The Writer’s Almanac for July 23, 2018

“Blue Girls” by John Crowe Ransom. Public domain. (buy now)

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished — yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.


On this date in 1903the Ford Motor Company sold its first car. The first Model A went to Dr. Ernst Pfennig of Chicago, Illinois. He was a dentist, and he had placed his order for the $850 automobile the week before. The car was manufactured in Detroit, at the company’s Mack Street plant. The car boasted a two-cylinder, eight-horsepower engine, and could move at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour. It had two forward gears, and one reverse. Dr. Pfennig ordered his with a tonneau, which we now know as a back seat. It was a convertible — the top didn’t come standard — and it was painted red. All the original Model A’s were red, in fact. The Fords that were available “in any color you want, as long as it’s black” came later.

Within two months of Pfennig’s order, Ford Motor Company had sold 215 cars. Within the first year, they sold almost a thousand. This was the original Model A. The next model to be produced was the Model C, which came out the following year, and then the Model T, which came out in 1908 and was sold until 1927. Ford used all the letters of the alphabet from A to T, but not all of them were manufactured and sold; most were just prototypes. After the Model T, he came up with a design so different and new that he didn’t want to just move on to the letter U; he wanted to start over at the beginning of the alphabet. And so a second, and better-known, Ford automobile known as the Model A was sold from 1927 to 1931.


It was on this day in 1829 that William Burt received a patent for the “typographer.” It was a typewriter that looked more like a record player. It had a swinging arm that picked up ink and then printed a letter, and then the paper was manually adjusted to make space for the next letter.


It’s the birthday of Vikram Chandra, (books by this author) born in New Delhi (1961). He moved to the United States to go to college in California and ended up at Columbia University’s film school in New York. He dropped out of film school to write a novel based on the autobiography of James Skinner, a famous Indian-British colonel. It was published in 1995 as Red Earth and Pouring Rain. It got great reviews, and won awards, and he followed it up with a collection of stories, Love and Longing in Bombay (1997).

Vikram Chandra said, “I think it’s very true when you’re a writer and you sometimes you have to spend time poking at part of yourself that normal, sane people leave alone.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Hubert Selby Jr. (books by this author), born in New York (1928). He dropped out of school when he was 15 and joined the Merchant Marine. He spent 10 years in treatment for lung disease, much of that time in bed, and finally his doctors told him there was no hope. He was addicted to painkillers. He said: “Two things would happen right before I died: I would regret my entire life; I would want to live it over again. This terrified me. […] This did not make me a writer, but it provided the incentive to discover that I am a writer.” He proved his doctors wrong, and he spent six years working on a novel that became Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964).

Last Exit to Brooklyn was a success, and suddenly he was faced with interviews and public speaking. He said: “In retrospect I can see that it was relatively easy to write when no one knew I was alive. The world had no expectations. But when the world is watching you, and you believe in your heart that you are really worthless and someday they will find out, the pressure is unbearable. I simply withdrew into a shell and didn’t write for six years.”

He did start writing again, and he has published six more novels, including Requiem for a Dream (1978) and, most recently, Waiting Period (2002). 


It was on this night in 1967 that a riot broke out in Detroit, marking the beginning of the decline of one of the greatest manufacturing cities in the country. An all-white squadron of police officers decided to raid a bar in a black neighborhood where there was a party to welcome home two recent veterans of the Vietnam War. The police stormed the bar, rounded up and arrested 85 black men and began loading them into vans.

The riot that broke out raged for five days. Thousands of soldiers from the Michigan National Guard were called in, along with tanks. The National Guardsmen fired off more than 150,000 bullets over the course of the riot.

Forty-three people were killed and whole blocks of the city went up in flames. After the riots, many of the white residents of the city moved to the suburbs. Thousands of homes were abandoned, and the city’s population plunged from 1.6 million to 992,000 in just a few years. By 1990, Detroit was one of the poorest cities in America, with one in every three residents living in poverty.


It’s the birthday of detective novelist Raymond Chandler (books by this author), born in Chicago (1888). After his alcoholic father abandoned the family, his Irish mother took young Raymond to London, where they lived with her relatives. He enrolled in an elite London school, and excelled at academics. He wrote later: “It would seem that a classical education might be a poor basis for writing novels in a hard-boiled vernacular. I happen to think otherwise. A classical education saves you from being fooled by pretentiousness, which is what most current fiction is too full of.”

Chandler hoped to become a lawyer, but his uncle — who was supporting Chandler and his mother — didn’t want to pay for the expensive training. He insisted that his nephew begin supporting his mother as soon as possible, so Chandler didn’t go to college. Instead, he passed the difficult British Civil Service exams and got a job recording shipments of naval supplies. It was a good job, but Chandler hated it. He quit after six months and set out to become a writer in London, publishing mediocre poetry and some essays and reviews. He couldn’t make a living. About that time, he met the writer Richard Middleton, who committed suicide shortly after their meeting. Chandler wrote: “The incident made a great impression on me, because Middleton struck me as having far more talent than I was ever likely to possess; and if he couldn’t make a go of it, it wasn’t very likely that I could.” At the age of 23, broke and desperate and a disappointment to his family, Chandler asked his uncle for a loan for the ship’s passage to America, promising that after that he would never ask his uncle for anything again.

A fellow ship passenger convinced Chandler to visit Southern California. For the next 20 years, Chandler made his living in Los Angeles. He worked odd jobs, fought in France during World War I, then returned to California and eventually landed a position as an executive with an oil company. His drinking became an increasing problem — he stopped showing up at work, had affairs with young secretaries, and once he tried to sell the entire company while he was drunk. He was fired in 1932, during the middle of the Great Depression. He was poor and hungry, and he and his estranged wife moved back in together to save money on rent. Chandler said of those days: “It didn’t kill me, but neither did it increase my love of humanity.”

Desperate for a way to earn money, Chandler decided to return to writing. Pulp fiction seemed more financially promising than poetry. He read pulp detective magazines obsessively, and learned to imitate the stories. As a schoolboy in London, Chandler had learned to translate Latin texts into English and then back again into Latin. He used this same technique with mystery stories: he read them, wrote down detailed plot summaries, and then tried to rewrite the stories. Then he compared his finished versions to the originals, to determine where he could have done better. After five months, Chandler sold his first story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1932), for one cent per word. He continued to sell stories, and in 1939 he published his first novel, The Big Sleep. He wrote seven novels, all narrated by a wisecracking private eye named Philip Marlowe.

His other novels include Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The Little Sister (1949), and The Long Goodbye (1953).

He said: “The most durable thing in writing is style, and style is the most valuable investment a writer can make with his time. It pays off slowly, your agent will sneer at it, your publisher will misunderstand it, and it will take people you have never heard of to convince them by slow degrees that the writer who puts his individual mark on the way he writes will always pay off.”

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

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Writing

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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