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My website has had several iterations. My first blog was on Xanga, then I migrated to WordPress, then moved to Squarespace, and finally returned to WordPress. I may have tried to post some stuff on MySpace, too.

A few of my early readers signed up with FeedBurner to keep up with my writing. There are 51 people who are listed among my FeedBurner subscribers. When you signed up to receive my latest posts with FeedBurner, you were added to an RSS service. Every time I published a new blog entry, my content would deliver to your inbox.

Looking down that list, there are friends from the FirstLight era, my time at University Baptist Church, folks I met at Institute, and people I got to know while living in Kansas. There are a few Waco friends, too, and some family, and one or two friends from Tyler.

FeedBurner is undergoing some changes, and to better manage my subscriptions and to centralize my contacts in one place, I want to do two things:

  • First, I want everyone to know I’m closing down my FeedBurner account on September 15, 2021. If you are an RSS subscriber through FeedBurner, after that date you will no longer receive my content via email.
  • Second, I want to invite everyone to subscribe to my blog via email through WordPress. If you’ve been on FeedBurner and want to stay in the loop, please visit my website (pictured above) and enter your email in the box underneath “Updates to Your Inbox.” You’ll find the form in the right hand column.

To everyone who continues to read anything I write: thanks. My website is a place to think in public, to note things I want to remember, to argue for things I think are important, and maybe to share a laugh or two. I’m grateful for your readership.

If you need help or have questions about making the switch, contact me. I can scroll my list, find names, and offer directions on where to sign up. It might be a chance to reconnect, too. You can reach me through my Contact page.

I hope you’ll keep reading. Blessings.

The Hard Part is the Thinking

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts and ideas. It’s a physical activity, unlike reading. Writing requires us to operate some kind of mechanism–pencil, pen, typewriter, word processor–for getting our thoughts on paper. It compels us by the repeated effort of language to go after those thoughts and organize them and present them clearly. It forces us to keep asking, “Am I saying what I want to say?” Very often the answer is “No.” It’s a useful piece of information.

William Zinsser, Writing to Learn: How to Write–and Think–Clearly About Any Subject at All, p. 49

This is why I have come to prefer writing sermons, and many other things I want to communicate. So much of what I say, at least at first, is not what I want to say. I would not be able to discover what I want to say apart from writing. Those first thoughts can prove to be fluff, inconsequential, inexact, unclear, distracting, misleading, or false. Unclear writing stems from unclear thinking, and unclear thinking manifesting itself in speech or on paper can not only misinform, but do harm.

Zinsser later says, “If you force yourself to think clearly you will write clearly. The hard part isn’t the writing; the hard part is the thinking.” That’s why so many of us shy away from it. Thinking clearly can be hard work.

Prevailing Orthodoxies

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At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press

Unfashionable opinions can be wrong; prevailing orthodoxies can be right. I don’t know what Orwell expects here, but I do know that he is correct regarding the power of ideology to silence, the need to cultivate environments that allow for the free and open exchange of ideas, and the establishment of a public discourse that encourages speech, civil disagreement, and the possibility of reasoned argument and exchange.

Nick Cave on the Writing Process

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I also have an affinity with artists who treat their craft as a job and are not dependent on the vagaries of inspiration — because I am one of them. Like most people with a job, we just go to work. It never occurs to us not to work, there is never a moment when we don’t work because ‘we are not feeling it’ or ‘the vibes aren’t right’. We just do our hours, as I am doing mine now, writing to you, Jake, and to you, Freya.

The most important undertaking of my day is to simply sit down at my desk and pick up my pen. Without this elementary act I could not call myself a songwriter, because songs come to me in intimations too slight to be perceived, unless I am primed and ready to receive them. They come not with a fanfare, but in whispers, and they come only when I am at work.  

Pen poised, I sit to attention, in my suit, on the edge of my imagination, prepared for the beautiful line to arrive. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not — either way I am powerless to influence the outcome. So often we stand bereft before our ingenuity, with nothing to show for our efforts. Yet at other times we are ushered in.

Once inside the imagination all manner of inexplicable things occur. Time gets loopy, the past presses itself against the present, and the future pours out its secrets. Suddenly words behave in ways they shouldn’t, but wonderfully do, our pulse quickens, yummy butterflies explode in our tummies and songwriting becomes a collision between the pragmatic and the completely gaga — transcendental, outrageously religious, bananas — and then God appears, there He is, with all His cross-dressing angels and demons and other things, I don’t even know what, spirits muttering unspeakable things, and chubby, pink muses tumbling about, and child-small shapes with outstretched arms, calling, instructing, and the beautiful line begins to take shape, gently emerging — there it is! — falling lovely from the end of your pen.

And then your working day is done and you step away. It’s Saturday night and time for dinner and your rider’s name is Irfan. Goodnight, Jake. Goodnight, Freya.

Nick Cave, “Issue #156, “What’s It Like to Write a Song?

Addressing Your Tribe, and Addressing Everyone Else

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Back on March 16, 2021 in his newsletter The Tuesday, Kevin Williamson of National Review made the observation that among conservative political activists and commentators, there are two fundamental audiences: conservatives and everyone else. Most of the well known pundits address their tribe principally and primarily. After all, that is where the money is most easily made, the clicks most easily obtained, the views most easily secured.

But there is a great deal of good that can come about by writing and speaking to everyone else. Williamson writes:

[T]he everyone else approach…is directed not at rallying one’s own partisans but at persuading people who are not already self-conscious conservatives, engaging with people as they are and with mainstream institutions. This irritates and enrages tribal conservatives, especially if you’re any good at it. I quote the New York Times fairly often, because it is one of the newspapers to which I subscribe, and I write from time to time for mainstream publications such as the Washington Post. And I hear from my fellow conservatives: “Why would you want to read the New York Times? Why would you want to write in the Washington Post?”

[ . . . ]

The answer to the silly question, of course, is that I read the New York Times because I live in the United States of America, not in the People’s Republic of Konservistan, and if you want to effect change in the United States and in the world, it matters what other people who read the New York Times and the Washington Post think. It even matters, a little bit, what the people who write for them think.

The value of this used to be obvious: William F. Buckley (who lived and worked “a long time ago,” I am informed) criticized what he called “the Playboy philosophy,” but he also wrote for Playboy. Rush Limbaugh wrote for the New York Times. (His byline was “Rush H. Limbaugh 3d.”) Ronald Reagan didn’t change the country because conservatives supported him — he changed the country because he ran a sensible conservative administration on big-tent principles and won 49 states in his reelection campaign.

Stated differently, not everyone is a partisan. Some people are not a member of either tribe. And they can be persuaded, even convinced.

The principle translates to the Christian world fairly easily. You can preach and teach and write in order to connect with your own tribe, to fortify your constituency, to secure your place in a certain ideological ecosystem. You can do this by pitting yourself against heretics and nonbelievers. The lines are drawn pretty clearly, and are easy enough to discern. I’ve seen people do this on left and right and everywhere in between.

Or, you can preach and teach and write in order to address those outside of your tribe while firmly remaining within one. To do so, you’ll need to read broadly, and listen. You’ll need to sharpen your arguments while maintaining epistemic humility. Charity will be high among the virtues. You’ll need to concede the strength of another person’s position. You’ll need to engage in nuanced, boring conversations. You’ll need to actively seek out others who are different than you; you’ll also need to strengthen bonds with those of like mind, those who can bear burdens alongside you. Those who bridge divides take arrows from all sides. Go ahead and concede that some will declare you an enemy because you refuse to deal in polemics.

Lastly, you’ll need to leave the realm of theory from time to time and get down to the level of practice. You’ll need to try out your ideas in the “real world,” and see if they actually do anything.

I think there is a lot of ground to be won by addressing people with words that match their lived experiences and then helping them see how the claims of Christianity address those experiences and then guide them in ways resulting in a life that works, not because Christianity is relevant and practical, but because it is true.

Thomas Aquinas’ Prayer Before Study

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

After offering his praises to the “Ineffable Creator,” Thomas Aquinas writes in his “Prayer Before Study:”

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul the twofold darkness into which I was born: sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants; refine my speech and pour forth upon my lips the goodness of your blessing.

Grant to me keenness of mind, capacity to remember, skill in learning, subtlety to interpret, and eloquence in speech.

May You guide the beginning of my work, direct its progress, and bring it to completion. You Who are true God and true Man, Who live and reign, world without end. Amen.

This version is quoted in Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler’s Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words [affiliate link]. This prayer serves as a frame when approaching the writing task.

If you were to write a prayer for your work, what would you ask for? What do you need? What do you hope for as outcomes? Where could you use help?

Artifacts and Internet Writing

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My data I own, my internet presence I rent. It’s interesting to think about how this situation differs from that of my published books and print essays. It’s possible for anyone to download this entire site — that’s what wget does, and I’ve used it to download my old Text Patterns blog to my hard drive — but I’m sure no one else ever has, so if anything were to happen to shut down this site or that old blog, then anyone interested in what I’ve written online would have to hope that the Internet Archive and its partners have the whole thing crawled and saved. 

But if you’ve bought one of my books, or a journal in which one of my essays appears, then even if I were to suffer Damnatio memoriae, you’d still have those texts, and it’s impossible for me to imagine a world in which anyone would go to the trouble of taking them away from you.

So does that mean that I should focus my attention on writing for print publication instead of online venues like this blog? That would make sense if I wanted to ensure that people are still reading my work after I’m dead — but that would be ridiculous for a writer as insignificant as I am. As I often say, it’s quite likely that I will outlive all my work, and I’m just fine with that. So I’ll write in venues that give me pleasure, that seem fitting for whatever interests me at the moment. And then, one day, if I get the chance to set my affairs in order, I’ll hand over to my family a stack of notebooks and a hard drive full of text files, for them to do with as they please. 

Alan Jacobs captures something of how I feel about writing on the web. Amazingly, I’ve been messing around with a website since spring 1998. I designed something on GeoCities. My web presence has had other iterations, more than I can count. Maybe at some point I thought that work would endure, but I don’t think that anymore.

I write for pleasure and for the same reason a lot of other writers write: because I have a desire to connect with other people, a desire to do the work, and a desire to discover what I think through what I write.

As for artifacts, I won’t be handing over text files, but I will leave behind notebooks. As for whether or not there will be anything in them of interest of value, that will be for others to decide.

Talent Is Where You Find It

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I recently finished reading Helen Rowe Henze’s translation of The Odes of Horace (University of Oklahoma Press, 1961). I found this inside the book jacket:

Helen Rowe Henze is the author of four published collections of poems and of many individual poems published in periodicals and newspapers. A resident of Kansas City and in secretarial employment there, she confirms the truth of the adage, “Talent is where you find it”–in Venusia or Missouri.

You job and your vocation are not always the same. You don’t always earn regular pay from your life’s most important work. People are deep wells.

There are many translations of the Odes. But I’m glad my public library led me to this one.

Finding the Song in Conversation

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In How to Write One Song, Jeff Tweedy writes:

We’re able to form really complex stories off the top of our heads. Conversation comes from our subconscious–we search for language, tell stories, express ourselves in a way that’s organic. I think that’s the starting point for writing anything. If you’re able to express yourself as a human, you’re able to mine that ability to create other modes of expression, to mine that ability for songs. To me, that’s the best evidence that everyone can write a song. Maybe not everyone can make a chord progression, but everyone can make up a story.

Tweedy demonstrates this by relaying a particularly spirited conversation he recently had, marking in bold snippets from that conversation, lifting those portions, and then rearranging the pieces until they had the rhythm and feel of a song.

A pretty nifty writing exercise, if you ask me.

Writing Witty With Russell Baker

In this interview with Adrienne LaFrance of the Atlantic, the now deceased New York Times columnist and host of Masterpiece Theater Russell Baker offered a few nuggets on work, writing, politics, comedy, and journalism. I extracted a few of my favorite portions.

LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?

Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.

LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?

Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.

On writing as labor:

Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.

On changes in the political scene in Washington:

LaFrance: When I covered national politics, the longest-serving senators would always tell me about how Congress used to be so civilized and bipartisan. You were around in those days. That’s not really true, is it? Because if you look back at the history, there’s always been fighting.

Baker: Well there has, but not like now. It’s another world. At one point I covered the Senate for several years. I knew everyone. The Senate’s easy to cover. There are only 100 guys. It’s just the right size.
But the Senate now has become something quite different than what it was when I covered it. It was an important body when I covered it. I started covering the Senate during the Eisenhower years. It was important in any number of policy matters. To be on the Foreign Relations Committee was to be a heavyweight. I mean, [Senator J. William] Fulbright’s resistance to the Vietnam policy had real weight in the events that followed. And that was true on the financial side. The Finance Committee chairman really had influence.

Now nobody has any weight. Nobody listens. As a matter of fact, they don’t have any respect for the job anymore. Trent Lott was the majority leader for the Republicans and chucked the job to become a lobbyist. If that had happened in the days that I was covering the Senate, he would have been disgraced. A senator giving up a Senate seat to become a lobbyist! That just wasn’t done. And they all do now. The decline of the Senate. That’s a big story.

When I covered the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader and he was working with Eisenhower. [Sam] Rayburn was the speaker of the House. They worked closely with Eisenhower to get things done. It’s inconceivable that any of those men would have taken it upon himself just to frustrate Eisenhower.

Politics is almost a nonstop activity now. There’s not much government that goes on. But with Rayburn and Eisenhower and Johnson and Kennedy —all those people—they governed. Governing is tough. Now they don’t spend much time governing. It’s mostly posturing.

On comedic writing (I censored the curse words):

LaFrance: You mentioned your column, so I want to get your view on comedic writing generally. Do you think that humor is more parts truth or more parts absurdity?

Baker: I don’t know! I don’t know what it is. You know, you laugh, it’s humorous. I am curious about the decline of wit in humor. That may be a cyclical thing. But humor’s much cruder than it was when I was working in that area, when humor required certain cleverness. Whereas now you say a nasty word and the audience will break up. It’s a nervous tic. You just say a four-letter word.

Everyone watches Jon Stewart, right? And they have the bleep thing when he really obviously says “s***” or “f***,” and he’s cute about it. It’s a cheap laugh. It’s not funny. But the audience reacts. When you’ve got to do as much work as he does, I can understand why you go for the cheap laugh.

On the pointless, inconsequential concluding question:

LaFrance: I know we’re running out of time. Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?

Baker: Probably! But what does it matter?