong language votarient, I should give it a shot. It was effusive. My favorite thing about it was Gardini’s attention to detail. He exults in Latin’s very vowels.
The principle of growth means we have to move on, but it also means that we cannot move on until we understand our heritage. To try to generate good church music out of the meager vocabulary of American popular music is like trying to generate good theology out of the ideas heard on Christian radio and television. Christian theologians need to acquire familiarity with the whole of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to move forward into new man-made theologies. Christian musicians must know all the music of the Christian past, in constant contact with the primary special symbols, in order to produce good contemporary Christian music.James Jordan, Through New Eyes, p. 37
If you took a gander at my media diary, you’d notice that I spend a lot of time reading theology. Why be theologically literate, you might ask, if you write fiction? What’s the point? The point is exactly what JBJ explains above: in order to produce good Christian stories, the writer must be in constant contact with the primary special symbols, which means reading, examining, and knowing the Bible.
Yep. Me, too. School’s been canceled for T and Ph, so all three of us will be cozying up in our two-bedroom apartment. I do still have to teach remotely, which will be an adventure in itself, but if I can figure out a system for that, we’re in for a relaxing twenty-one days (and beyond!). Our shelves are stocked (with books). Our TP is plentiful. No one’s sick, as yet.
Still, seeing the same four walls every day gets old (gimme new four walls, please), so T and I have given ourselves a two-item daily checklist to keep us sane:
- Go outside
Day 2, and we’re going strong! Ask again in three weeks…
When I first became aware of the extent of the panic and despair surrounding the coronavirus situation and what steps might be taken in order to halt its spread, I immediately saw it as an opportunity. Not an opportunity for technological innovation, though, as many people have pointed out, this global quarantine (an oxymoron?) will be the first real stress-test of our much vaunted tools for remote working. Nor an opportunity for direct Christian witness, though Christians can and should be ministering to those around them during this dual-pandemic (a plague of flu combined with a plague of fear) in ways that are selfless and wise.*
The opportunity I’m talking about is captured in this short blog post by Kitty O’Meara (HT my brother Smith):
And the people stayed home. And they read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And they listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live, and they healed the earth fully, as they had been healed.
One Instagrammer suggested the earth may be punishing humanity for the sin of climate change. Another applauded the sentiment as though it represented all the justice in the world. If that doesn’t represent despair, I don’t know what does. O’Meara’s quote has a grain of that, but the substance of it is that when people are forced to stop hustling and be still, they are receptive to all kinds of things that they resisted before.
If you’re in the habit of creating stuff for other people, especially short bite-sized stuff (songs, poems, short stories), consider this an opportunity to share. People are cheered by beauty, as Malcolm Guite can attest, and in times of despair, they need it more than ever.
Consider this also an opportunity to create more than you normally do. The leaves of newspapers are sticky with panic over the various shortages we may or may not experience in the coming months. What the pundits fail to realize is that people, especially people who have the chance to sit still, produce wealth. And I mean wealth of all kinds.
*In an email to the congregation late last week, Pastor Lusk shared this quote from Martin Luther about Christian witness in the time of the Black Death:
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.
The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. It is a disease which arises from men not having sufficient power of expression to utter and get rid of the element of art in their being. It is healthful to every sane man to utter the art within him; it is essential to every sane man to get rid of the art within him at all costs. Artists of a large and wholesome vitality get rid of their art easily, as they breathe easily, or perspire easily. But in artists of less force, the thing becomes a pressure, and produces a definite pain, which is called the artistic temperament. Thus, very great artists are able to be ordinary men—men like Shakespeare or Browning. There are many real tragedies of the artistic temperament, tragedies of vanity or violence or fear. But the great tragedy of the artistic temperament is that it cannot produce any art.
~G. K. Chesterton, “The Wit of Whistler” in Heretics
Barry Newman started working for the Wall Street Journal when Nixon was president. His book News to Me recounts what he learned over five decades of reporting. Each lesson is coupled with a feature story to showcase the observation or technique. (Newman likes to write stories about people doing unusual – even inhuman – jobs: the men who search for the US-Canada border, people who decode bad handwriting on envelopes, the guy who blasts sewer fat-bergs.)
Though I’ve never done a feature story like the ones Newman writes, I found much of value in this book. Here’s a list of tricks I learned:
Where to get ideas:
- Look for lonely causes, solo workers, individuals driven by an unusual passion. When you see the press, head in the other direction. Reporters crowded the US-Mexico border to research immigration, so Newman went the other way and did a story about the five guys in charge of the five-thousand-mile US-Canada border.
- Look for things that make you go “huh?” Cock your head and take another look. Why is the cold tap on the right side of the sink? Why are the titles on the spine of books oriented one way in English and the other way in French?
- Follow family connections. Your uncle has a friend whose wife is involved with a badminton league? Chase that down.
- Look out the window. One of the great gifts given to writers is a penchant for looking at the world upside-down. Maybe you’ve passed the same weird sign in your car every day but never bothered to stop and ask the question: “What is a Christian Science Reading Room, anyway?” My apartment complex got a new roof a few weeks back. The whole roofing crew spoke Spanish. Do Mexicans have a monopoly on roofing and construction in Birmingham?
- One idea will lead to another. A feature writer never has room for everything. Details are dropped that may crop up in the next story.
- Ask questions without obvious answers. If the reader can guess what the answer will be, you’re asking the wrong question. Bad: Do Multinational Corporations Create Jobs in the Third World? Good: How does that pimento get in the martini olive? Why don’t Seattleites use umbrellas? Where do pounds bury the animals they euthanize?
- If you know the topic or the direction, start taking notes and gathering clips. When the deadline approaches, you have a backlog to draw from. It reminds me of the strategy (popularized by Ryan Holiday) of gathering materials in folders (or on notecards) that you may have an opportunity to use “someday.”
- Everything has been written before. There are no new ideas. Newman’s response: Who cares? You can’t do it first, so do it best. Also, don’t stop at the wisecracks. Go deeper. There’s always a story there.
- Stories are about things that happen to things. Don’t write encyclopedia entries. Write about what happens.
- I’ve heard many writers and reporters and workers of all stripes say that the kids need to learn to leave their desks and get out in the world. Newman agrees. He often leaves the office to hunt down a story before he even knows what the story will look like. He tells his editors he’s leaving and that he’ll let them know when he gets back whether he found a story. (Such freedom would be nice, wouldn’t it?)
- On the other hand, a proposal can be a cool cloth to a sweating editor’s brow. Newman’s advice is to do enough research to justify the trip, but don’t write the story till you get back. (He has a good example of a proposal on page 91. It has all the information one could glean from the phone or the internet, but no scenes, word-pictures, or live quotes.)
- Gather string. Take time. One tidbit may take years to merge with another and create a story. Quite a lot of a writer’s time is spent waiting and taking notes (physical and mental). Observation is work.
- To circumvent PR reps, go to lesser competitors, yesterday’s heroes, and unrecognized experts. Thanks to Amazon’s PR, Newman couldn’t talk to IMDb about cinematic goof-ups, but its “pipsqueak rival,” Movie Mistakes, was only too happy to chat.
- Accidents take effort. Be in the right place and wait for the right time. This ties in with a key tenet of reporting: why now? You might have all sorts of ideas to write about (I know I do), but you need an angle. Newman calls it a vehicle that your story can ride. It’s some specific person, situation, or place that metonymizes an entire cultural trend. (That said, remember the specific. More on that further down.)
- Every story needs pictures. Not photos, necessarily, but word-pictures. When you read Newman’s stories, you notice that almost every one of them starts and ends with a description of a person doing something. You get a picture in your mind right away. Short story writers, make a note.
- When doing street interviews, find people who stay put. Don’t chase them down, notebook in hand. Approach folks at park benches, stadia, bars, parking lots, hotel lobbies, movie lines, bus stops. Also, find people who want to talk. Don’t ask Joe Briefcase about fracking. Ask the protestors at an anti-fracking march. Ask people in line for the natural history museum about their views on cloning mammoths.
- In interviews, people always say what they think you want to hear. The best stuff comes when they think the interview’s over. Find dialogue and you will find a scene.
- Find talkative, unimportant people who feel ignored and have lots of time. Find people who work or live parallel to the rich and famous. And don’t make them out to be emblematic of a group, even if they are members of that group. They are themselves, and that’s what makes them interesting. Avoid pickle barrels. Find the one and only.
- Find contrasts. An old journalism adage says, “Get the other side.” When you pair up the opposition, both sides show their colors a little more.
Some great practical advice:
- Newman’s notebook is a National 1 Subject, Narrow Ruled Eye-Ease (R) Paper, 80 sheets. He has over 700 of them lined up on shelves in his office. Their chief assets are they lay flat and have a hard back cover that provides a portable writing surface. He uses a BIC (R) Cristal Easy Glide Bold 1.6mm, unless the temperature’s below-zero, in which case he carries a pencil and a sharpener.
- Plan ahead. Bring cash. Don’t waste time. Your objectives are efficiency and security.
- Get a great lede, or your reader will move on. Put your best stuff up front, even if it’s not the main point of the story. (Yet another lesson for short story writers.) Take a look at this opener: “Before he pulled the trigger, before the car chase, before the cops ran him down and threw him in jail, Jim Stevenson had a calm look at the Texas penal code, and judged that it would permit radical measures in defense of a piping plover.” Don’t you want to read that story?
- Find a nut, a kernel, a peg. Somehow, you have to convince an editor that your story needs to run now. Relevance often feels forced, but hunting for the right nut can strength your reporting. It doesn’t have to be political at all. It just has to tie your story to the here and now. The nut is not the story, either, so Newman likes to end his nut-graf on a note of expectation, not finality, so that the reader won’t bow out early. The challenge is to stick with the formula (lede, nut, quote, to-be-sure, history, etc.), but weave a storyline through it from beginning to end, so the reader keeps reading.
- Indexing – a great idea. Newman indexes all his interview notes, research, books, clippings, press releases, academic studies, and scribbles, then groups them according to topic. Related ideas and observations coalesce into paragraphs. No stone is unturned. The process of going through each note line by line reveals the shape of the story and unearths connections that were invisible before.
- Last, keep it short. The secret, Newman says, to short writing is long reporting. Know your stuff so you can leave it out.
In looking for commonplace books available online for free, I came across a volume by H. Rider Haggard in which he chronicles his first year of farming the family plot of land. No great agricultural insights will be unearthed in his book, Haggard admits. He is really interested in the experience of learning to farm.
I would like to do the same thing on my blog. I rarely post updates about my writing because it feels like Monday morning quarterbacking. Why write about writing when writing itself needs to be done? I have a deathly fear of being one of those people who talk rather than do. But, thinking about it, I realize that, in my case, a little bit of self-reflection could be a kind of tonic that may actually strengthen my writing constitution.
All that to say, I have been chipping away at a middle-grade novel set in Philadelphia that I call “FB” for short. (I haven’t thought up a title I’m happy with.) I’ve finished a complete first draft of FB, which, though a horrendous, mutant mess, does have good bones. My main challenge over the next few months will be moving through that manuscript chapter by chapter, nipping and tucking. The task daunts me. But there are moments when I forget to be daunted and enjoy myself.