John Grisham and the Writing Process

I’m alway curious about how excellent writers write.

Grisham’s Writing Tips

1) Starts every year on January 1st with the goal of being done by July (most of the work is done by March).

2) Writes 5 days per week.

3) Starts every day at 7 am and ends at 10 am.

4) Writes between 1,000-2,000 words per day, but very few 1,000 days.

5) No internet in his writing office.

6) Same everything (computer, spot, coffee, cup, everything).

7) Doesn’t write the first scene until he knows the last.

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Miracle At Dunkirk by Victor Davis Hanson

A quarter-million troops of the British Expeditionary Force, together with about 140,000 French and Belgian soldiers, were safely evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, France between May 26 and June 4, 1940, in one of the largest successful maritime evacuations of trapped armies in military history. Most other marooned armies would likely have surrendered or been slaughtered on the beach by the seasoned German Panzers.

The amazingly successful withdrawal allowed Britain to remain actively in the war, and gave inspiration for another quarter-million trapped British and French soldiers to escape across the channel in the next three weeks. Churchill, in the Periclean fashion of mixing encouragement with realist caution, reminded the beleaguered British people that such defiance presaged successful British resistance to Hitler—while also reminding them that victory is never won through retreats.

There is much to be said for the current blockbuster movie Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan. The cinematography of battle is excellent. The themes of confusion, paradox, irony, and unintended consequences in war are well captured through the mostly visual daylong odyssey of “Tommy” (Fionn Whitehead). In near continual silence (dialogue is scant in Dunkirk), Tommy seems to escape one disaster only to fall into another, in his Odysseus-like effort to get across the water to home.

The movie also presents well the tripartite nature of the British—and French—resistance at Dunkirk, especially the deadly fighting above the sea between British Spitfires and German Bf109 fighters, Stuka dive bombers, and Heinkel He 111 medium bombers that so shocked the Germans, who had assumed that supposedly inferior British pilots and planes (with their fuel worries) would ensure the Luftwaffe rapid air supremacy.

There is an eerie slaughter on and below the ocean, as Royal Navy warships and British civilian craft struggle to save tens of thousands of British and French soldiers before they are blown apart by German subs and bombers. The frenzy on the beaches, contrasted with the stiff-upper-lip cool of the British officer corps, is moving, even as the German ground troops around Dunkirk—who are almost never seen or heard on the ground and appear wraith-like in the film—slowly squeeze the beaten British Expeditionary Force into the last few acres of sanctuary.

In general, any time Western cinema offers up history—as opposed to suburban psychodramas, space yarns, zombies, comic book heroes, car crashes, or evil corporate conspiracies—we should applaud. The heroism of the British rescue fleet, the professionalism and courage of the RAF pilots, and the defiant defeated on the beaches of Dunkirk resonate through the entire film. It is a fine and fitting thing for popular culture to remember a courageous past at a time when millions of residents and citizens in the West—in the United Kingdom and the United States in particular—either are ignorant of their own history or deprecate it as a melodrama of oppressive “isms” and “ologies”.

Watching Dunkirk should also remind contemporary Western critics that the triumph of Nazi Germany and its eventual Axis partners would have aborted the freedom, material bounty, and security that a billion people now take for granted in the West.

But all that said, a good movie could have easily become a great film. Military history, whether written or visual, requires a mixture of both strategic and tactical narrative with first-hand “face of battle” portrayals of those doing the actual killing and dying. Dunkirk is good on the latter count, and completely wanting on the former.

Even a brief two-minute shot of a last-ditch conference between trapped British Expeditionary Force generals, or between stalled German Panzer commanders just miles away, or a conversation of grand strategy back in London between Churchill and his new cabinet, or even a few seconds of rantings of Adolf Hitler to his general staff, could have conveyed what was at stake. And just five minutes of that background story would have made two hours of poignant resistance all the more remarkable.

The facts are these: The “phony war” laxity of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain collapsed on May 10, 1940 when the Wehrmacht in complete surprise blasted through the Ardennes forest on a pathway conventionally deemed too rugged for heavy vehicles. Unlike in World War I, when allied resistance stopped the surprise German assault and ensured for four years that the Germans would never get much more than 70 miles into France, Hitler’s 1940 attack on Western Europe would be wrapped up in six weeks, and the fate of the European democracies sealed within days of the invasion.

Indeed, within hours, the newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill was faced with disastrous choices: either keep the fleet and the air force engaged and the army on French soil to bolster collapsing French morale and save a base in Europe for eventual counter-offensives, or pull them all out from a lost cause, and with luck just possibly save Britain from Hitler’s next round of attack. Churchill chose to gamble, keeping British troops engaged as long as the fate of France was realistically in the balance—but not long enough to forfeit the entire army, and much of the fleet and air force so necessary to stop Hitler’s impending effort to bomb and blockade Britain in preparation for an invasion that supposedly would duplicate the six-week victory in France. The fight over the beaches at Dunkirk was a prelude to the Battle of Britain—and a warning to the Third Reich that it had at last butted up against an enemy that would neither give in nor collapse.

The ultimate irony of Dunkirk was that a previously unstoppable Blitzkrieg suddenly sputtered to an unenforced halt, just miles from the Atlantic when it was on the verge of annihilating British land power and thereby perhaps ensuring, at least psychologically, a defeat of the only remaining major enemy of the Third Reich.

Historians still argue about what happened. Were German field generals exhausted after the frenzied and costly pace of the prior two weeks? Or was the stoppage of Germany’s pursuit the work of the unstable Hermann Goring and his Luftwaffe that demanded a glorious coup de grâce, by bombing the collapsing ring of Allied soldiers to smithereens—as a forewarning of what shortly would follow in a blitz over London?

Or was the culprit the loss of nerve of the often passive-aggressive Hitler? We forget both that, even in his lightning victories, the Fuhrer often proved tentative and fearful under stress—and that the Wehrmacht suffered over 45,000 killed and missing, and over 100,000 wounded, in its supposedly easy walk-over of France.

Or was Hitler deluded enough to believe that Churchill was representative of a suspect aristocratic class eager to make peace if it could keep its overseas Empire, as Germany swallowed the European mainland? It is unlikely, but not impossible, that Hitler felt a terrified but relieved Britain would be eager to end the war formally if its expeditionary army was not decimated by German armor and artillery.

Even after the evacuation, when the Germans in a few hours reached the French coast, the war for Europe was assumed to be won. Britain surely would concede to save its homeland from the sort of brutality unleashed on Poland and France. The Soviet Union, after witnessing such frightening German armored advances, surely had no intention of reneging on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939 that was helping to fuel and feed the Wehrmacht’s conquests with Russian supplies.

As for the United States during Dunkirk—while the Roosevelt administration was, at least on the sly, eager to replenish British exhausted armament stocks, it nonetheless had no intention of joining what was felt to be a lost cause. Indeed, the United States probably would not have declared war on Germany, even after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, had not Hitler nearly inexplicably first declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941.

In contrast, the survival of the British army at Dunkirk, and of the retiring British fleet and air force—along with the miraculous ongoing retooling of the British munitions industry—meant that Britain and its empire were able, well before Pearl Harbor, to muster enough manpower in a few months to stop the Italians in Eastern and Northern Africa, to save Malta, to fight the Germans in Greece, to begin bombing occupied Europe, to shortly win the air war over Britain, and to begin to check the U-boat offensive.

It is perhaps unfair to critique Dunkirk’s focus on the common soldier and the near anonymous killing swirling about him. But even here, greater detail would have enhanced the film’s emphases on the personal experience of battle. In the movie, the sheer tapestry of the British rescue effort never fully unfolds. In fact, well over 800 British warships, merchant marine boats, fishing trawlers, and yachts formed a huge armada that dotted the horizon off the Dunkirk coast. Yet that vast maritime landscape is never captured by the film’s portrait of a seemingly smallish private flotilla. The film also shows the littered beaches of Dunkirk, but again the effect of the screen’s occasional flotsam and jetsam is understatement. In fact, the wreckage of the British army was unimaginable. Almost all of its artillery—well over 2,000 field guns of various sizes—over 60,000 wheeled vehicles, 700 tanks, and over 11,000 machine guns were lost, much of them left scattered on the beach, a reality that again is hardly captured by the film.

While British pluck shines through the film, the British achievement is underappreciated precisely because of the utter dearth of both strategic context and even brief portrayals of the Germans on the ground.

The expeditionary armies of the Germans in Tunisia in summer 1943 were faced with the same dilemma—and in contrast surrendered a near similarly sized army. The Russians lost entire trapped armies on at least three occasions that were twice the size of those evacuated at Dunkirk. The Japanese never evacuated on a similar scale any of their often-encircled expeditionary forces. The sheer audacity and skill of the British, and so early in the war, went mostly unrivaled throughout World War II—a sort of reverse D-Day embarkation of comparable magnitude, but without the resources, planning, and four years of favorable warring and German attrition.

Finally, the miracle at Dunkirk reminds us of the underappreciated but pivotal British role in World War II. We often reduce the Allied victory to the blood of Russian manpower and the treasure of American supply. And there is much truth to both those generalizations. But spiritually, we should remind ourselves that Britain was the only major power on either side to both begin the global war on its first day and continue to fight it until its last, six years later. It was also the only major power to fight the Third Reich alone, which it did courageously between June 25, 1940 and June 22, 1941. It was the only Allied nation to declare war on the Axis for the principled promise to an ally, Poland, rather than because it was either surprise-attacked or had war declared on it first. British genius gave the Allies everything from sonar to Firefly Sherman tanks to the Ultra intercepts to the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in the superb American P-51 Mustang.

In sum, Dunkirk is an impressive postmodern glimpse of a premodern nightmare, but a view nonetheless that is without a strategic or political—or much of any—context. Such a landmark event is diminished to a story about any war, rather than the singular British existential struggle to stop Nazi Germany.

Posted August 2, 2017

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Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of My Diving Accident ​Joni Eareckson Tada

Recently I was at my desk writing to Tommy, a 17-year-old boy who just broke his neck body surfing off the Jersey shore. He’s now a quadriplegic. He will live the rest of his life in a wheelchair without use of his hands or legs. When it comes to life-altering injuries, quadriplegia is catastrophic.

Halfway through my letter describing several hurdles Tommy should expect in rehab, I stopped. I felt utterly overwhelmed, thinking of all that lies ahead for him. I’ve been there. And even though half a century has passed, I can still taste the anguish. Hot, silent tears began streaming, and I choked out a prayer, Oh God, how will Tommy do it? How will he ever make it? Have mercy; help him find you!

Tommy is facing the impossible. I’m sure he feels a little like this sketch. It’s a copy of a drawing I did in rehab, holding charcoal pencils between my teeth. Although I tore up the original years ago when I was depressed, this sketch says it all: “Oh God, this is now my life?! You actually expect me to do this?!”

Somehow, I did it. Or, the Holy Spirit did it in me. As of today, I’ve done it for 50 years.

Like Tommy, I was once the 17-year-old who retched at the thought of living life without a working body. I hated my paralysis so much I would drive my power wheelchair into walls, repeatedly banging them until they cracked. Early on, I found dark companions who helped me numb my depression with scotch-and-cola. I just wanted to disappear. I wanted to die.

What a difference time makes—as well as prayer, heaven-minded friends, and deep study of God’s Word. All combined, I began to see there are more important things in life than walking and having use of your hands. It sounds incredible, but I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him. But whenever I try to explain it, I hardly know where to begin.

I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him.

Yet I know this: I’m in the zone whenever I infuse Christ-encouragement into the hearts of people like Tommy. It feels so right to agonize alongside them. Better yet, to participate in their suffering in the spirit of 2 Corinthians 1:6: “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation.” Can I do something for Tommy’s comfort and salvation? You bet.

Befriending Trial

I do what wise Christian friends once did with me. Back in the early ’70s when I was starting to take seriously Christ’s lordship in my life, my friends didn’t merely tell me biblical truth: “Here, believe this. Rejoice in your trial. It’ll do you a world of good.” Instead, they hooked up their spiritual veins to mine, pumping compassion into my wounded soul. Com means “with” and passion means “Christ’s suffering.” They literally were Christ-with-me-in-suffering. I wasn’t their spiritual project; I was their friend.

One night, a few Young Life friends who liked to sing picked me up for a late-night drive into Baltimore City. We ended up downtown at the railway station—a massive structure with travertine floors, marble columns, and vaulted ceilings. We found a corner and started harmonizing, our voices echoing throughout the station. An officious-looking guard approached and ordered us out of the building. “See that ‘no loitering’ sign? It’s 11 p.m. and you kids don’t belong here,” he barked. Then he pointed at me: “And you put that wheelchair back where you found it. Right now!”

“But sir,” I insisted, “it’s mine.” He told me not to give him any lip and to put it back right away. When our little group started laughing, he realized his error. That night, when my friends got me home, one kneeled beside my chair: “Joni, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you call it ‘my wheelchair.’ Thank you for doing that. You’re helping me own my problems, too.”

I had welcomed my trial as a friend. And it felt so good.

Suffering Is a Mirror

Throughout my 20s, I became immersed in Bible study with these same friends—mostly character studies about God, especially his sovereignty. When it came to my accident, I had to know whether the buck stopped with him, and if it did, why didn’t he prevent my accident? Around my big farmhouse table in Maryland, we’d tackle books like Loraine Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination and others by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J. Gresham Machen, and J. I. Packer.

I now laugh as I picture myself with these books on my music stand, flipping pages this way and that with my mouth stick. But decades of study, paralysis, pain, and cancer have taught me to say, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees” (Ps. 119:71). I won’t rehearse all of suffering’s benefits here. Many of you know them by heart. Like the way God uses it to shape Christ’s character in us (Rom. 8:28–29). Or how it produces patience (Rom. 5:4). Or how it refines our faith like gold (1 Pet. 1:7). Or gives us a livelier hope of heaven (James 1:12). And on and on.

However, if I were to nail down suffering’s main purpose, I’d say it’s the textbook that teaches me who I really am, because I’m not the paragon of virtue I’d like to think I am. Suffering keeps knocking me off my pedestal of pride. Sometimes, when my scoliosis becomes extremely painful, I’ll murmur and drop hints to God that he’s piling on too much. Later, when the pain dissipates, I’ll make excuses: Lord, that’s not like me. I’m not like that at all.

But it is like me. It’s exactly like me.

If I were to nail down suffering’s main purpose, I’d say it’s the textbook that teaches me who I really am.

Philippians 2:14 is for people like me: “Do everything without grumbling.” Everything? The Bible says it’s possible, even for aging quadriplegics who fight terminal diseases and chronic pain. But less sin means more Jesus, and Jesus is worth it.

Inexpressible Gospel Joy

The core of God’s plan is to rescue me from sin and self, and to keep rescuing me. The apostle Paul calls it “the gospel . . . by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1 Cor. 15:1–2). I’m in constant need of saving. My displaced hip and scoliosis are sheep dogs that constantly snap at my heels, driving me down the road to Calvary, where I die to the sins Jesus died for. Sure, I have a long way to go before I am whom God destined me to be in glory, but thankfully my paralysis keeps pushing me to “strive to reach for that heavenly prize” (Phil. 3:14).

The process is difficult, but affliction isn’t a killjoy; I don’t think you could find a happier follower of Jesus than me. The more my paralysis helps me get disentangled from sin, the more joy bubbles up from within. I can’t tell you how many nights I have lain in bed, unable to move, stiff with pain, and have whispered near tears, “Oh, Jesus, I’m so happy. So very happy in you!” God shares his joy on his terms only, and those terms call for us to suffer, in some measure, like his Son. I’ll gladly take it.

Half a century of paralysis has also shown me how high the cosmic stakes really are. Whenever I fidget in my confinement, I can almost hear Satan taunt God—as he did with Job—“Look at her, see? She doesn’t really trust you. Test her with more pain and you’ll see her true colors!” When the Devil insists God’s people only serve him when life is easy, I have the high honor of proving him wrong. To be on the battlefield where the mightiest forces in the universe converge in warfare? By God’s grace, I’m all in.

Ten Life-Changing Words

Back in the ’70s, my Bible study friend Steve Estes shared ten little words that set the course for my life: “God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” Steve explained it this way: “Joni, God allows all sorts of things he doesn’t approve of. God hated the torture, injustice, and treason that led to the crucifixion. Yet he permitted it so that the world’s worst murder could become the world’s only salvation. In the same way, God hates spinal cord injury, yet he permitted it for the sake of Christ in you—as well as in others. Like Joseph when he told his brothers, ‘God intended [my suffering] for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’” (Gen. 50:20).

Ten words have set the course for my life: God permits what he hates to accomplish what he loves.

For the saving of many lives? Yes, so I dare not hide my testimony under a bushel. Too many people with disabilities are floundering in hopelessness—people like Tommy. It’s why I wrote the Joni book, and did the Joni movie. I started Joni and Friends when special-needs families started asking, “How can I help my son with cerebral palsy out of depression? Why doesn’t God heal everyone? How can I get my church involved?” and more. I wanted to show these people what the gospel looks like, just like my Christ-with-me-in-suffering friends did.

Now, every day when I wheel into the Joni and Friends International Disability Center, I try to squeeze every ounce of ministry effort from my quadriplegic body. This summer, Joni and Friends will hold 27 Family Retreats in the United States and 23 in less resourced nations, reaching thousands of special-needs families for Christ. Christian physical therapists will serve on our Wheels for the World teams in more than 40 countries, delivering Bibles, giving the salvation message, and hand-fitting wheelchairs to needy people with disabilities. Hundreds of our Cause4Life interns will work in orphanages overseas, showing that spina bifida isn’t a voodoo curse and people aren’t better off dead than disabled. Because Jesus is ecstasy beyond compare, and it’s worth anything to be his friend.

Fifty Years of God’s Faithfulness

Last week my husband, Ken, and I were at our Joni and Friends Family Retreat in Alabama. We were lunching in the big, noisy dining hall when a college-aged volunteer approached me, holding a kid with Down syndrome on her hip. She gestured at the crowd and asked, “Miss Joni, do you ever think how none of this would be happening were it not for your diving accident?”

I flashed a smile and said, “It’s why I thank God every day for my wheelchair.” After she left, I stared for a moment at the dining hall scene. I suddenly had a 35,000-foot view of the moment: She’s right . . . how did I get here?

It has everything to do with God and his grace—not just grace over the long haul, but grace in tiny moments, like breathing in and out, like stepping stones leading you from one experience to the next. The beauty of such grace is that it eclipses the suffering until one July morning, you look back and see five decades of God working in a mighty way.

Grace softens the edges of past pains, helping to highlight the eternal. What you are left with is peace that’s profound, joy that’s unshakable, faith that’s ironclad.

It’s the hard, but beautiful, stuff of which God makes 50 years of your life. Like . . . when did that happen? I cannot say, but I sure love Jesus for it.

​Joni Eareckson Tada is an author, speaker, and international advocate for people with disabilities. A diving accident in 1967 left Joni a quadriplegic. After years of rehabilitation, she emerged with new skills and a fresh determination to help others. Her ministry, Joni and Friends, provides programs to special-needs families, as well as training to churches worldwide. Joni has written 45 books, including When God Weeps, Glorious Intruder, and A Place of Healing.

Posted: July 30, 2017

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Reading Out of Love for Others Tim Challies

Reading is a solitary pursuit. You grab your book, you kick back on the couch, and the hours roll by. But even though reading is a solitary pursuit, it is not necessarily a selfish one. Reading can actually be an important way to love others. Here are five ways to love others in your reading.

Read to Grow

You can love others by reading books meant to address flaws in your character or conduct. The husband who reads Dave Harvey’s When Sinners Say “I Do” is reading to better love his wife. The woman who reads Shepherding a Child’s Heart is equipping herself to better love her children by raising them according to the Bible. The church member who reads Alexander Strauch’s Love Or Die is learning to better love his church.

Likewise, the man reading Hannah Anderson’s Humble Roots is better equipping himself to lead his family with humility, the woman reading Robert Jones’s Uprooting Anger is addressing a sinful temperament so she can respond to her children with patience and grace.

In every case the reading is done privately or in isolation, but it is done with a view to helping others. In this way, the reading is an expression of love.

Read to Understand

Another way to make your reading an expression of love is to read books that help you better understand other people. Each of us has a narrow experience of the world and, therefore, a narrow perspective on it. Reading helps us broaden our perspective by accepting the invitation into other people’s experiences.

The husband who reads Sarah Mae’s and Sally Clarkson’s Desperate will come to a sharper understanding of some of the challenges his wife faces as a wife and a mother. If he reads Kimberly Wagner’s Fierce Women he may better understand his wife’s struggle with having a strong personality. Church members who read books on pastoring will better understand the joys and trials their pastors face. Homeschoolers who read Going Public will better understand the joys and challenges of public schooling.

At a time when there is a heightened awareness of racial tensions, white Americans can read Anthony Carter’s Black and Reformed and Benjamin Watson’s Under Our Skin. This will broaden their understanding in helpful ways. And at a time when we read constant headlines about same-sex attraction and transgenderism, Christians would do well to read Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting or Rosaria Butterfield’s The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert.

Books allow you to grow in your understanding of the challenges, the joys, and the experiences of other people. This, in turn, allows you to grow in your compassion and in your ability to love.

Read to Recommend

Another way you can love others through reading is to become a kind of recommendation engine. Every church needs to have at least a few people who have read enough that they can steer people toward excellent resources. To do this helpfully, you will need to read widely. You will need to read not only books that interest you and pertain directly to you, but books that have little direct bearing on your life. Even married people can read a few books on singleness so they can recommend the one or two best picks. Even single people can read a few children’s books or children’s Bibles to help resource parents as they begin to teach their children about the Lord.

There is a huge ministry in the church in recommending books. Maybe you need to become that person.

Read to Disciple

A fourth way to love others through reading is to read books with people. Reading books together can serve as a simple but powerful means of discipleship. When you read a book with other people, the author takes on the role of the teacher while everyone who reads gets to be the student. Together you can benefit from the wisdom and expertise of godly authors. I have read Jerry Bridge’s The Discipline of Grace with a group of 35 young adults—one chapter per week, out loud together, followed by discussion. It worked well. I have read Tim Keller’s Galatians For You with Aileen, a few pages per day as we were able. I’ve read Os Guinness’s The Call with two others, meeting on Tuesday mornings long before the sun was up to discuss each week’s reading.

You may begin a reading group like this for mutual benefit, or perhaps primarily for the benefit of a friend or spouse. But, either way, the reading will be initiated and completed as an expression of love for others.

Read to Protect

Finally, you can make your reading an expression of love for others when you read in order to protect the ones you love. Just as there is a ministry of reading and recommending good books, there is also a ministry of reading and warning about the bad ones.

Sadly, we are inundated with books that are deeply flawed. And, equally sad, the best-selling books are often the worst of all. People in your church are being given these books or perhaps picking them up without knowing just how dangerous they are. You can love and protect your church by reading some of the Christian bestsellers to understand their appeal, to grasp their dangers, and to lovingly warn people away from them.

In these five ways the solitary pursuit of reading does not need to be a selfish pursuit. We can and should read as an expression of love for others.

Posted: January 20, 2017

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12 of Our All-Time Favorite Quotes About Writing

There’s something about a quote that’s eloquently written about a topic you’re absolutely in love with that just stops your heart for a second. And these people certainly know how to say it right! Read our favorite quotes about reading and writing below.

“Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy–which many believe goes hand in hand with it–will be dead as well.”
-Margaret Atwood

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”
-Gustave Flaubert

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
-E.L. Doctorow

“To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.”
-Truman Capote

“Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For these two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people.”
-Roald Dahl

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”
-Isaac Asimov

“Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.”
-Amy Tan

“The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning.”
-A.B. Yehoshua

“I believe that writing is derivative. I think good writing comes from good reading.”
-Charles Kuralt

“Whether you’re keeping a journal or writing as a meditation, it’s the same thing. What’s important is that you’re having a relationship with your mind.”
-Natalie Goldberg

“Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”
-Meg Rosoff

Posted: July 25, 2017

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Wine Meant to Toast John Adams’s Presidency Was Just Discovered Nick Mafi

The wine, which is nearly as old as America, is the largest known collection of Madeira in the country


Liberty Hall Museum—which is located on the campus of Kean University, one of New Jersey’s largest state schools—has been going through an extensive renovation with the goal of allowing their visitors to walk through every era of American history. Recently, the museum took one massive leap toward that objective in the most unexpected of ways. It was announced that the museum discovered several cases of Madeira wine from 1796 that had been shipped from Portugal for the celebration of John Adams’s presidency.

The renovation project, which began in late 2015, included revamping the museums wine cellar. That meant replacing the old wine racks and cataloguing each bottle. The museum always knew that had bottles of antiquated wine in their possession, they simply never felt compelled to learn how old they were or why they had been purchased. In fact, at one point the wine racks were sealed off due to the Prohibition era of the 1920’s. According to an interview with, Bill Schroh Jr., director of operations at Liberty Hall, the museum decided to fill a decanter with a sampling from one of the original casks. They described the taste to be similar to a sweet sherry wine. Researchers believe the wine was originally purchased in the late 18th century to celebrate the second president of the United States. The researchers came to this conclusion because of the date of the wine, coupled with the fact that Madeira was almost exclusively consumed by the elites of the day, primarily because the liquid traveled so well across the Atlantic Ocean, losing little to no flavor.

While the monetary value of discovery has not been made made public, it is being touted as the largest known collection of Madeira in the United States and one of the most extensive in the world.

Posted: July 11,2017

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Reading Wars Philip Yancy

I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with some 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life.

Books help define who I am. They have ushered me on a journey of faith, have introduced me to the wonders of science and the natural world, have informed me about issues such as justice and race. More, they have been a source of delight and adventure and beauty, opening windows to a reality I would not otherwise know.

My crisis consists in the fact that I am describing my past, not my present. I used to read three books a week. One year I devoted an evening each week to read all of Shakespeare’s plays (OK, due to interruptions it actually took me two years). Another year I read the major works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But I am reading many fewer books these days, and even fewer of the kinds of books that require hard work.

The internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from The Atlantic or The New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at reading Donald Trump’s latest Tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.

Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.

Neuroscientists have an explanation for this phenomenon. When we learn something quick and new, we get a dopamine rush; functional-MRI brain scans show the brain’s pleasure centers lighting up. In a famous experiment, rats keep pressing a lever to get that dopamine rush, choosing it over food or sex. In humans, emails also satisfy that pleasure center, as do Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat.

Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows analyzes the phenomenon, and its subtitle says it all: “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr spells out that most Americans, and young people especially, are showing a precipitous decline in the amount of time spent reading. He says, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” A 2016 Nielsen report calculates that the average American devotes more than ten hours per day to consuming media—including radio, TV, and all electronic devices. That constitutes 65 percent of waking hours, leaving little time for the much harder work of focused concentration on reading.

Hipster Girl Holding A Stack Of Books

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts laments the loss of “deep reading,” which requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace. His book hit me with the force of conviction, intensifying my sense of crisis. I keep putting off Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and look at my shelf full of Jürgen Multmann’s theology books with a feeling of nostalgia—why am I not reading books like that now?

An article in Business Insider* studied such pioneers as Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mark Zuckerberg. Most of them have in common a practice the author calls the “5-hour rule”: they set aside at least an hour a day (or five hours a week) for deliberate learning. For example:

Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.
Mark Zuckerberg reads at least one book every two weeks.
Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day.
Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.
Arthur Blank, a cofounder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.

When asked about his secret to success, Warren Buffett pointed to a stack of books and said, “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will…” Charles Chu, who quoted Buffett on the Quartz website, acknowledges that 500 pages a day is beyond reach for all but a few people. Nevertheless, neuroscience proves what each of these busy people have found: it actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.


If we can’t reach Buffett’s high reading bar, what is a realistic goal? Charles Chu calculates that at an average reading speed of 400 words per minute, it would take 417 hours in a year to read 200 books—less than the 608 hours the average American spends on social media, or the 1642 hours watching TV. “Here’s the simple truth behind reading a lot of books,” says Quartz: “It’s not that hard. We have all the time we need. The scary part—the part we all ignore—is that we are too addicted, too weak, and too distracted to do what we all know is important.”**

Though Chu underestimates the average book length at 50,000 words, his conclusion still applies. Now I really feel guilty. In the last two years, Chu has read more than 400 books cover to cover. Willpower alone is not enough, he says. We need to construct what he calls “a fortress of habits.” I like that image. Recently I checked author Annie Dillard’s website, in which she states, “I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.” Now that’s a fortress.

I’ve concluded that a commitment to reading is an ongoing battle, somewhat like the battle against the seduction of internet pornography. We have to build a fortress with walls strong enough to withstand the temptations of that powerful dopamine rush while also providing shelter for an environment that allows deep reading to flourish. Christians especially need that sheltering space, for quiet meditation is one of the most important spiritual disciplines.

As a writer in the age of social media, I host a Facebook page and a website and write an occasional blog. Thirty years ago I got a lot of letters from readers, and they did not expect an answer for a week or more. Now I get emails, and if they don’t hear back in two days they write again, “Did you get my email?” The tyranny of the urgent crowds in around me.

If I yield to that tyranny, my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places. When I retire to the mountains and unplug for a few days, something magical takes place. I’ll go to bed puzzling over a roadblock in my writing, and the next morning wake up with the solution crystal-clear—something that never happens when I spend my spare time cruising social media and the internet.

I find that poetry helps. You can’t zoom through poetry; it forces you to slow down, think, concentrate, relish words and phrases. I now try to begin each day with a selection from George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or R. S. Thomas.

For deep reading, I’m searching for an hour a day when mental energy is at a peak, not a scrap of time salvaged from other tasks. I put on headphones and listen to soothing music, shutting out distractions.

Deliberately, I don’t text. I used to be embarrassed when I pulled out my antiquated flip phone, which my wife says should be donated to a museum. Now I pocket it with a kind of perverse pride, feeling sorry for the teenagers who check their phones on average two thousand times a day.

We’re engaged in a war, and technology wields the heavy weapons. Rod Dreher published a bestseller called The Benedict Option, in which he urged people of faith to retreat behind monastic walls as the Benedictines did—after all, they preserved literacy and culture during one of the darkest eras of human history. I don’t completely agree with Dreher, though I’m convinced that the preservation of reading will require something akin to the Benedict option.

I’m still working on that fortress of habit, trying to resurrect the rich nourishment that reading has long provided for me. If only I can resist clicking on the link that promises 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl…


Posted on Thu, Jul 20 2017

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