Jonathan Rogers was one of my favorite writers long before I received his writing help through an early online class. When looking for a coach for Courage Dear Heart, I knew he would be clear and solid. I’m so thankful to have had a literary hero serve as a writing guide.
For almost a decade, I’ve watched writers with a fraction of Jonathan’s skill pump mediocre work into the stratosphere unabashedly while he quietly sat on some of the best modern writing I’ve read. I used to wonder what on earth it would take to get him to talk about his work. Now I see— it’s tending others through teaching, coaching, etc. This is such an upside-down, inside-out way of considering an artistic gift. Pretty Christlike for somebody who has a sick fascination with alligators.
I subscribe to The Habit, his weekly letter about writing (you should subscribe too). I’ve also been hearing about this other thing he’s been doing, Field Notes for Writers, but I still don’t quite get what it is—probably because Jonathan’s gifts don’t seem to include marketing.
Finally, I decided to just ask him about it. In the interview below, you can eavesdrop on that conversation. We conducted the interview via online chat, after I got some wifi issues sorted out.
REBECCA: Sorry about the delay. This building must be made of krypton.
JONATHAN: I’ve had plenty to keep me busy. Also, I think Krypton is a planet. The substance is Kryptonite.
REBECCA: Oh that’s right.
JONATHAN: Anything else I can correct you about?
REBECCA: I need to brush up on my Superman.
JONATHAN: I once published a Rabbit Room piece in which I referred to Spiderman’s alter ego as Peter Bannister. There were some Rabbit Room readers who knew the difference.
REBECCA: Anyway…I’m here to interview you about the most terrible things you’ve ever done. I hope you’re finally ready to confess.
JONATHAN: Yes. I once referred to Peter Parker as Peter Bannister.
REBECCA: I think you’ll feel better having this off your conscience.
JONATHAN: You know, you’re right. When you try to pass yourself off as somebody you’re not, it always comes back to bite you—in this case, when I tried to pass myself off as nerdy, I only ended up showing the world just how un-nerdy I am.
REBECCA: Right… Can I ask you a question?
REBECCA: You are one of the most well-read, insightful and artistic writers I know—yet you have invested a vast amount of energy trying to help other people write. Why are you doing this in an era when so many other writers seem focused on building their own platforms? (Can we edit this later? That was missing a comma.)
JONATHAN: It will just be more of my energy given to helping other people write, but yes, I will fix your commas for you.
JONATHAN: One reason I don’t focus on platform-building is that I don’t know much about how to do it…or, rather, I don’t know any platform-building strategies that I could do and still feel good about what I’m doing. But somewhere along the line it occurred to me that I just like being involved in the production of good writing, whether I’m writing or helping somebody else write.
About this time last year I started The Habit—my weekly letter about writing. It’s been a faith-building exercise: that thing is a lot of work, and I’m putting it out there for free. I’ve always said I believed that generosity is never wasted…The Habit has been a way of testing out whether I actually believe it or not.
REBECCA: As I’ve watched you develop The Habit and your various online classes, and now Field Notes for Writers, I’ve been happily shocked by your fervor and persistence. Why is it worth your investment to help people like this? What do you believe about human beings that would make this worth your while?
I'm amazed at how quickly a person can make big improvements as a writer. And rarely is it a case of their needing to try harder. More often it's a case of their needing to try not so hard. Jonathan Rogers
JONATHAN: One thing I’ve noticed about grown-ups who take creative writing classes is that they’ve all got a reason for doing it, and I don’t mean the desire to get published. (I make it a policy not to talk about publishing). Grownups who want to write have something to say. Or they’ve got something they’re trying to work through. I love reading what the people in my online classes write, even when the writing isn’t that great.
You asked what I believe about people…I believe that when it comes to writing, most grown-ups don’t need new skills nearly so much as they need to clear away bad habits and bad ways of thinking about writing and about themselves.
I’m amazed at how quickly a person can make big improvements as a writer. And rarely is it a case of their needing to try harder. More often it’s a case of their needing to try not so hard, to focus their energy over here rather than wasting so much of it over there, to open their eyes and look outward rather than squinting at their own belly buttons.
REBECCA: Your approach to coaching is different from anything I’ve seen online. It reminds me of a trait I’ve seen in some of the “best” writers—people like O’Connor, and Dostoevsky, and Hugo.
Those aren’t just good craftsmen wielding a honed skill set. The best writers seem to have moved through life with a posture of continuing to allow the world to affect them. Even if they were quirky, or abrupt—even if they were withdrawn socially, they weren’t withdrawn emotionally.
I feel a similar vulnerability in your coaching, and this stands out from so many writing programs. You aren’t just trying to help people climb a publishing ladder; you are working to help them unlock why they are drawn to use words in the first place.
In an unsafe world, though, how do you convince people that their stories matter?
JONATHAN: I’ve never thought about convincing people that their stories matter. I guess I just work from the assumption that they matter. I’ve never sat anybody down, for instance, and put a hand on either side of their face and looked deep in their eyes and said, “Your story matters.”
REBECCA: You should try that sometime with Pete Peterson. He would love it.
Grammar is intimidating to many people. It also makes some folks angry—they assume it’s a proud and legalistic discipline. Why do you care about teaching grammar?
JONATHAN: I love the fact that grammar is this shared system that makes it possible for everybody who speaks a language to connect with everybody else who speaks that language. People get their grammar right 97% of the time. (I totally made up that statistic, but I suspect it’s about right.) Those people who focus on the 3% of the time that other people get it wrong are jackasses. Grammar bullies are the reason people hate grammar and are intimidated by it.
REBECCA: What do you mean when you say people get grammar right 97% of the time? Are we reading the same Twitter?
JONATHAN: Ok. There are some grammar mistakes on Twitter and elsewhere. But think about what people NEVER get wrong. Everybody knows that an adjective goes before the noun it modifies. They never accidentally say “the truck blue.” They also know that an adjective clause goes after the noun it modifies. The biggest grammar ignoramus you’ve ever met knows to say “the blue truck that my father gave me.” He never says “the that my father gave me truck blue.”
REBECCA: I love that. The grammar bullies can also taint the efforts of good-hearted teachers who are simply trying to help others communicate with more clarity. Grammar is not an end in itself. It’s not a mark of personal worth. It’s a tool to speak what you need to say with more efficiency, power, and beauty.
JONATHAN: That is true. You should start up an online grammar course.
REBECCA: No thanks. But, I know a guy…
So, Field Notes for Writers. What inspired you here? What goal were you trying to reach?
JONATHAN: I’ve been teaching online creative writing for four or five years now. But the way I’ve been doing it has limited me to teaching about twelve people at a time. The goal with Field Notes is to be able to reach more people.
I’m still running Writing Close to the Earth and Writing with Flannery O’Connor [6-week online classes] for the foreseeable future (I call them my legacy classes now), but there wasn’t any way to scale those up…it just requires too much.
REBECCA: Ok. I’m going to make a confession.
JONATHAN: What, you thought Spiderman’s name was Peter Bannister too?
REBECCA: Worse than that: I’ve heard you talking about Field Notes for Writers for months now, and I still don’t know what you’re talking about.
JONATHAN: What do you mean?
REBECCA: I mean I know you do The Habit and webinars and Grammar for Writers and Writing Close to the Earth and Writing with Flannery O’Connor and Field Notes for Writers, but I still don’t understand how it all fits together.
JONATHAN: Why didn’t you ask me months ago?
REBECCA: You know how it is. You reach a certain point, and it feels like it’s too late to ask.
JONATHAN: I get that. I can’t bring myself to ask that grumpy guy with the beard what his name is.
REBECCA: Pete Peterson?
JONATHAN: That’s the one.
JONATHAN: Whose words did you think those were on the promo video?
REBECCA: You know what I mean. I was just trying to draw a diagram of everything you offer and how it fits together, but I got confused.
JONATHAN: I tell you what: I’ll make that diagram, and you can insert it into your Rabbit Room post.
JONATHAN: All right. Field Notes for Writers is a subscription site—though I prefer to call it a membership, because that sounds more Wendell Berry-ish. Field Notes members have access to a library of content that I add to every week. And the content is divided into four main categories:
Comparing Notes is essentially a podcast. Every month I post the audio of a 15- or 20-minute conversation with a writer friend. Thus far I have episodes with Sam (SD) Smith, Heidi Johnston, Dave Radford, Helena Sorensen, and the heartbreakingly brilliant Rebecca Reynolds. These are pretty free-flowing conversations, so we cover everything from being reader-focused instead of self-focused to finding time to write to handling criticism to embracing a “growth mindset.”
Line Edits is a series of short videos in which I pull up an essay or story submitted by one of my students and walk through my suggested edits. This series is more nuts-and-bolts, sentence-level stuff than the Comparing Notes conversations. Keeping subjects close to verbs, choosing between direct and indirect quotation, managing pronouns and antecedents, that kind of thing.
REBECCA: That sounds like the same kind of issues you address in Grammar for Writers.
JONATHAN: You’re getting ahead of me, Rebecca.
Grammar for Writers is a 42-lesson deep dive into English grammar, with an eye specifically toward writing issues. These are lecture-based: I stand in front of a bookcase and talk about grammar and writing. Also, I tell dad jokes. Then there are quizzes and lecture notes. So, yes, I cover some of the same topics in Line Edits. But Grammar for Writers is a little more formal and it’s also more comprehensive. Line Edits teaches through active critique. They reinforce one another. Actually, I should have mentioned: Grammar for Writers is under the Field Notes umbrella for now, but in March I’m going to spin it off as a standalone product. So people who join Field Notes for Writers between now and the end of February will get Grammar for Writers included in their membership. It’s a reward for early subscribers.
Then there are the webinars.
Every month I host a live webinar about a writing-related topic—writing vivid description, writing dialogue, understanding point-of-view…in February the topic will be writing better love letters, just in time for Valentine’s Day. A recording of that webinar goes into the Field Notes library for members to watch any time they want to.
REBECCA: I thought the webinars were free and open to all.
JONATHAN: They are. You don’t have to be a Field Notes member to attend the webinar live. It’s the recorded versions that become part of the Field Notes library. I add content to each of those four categories on a four-week rotation—a new author interview one week, a new Line Edits video the next week, etc.—so the library is constantly growing.
Oh, and then there’s the Field Notes Book Club (we’re going through Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water now), and I’ve started doing office hours via videoconference for anybody who has questions.
REBECCA: You’re basically creating Khan Academy for the discipline of writing.
JONATHAN: It will be the Kubla Khan Academy, actually. It will be a stately pleasure-dome.
REBECCA: Be sure to have a sacred river running through measureless caverns, please.
JONATHAN: I have decreed it.
One thing I want—maybe the biggest thing—is for Field Notes for Writers to become a place where writers can be there for one another, to compare notes, to encourage one another.
I’ve been feeding the content beast for a while, building that library, but I really hope Field Notes will develop into a community of writers. I’m trying to think of the content library as a gathering place, something that gives writers common ground, something to connect over and discuss. To this point, Field Notes has mostly been me talking to writers. I want to be facilitating conversations rather than monologuing. But I’m not there yet.
REBECCA: You should probably mention that Field Notes is a paid subscription, not a charitable endeavor.
JONATHAN: Yes. $11.95 a month, or $119 a year. Some of what I do is free. The Habit and the live monthly webinar are free. I wish I could do all of it for free, but I do charge for Field Notes. Baby’s got to have shoes.
REBECCA: You are teaching your participants that writing has a value. I think that’s important, too. Modeling respect for the offering is good leadership.
Sorry, I know you’ve worked on this so much and that you understand it. But I haven’t understood how it all fits together until just now.
JONATHAN: I totally understand that. I spend so much time thinking about Field Notes that I forget that nobody else knows what I’m talking about. I really appreciate your asking.