Chasing Rabbits

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David Bentley Hart, in a recent edition of his newsletter Leaves in the Wind, wrote:

As of five days ago, Leaves in the Wind has entered into its third year of existence. Once again, my deep thanks to all my subscribers for making it possible for me to write in the way I like to write. One of the basic pieces of advice that Substack offers to every writer who uses its platform is that he or she should ideally confine his or her publication to a specific topic (baking, UFOs, folk music, extremist politics, pet-grooming—that sort of thing), since that as a rule is what attracts subscriptions. Obviously, I have done precisely the opposite; I have never wanted to write about one thing and one thing only, even if I could make money by doing so, because I simply do not have that kind of mind. I have tried to make a virtue out of my tendency toward wandering attention, since I really have no discretion in the matter; it will wander whether I want it to do so or not. And you good and gracious souls allow me to flatter myself I have succeeded—at least, well enough to have retained your good will.

When I began writing on the web twenty years ago, the same advice prevailed. Pick a topic, stick with it, and build up your content base. Cultivate a niche audience. Find out what readers want. Cater to those desires. Stay on theme. Stay on schedule. Sing your song. Keep singing. Publish. Publish. Publish. Second verse, same as the first.

My approach to writing in public has changed over the years. My understanding of what I’ve been doing, and my philosophy of writing, has been developed and refined. I began with the desire to share thoughts, advocate for ideas, make connections, and build community. I started playing around with blogs in the days of Xanga and GeoCities, published a few short essays on a short lived MySpace site, and was an early adopter of several major social media services, which were places to keep writing, or to share writing. As a writer, I eventually landed on WordPress, which has served my purposes just fine. I’ve written beyond my home space. I’ve been thankful for those opportunities, when they’ve arisen.

There has been a theme to my work. I’ve written mainly about Christianity and my experiences as a person of faith. I’ve always written about theology and the Bible; more recently I have focused on Christian spiritual formation. I’ve relayed anecdotes and shared sermons and captured plenty of quotes and sometimes added brief commentary. I’ve written devotionally. I’ve written personally. I’ve shared news about my family. I’ve ocassionally commented on technology, developments in higher education, and philosophical ideas. Recently, I’ve shared music playlists that, for me, are snapshots in time. I write about books, both reviews of individual works and summations of what I’ve read, the latter an annual issue that attracts the interest of a few friends at the start of each year.

I’ve never had a large readership. I confess this used to concern me. I’ve let that concern go. The ideas I write about are of interest to me, and the practice of writing has helped me develop my voice and improve my craft. Eugene Peterson once suggested that I shouldn’t write for an audiencce, I should write for the truth, and only if I feel a fire in my bones. My pursuit is not a broad readership, but clearer thinking and a better understanding of myself, the world, and, ultimately, the truth. Writing crystalizes thought. Writing is also a practice, if practiced well, not only conveys what you know, but leads you to discoveries formerly unknown and ways of expressing things that you did not know were in there, inside you, things you did not know you could say or were capable of saying. Words represent thoughts. The thoughts come out. Sometimes they are clear. Sometimes they are a jumble. You work with the words. You move them around. You wrestle with them. They wrestle back. You hope they hang where you place them, and that they hang together in a manner that makes sense not only to you, but to others. We seek meaning. We share meaning. Writing is an act of meaning-making. We benefit from the work. Writing, when it is made a public artefact, can also benefit others, maybe even a broad swath of humankind.

If you write in public, you send your words out into the world. You are a mind, reaching out to other minds. Maybe those ideas catch on. Maybe they make sense. Or maybe they drift into the digital ether, collecting the equivalent of computational dust. Putting work out there is an act of faith. You don’t really know what will happen.

David Bentley Hart writes, “I have never wanted to write about one thing and one thing only, even if I could make money by doing so, because I simply do not have that kind of mind. I have tried to make a virtue out of my tendency toward wandering attention, since I really have no discretion in the matter; it will wander whether I want it to do so or not.”

That approach resonates with me. I am not nearly as skilled a writer as he is, nor a polymath, nor as accomplished. But that doesn’t matter.

I can chase rabbits. I might even catch a few. It could even be fun. That’s what writing is. Chasing ideas. Acquiring needed provisions (not only reading, but experience). Going out on the hunt. Having an adventure. Opening up to contingency. Some successes could be plain luck. Other successess will be born of hard work. Nothing will happen if you don’t show up, sit in the chair, dance with the ideas, make choices, commit, and share. You might find delight in composing a good sentence. Someone else might delight in reading one. Experiences might align; they might not. Delight is not the only possible experience a writer or a reader may have. Boring? Possible. But heaven forbid it.

If you’re a writer, or considering a writing practice, by all means, write. If you’re a reader. Thanks. Thanks for joining the chase.

One Eucatastrophe After Another

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According to Tolkien, a eucatastrophe in a story often happens at the darkest moment. When all seems lost – when the enemy seems to have won – a sudden “joyous turn” for the better can emerge. It delivers a deep emotional reaction in readers: “a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart”, he wrote.

In The Hobbit, it’d be the sudden arrival of the eagles in the Battle of the Five Armies, while in The Lord of the Rings, it’s the moment Gollum unexpectedly falls into the cracks of Mount Doom, destroying the One Ring. But many other stories feature such turning points, whether it is the kiss that revives Snow White, or the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars.

As Tolkien wrote: “The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairytale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’… is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well… it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur.”

Richard Fisher, via BBC, “Eucatastrophe: Tolkien’s word for the ‘anti-doomsday’

Tolkein wrote a famous essay titled, “On Fair-Stories.” In that essay, Tolkein writes:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable Eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the Eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the Eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

“Legend and History have met and fused.”

Yes, they have.

Sign Up for My Newsletter. Reading is Recommended but Not Required. I’d Coerce You to Sign Up but I’m Pro-Freedom, a Reason the Newsletter is Free.

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The game we’re playing is one that gives power to writers and creators. It’s a game that ensures writers can maintain their independence without most of the drudgery that comes with running their own media operation, and without having to cede control to a gatekeeper. We build tools that give writers and creators the full powers of the internet so their work can have maximum impact, reach, and revenue. We are helping to unlock the potential of existing writers to get greater value for and from their work, and so that new types of writers can enter the media economy and thrive. That’s the movement Substack is helping to drive. We don’t believe it’s going to slow down any time soon. On the contrary, we expect it to accelerate and expand.

Hamish McKenize, “Please Stop Calling it the ‘Newsletter Economy'”

The headline tells you I suffer the occasional spell of long-windedness. If you read my newsletter, you can too! Hopefully, your suffering will be minimal compared to mine.

I write an occasional newsletter that you can preview and then subscribe to (please!) on Substack. It won’t hurt you to sign on for the free edition. Who knows? It could even help you. Maybe you’ll learn a joke, crack a smile, gain an insight, discover a book, or nauseously endure one of my bad movie takes. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I’ve been writing on Substack since spring 2020, having made the switch from another newsletter service early in the pandemic. I had the time. I didn’t move in order to launch a paid tier, as other writers were doing to connect directly with their readership and make a little money on the side.

I moved over mainly for the simple interface, something easy to use for a caveman like me, and the desire to send friends, family, and acquaintances an attractive looking email. I also felt Substack had a broader range of viewpoint tolerance and diversity. I support open inquiry. As someone representing a religious tradition that has historically valued freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and freedom of association, I’d like to be on platform that supports the open exchange of ideas. I know that means “bad” ideas will run wild, too. May the good ideas prevail! From what I could tell, Substack is the kind of place where arguments can be made by writers, at least for now.

If you aren’t already on board, go sign on for my newsletter. It’s Friday night. Make it a wild and memorable one.

Brandon Sanderson’s Underground Lair

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The novelist Brandon Sanderson constructed a lair beneath the lot next to his suburban home. Head over to Cal Newport’s website to see a few pictures. It’s awesome.

Austin Kleon’s been sharing progress pictures of his new studio in his email newsletter. I like seeing the spaces where writers and other artists do what they do. This New Yorker profile has a picture and brief description of the small, private cabin Wendell Berry constructed for writing in 1963. He has since published over fifty books. Berry’s Port William stories are among my favorites, especially Jayber Crow [affiliate link].

I find idea of the writer’s cabin–or underground lair–romantic. Maybe one day I’ll build my own, but my work would need to lead me there.

See What is Missing

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While the constant comparison of notes can help us to detect differences, no technique can help us to see what is missing. But we can make it a habit to always ask what is not in the picture, but could be relevant. This…does not come naturally to us.

One of the most famous figures to illustrate this skill is the mathematician Abraham Wald (Mangel and Samaniego 1984). During World War II, he was asked to help the Royal Air Force find the areas on their planes that were most often hit by bullets so they could cover them with more armour. But instead of counting the bullet holes on the returned planes, he recommended armouring the spots where none of the planes had taken any hits. The RAF forgot to take into account what was not there to see: All the planes didn’t make it back.

Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes, p. 126

Sometimes the key to insight and innovation isn’t what you see but what you don’t see.

Notice what is missing.

Ask yourself, “What’s not in the picture?”

Taking Notes on Notes

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Everybody writes. Especially in academia. Students write and professors write. And nonfiction writers, who are the third group of people this book is aiming to help, obviously write as well. And writing doesn’t necessarily mean papers, articles, or books, but everyday, basic writing. We write when we need to remember something, be it an idea, a quote or the outcome of a study. We write when we want to organize our thoughts and when we want to exchange ideas with others. Students write when they take an exam, but the the first thing they do to prepare even for an oral examination is to grab pen and paper. We write down not only those things we fear we won’t remember otherwise, but also the very things we try to memorise [sic]. Every intellectual endeavor starts with a note.

Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning, and Thinking — for Students, Academics, and Nonfiction Book Writers

I’m working to improve my methods for capturing, accessing, and utilizing information, and as a result I’m trying to get better at taking notes.

For years I’ve kept a quotation or commonplace book, where I sit down and copy out pithy sayings, phrases, proverbs, poems, and the like. When I’m looking for ideas, or I’m searching for insight, I’ll flip through and see what I’ve copied there. I also use Evernote and Google Drive in addition to pen and paper. I carry a small notebook with me. Lately, a Sharpie and Post-it notes have been my way of capturing ideas, putting them in front of me, and processing them one by one. I’ve also taken to Trello as a board to capture big ideas, and then pin accompanying images, links, etc. for later consideration and treatment. I use my blog as an archive for my thoughts, a place to put ideas I gravitate toward, write about them briefly, and then tag, categorize, and file for later exploration.

But I don’t have a great system. So I’m reading Ahrens’s book, cited above in order to learn how to do it better. As someone who writes about religion, spirituality, and faith, having a system that works is necessary. One of my seminary professors encouraged us to have a system, a way to capture, file, access, and utilize information. He shared his system. But he told us to glean what we could from the way he did it, and make it our own.

How do you take notes? How do you file and organize those notes, and then access them for later use? What works well, and what do you have trouble with?

Writing crystalizes and captures thought. Filing and organizing those thoughts makes them accessible, and when your thoughts are accessible you can put them to use. Some of us are great at writing things down, but terrible at filing and organizing and creating smooth channels for retrieval of information.

It’s one thing to make a note, and it is another to make a note that you can later use. Every intellectual endeavor may start with a note, but deep intellectual work requires systematization, organization, accessibility, and retrieval.

I’ve started creating project specific notebooks, or notebooks designated for particular areas of my life, such as a personal journal and a work journal. That’s one way I’ve tried to capture information in one place in order to keep it contained and accessible.

How do you do it?


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Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the “recluse” label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers. These limits most often come into play when people send me letters or e-mail, and also when I am invited to speak publicly.

Neal Stephenson, “Why I Am A Bad Correspondent

I like correspondence. I enjoy answering emails. I like writing letters.

But I also like doing the things that matter most. And correspondence can take a lot of time. For writers, the best way to continue connecting with readers might not be email. It might be more books, articles, and essays.

Stephenson adds:

There is little to nothing that I can offer readers above and beyond what appears in my published writings. It follows that I should devote all my efforts to writing more material for publication, rather than spending a few minutes here, a day there, answering e-mails or going to conferences.

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

I’m thinking about ideas like this one a lot, because I’m thinking about the things I want to do in the next few years and how most of those things require blocks of uninterrupted time. That means there are other things I will need to say no to. Maybe not emails. Maybe not letters. Maybe other little things, even good things, that subtract from what would be otherwise.

Writerly Ambivalence

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A quotation from Thomas Mann, via Alan Jacob’s eNewsletter:

I do not think that it is the essence and duty of the writer to join “with great fanfare” the main direction the culture is taking at the moment. I do not think and cannot from my very nature think that it is natural and necessary for the writer to support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy — as a solid knight of the times, without scruple and doubt, with straightforward intentions and an unbroken determination and spirit for it, his god. On the contrary, authorship itself has always seemed to me to be a witness to and an expression of ambivalence, of here and there, of yes and no, of two souls in one breast, of an annoying richness in inner conflicts, antitheses, and contradictions.

As a writer, this strikes me as absolutely correct.

As a churchman, with firm convictions on particular questions, this is a personal challenge.

Writers can be ideologues, and many certainly are. But in my experience weighing and evaluating arguments, there has been that pull of “yes and no, of two souls in one breast,” etc.

Those who “support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy” may not be thinking at all, or at least not thinking very clearly. They may be caught up in the spirit of an age, possessed, and in need of exorcism.

Good writing makes plain the tensions and trade-offs in any given debate. That doesn’t negate the necessity of plainly stating one’s conclusion, strongly and solidly. But after tracing out the contours of any given divide, stating your position can be offered with greater understanding, and more humility. Maybe that doesn’t get as many readers. Maybe the take won’t be as hot. But who cares about that, anyway? What matters is whether or not what one writes is true.

Pastors and the Writing Task, Part 2

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In my last post I argued that pastors should write. Pastors and ministry leaders should learn to write a good theological sentence, and, after assembling one good theological sentence, should go on to write successive sentences to accompany the first. Ministry leaders should also master various conveyances of the written word (memos, sermons, letters, notes, etc.). Why? Because good writing reflects good thinking, and the church is in need of a sharpened mind.

There are a handful of books that have helped me to write a little more clearly, compellingly, and concisely. These books are:

The first four selections include technical aspects of writing and inspiration to write.

The last selection may strike some as an odd choice. “The Bible?” you say, “I thought you were listing books that helped you learn how to write. The Bible is not a book about writing.”

But the Bible is a book that is written and that has had lasting power. It contains language that has resonated across multiple cultures and in various translations, now in multiple eras and ages. It has shaped language, culture, and the human imagination. It is a piece of writing that, in the reading of it, offers a masterclass in communication both human and divine. It contains parables and pericopes, aphorisms and anthology, narrative and history, law codes and ethical treatises, letters and memos, prophetic utterances and sorrowful lamentations, prayers and petitions, agreements and dissents; it conveys the full range of human emotion and contains powerful arguments about human nature, a holy God, and the purpose of human life. If you can set aside your biases and prejudices against this book, if you have them, you cannot help but marvel at the Bible’s power as a work of writing.

Maya Angelou, the American author and poet, said this about the Bible: “The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is.”

Pastors and other ministry leaders would be wise to read Zinsser or Lamott or King, and to learn a thing or two about craft. But they should be readers of the Bible, and not only for sermon or lesson preparation. The Bible’s cadences, rhythms, images, and turns of phrase, its variety and its diversity, are incredibly instructive for the writing task. And often, what comes out in writing is the result of what has been put in through reading, experience, and conversation. You cannot pass on that which you do not possess.

The words of the Bible should be hidden in hearts so that by God’s grace they might take on flesh and find fresh utterance through the witnesses and servants God appoints for a new telling of an old story in the present age.

Take up and read. Then, write.