The Wonder Report: January 22, 2021
The Art of Conversation
Of all the things I've missed most over the past several months, long, meandering conversations are at the top of the list.
It's not like I don't talk to people anymore. My dad and I talk on the phone about once a week, and he and I can go on and on. The same for my brothers and sisters: we talk on the phone often, too, though not quite as regularly. And more often than not, our conversations happen over text messages, which is good, too, but not quite the same. My husband and I also have spent hours and hours conversing in the last year ... many more hours than probably all the other years of our marriage combined. And I've loved every one of those. Our youngest son who's the only one left at home has also become a particularly good conversationalist, though I think it embarrassed him when I told him as much just last evening.
These are all conversations I treasure and hope will continue. But I miss the conversations with friends over coffee and with fellow writers at writing group meetings or conferences and with strangers while we stand in line or with waitresses while we're dining in. I miss the rabbit trails I usually go down during client meetings and the unexpected connections that happen with docents and vendors during visits to museums and farmers markets. I miss the conversations that happen because of the various places we find ourselves or the variety of circumstances we normally experience. And I miss the moments just after a conversation has waned when suddenly it starts back up again with new energy.
In Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntyre describes conversation as a form of activism, "a political enterprise in the largest and oldest sense—a way of building and sustaining community." During the COVID-19 pandemic, conversation has become more challenged not only by our lack of proximity to one another but because many of our ideologies and identities that have become weaponized against one another. We divide and separate ourselves until every conversation feels like the ones my family and I have during long periods of quarantine: comfortable and predictable and limited by the four walls that surround us. We aren't boring people, but when we limit ourselves only to each other (and for a while now, we've all had to do that as a way to protect each other), there's only so much to talk about.
Among its many qualities, good conversation, says McEntyre, "serves the truth. It clarifies and nuances. It corrects and refines. To be in conversation is, ideally, to be seeking a deeper or more comprehensive grasp of some truth by means of dialogue, so that it proceeds on the assumption that no one of us is at any point (courtroom oaths notwithstanding) in possession of the 'whole truth,' but rather that each of us may bring a perspective to bear that may compliment and modify the perspective of others."
It's almost as if we need new and different experiences, opinions, personalities, and observations to keep a good conversation going. These gaps in knowledge or opinion between us serve as a kind of fuel for the questions that keep us talking. And of course listening also is key, "knowing when to interject questions, when to redirect the conversation, and more importantly, in what terms to interpret the other's narrative." But in those differences, we also have to opportunity to bring to our conversations the "best" of all the qualities, which according to McEntyre, is generosity.
"Good conversation is a courtesy, a kindness, a form of caritas that has as its deepest implicit intention binding one another together in understanding and love," McEntyre writes, and the best conversationalists are those that can "minister even to the most problematic partners—the inarticulate, the painfully introverted, and the indifferent."
The pandemic appears to be sticking around for a while longer, which means our family will continue to limit our activities and encounters with others for a while longer, too. But I'm not sure I can continue to put off conversations. Instead, I'm thinking of ways to put myself into places where conversation can more easily happen, even socially distanced. Like inviting friends to bundle up for brief walks outside where we can talk not only about pandemic life but also the things we're seeing and encountering as we go. Scheduling zoom calls with friends and calling them "coffee dates" with the purpose of having those longer, meandering conversations. And also even talking with my family about more than just what's for dinner or the latest Internet meme. And instead, having conversations about current events and home repair projects and memories we share.
Because conversation isn't only about exchanging information or attempting to persuade, it also "discloses us to one another," McEntyre writes, "and brings us into relationship that reaffirms our common dependencies and importance to each other."
What are your conversations like these days? Do they feel stunted because of the limitations of the pandemic? Or have you been able to push through the closeness of quarantined life to experience rich dialogue and interaction with others? I'd love to hear about a recent conversation you had that brought you joy and life.
And my apologies for getting the Wonder Report to you a day late this week. I participated in an intensive virtual writing workshop last Saturday through Monday, and that, coupled with the inaugural events of the week, left me a little behind. I should be back on track next week.
The Wonder Challenge
How good are you at asking questions?
One of the best ways I know to get a good conversation started is to ask a question. Marilyn McEntyre lists several in her chapter on conversations in Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I especially liked the list she attributed to a youth pastor she knows, who recognizes "the power of generous listening, of asking the next question." Here are the questions that youth pastor often asks (in some form or another):
Who are you?
What is it like to be living your particular life?
How do you cope with your own sufferings?
How do you feel about the challenges you encounter in the world you're inheriting?
Why have you made the particular choices you've made thus far?
What delights you?
What makes you afraid?
What may we offer one another at this stage in our journey?
Here's the challenge: Use a question to start a conversation this week ... choose one from the list above or one of your own. And when the conversation begins to lull, try asking another question and see where it goes.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. Come, Let Us Reason Together by Kevin DeYoung for The Gospel Coalition. In this article, the author makes a case for the hard work of discerning the truth about divisive issues, but also for engaging in conversations with those we disagree with to do so. After all, if Marilyn McEntyre is right, if conversation "brings us into relationship that reaffirms our common dependencies and importance to each other," then that certainly isn't limited to those we agree with. In fact, on certain issues, I probably have more in common with those I disagree with than I'd like to admit.
From the Essay: "It is the profound irony of our age: never has there been more information at our fingertips, and never has it been harder to know what information to trust. In most things, whether we realize it or not, we have no choice but to rely upon the expertise of others. We simply don’t have the time or ability to properly investigate every disputed claim. That means it is more important than ever before that we are discerning about the voices we listen to."
2. People Who Adopt These 7 Verbal Habits in 2021 Have Very High Emotional Intelligence by Bill Murphy Jr. for Inc. The best part of these 7 verbal habits is that they are actually very "others" oriented, despite sounding like, from the headline, that they are measures of some personal achievement. The verbal habits Murphy offers are ways to begin or continue conversations that honor the people you are talking with ... as well as helping us grow as people, too. On a basic level, emotional intelligence is really just another way of measuring our capacity for empathy, both for ourselves and others, and empathy is a great quality to have as we engage in better conversations.
From the article: "Like all these phrases, the exact words don't matter. What really does matter is training yourself to make the other people in your conversations feel listened to, valued, and important."
3. Building Trust Across the Political Divide: The Surprising Bridge of Conflict by April Lawson for Comment. I don't mean to suggest by the articles I've included here that the best conversations are those we have with ideological opponents ... or even those who agree on lesser issues than ideology. However, in our current climate, I do believe these kinds of conversations aren't happening nearly enough. This article talks about a model for such engagement that not only brings people together from differing viewpoints, but also attempts to honor and celebrate those differences in its very format.
From the essay: "I To my mind, this is one of the most profound causes of our present polarization: the ethic of tolerance, which goes in the guise of a neutral standard, denudes public argument of its profound spiritual dimensions and thereby guts the richness of pluralism. The result is a vacuum, and sure enough, new pseudo-religious orthodoxies have reared their heads to fill it. Our differences are our glory, and we need to examine what it would look like to really celebrate them—to face them boldly, and respond with the trusting inquiry that leads to love."
4. How to Have a Fun Conversation Again by Anna Goldfarb for the New York Times. This is an article from early on in the pandemic, but I'm including it here because it offers tips for engaging in lively and "fun" conversation when both the people to have conversations with and the stimuli to have conversations about are limited.
From the article: "It’s hard to strike an equilibrium in conversation if you’re feeling overwhelmed, unhappy and drained. “Some may be struggling to have positive conversations because the world is dark,” said Alison Wood Brooks, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Others are struggling with conversational fatigue as they manage crowded households. Still others wish they could have more conversations as they combat profound loneliness.”
What I’m Reading
Check out these books, magazines, or other publications I'm currently reading or have just finished. I'll only share resources I highly recommend ... and I'd love to hear your recommendations, too!
Stories That Bind Us
by Susie Finkbeiner
From the publisher: Betty Sweet is still recovering from the loss of her husband when she becomes the temporary guardian of a five-year-old nephew she never knew she had. As they struggle to move forward, they build a relationship upon the foundation of storytelling and its special kind of magic.
From Charity: I'm in the middle of this novel, which has a slow build to its plot, but about a third of the way in, I began to feel fully committed to the characters. The author spends a lot of time establishing the 1960s setting, which can feel a little jarring at first, but once the story took off, the now-outdated brand names and cultural references faded into the background, and I really just want to know how all these characters make it to the end. That's the most I ever ask of the fiction I read.
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
To blog or not to blog, that is the question. Well, actually it's one question, one that some writers are still struggling over.
For the longest time, if you asked anyone "in the biz" what you should do to further your writing career, they almost always recommended starting and writing on a blog, your own personal publishing platform where you could try out ideas, practice regularly hitting "publish," and connect with readers.
In the golden day of blogs, somewhere around 2005-2010, I cut my writing teeth by starting a blog (in 2006), writing on it regularly, reading and commenting on other people's blogs, and even joining blog networks. Blogs were much more social back then, a way to engage and network with readers and writers.
Facebook and Twitter were just starting, and no one over the age of 25 even knew what they were (okay, maybe that was just me, but still). Blogging was the way we met people and engaged in a burgeoning online community of writers, not social media. It came with relationships and opportunities, and for me, blogging is the primary reason I'm a full-time writer now. I'm not exaggerating.
And then, almost as quickly as it rose in success, blogging fell on hard times, at least as a socially engaging platform that helped move careers. Social media platforms took off, and readers moved their browsing and commenting there.
People still blog, and they do it for lots of reasons and to varying degrees of success. Here are a few long-time bloggers that continue to publish their own work and gather large followings of readers:
Since 2004, Darren Rowse of ProBlogger fame has been posting blog posts about blogging itself, and continues on a weekly basis "inspiring, teaching and supporting bloggers from around the world to create blogs that not only serve their readers and make the world a better place – but which build income streams for the bloggers behind them."
Since 2006, Maria Popova has been "spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month" to bring the world her weekly Brain Pickings, a collection of the "week's most interesting and inspiring articles across art, science, philosophy, creativity, children's books, and other strands of our search for truth, beauty, and meaning."
Ann Voskamp, who famously caught the attention of an agent through her blog and went on to become a New York Times Best Selling author, is still faithfully blogging several times a week and has been since 2004.
And entrepreneur, marketing guru, and author Seth Godin has been publishing his short, pithy and daily posts since 2002 (another early adopter), and he doesn't seem to be losing steam.
Blogging can still play an important role for writers. For some, blogging is the goal, a place to form a community and even make a living. This option still seems especially viable for writers who are very focused on a specific topic. As I mentioned above, blogs also provide a place to publish your own work and, as part of an author website, can provide a "home base" for writers online. Of course, blogging, or microblogging as it's known, can happen even on social media sites, where authors often share mini-essays and reflections of the length and nature that they used to publish on blogs. In fact, I personally use Instagram for these shorter kinds of reflections and my blog for occasional longer essays and more involved topics.
And then there are newsletters, which provide a more direct connection to readers now ... in the ways that blogging—and even social media—used to. Like blogging 15 years ago and social media mostly still is today, newsletters have become the new "must have" for writers, Like most things, the tools we writers use just continue to shift.
If you'd like to think more about whether to start or continue a blog, check out this recent blog post from Tweetspeak Poetry by my friend Megan Willome: "How Blogging Works for Writers: Think Seasons."
Also, I want to highlight The Write Life's new list of The 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2021. Their annual list is always full of great online writing resources, and this year is no exception. Also, congratulations to my friend, coauthor, and colleague Ann Kroeker, who's website and podcast have been on the list for several years running.
That's it for this issue! Thanks so much for reading along. I never take for granted the privilege of showing up in your inbox. If you know someone who might benefit from these emails, just send them this link to help them get subscribed.
Until next time!