When I was a boy, I read a comic book about which I remember only one scene: the protagonists are being menaced by a bad guy with a gun. They get backed into a corner (literally, if memory serves, not figuratively), and just when it is obvious that there is no way they could possibly escape, the bad guy bursts into flames right before their eyes. One protagonist turns to the other and says, “Spontaneous human combustion: what a stroke of luck!”
In an early chapter of Henry and the Chalk Dragon, La Muncha Elementary School receives a visit from two mysterious people whom Henry hears referred to as “Bored Members” and who walk around in dark suits and glasses a la The Matrix, write things in their notebooks, and terrify the creatively repressed and desperately sycophantic principal.
I often tell people that Flannery O’Connor once wrote “the eye is an organ of judgment.” Turns out, she never wrote that. When I typed “the eye is an organ of judgment” into the Google machine, the only thing that came back was a picture of me, from a previous issue of The Habit in which I had misquoted Flannery O’Connor. Sorry about that.
Every time I start a new online class, I send my students an introductory email that includes the following “Word About Feedback”:
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.”
“If you want to be a writer, be a reader.” This may be the most commonly-offered writing advice of all. And it’s good advice as far as it goes. But encouraging writers to read has always felt to me like encouraging teenage boys to eat three meals a day and maybe a couple of snacks. People who want to write tend to be people who are already reading. I think. Right?
This whole thing—and by that I mean all of creation, from the outermost galaxies to my kitchen table—swirls around a Jewish man from the first century. He was born of woman, was a refugee, was more or less homeless, and lived a relatively short life. But his presence on the planet all those years ago changed history, and I believe he was the incarnation of God himself.
Begin with the end in mind. That’s Habit 2 of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In most human endeavors, this is excellent advice. In large matters and small, beginning with the end in mind helps ensure that the steps you take move you in the right direction. I heartily commend this advice to you…in all areas of your life besides writing.
I’ve gotten a few questions lately about how to start writing a book or story or essay. For many writers, the blank page or blank screen is a terror and a seemingly insurmountable barrier. So how do you get started?
There are a million substitutes for starting. You can outline, you can puzzle out plot problems, you can research. For years I’ve been wrestling around with a particularly sticky point-of-view problem for a novel that I “want” to write. I put “want” in quotation marks because if I really wanted to write it, I would be writing it instead of wrestling around with point-of-view problems.
“Heaven’s kingdom realm can be compared to the tiny mustard seed that a man takes and plants in his field. Although the smallest of all the seeds, it eventually grows into the greatest of garden plants, becoming a tree for birds to come and build their nests in its branches.”
It could have been any sort of day, the day when the seed was planted. I imagine, for I know the sensation, that the seed felt like a splinter grown infected. The heat and tenderness of the spot made it almost intolerable. It had to be removed.
In Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, Tenar is taken as a little girl from her village because she is believed to be the reincarnation of the high priestess of the Tombs to the Nameless Ones. She goes through a symbolic ritual where she is almost beheaded but is spared at the last minute, so it is said that Tenar has died and Arha, which means the “eaten one,” lives on.
We don’t know exactly how it all went down, but we do know this: Jesus was dead, and then he wasn’t. A battered corpse was stretched out on a slab, and then the heart in the ribcage started beating again. Jesus inhaled and at once the heavy air in the tomb became more than air; it became breath.