Let it Flow Back and Forth

by Ben Carter

You can't straighten up during writing and then hunch back down when you let go of the pen. Writing can teach us the dignity of speaking the truth, and it spreads out from the page into all of our life, and it should. Otherwise, there is too much of a schism between who we are as writers and how we live our daily lives. That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life about writing. Let it flow back and forth. 

—p. 143 of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala 2005). 

Let the Whole Thing Flower

by Ben Carter

I'm reading Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. All of it is great, but this...this is breathtaking:

The deepest secret in our heart of hearts is that we are writing because we love the world, and why not carry that secret out with our bodies into the living rooms and porches, backyards and grocery stores? Let the whole thing flower: the poem and the person writing the poem. And let us always be kind in this world.

The Best Damn Blog About Nail Polish You Never Read

by Ben Carter

A lot of people have been excited for Waterlily – many compared it to Chanel’s famous Jade, since it has a slight shimmer. I don’t have Jade, but comparisons seem to show that although the two are fairly close, Waterlily is a more yellow, leafy light green than Jade’s cooler mint tones. Waterlily is a pretty and wearable green – the yellow tones make it soft and it’s not too stark. The formula is nice and only took me two coats for opacity.

I have a friend who is really into fingernail polish. Whenever we meet her and her husband for dinner, she[1] is wearing a new coat. It’s not something she talks about unless we comment on how great it looks; it always looks great.

During a lull in the conversation at a recent dinner, our friend announced, “So, I have a blog.” Turns out, by “have a blog” she meant she has a well-trafficked blog devoted exclusively to nail polish. She has been reviewing high-end and offbeat polishes for years at her blog, Lacquer Wear.

Maybe you need to know her to appreciate the shock of the news, but know that she is not the stereotypical blogger. And, I guess, that is one of the points of this: in 2011, there is no stereotypical blogger. When I began blogging in 2003, the world of blogging was dominated by guys like me: nerdy dudes in their early 20s.

Now, anyone can have a blog. This is amazing.

The other thing that’s not stereotypical about my friend as a blogger is that bloggers, almost by definition, are self-promoters. (How many people do you know that have started a blog, announced it to the world and then wrote one–maybe two–more posts past the initial promotional post?) It is inconceivable to me that someone would blog for years without telling her friend–me–about it. I am trying not to take it personally.

But, I want to get back to the “anyone can have a blog” thing.

I have another friend who is on the Paleo diet. His blog, Eatin’ Thangs, is nothing but pictures of stuff he’s eaten.

A third friend cares deeply about the role of the church in a broken (and getting broker) world. He writes about this and current events at his blog, at his church’s blog, and at a community blog he administers called [D]mergent.

A fourth friend writes about music under the name Kenny Bloggins. I read his site, The Decibel Tolls, to find new music, yes, but primarily to be blown away by his writing. Kenny Bloggins can pwn a sentence.[2]

Strictly speaking, I don’t really care about fingernail polish, but Lacquer Wear is in my RSS reader, NetNewsWire, and when a new post shows up, I read it. It is written with an enthusiasts’ enthusiasm and a maven’s perception. My friend carefully photographs each of the swatches in different lights that reflect that polish’s versatility (or consistency). She describes the polish’s application and feel. If a polish disappoints, she says so.

As far as I know, she is not paid for her work, nor does she ever expect to be paid. It is amateur hour on the internet and we couldn’t be luckier. Enough has already been said about the fact that we all own a printing press now, about the fact that people are doing work for free that journalists used to be paid for, about the fact that bloggers are carving out micro-niches of expertise.[3] We do not need to replow that terrain.

Instead, I just want to marvel for a moment about how awesome all of this is. I have a friend. Who blogs. About nail polish.


In 2011, a blog can be anything you want it to be: a journal, a collection of nail polish reviews, a photo diary of the warm things that filled your belly as the earth spun through dark and empty space. You can write essays that change the way people think about church, about their responsibilities to each other. You can rant about your favorite (or least favorite) sports team. You can have a travelogue.

Seriously: anything.

I say this for two reasons:

1) You have no excuses not to produce. 2) The world needs your story.

When I read my friend’s nail polish blog, I’m not just reading a review of Dior’s most recent line of fall polishes. I’m reminded that there is someone else out there who cares enough to write it down, who has the courage to write it down, memorialize it. It, whatever “it” is, matters. In this case, the “it” is nail polish and it matters enough to my friend to take pleasure in the creating and then send her words off in the world without much concern as to how they will fare. Ultimately, the piece’s fate doesn’t matter. She’s already done the important work, the hard work: sitting down and writing with the conviction that what she had to say matters.

So, I’ll continue to read a blog about nail polish. Because it’s well-written with obvious affection for the subject.

And because it’s not really about nail polish.

  1. “She” prefers to remain anonymous.  ↩

  2. Since writing this post over Christmas break and publishing it at the end of January, Kenny Bloggins has announced he is going to stop blogging at The Decibel Tolls. BUT, he is starting a more general-purpose blog called Distonal. It is going to be dope. I’m really excited to see what he does with the new space.  ↩

  3. Indeed, having a blog about nail polish seems recklessly unfocused in 2011. She should really have a blog about green nail polish or nail polishes imported from the Czech Republic.  ↩

Showing Up

by Ben Carter



At work, I feel like a fraud. Five years after passing the bar, the civil justice process is still daunting, and each decision–no matter how minor–seems fraught with peril. Should I call or should I email? What if they ask a question I don’t know the answer to? Do I need to comply with this request for production of documents?

This is why jobs are awesome: they make us do things that terrify us. I swear, if I didn’t have a mortgage payment and too many animals to feed, I would not get anything accomplished. The only reason I’m going to build up any competency and expertise as a lawyer is because I have to. I have to show up every day. I have to take the depostion. I have to do the research and write the brief. I have to negotiate and settle my client’s claim. I have to go to trial.

Look, I would love to be the guy who said, “I don’t have to go to work, I get to.” “Every day is a joy.” And, to a large extent, that’s true. I have been very, very fortunate to have only law jobs that I thought were important jobs, worthy of my time and attention. They were fun–interesting, not drudgetastic–and I got to work with really, really smart people.

But, those jobs were also terrifying. More often than not, I had no idea what I was doing.

I had to do it.

I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to run away. I wanted to scream that I didn’t pay attention in law school, that I’m really not as smart as you think I am, that I shouldn’t be trusted with X1.

If I didn’t have to show up every day, I wouldn’t. I would seek the comfort of things I know I’m good at: laundry and petting animals.

I think God understands this about us. I think God knows that if we didn’t have to work, we probably wouldn’t ever be worth a damn. 2

Work is showing up every day.

If you want to get good at something, it has to be your job. You have to do it every day. Have to.

If I got to wait around for inspiration and expertise and confidence… Well, I guess that’s what purgatory must feel like.

I think this is what Wendell Berry’s character, Jack Beechum, meant when he said “If you’re not in debt, you’ll never be worth anything” in The Memory of Old Jack. 3 He meant that we are weak. We are fearful; and the only way we’re going to do something–something amazing, something worthwhile, something that risks failure–is if we have to.

In some ways, I think our challenge is figuring out ways to make what we want to do well what we have to do every day. Some feel-good thinkers will give you the exact opposite career advice: Find a job you want to go to every day. Follow your bliss. That’s fru-fru hogwash.

You know where my bliss leads me? To a living room filled with laundry that needs to be folded and a big TV broadcasting the NFL.

In retrospect, I think this is one of my best skills: finding work that scares the crap out of me. Deep down, when I am most honest with myself I will admit: I want to become a great attorney. That only happens if I go to work every day and risk failure. I have learned that expertise is not magic. It’s showing up and risking failure. Again and again and again.

It’s not pleasant, it’s terrifying.

It’s the only way.

It’s not what I want to do, it’s what I have to do.

Every day is a new day. To fall on my face.

This is how you get good. 

  1. Where “X” is an opinion on the constitutionality of Kentucky’s educational system, a reckless driving trial of a Palauan cement truck driver, negotiating a plea deal for a Bangladeshi (falsely) accused of receiving stolen property so that he could remain in Palau rather than face deportation, a constitutional challenge to Palau’s prison conditions, a multi-agency, county-wide response to the foreclosure crisis, a legal brief in a multimillion dollar suit alleging negligence on the part of Kentucky’s largest law firm, a presentation about foreclosure defense to 250 skeptical attorneys. ↩

  2. This phrasing is fraught with potential misunderstanding. I am not saying that our worth in God’s eyes is tied to the work we do on Earth. I think God has made it abundantly clear that our worth is our worth, no matter what. Whether we like it or not. Further, the phrase “worth a damn” is not meant to imply that God finds inaction or laziness damn-worthy. Rather, all of this is to say that my utility to others on this Earth, my ability to seek justice for them in our civil justice system, is directly related to being compelled to show up every day whether I want to or not.  ↩

  3. Not an exact quote. If you know the real quote or can find it, please use the “Contact” page to help me correct this. ↩


by Ben Carter

I will do almost anything to avoid writing. Here are a few things I do to avoid writing:

  1. Scoop cat poop.
  2. Organize the pantry.
  3. Go for a run.
  4. Call somebody.
  5. Watch TV.
  6. Sweep.
  7. Vacuum.
  8. Mow the yard.

But, recently I have stripped all that away by waking up early and making time to only write. Yet, sometimes I find myself still not writing. Here are the things I will do in front of my computer to avoid writing.

  1. Explore different blogging platforms.
  2. Explore potential functionality on my own site.
  3. Add or subtract current functionality from my site.
  4. Check and see if anyone talked about my last essay on Facebook or Twitter.
  5. See if Apple’s mail.app is still sub-par (yes), and see if there are any other mail clients that I might use instead of the Gmail web interface (there aren’t).[1]
  6. See if Safari is still slower than Chrome. (Yes.)
  7. Answer email. Admittedly, this is one of the better things I could do in front of a computer instead of write, but this makes it even more insidious because it is so much easier to convince myself to write emails not essays. [2]
  8. I’m going to tell myself that working on links and photos for already-written essays is just as important as moving the cursor.
  9. Pay bills.
  10. Read my RSS feeds.
  11. Update my OmniFocus lists.
  12. Update my hours and mileage.
  13. Explore new text editors.

Just now, between typing #4 and #5 of the “things I do at the computer to avoid writing” list, I literally spent 15 minutes researching Disqus and trying to decide if I wanted to replace the commenting functionality native to Squarespace with Disqus. That’s right: while writing about what I do to avoid writing I did the exact thing I know I’m inclined to do to avoid writing.

I spent most of my evening yesterday moving BlueGrassRoots from Tumblr to Squarespace. Yesterday morning, I spent most of my writing time trying to add Google Analytics site monitoring to the Tumblr site I abandoned 12 hours later.

This is what I do: I fiddle. Since starting this site, I have worked with no fewer than six text editors (Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, nvAlt, Byword, WriteRoom, TextEdit) and taught myself a (very easy) new syntax, MultiMarkdown, for writing on the web. All of this exploration has been fun and it actually helps me get stuff done quicker, more elegantly, and with less friction. But, that’s what’s so dangerous about it. Because it helps me write, I can convince myself that it’s time well spent.

It isn’t.

I am very good at telling myself that all of the stuff that supports the success of my writing is just as important as writing.

It isn’t.

Things that are important:

  1. I write when I’m supposed to write.
  2. I keep pushing the cursor across the screen.
  3. I continue to try to say true things, especially when I’m scared to.

Merlin Mann (from whom I am basically plagiarizing [3] this entire essay), says that you are always exercising a muscle. Whatever you do, you’re either practicing #winning or practicing losing. When I fiddle, I’m exercising my fiddling muscle. I’m exercising my Muscle of Failure.

That’s what’s so dangerous about all of this. It’s not that I just burned 15 minutes of my morning writing time looking at commenting platforms for my stupid blog. It’s that practiced burning 15 minutes of my writing time on something inconsequential. That I did it this morning makes it that much easier and more likely that I will do it tomorrow.

Pretty soon, I’m not a writer but a fiddler.

This is why I have an entire document devoted to a completely unpublishable inquiry into the many and various ways that I suck. I figure, if I can’t think of anything else to write about, well, there’s always that. I’m sort of the world’s preeminent authority on that topic. Though, I’m sure Erin could also write a pretty compelling piece on the subject, as well.

When I’m writing about how much I suck, at least I’m exercising my writing muscles, not my fiddling muscles. This is more important that I can tell you.

Look, we all have things that we wished we did. Play the guitar more, spend more time with the kids, budget, go to church, call Mom, smoke more cigarettes with friends[4], take more photographs, get organized. These are all worthy goals. But, they’re also the sort of things we can carry around guiltily for the next three years. They’re the sort of things that can make us feel like out-of-control failures with no agency in our own lives.

When we feel like we should be doing something but do not act on it, we are exercising the inaction muscle. We are practicing feeling awful about ourselves and our abilities.

It’s like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Here’s my advice (to myself): If you can’t take action on something now (whether it’s because you’re afraid, overcommitted, uninterested, whatever), put it on your calendar to review two, six, twelve months from now: “See if there’s space in my life to pick up the guitar again.” Then, move on. Continuing to feel like you should do something is making it harder to ever take action on that thing. Seriously, let it go. If you don’t, that weight is going to grow in your hands and drag you to the bottom of the deepest ocean. Your lungs will burn and the only light will come from a fish that will eat you alive.

Let it go.

Practice doing, not wishing. Practice moving the cursor to the right. Even when you’re scared. Especially when you’re scared.

  1. Srsly, people, Google has had the “Send and Archive” button for years now. It can’t be that hard. Make it so.  ↩

  2. Writing emails early, beyond clearing out your inbox, has the added benefit of putting a timestamp on the email that says to the recipient, “Seriously, what are you doing with your life?” Wait, maybe when people get emails from me at 4:30 in the morning they are thinking, “Man, what is he doing with his life?” I’m going to have to think about this.  ↩

  3. I’m not even really kidding about this. There is a good chance that every single sentence in here is a direct quote from something he said somewhere.  ↩

  4. Note to self: those days are behind you, Ben, and they’re not coming back.  ↩

The Chains We Wrap Around Ourselves are Soft, but Lock Tighter Than Any Others

by Ben Carter in

Each morning for the last 30 days I have gotten up at 4 a.m. to write. This has never happened before. I have written all my life, but what I have are notebooks–lots of them–filled up 5%. I fizzle. My interests are too intense and too fleeting.

This time, waking up at 4:00 has been easy. Not easy physically, but easy because I have been excited by the prospect of finally living out my best life. My vision of my best life has always included writing and now so does my daily life.

For the past two decades, I have let my fear of sucking stop me from continuing to try. I have told myself that all of the best sentences have already been written and told myself that, really, there was nothing original or important left to say. (Thanks a lot, Wendell Berry.)

I have convinced myself that if I said what I felt I would disappoint my dad, that I would anger him and alienate him.[1]

I knew, deep down, that writing would jeopardize this elaborate ruse I have perpetrated for the last thirty-three years that I am intelligent, competent, trustworthy. Writing too much would reveal the ugly truth and people would know. They would know finally that I am not smart, that I am, in fact, self-centered, self-righteous, and selfish.

These are the things we tell ourselves. These are the things that whisper in our minds and prevent us from pursing our best lives. The chains we wrap around ourselves are soft, but lock tighter than any others.

No one needs permission to be awesome.

No one needs permission to suck, either. I think I’ve just become okay with the idea of sucking. Or, that the risk of sucking is worth taking because the risk of doing nothing, or resigning myself to something less than the pursuit of my best life is unacceptable. Writing has become for me the inch I refuse to allow my lizard brain[2] to take because if I give it that inch, it will unlock its jaw and devour my soul.

No one needs permission to be awesome. Especially writers. Especially today. So, I’m going to write. I’m going to write because if I don’t, who knows what I’ll do.

  1. Of course, if this were the case, it would have happened long ago. All evidence points to the exact opposite being true: that deciding to mince my words would, in fact, be the act that would disappoint him.


  2. The good stuff starts at minute nine.