The Writer’s Almanac for July 9, 2018

“The Only News I Know…” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.

The Only Shows I see—
Tomorrow and Today—
Perchance Eternity—

The Only One I meet
Is God-The Only Street—
Existence—This traversed

If Other News there be—
Or Admirabler Show—
I’ll tell it You—


It’s the birthday of blockbuster best-selling author Dean Koontz, (books by this author) born in Everett, Pennsylvania (1945). He grew up in an impoverished, drunken, and violent home, and after he went away to college he converted to Catholicism, he said, because it helped him make sense of the chaos of his childhood and to appreciate mysteries in life.

He sold the first short story he ever wrote and then got 75 rejections before selling his next story. Now, he’s one of the most highly paid authors in the world. Koontz’s books have sold 400 million copies. Eleven hardcovers and more than a dozen paperbacks have been No. 1 New York Times best-sellers.

He works 10 or 11 hours a day, usually five days a week. He says that on good days, he winds up with five or six pages of finished work. But on bad days, he ends up with only a third of a page. Rather than writing a quick first draft and coming back to it later, he revises each page of the novel, however long it takes — 20 or 30 times is normal — before he feels good moving on to write the next page. He said, “I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt, as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it.”

He said: “I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. … The positive aspect of self-doubt — if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it — is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image.”

His novels are often set in Newport Beach, California. They often feature intelligent Labrador retrievers, bougainvillea flowers, unethical scientists, and references to T.S. Eliot and Alice in Wonderland.

Dean Koontz said, “Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. [And] sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled.”


On this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting full citizenship to African-Americans and due process to all citizens. It’s one of the Reconstruction Amendments, along with the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth, and Section I reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Of course, states still found ways around the Fourteenth Amendment for nearly a hundred years, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Jim Crow laws, Southern black codes, and the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. One of the early and unforeseen complications of the amendment, which we are still grappling with today, is the extent to which corporations may be viewed as “persons” in the eyes of the law.


It’s the birthday of English Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (books by this author), born Ann Ward in London in 1764. She married a journalist, William Radcliffe, when she was 23, and he encouraged her to write. Write she did: Her first two books were published anonymously, but her third, The Romance of the Forest (1791), made her famous; her fourth, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), made her the most popular writer in England and set the standard for the Gothic romance. She published one more novel in her lifetime, The Italian (1797). Her last two books made a good deal of money, and she may have quit writing novels because there was no financial need to do so. She did keep writing poetry, though, and published a volume in 1816. Neither the poems nor her posthumous novel, Gaston de Blondville (1826), approached the success of her earlier works. She was a favorite of Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti, to say nothing of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, who fancies herself in the middle of a Gothic romance herself. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft praised her for having “a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; eery [sic] touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey.” Radcliffe kept out of the public eye when possible, so she was frequently rumored to be dead, or mad; in reality, she was happily married and shy.

“Though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794)


It’s the birthday of another English Gothic novelist, Matthew Lewis (1775) (books by this author), born in London. Inspired by the work of Ann Radcliffe, he wrote his first book, The Monk (1796), when he was just 19 years old, and it was an overnight sensation. “I was induced to go on with it by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting books that ever have been published,” he wrote to his mother. The Monk was violent and erotic and full of horrors, and no one wanted to admit to reading it, but of course they all did, and it made him so famous that he was called “Monk” Lewis from then on. He followed The Monk with The Castle Spectre (1797), a musical drama with many of the same Gothic elements. His last book was published posthumously; it was Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834). In 1812, Lewis inherited a Jamaica plantation, and on a trip to the West Indies to check on the welfare of his slaves, he contracted yellow fever and died at sea in 1818.

“To a heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever more dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.” (From The Monk, 1796)


It’s the birthday of Dame Barbara Cartland (books by this author), the author of several hundred books, most of them romance novels. She was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, in 1901, and her family moved to London after her father died in World War I. She published her first novel, Jigsaw, when she was 25, and from the 1970s onward, she produced an average of 23 books a year.

Cartland left behind 160 manuscripts when she died in 2000.


Today is the birthday of Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London (1933) to a large extended family of doctors, scientists, and religious Zionists. He became a neurologist and then turned case studies of patients with neurological conditions into eloquent narratives before his death in 2015.

In 2001, he wrote a memoir: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. In it, he talks about his childhood in England during World War II; his Uncle Dave, who made light bulbs; and the scientists whom Sacks never knew, but who were, he says, “honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection.” Sacks and his older brother, Michael, were sent to a boarding school during the war, where they were routinely whipped and bullied. In 1943, at the age of 15, Michael began exhibiting symptoms of psychosis. “My brother saw ‘messages’ everywhere, felt his thoughts were being read or broadcast, had explosions of strange giggling, and felt he had been translocated to another ‘realm,'” Sacks wrote.

To cope with the trauma of the boarding school and his brother’s illness, Sacks sought refuge in the neat, orderly periodic table of elements. He sometimes dreamed of a career as a chemist, and though he went into medicine instead, he still liked to give elements as birthday gifts: “Tin is element 50 and since ten people have turned 50 lately, I’m out of tin. A good friend of mine was 80 recently and I said to him, ‘I wish you were 79, because then I could have given you something made of gold, but since you’re 80, I have to enclose a bottle of mercury.'” For his own birthday, Sacks filled balloons with xenon, a gas that’s much denser than air. Instead of floating, the balloons all dropped to the floor.


It was on this date in 1958 that Alaska’s Lituya Bay was hit with the largest mega-tsunami ever recorded. Lituya Bay, which lies on the Alaska panhandle, is a T-shaped fjord about seven miles long and two miles wide; two inlets form the crossbar of the ‘T.’ The Fairweather Fault Trench runs perpendicular to the fjord; it’s filled with water and glaciers. Because of its shape and its proximity to the fault line, Lituya Bay has seen at least four mega-tsunamis in the last 150 years.

At about nine p.m. on July 9, there was an 8.0-magnitude earthquake along the Fairweather Fault, with the epicenter about 13 miles from the bay. The quake triggered a rockslide from one of the cliffs: Forty million cubic yards of rock and ice dropped from a height of 3,000 feet, and splashed down into the Gilbert Inlet, causing the mammoth wave. An eyewitness reported: “The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. […] Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water. […] They came off the glacier like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck.”

There were three boats in the bay at the time of the quake and rockslide. One boat was engulfed by the resulting mega-tsunami, but the other two survived. Because the area was uninhabited, the two men on the small boat were the wave’s only casualties.

The mega-tsunami reduced the forest to a collection of stumps and bedrock, hundreds of feet up the shore, as it swept out to the Gulf of Alaska. Spruce trees with trunks six feet wide were splintered. Later, scientists were able to calculate the height of the wave based on how far inland the damage extended; they estimate the mega-tsunami was 1,720 feet high. That’s almost 300 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no more.

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving! We are thankful for Marjane Satrapi, André Gide, George Eliot, and all the other writers born this day.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of Voltaire (1694), who wrote, “To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

On this date in 1820, a sperm whale attacked a whaling ship off the coast of South America, an event that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

Live from the Town Hall Theater in New York, it’s The McCoury boys, Madeleine Peyroux, and everybody’s favorite former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, which was only ten sentences long and which lasted about 2 minutes.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, now a hugely popular online television series.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne, and then reigned for 45 years.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which was one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet Marianne Moore, who once said, “I never knew anyone with a passion for words who had as much difficulty in saying things as I do.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

Live from the State Theater with Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, The Brothers Frantzich, and The Royal Academy of Radio Acting: Tim Russell & Sue Scott.

Read More
Writing

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

Read More

The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

Read More

One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

Read More

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message