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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Framing the everyday world

“With a photograph, you are left with the same modes of interpretation as you are with a book. You ask: 'What do we know about the author and their background? What do I know about the subject?'” – Joel Sternfeld

Born on this date in 1944, Sternfeld is noted for his large-format documentary pictures of the United States and for helping establish color photography as a respected artistic medium.  With many works in the permanent collections of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, he has not only established himself as an artistic “force,” but also influenced a generation of color photographers.

And, his writing in support of his photographs have made him an important chronicler of his life and times.  American Prospects, perhaps Sternfeld's most known book, explores the irony of human-altered landscapes in the United States. To make the book, Sternfeld photographed ordinary things, including unsuccessful towns and barren-looking landscapes.  His book On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam is about violence in America. Sternfeld photographed sites of tragedies, supplemented by his thoughtful text about the events that happened there.
  Green Valley, AZ, 1978, by Joel Sternfeld – Bachmann Gallery, Berlin
A longtime professor of photography at New York’s Sarah Lawrence University, his own books of photos and his essays on photography are part of the photographic teaching lexicon at many institutions in the U.S. and abroad.  “A photographer must choose a palette just as painters choose theirs,” he said.   And, I would add, as a writer chooses a topic on which to focus his or her words.

To see more of his works currently at MOMA, check out this website: 

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Exuberance from deed and pen

“True happiness comes from the joy of deeds well done, the zest of creating things new.” Antoine de Saint- Exupéry

Born on this day in 1900, the French writer, poet, aristocrat, journalist, and pioneering aviator Saint- Exupéry became a laureate of several of France's highest literary awards and also won the U.S. National Book Award.   He probably is best remembered for his novella The Little Prince and for his lyrical aviation writings, including Wind, Sand and Stars and Night Flight.

I’ve written about this wonderful writer and great aviator before.  And while he is remembered for his writing, his trailblazing career as a pilot and his heroism on behalf of his country during World War II are equally worthy of attention.  And his journalistic writings played a major role in rallying the French forces and French underground in the battle to reclaim his homeland.

While not precisely autobiographical, much of Saint-Exupéry's      
 writing was inspired by his experiences as a pilot, including of course the incredible Little Prince and the highly intense and descriptive Night Flight.    

As for his interpretations and explanation of things he wrote about, he noted, “The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves, but in our attitude towards them.”  Saint- Exupéry died in 1944 while flying a recon mission for the Allies in advance of their invasion of southern France. We can only wonder how much more he would have produced?  But we can be grateful for what he gave to the world.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

'Revitalizing' - a special writing art

“Reason is a fine thing, but it is not the only thing available to a writer. It's just part of the arsenal of many things available to a storyteller. Revelation, for example.” Mark Helprin

Born on this date in 1947 (my own birth year), Helprin has a broad resume’.    He is not only a novelist and journalist but also a conservative commentator, Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, and Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. While Helprin's fictional works straddle a number of disparate genres and styles, he has stated that he "belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend.”

The child of two artists – his father was a well-known film industry leader and his mother a stage actress – Helprin was born in Manhattan, studied at both Harvard and Princeton, and simultaneously became a statesman and writer with his non-fiction writing 
 focused on conservative causes.  His commentary has been called “biting,” and in debates he often gains the upper hand by not saying anything.  “Well-timed silence,” he noted,  “is the most commanding expression.”

 On the “creative” side, he has won numerous awards and his book Winter’s Tale has often been cited as “the single best work published in the past 25 years.” 

As writers, he said, “We create nothing new—no one has ever imagined a new color—so what you are doing is revitalizing. You are remembering, then combining, altering. Artists who think they're creating new worlds are simply creating tiny versions of this world."

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Daily feeds of 'good language'

“When I write, I have a sort of secret kinship of readers in all countries who don't know each other but each of whom, when they read my book, feels at home in it. So I write for those readers. It's almost a sense of writing for a specific person, but it's a specific person who I don't know.” – Teju Cole
A writer, photographer, and art historian, Cole was born on this date in 1975 in Kalamazoo, MI, to Nigerian parents, the oldest of four children.    After growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Cole moved back to the United States at the age of 17 to attend college and never left the U.S. again.  He is a 1996 graduate of Kalamazoo College.

He has authored several books, including the multiple award-winning Open City, a terrific story of a young Nigerian immigrant in Manhattan.   Cole’s essays, creative photography, and use of social media also have drawn the attention of numerous critics and other writers.  Salman Rushdie called him “the most gifted of today’s younger generation of writers.”     Cole currently serves as distinguished writer in residence at Bard College and is a regular contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker.  He’s attracted a worldwide following for his interesting and thoughtful almost daily – some label them “poetic” – posts on Twitter.

“I'm not trying to be a poet on Twitter,” he said.  “I'm trying to be aware of the fact that a very simple sentence, well written, can have a very moving effect without that person knowing why.  (As a reader) There's a deep genetic part of you that somehow, even without your permission, recognizes good language when it arrives.”

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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Rocky Mountain writers' highs

“Mountains, according to the angle of view, the season, the time of day, the beholder's frame of mind, or any one thing, can effectively change their appearance. Thus, it is essential to recognize that we can never know more than one side, one small aspect of a mountain.” ― Haruki Murakami

  To “illustrate” this photo I took in the mountains west of Boulder last week, I thought sharing a few “writers’ moments” with their views of the mountains and the writing inspiration the mountains provide would be a good start to the new week.  Happy writing as you approach and enjoy your own mountain trails, wherever and whatever they may be.
“All mountain landscapes hold stories: the ones we read, the ones we dream, and the ones we create.” ― George Michael Sinclair Kennedy

“Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.” ― Harold B Melchart

“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.   You can climb it and cross to the other side.  You can go around it.  You can dig under it.   You can fly over it.    You can blow it up.   You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there.   You can turn around and go back the way you came.    Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.” ― Vera Nazarian

“May your dreams be larger than mountains and may you have the courage to scale their summits.” ― Harley King

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

A blessing in the air

“I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it, too.” Laurie Lee

Born on this date, Laurence Edward Alan "Laurie" Lee (1914-1997) was an English poet, novelist and screenwriter, and while he was best known for his novels and screenplays, he loved poetry best.  While several of his poems written in the early 1940s reflect the atmosphere of World War II, he also wrote many that captured the beauty of the English countryside.  

I first “heard” his work when I attended a concert by The St. Olaf Choir and they performed his "Twelfth Night" from his My Many-coated Man.  That marvelous poem was first set for unaccompanied mixed choir by American composer Samuel Barber, with a later (and even better, I think) version by St. Olaf professor and conductor Robert Scholz.   In either case, Lee’s words combined with this beautiful music makes for a fabulous “listening” experience.

Lee wrote beautiful poems and stories for every season.  Here for Saturday’s Poem is the one he chose to grace his own tombstone.  

April Rise

If ever I saw blessing in the air
I see it now in this still early day
Where lemon-green the vaporous morning drips
Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye.

Blown bubble-film of blue, the sky wraps round
Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod
Splutters with soapy green, and all the world
Sweats with the bead of summer in its bud.

If ever I heard blessing it is there
Where birds in trees that shoals and shadows are
Splash with their hidden wings and drops of sound
Break on my ears their crests of throbbing air.

Pure in the haze the emerald sun dilates,
The lips of sparrows milk the mossy stones,
While white as water by the lake a girl
Swims her green hand among the gathered swans.

Now, as the almond burns its smoking wick,
Dropping small flames to light the candled grass;
Now, as my low blood scales its second chance,
If ever world were blessed, now it is.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Stories of 'normalcy' in turbulent times

“I loved to read, and if I could've been a professional reader, that's probably what I would've wanted to be!“ – Kathryn Lasky

Perhaps best-known for her very interesting “Diaries” writing style – where she builds a story around what is supposedly the diary of her protagonist – Kathryn Lasky was born on this date in 1944 and grew up in Indianapolis.  Her awards include the 2011 Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers' Literature, but she’s also a noted writer of adult literature.  Her writing, she said, is often triggered by both current events and a “What if?” mentality.

Lasky said she can read a newspaper article, and it might trigger something else in her mind, and she likes to choose historical fiction things or subject matter that she feels haven’t always been given a fair shake in history.    “I treat all my characters  
 as if they were real, and I am scrupulous about the details of their lives,” she said. 
“When I was growing up I loved reading historical fiction, but too often it was about males; or, if it was about females, they were girls who were going to grow up to be famous like Betsy Ross, Clara Barton, or Harriet Tubman. No one ever wrote about plain, normal, everyday girls. I always wondered what it was like to be just a normal kid growing up in trying times or during a great moment in history.”

“Whether you are a 12-year-old princess or a 12-year-old regular kid, you need to know you are loved and respected.”

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Using your words in remarkable ways

“I like the idea that every page in every book can have a gem on it. It's probably what I love most about writing - that words can be used in a way that's like a child playing in a sandpit, rearranging things, swapping them around.”  Markus Zusak

When I read The Book Thief and then later saw the movie, my thought was that this had to have been written by a grizzled old writer who had the story in his or her mind for decades, or who had the experiences in a longstanding family history and then finally put them into a book before death got in the way and left the story untold.

So, I was shocked when I learned that this heart-wrenching novel about the awful years in Germany during the late 1930s and through World War II were, in fact, presented to the world by a writer who wrote it in his late 20s and had it published in 2005 at age 30.

Born on this date in 1975, Australian writer Markus Zusak has a wonderful talent that promises the world a rich and diverse literary output for years to come.   While he’s best known for The Book Thief, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for a remarkable 375 weeks, he’s also given us the award-winning I Am the Messenger and When Dogs Cry,
 a testament to perserverance and “knowing that it was a story     
 worth fighting to get published.”  He started When Dogs Cry as a teenager and it took 7 years to get accepted.  Since then it’s not only sold continuously but also won many awards around the globe, as has Zusak, who was named for the annual Margaret Edwards Award in 2014 for his contribution to young-adult literature.    “I try hard and aim big,” Zusak said.   “People can hate or love my books but they can never accuse me of not trying.”

“Failure has been my best friend as a writer,” he said after finally getting When Dogs Cry published.  “It tests you, to see if you have what it takes to see it through.” 

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Leading the joy of learning

“Language is a living thing. We can feel it changing. Parts of it become old: they drop off and are forgotten. New pieces bud out, spread into leaves, and become big branches, proliferating.”  Gilbert Highet

A Scottish-American classicist, academic, writer, intellectual, critic and literary historian, Gilbert Highet was born on this day in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1912.  While studying there he met his future wife, the great writer Helen MacInnes.  They came to the U.S. where, in 1938, he was named head of the Greek and Latin Department at Columbia, where he would stay until 1971, just a few years before his death.  Both Highet and MacInnes later became naturalized U.S. citizens.

Highet devoted most of his energy to teaching, but he also aspired to raise the level of mass culture and achieved broader influence by publishing essays and books, hosting his own radio program, acting as a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and serving on the editorial board of Horizon magazine.               

When asked why he liked teaching, he remarked "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and (how) you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."

With a presence comparable to that of Laurence Olivier or John Houseman and a powerful and speculative mind, he was noted for giving his students an extraordinary intellectual experience.  For an amazing look at the art of teaching, read his 1976 book The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning.

Highet loved the process of writing and the end results, especially the books from which he taught his thousands of students the joys of understanding what lie between each book’s covers.  “(Books) are not just lumps of lifeless paper,” he said, “but minds alive on the shelves.”

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Hero of your own story

“We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.” Mary McCarthy

Author, critic and political activist, Mary McCarthy was born on this day in 1912 in Seattle, WA, and built her reputation as a satirist, primarily with her satirical 1963 novel The Group, which remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years.

Noted for her precise prose and its complex mixture of autobiography and fiction, she also was considered a rather “scandalous” writer in her younger years, especially with her first novel The Company She Keeps, which “told it like it was” in 1930s New York Society.

Winner of two Guggenheim Fellowships and a number of other major “funding” awards, she was named for the National Medal for Literature and
 the Edward MacDowell Medal, both in 1984   
 and just on the cusp of learning that she had lung cancer.  During her later years, in recognition of her groundbreaking work, she was presented with 8 honorary degrees from some of America’s leading universities.

A respected critic, she was often feuding with other leading writers over her frank and often not-so-flattering reactions to their works.  And, as for her own writing, she said she often surprised herself with their outcomes. “The suspense of a novel,” I think,  “is not only for the reader, but in the novelist, who is usually intensely curious about what will happen to her hero.”

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Monday, June 20, 2016

A writer-reader partnership

“I love the fact that you collaborate with your readers when you write a book.” – Robert Crais

Born on this day in 1953, Crais is one of America’s best-selling authors of crime fiction, but he didn’t start to create novels in the genre until long after he already had made a name for himself as the writer of scripts for television shows.   After graduating from LSU, he moved to Hollywood and jumped right into writing for shows like Hill Street Blues and Cagney and Lacey. 

But in the late 1980s he tested the waters with his first novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, an instant hit with readers and critics alike – earning everything from “best first novel” to “best mystery.”  Since then, he’s had 20 novels, published in 62 countries, all worldwide bestsellers.    In 2006 he received the Ross Macdonald Literary Award (for crime fiction) and in 2014 he was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.                 

“My books come to me in images,” he said about his inspiration.  “Sometimes the image is at the beginning of the book, and sometimes it's simply a flash somewhere in the middle.”  Whatever and whenever, it definitely works, built around his two memorable main characters – Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.

Perhaps his best-known novel, also made into a movie, is Hostage, cited for the great character development throughout.   “I write characters and stories that move me,” he said, “and I write from the heart.”

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

A wonderful sense of reward

There's a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off. –  Tobias Wolff 
Born June 19, 1945, Wolff is an American short story writer, memoirist, and novelist best known for his memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army.  And while he prefers short stories, he has written two novels, one of which, The Barracks Thief, won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  For his array of short stories and life’s work, Wolff received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama last September.
While he was born in Alabama, he mostly grew up in the state of Washington
 and it’s that backdrop   that serves as setting for his award-winning This Boy’s Life.           

His first short story collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was published in 1981 and established him as one of America’s “new wave” of short story writers at what would become a renaissance, of sorts, for American short story writing.  Several of his stories, which he continues writing to this day, have also been made into movies or television shows.

He said he likes to be able to experiment with writing styles and enjoys teaching them, too, something he has done since 1980, first at Syracuse and now Stanford (since 1997).  Dozens of major writers have started under Wolff’s tutelage and cite his amazing poetic style for crafting short stories, something he said he gravitates toward in his writing.

 “I believe that the short story is as different a form from the novel as poetry is,” he said, “and the best stories seem to me to be perhaps closer in spirit to poetry than to novels.”

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Saturday, June 18, 2016

A summertime reading delight

“Some very plausible stuff is being written by women in a way that most men are not doing.”  Amy Clampitt
Born this week in 1920, Clampitt was a reference librarian at the Audubon Society and working as a freelance editor in New York when her first poem was published (by The New Yorker) in 1978.  In 1983, at age 63, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher.  Until her death from cancer in 1994, Clampitt published five books of poetry, including the award-winning What the Light Was Like.

So transformative was her work that she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Grant (the Genius Grant) in 1992 as she was working on what would become her final book, A Silence Opens.  Today, for Saturday’s Poem, is an example of Clampitt’s stunning, thoughtful writing.  It’s a bit longer than my normal selection for Saturday’s Poem, but worth every extra second – I promise! 

Beach Glass by Amy Clampitt
While you walk the water's edge,
turning over concepts
I can't envision, the honking buoy
serves notice that at any time
the wind may change,
the reef-bell clatters
its treble monotone, deaf as Cassandra
to any note but warning. The ocean,
cumbered by no business more urgent
than keeping open old accounts
that never balanced,
goes on shuffling its millenniums
of quartz, granite, and basalt.
It behaves
toward the permutations of novelty—
driftwood and shipwreck, last night's
beer cans, spilt oil, the coughed-up
residue of plastic—with random
impartiality, playing catch or tag
or touch-last like a terrier,
turning the same thing over and over,
over and over. For the ocean, nothing
is beneath consideration.
The houses
of so many mussels and periwinkles
have been abandoned here, it's hopeless
to know which to salvage. Instead
I keep a lookout for beach glass—
amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase
of Almadén and Gallo, lapis
by way of (no getting around it,
I'm afraid) Phillips'
Milk of Magnesia, with now and then a rare
translucent turquoise or blurred amethyst
of no known origin.
The process
goes on forever: they came from sand,
they go back to gravel,
along with treasuries
of Murano, the buttressed
astonishments of Chartres,
which even now are readying
for being turned over and over as gravely
and gradually as an intellect
engaged in the hazardous
redefinition of structures
no one has yet looked at.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

On the scene...or in it

“Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it.”  John Hersey

As both a journalist and a creative writer, I’ve long balanced the fine line that runs between these two writing professions – and enjoyed both the challenge and the results along the way.

Born on this day in 1914, Hersey is best known for two amazing pieces of writing.  In 1944, he published the bio-novel A Bell for Adano, and in 1946, he wrote an account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.  In the span of two years he won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and then wrote the journalistic piece later judged  “the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century” by a 36-member panel associated with New York University’s journalism department.

Adano (just one of 25 books Hersey authored) won the 1945 Pulitzer.  It’s the story of an Italian-American officer who wins the respect and admiration of the people of Adano, Sicily, by helping them find a replacement for the town bell that the Fascists had melted down for rifle barrels.   The tale grew directly out of his experiences as a war correspondent traveling, living with and writing about the troops in the field.

That book alone would have made his career, but in August, 1946, commemorating the anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945, dropping of the first atomic bomb, The New Yorker published his most notable work, a 31,000-word article "Hiroshima.”  The story occupied almost the entire issue – something The New Yorker had never done before, nor has since.  Told from the viewpoint of 6 survivors it is, perhaps, the first example of what was to become called “New Journalism,” in which fiction storytelling techniques are adapted to non-fiction reportage. 

                                                              Hersey in the late 1940s and in the early 1990s

Shortly before his 1993 death, Yale (his alma mater) honored Hersey by creating an annual lecture series in his name.  In dedicating the series, fellow Yale alum, the author David McCullough, had this to say about Hersey.   Hersey "portrayed our time,” McCullough observed, "with a breadth and artistry matched by very few. He has given us the century in a great shelf of brilliant work, and we are all his beneficiaries."

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