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Saturday, June 30, 2018

Poems Teach Us How To Feel

“Poetry offers works of art that are beautiful, like paintings, which are my second favorite work of the art, but there are also works of art that embody emotion and that are kind of school for feeling. They teach how to feel, and they do this by the means of their beauty of language.” – Donald Hall

Hall – onetime Poet Laureate of the U.S. – was a prolific, award-winning man of letters widely admired for his sharp humor and painful candor about nature, mortality, baseball and the distant past.  Author of 50 books, including 22 books of verse, Hall died this week at age 89. 
          For Saturday’s Poem, here is Hall’s

         An Old Life
Snow fell in the night.
At five-fifteen I woke to a bluish
mounded softness where
the Honda was. Cat fed and coffee made,
I broomed snow off the car
and drove to the Kearsarge Mini-Mart
before Amy opened
to yank my Globe out of the bundle.
Back, I set my cup of coffee
beside Jane, still half-asleep,
murmuring stuporous
thanks in the aquamarine morning.
Then I sat in my blue chair
with blueberry bagels and strong
black coffee reading news,
the obits, the comics, and the sports.
Carrying my cup twenty feet,
I sat myself at the desk
for this day's lifelong
engagement with the one task and desire.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

Facing Down Writing Obstacles

“Everyone has to face obstacles. Everybody has to face hurdles. It's what you do with those that determines how successful you're going to be.” – Craig Sager

Sager, born on this date in 1951, is best-known for his having worked as a TNT Sports sideline reporter who paced the floors of the National Basketball Association, as he invariably sported a specimen from his vast collection of preposterously garish jackets and suits.  A Dec. 13, 2016 inductee of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, he died from leukemia just two days later.

A native of Batavia, Ill., he grew up loving sports and writing and was first published on the national scene as a high school sophomore.   Shortly before his death he noted, “I'm a kid from the small Illinois town of Batavia, who grew up on the Chicago Cubs and made sports his life's work, although there's never been a day where it actually seemed like work.”

A graduate of Northwestern, he started his career as a $95-a-week reporter for a small station in Florida and ultimately served in almost every sports broadcast capacity, including play-by-play at the NBA finals and the Olympics.  The National Academy of Television Arts and Science posthumously awarded Sager with his first Sports Emmy Award for "Outstanding Sports Personality, Sports Reporter" at the 2017 Emmy Ceremony.    
                                     Noted for his hope-filled attitude, Sager once remarked, “Hope is not just... out in the sky, or accepting the facts or reality. Hope is having optimistic, positive expectations.”

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

The 'Nourishment' of Writing

“When language is treated beautifully and interestingly, it can feel good for the body: It's nourishing; it's rejuvenating.” – Aimee Bender

Born on this date in 1969, Bender is both a novelist and short story writer who studied creative writing at the University of San Diego and California Irvine then went into simultaneous careers as a writer and teacher.  She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California and was Director of the USC PhD in Creative Writing & Literature for several years.  She enjoys writing, she said, because “The human being's ability to make a metaphor to describe a human experience is just really cool.” 
                Known for her stories about young people, Bender said, “I love to write about people in their 20s. It's such a fraught and exciting and kind of horrible time.”  She is the winner of two Pushcart Prizes, and her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own, was named as a Los Angeles Times “Pick of the Year.”    Her collection of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, spent several months on both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists.

While she has done several novels, she said she prefers short stories.  “Novels are so much unrulier and more stressful to write. A short story can last two pages and then it's over, and that's kind of a relief. I really like balancing the two.”

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A 'Kinship' Of Readers

“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
Born on this date in 1975 to Nigerian parents living in Michigan, where his father was studying for an advanced degree at Western Michigan, Cole grew up in Nigeria.  He returned to America in 1993 to do his own education and begin his writing and artistic career (he’s also a noted, award-winning photographer). 

Author of the novella, Every Day is for the Thief, and the novel, Open City, Cole also wrote an award winning essay collection, Known and Strange Things.  Author Salmon Rushdie has called Cole “one of the most gifted writers of his generation.”  Cole is a regular contributor to many leading U.S. publications including the New York Times, The New Yorker, Transition, and The New Inquiry.  His monthly column for The New York Times Magazine, "On Photography," was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2016. 
           His advice to young writers is advice similar to that given by many established writers. 
                                    “The most common thing I find is very brilliant, acute, young people who want to become writers but they are not writing. You know, they really badly want to write a book but they are not writing it. The only advice I can give them is to just write it, get to the end of it. And, you know, if it's not good enough, write another one.”

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Images 'Dancing In His Mind'

“My next book - each one while I'm working on it - dances in my mind and thrills me at every turn. If it didn't, why would I write it?” – Yann Martel

Born in Spain on this date in 1963, Martel is now a Canadian citizen and perhaps best known for his multi-award winning novel, Life of Pi, the international phenomenon that has sold more than 12 million copies and been translated into 50 languages.  The book spent more than a year on both the New York Times and The Globe and Mail bestseller lists and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning movie directed Ang Lee.

Martel started writing while studying at Canada’s Trent University and broke onto the writing scene with several successful short stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  He credits the Canada Council for the Arts in fostering his success, awarding him two grants in the ‘90s that gave him time and resources to create many works, including Life of Pi.    
                             Martel said he enjoys history and using it in his writings.  “Most of us get our history through story,” he said.  His most recent success is the 2016 novel, The High Mountains of Portugal, a tale of three characters in Portugal in three different time periods, who cope with love and loss each in their own way.  He said he encourages writers, regardless of their genre choices, to first write what most interests them.

“Every book I've written has been a different attempt to understand something,” he said,  “and the success or failure of the previous one is irrelevant. I write the book I want.”

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Writing Everyday Life; Sharing History

“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.” – Kathryn Lasky

Lasky, who was born on this date in 1944, grew up in Indianapolis where she was encouraged to become a writer by her mother at an early age “because of my vivid imagination.”  While she didn’t start writing early, she got very interested in it while an undergrad at the University of Michigan, majoring in English and studying any type of writing that was offered.  She combined that love with a love of kids, earning an advanced degree in early childhood education.

To date, her writing career, which began at a magazine but then was “on hold” while she taught school, has produced over 100 books of all types, but many of them written for children.  Among her numerous awards is the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers' Literature.     
                                 “I can read a newspaper article, and it might trigger something else in my mind,” she said about what inspires her diverse writing repertoire.  “I often like to choose historical fiction things or subject matter I don't feel have been given a fair shake in history.”   Lasky’s latest “hit” is the 2017 historical fiction Night Witches, based on women pilots from the Soviet Union’s WWII 588th Night Bomber Regiment.

“To me,” she said, “the most important thing is to tell a good story. If I can do that, I think that enlightenment, respect of nature, etc. follows.”

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Saturday, June 23, 2018

'Creating' A World With Poetry

“We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves.” – Anne Carson

Carson, born on this date in 1950, is a Canadian poet, essayist, translator, and Professor of Classics, who has taught at Montreal’s McGill University, and at the University of Michigan and Princeton.   She holds the distinction of winning three of the most distinguished and richest writing awards – the Guggenheim, the MacArthur, and the Lannan.       
                        For Saturday’s Poem, here is Carson’s

Short Talk on Chromo-Luminarism

      Sunlight slows down Europeans. Look at all those
      spellbound people in Seurat. Look at Monsieur,
     sitting deeply. Where does a European go when he
     is ‘lost in thought'? Seurat has painted that
     place—the old dazzler! It lies on the other
     side of attention, a long lazy boatride from here.
     It is A Sunday rather than A Saturday afternoon
     there. Seurat has made this clear by a special
     method. "Ma méthode," he called it, rather testily,
     when we asked him. He caught us hurrying through
     the chill green shadows like adulterers. The
     river was opening and closing its stone lips.
     The river was pressing Seurat to its lips.

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Persistence Leads To Excellence

“Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyze yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.” – Octavia Butler

Born on this date in 1947, Butler was a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for her science fiction writing.  And in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur foundation award.

The daughter of a housemaid and shoeshine man, she also was one of the first – if not the first – African-American SciFi writers and definitely the first female African-American in the field.  A shy child who avoided socializing whenever possible, she immersed herself in reading and got hooked on fairy tales and horse stories before gravitating to popular SciFi magazines such as Amazing Stories.  “No one was going to stop me from writing and no one had to really guide me towards science fiction,” she said.  “It was natural, really, that I would take that interest.”

By age 12 she was formulating ideas for stories that would work themselves into a series that in the 1970s became known as her Patternist tales:  Patternmaster, Mind of My Mind, and Survivor.  They were followed by a string of successful short stories and novellas before she cemented her place in writing history with the two-book series Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, earning the prestigious MacArthur in the process.         
                                “You don't start out writing good stuff,” Butler said shortly before her early death from a stroke (at age 58). “You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits for any writer is persistence.”

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

His Secret To Writing Success

“I often will write a scene from three different points of view to find out which has the most tension and which way I’m able to conceal the information I’m trying to conceal.  And that is, at the end of the day, what writing suspense is all about.”– Dan Brown

Born on June 22, 1964, Brown has utilized that technique to perfection.  His thrillers exude suspense and his readers flock to them, having purchased well over 200 million copies since his first success, The DaVinci Code, burst onto the scene in 2003.  Brown's novels are treasure hunts featuring recurring themes of cryptography, keys, symbols, codes and, of course, conspiracy theories.  They’ve been translated into 52 languages. 

While writing is his life it wasn’t that way until the mid-1990s when he was on vacation, read a thriller by Sidney Sheldon, and decided that’s what he really wanted to do.  Up until then he had been a successful musician, and was a singer, songwriter and pianist in Hollywood, where he also taught music at the prestigious Beverly Hills Preparatory School.     A member of the National Academy of Songwriters, he had been a frequent participant in that organization’s events, but once he made the move to be a writer he dropped music and went full bore into his new field – for which millions of readers are forever grateful. 
 Brown likes to use the real people in his life as key characters. It’s a a great writing technique that every writer should consider and certainly helps answer that old question, “Where do you get your characters?”       
                                          When asked the secret to his success, he simply says, “Hard work.  I still get up every morning at 4 a.m.  I write seven days a week, including Christmas.  I still face a blank page every morning, and my characters don’t really care how many books I’ve sold.”

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Curiosity About People's Lives

“Why do we read biography? Why do we choose to write it? Because we are human beings, programmed to be curious about other human beings, and to experience something of their lives. This has always been so - look at the Bible, crammed with biographies, very popular reading.” – Claire Tomalin

Known for biographies of such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin, among others, Tomalin was born in London on this date in 1933.  After her first husband, journalist Nicholas Tomalin, was killed while working as a war correspondent, she decided to try writing herself.   She worked in publishing and journalism as literary editor of the New Statesman, then The Sunday Times, while bringing up her 5 children.  In 1974 she turned to biography with The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, which earned her the coveted Whitbread Book Award.  It also set her on a writing path that produced 10 bestselling biographies and won her over a dozen top prizes.

She said one of the books she has most enjoyed writing (and is considered one of the best ever on her subject) was Charles Dickens: A Life, published in 2011.

“Everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens,” she said.   “The child-victim, the irrepressibly ambitious young man, the reporter, the demonic worker, the tireless walker. The radical, the protector of orphans, helper of the needy, man of good works, the republican. The hater and the lover of America. The giver of parties, the magician, the traveler.”  
              “Dickens . . . was a writer who rightly saw his power as coming through his fiction.”

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Memory - A Boundless Writing Flow

“Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.” – Tobias Wolff

Born on this date in 1945, Wolff is a short story writer, memoirist, novelist, and teacher of creative writing especially known for his memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army.  His short story collection The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  And, Wolff's lifetime body of work was honored in 2015 when he received a National Medal of Arts award.

A Vietnam veteran (Special Forces), he completed several tours of duty there before heading back to school to study creative writing and ultimately beginning his award-winning writing career.  Wolff said he had wanted to be a writer since age 14 but work and then the military always got in the way.  Since then he has used many of his "life" experiences in his writing and is especially noted for using autobiographical elements in his stories.       After earning several degrees, Wolff started teaching creative writing in the late 1980s, first at Syracuse and then at Stanford.  Dozens of successful writers trace their beginnings to classes and mentoring provided by Wolff, who has counseled and taught them in all genres.  That being said, it is writing a short story that remains his favorite.

“Everything," he said, "has to be pulling weight in a short story for it to be really of the first order.”

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

'Residing' in History

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

Born in China on this date in 1914, American writer and journalist Hersey was a storyteller extraordinaire.  His account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was adjudged the finest piece of American journalism of the 20th century by a 36-member panel associated with New York University’s journalism department.

A graduate of Yale, where he not only studied English and Journalism but also was a standout football player, Hersey went to work as a private secretary for Nobel Prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis, then became a leading writer at Time magazine, including serving as a war correspondent during WWII.  
                                              It was right at war’s end that he wrote his first novel, A Bell for Adano, based on one of his assignments in Italy during the war.  That debut novel won him a Pulitzer Prize and also became an award-winning movie.  Despite his many accolades and awards, Hersey always said that he had as many failures as he did successes and each played an important life role.

“Learning,” he said,  “starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.”

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

Understanding Good Writing, And Truth

“The job of the poet is to render the world - to see it and report it without loss, without perversion. No poet ever talks about feelings. Only sentimental people do.” – Mark Van Doren

I wrote earlier about Van Doren, who won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for his book Collected Poems 1922–1938.   Interestingly he became the second member of his family to win a Pulitzer, his older brother Carl earning the honor in 1938.    

The author of numerous short stories, novels, and plays, Van Doren was above all a poet and a teacher. As Thomas Merton said in a letter to Van Doren, "You always used your gifts to make people admire and understand poetry and good writing and truth."   For Saturday’s Poem, here is Van Doren’s
   Spring Thunder
Listen, The wind is still,
And far away in the night --
See! The uplands fill
With a running light.

Open the doors. It is warm;
And where the sky was clear--
Look! The head of a storm
That marches here!

Come under the trembling hedge--
Fast, although you fumble...
There! Did you hear the edge
of winter crumble?

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Standing Up For What Is Right

To love what you do and feel that it matters how could anything be more fun?”
 – Katharine Graham

 Award-winning writer and publisher of The Washington Post for over two decades, Graham, who was born on June 16, 1917, wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir and led an editorial team that not only revived a so-so newspaper but also made it into a national power.  The Post, subject of a recent Tom Hanks-Meryl Streep movie by the same name, set the benchmarks for “how it’s done” in investigative journalism.

Graham said that she always stood behind her reporters and longtime editor Ben Bradlee and never wavered in her belief that what they were doing was not only right, but necessary.

A Republican who led investigative reporting into Presidential misconduct on both sides, she said politics should never get in the way of good reporting.  “It matters not if a person is from one party or another.  If someone has done something that needs to be exposed in print, then that’s what a good reporter should do.” 
                                            She was awarded the Freedom Medal and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and shortly before her death in 2001, the International Press Institute named her one of the world’s 50 most influential and powerful media people of the 20th century.   “Once, power was considered a masculine attribute,” Graham said when told of the honor.  “In fact, power has no sex.”

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

What Writer's Block?

“There's no writer's block; there's only distraction.” – Carolyn Chute

Born on this date in 1947, Chute is a populist political activist strongly identified with the culture of poor, rural western Maine.   Her first, and best known, novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, was published in 1985 and made into a 1994 film of the same name, directed by Jennifer Warren. Chute's has two other books, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts and Merry Men also set in the town of Egypt, Maine.

“I never wanted to be a writer. I still don't,” Chute said, and yet she has been honored with several major writing awards and two major writing fellowships, one from Guggenheim and another from the Thornton Wilder Foundation.       She also devotes considerable time and support to the New England Literature Program, offering both creative writing workshops and the study of many of New England’s greatest writers.

“Whenever I write, I write what I find to be the way people are,” Chute said.  “I never use any symbolism at all, but if you write as true to life as you possibly can, people will see symbolism. They'll all see different symbolism, but they're apt to because you can see it in life.”

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