Winter in Chicago

Just like that—with the subtlety of a charging rhino, and pomp of the rich and famous—winter arrives in Chicago.

Every year it make a difference appearance. But it always brings a variety of behaviors, wardrobes, and sniffling noses.

And it always showcases a certain urban beauty.


Writers: Giving Words Purpose

Letters and words alone have no significance—it's when someone strings them together that they take on meaning. Chip Kidd, in his introduction to Just My Type, says,

"Let's consider the English alphabet: twenty-six purely abstract symbols that in and of themselves mean absolutely nothing, but when put together in the right combinations can introduce into the heads of readers an infinite variety of sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, places, people, characters, situations, feelings, ideas."

Without a purpose, words become meaningless. With a purpose, Chip adds,

Entire universes are born out of just a few sentences, and can be just as quickly destroyed.

Writing well is creating a world that your reader can enter without trying, and communicating an idea so clearly a child could explain it from your description. To give words successful purpose, a writer must know a) what they want to say and b) how to say it.

The purpose without the talent is inarticulate passion.

The talent without the purpose is empty vocabulary.

Seeing What You're Headed Towards

I work in a rectangular building that was built squarely on a compass. Translation: it faces N,S,E, and W, instead of the half directions.

Yesterday at closing time, there was a grim glowering storm out of the east windows, and a dazzling, orange-yellow creamsicle sunset out of the west windows. My office-mates who sit on that side of the building had no idea that a storm was brewing, 45 feet away.

Sometimes you're 45 feet away from something delightful. Sometimes you're 45 feet away from the worst storm yet.

Usually you only see the one you're headed towards.

Practice looking around you to see all the weather.

Excitement Lives in the Young

Every week we go to youth group. We play games, have lesson and small group times, and try to help two or three dozen high-schoolers understand that they're not alone, they're not as awkward as they feel (and even if they are it's totally okay—spinach gets stuck in everybody's teeth sometimes), and not knowing what you're going to be doing in two years isn't the end of the world. 

They're fun, they're kind, they're smart. They play sports, they do drama, they read books, one of them even volunteers at a museum in her spare time. They're learning what growing up is in a safe environment, one where they are reminded of what matters, their parents keep them safe, and they don't have to pay their own electricity bills.

They're excited about life, because it's full of possibilities. 

They're excited because they're young enough to sleep well and forget the hard things.

They're excited because they haven't had a job they didn't like, a boss who was unkind, or a college roommate who doesn't understand what being courteous is.

And they should be. Writing excitement into young people is crucial (unless you're styling the moody artist type—that's a whole different set of attitudes), because it's so relevant to the young, and so refreshing for everyone else.

Learn to capture their excitement, because excitement is half of what makes life... Well, exciting.


Nuance gives interactions depth. The change of tone, the raised eyebrow, the subtle shift in posture—all of them indicate attitude and feeling. It's what makes story interesting, movies gripping, and real life easier to interpret. Without nuance, face to face interactions lack a certain emotion that we depend on to understand what's really going on. Even stranger to stranger interaction has subtle nuance, whether discomfort, disinterest, or delight.

Nuance differs from person to person, but some things are universal. Do you look up to the sun with your eyes closed when you go outside? Are you constantly picking at things with your fingers? Do you lean in when you're listening, cross your arms when you're upset, yawn when you're bored? Subtleties help us process interactions—without them we can't tell what the other person is thinking, unless they come straight out and say it. Was he leaning out because he wasn't listening? Why didn't she nod? What is all the yawning about?

In the same way, writing nuance into your story clues your readers into what's really going on, and triggers the imagination to help tell the story and fill in the tiny missing pieces. Without nuance tips, we won't know the tone of the story.

How do you write nuance into a story?

#) Understand what nuance is. You can't write it unless you understand it. Fortunately, it's an easy thing to learn. Eighty-five percent of social interactions that you witness are full of nuance—and once you start looking for it, it's everywhere.

#) Read for it. Find popular writers (both current and classic) and read their work. Do they use nuance well? Poorly? At all? 

#) Practice. This is the dead horse that I'll flog forever, when it comes to writing. The only way to get better is to practice, even when you don't feel like it, even when you have nothing to say. Look at the objects on your desk and write a story about them having a conversation. If your desk is empty use your shoes. If you're not wearing shoes, write it about the wall and the paint. If you write in a gazebo, maybe you're in a public park and there will be people walking by... You get the picture.

Nuance is invaluable to writers. Perfect the art.

Scribbled Insights

I have a lot of scraps of paper taped up around my desk, full of scribbled insights. I've gathered them through the months, and put them up to remind myself of the things that are important in life: making wise choices, loving people, living for God. One of them says, "Our default assumption is that people who choose their words carefully are quite smart."

It needs no explanation, and lines up with a proverb.

"Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt."

Also self-explanatory.

When you're in a creating position, think carefully about what you say and make. It pays off in the long run.

A Case for Sunday Dinner

Every week, my grandma hosts Sunday lunch (dinner, not supper). All the aunts and uncles and cousins are there, and Grandma makes a pot roast or chicken, with all the fixings, plenty of them.The scent drifts down the hallway to the garage, and in the kitchen the smell mingles with hustle and bustle. Someone is always talking, there's food set out on the kitchen table ready for the dining room, and small grandchildren run about with toys in hand. The kitchen is the hub, the boys lay around in the living room, and Grandpa dozes on the couch waiting for lunch. A granddaughter bangs keys on the piano; none related, no melody. Just glee. When dinner is steaming on the long seasonal tablecloth in the dining room, grandma calls everyone in. Each sits in his or her own chair, the same for years. After Grandpa prays, dishes fly. Within twenty minutes everyone is done eating, the little ones are roaming, and the boys are asking for dessert. Grandma always has it, plenty for everyone.

It is the quintessential Sunday dinner; hubbub, food, community, generations, noise and confusion. It is tradition, Sunday Dinner—but no one is there for the food. If it was, everyone would make their own meal and stay home. It's for the experience. The togetherness, community, hubbub, and all the week's fresh talk.

Grandma changes the food week by week. If she didn't, after weeks of the same meal (even though no one really comes for the food), everyone would be sick of it. Sunday dinner isn't about the food—but it does matter.

Technically, writing isn't about the fixings—but the fixings do matter.

If Grandma had everyone over and said there was no meal prepared, the mood would turn sour fast (behind the polite "Oh-it-doesn't-matter"s. Even if something isn't actually necessary, we notice (and experience varying levels of displeasure) when it's missing.

You can write a story without creativity; it's the bare bones and basics of what happened, like a bullet point list. Or, you can write a story with all the excellence of careful craftsmanship. The details of the story won't change—but the reader's enjoyment will be far greater.

Everyone wants to read a well written story, even and balanced. The details without the colors are monotonous; the colors without the details are frivolous.

Write colors into your details, like a good Sunday Dinner. Your readers will thank you.


What colors do you write with?