The Writer’s Almanac for June 6, 2018

“Little Things” Julia A.F. Carney. Public domain.

Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.

Little deeds of kindness,
Little words of love,
Make our earth an Eden,
Like the heaven above.


On this day in 1949, George Orwell’s (books by this author) novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published.

Nineteen Eighty-Four begins with the famous line: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

In 1936, Orwell sold off the family silver and left to fight against the fascists in Spain. He was very tall; one morning his head was up above the parapet, and a sniper’s bullet hit his throat. He barely survived and was discharged, so he went back to England with his wife, Eileen. He got so sick that doctors were afraid he had tuberculosis, and he had to spend six months in a sanatorium. He wrote Homage to Catalonia (1938) about his experiences in Spain, but because he was critical of the Communists and also anti-Fascist, pretty much everyone who read it took offense at it. And not many people even read it — it was published in April of 1938, and by the time that WWII broke out in September, only 900 copies had been sold.

Orwell tried to join the war effort, but he was found unfit for any sort of military service. He kept busy writing reviews and political essays, and eventually he found a publisher for Animal Farm (1945), but not until it had been rejected by several publishers, including T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber.

In 1945, Orwell was hired as a war correspondent for The Observer, and he was in France when he got news that his wife had died from a routine operation that he barely knew was happening.

Orwell was heartbroken and wasn’t feeling well, but he returned to England to take care of their adopted son, Richard. Animal Farm was successful, which also meant more work for Orwell, more lectures and invitations. David Astor, the editor of The Observer and a good friend of Orwell’s, asked if his friend would be interested in staying on his family’s estate on an island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. There was no electricity or telephone, the mail came twice a week, and they were 25 miles from the nearest store. The weather was harsh much of the time, and besides walks and fishing with his son, mostly he wrote and wrote, a new novel called The Last Man in Europe.

He said, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” He kept working on the book, even after in 1947 he was confined to his bed and diagnosed with tuberculosis. He wrote from bed, and by longhand when his typewriter was taken away from him in the hospital. He went through an intense drug treatment in the hopes of curing his TB, which caused him mouth blisters, throat ulcers that made it hard to swallow, rashes, and flaking skin, and his hair and nails fell out. He was losing weight, had fevers, and his right arm had to be put in a cast, but he kept writing with his left. Under pressure from his publisher, he finally finished the book by the end of the year, and had to retype the messy manuscript himself.

He decided to change the title — from The Last Man in Europe to Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was published in June of 1949. It was a huge success — the critics loved it, and it sold well. But his health got even worse, and by September he was back in the hospital. In January of 1950, just seven months after Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, Orwell died at the age of 46.


It’s the birthday of poet Maxine Kumin, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1925). Her family was Jewish, but she went to Catholic school. She said, “In kindergarten at the Covenant Sisters of Joseph, conveniently next door to the house I grew up in, I was told stories of martyrdom and saints. This reinforced what I already knew from observing my father’s dedication to work: one must be prepared to endure every hardship to be saved. In suffering, seek salvation, was the message.”

She went to Radcliffe, where she took a writing class from Wallace Stegner. She turned in a set of sonnets, and Stegner wrote across the top: “Say it with flowers but for God’s sake don’t write poems about it.” Kumin was crushed. She said, “That just simply turned me off of poetry. I didn’t write another poem for years and years and years. I was 17. I had led a comparatively sheltered life, at least intellectually, and I was not at all prepared for this. I had no comprehension of the fact that I was writing flowery, romantic sonnets. I thought the fact that they were metered and rhymed was pretty good. The one thing I learned from that was never, ever do that to a young student, because you simply cannot predict what somebody who is 17 or 18 years old is going to be like in five years. And then of course I forgive him because I think he was only four or five years older than I was.”

So she stopped writing poetry for a while. She got married, and had children. When she started writing again, it was at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and there she met another suburban housewife who was also a talented poet: Anne Sexton. The two became inseparable. They installed extra phone lines in their houses so that they would never have to hang up on each other, and when either of them wanted to talk about poetry, she would whistle into the phone and the other would hear it and come to listen.

Kumin said, “In the early years, ‘you write like a man’ was the supreme compliment.” In her collection Up Country (1972), which won the Pulitzer Prize, she wrote from the point of view of a male hermit because she didn’t think readers would respond to the idea of a female hermit. When she was chosen as the Poet Laureate in 1980, she promptly criticized one of her fellow members of the Council of Scholars—the violinist Yehudi Menuhin—who wrote a paper about how men and women approach life and art differently. Menuhin said, “The man is driven to strike out, to build roads—roads anywhere and nowhere in particular—sometimes leading to heaven, more often back to self—and general destruction. The woman is, on the other hand, compelled to plough and till over and over again the same plot of earth, from time to time attracting a male to ensure its fertility and, if she has captivated him, defending it together, or alone, against other male depredations.” Maxine Kumin did not take kindly to this characterization, nor to the fact that of the 23 members of the Council of Scholars, only two were women. She said, “”I felt as though I had stumbled into a stag club and ought to leap out of a cake. Creativity is not the exclusive province of this very narrow slice of society.”

In 1963, Kumin and her husband bought a large farm in New Hampshire. The barn was falling apart, the roof on the house needed replacing, the land had been let go, and the previous owner—an artist—left behind a collection of really bad paintings. But they loved it, and at less than $12,000, it was within their price range. Kumin named it PoBiz farm, in honor of the Poetry Business. It started out as a summer home, but they moved there for good in 1976, and Kumin has lived there ever since. She said, “I can’t even visualize being a poet without living here,” and she writes many of her poems about the farm, and about the business of doing chores, riding horses, and taking care of the land. She said, “My poetry is pretty much centered in New England, but more poetry of people and animals than of landscape. I suppose it could be called pastoral, but not a romanticized pastoral. It has real manure in it and real rain, and real anguish and loss just as much as it has some of the sunny hours.”

She had been athletic her entire life—a competitive swimmer as a girl, then an active gardener, farmer, and horse-back rider. As she got older, her arthritis made it difficult for her to ride horses for long distances, so she started driving horses instead. When she was 74 years old, she got in a terrible horse-driving accident and almost died. Instead, she was left with 11 broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken neck, bruised internal organs, and months of slow healing and physical therapy. From that experience she wrote a memoir, Inside the Halo and Beyond: The Anatomy of a Recovery (2000), and a book of poems, The Long Marriage (2001).

She wrote: “Allegiance to the land is tenderness. / The luck of two good cuttings in this climate. / Now clear down to the alders in the swale, / the fields begin an autumn flush of growth, / the steady work of setting roots, and then / as in a long exhale, go dormant.”


The Great Seattle Fire destroyed downtown Seattle on this date in 1889. The fire started in the basement of a cabinet shop on the corner of Front and Madison. An employee had set a pot of glue on top of a lit stove, and the glue caught fire. Over the next 18 hours, the blaze wiped out the town’s business district and waterfront. Miraculously, there were no human fatalities.

In a year’s time, Seattle had nearly been rebuilt. All the construction jobs sparked a population boom, and Seattle grew from a town of 25,000 into a full-fledged city of more than 40,000.

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"92nd St Y Talk"

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"Summer in Lake Wobegon"

Garrison talks about summer in Lake Wobegon and a few of the town's guiding principles. From Mr. Keillor's Sunday Night Service.

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"June 19, 1999"

Live from Reno, Nevada, with special guests Kirkmount, Geoff Muldaur, and Fritz Richmond.

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Aboard the Queen Mary 2

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

We eased away from the dock in Brooklyn and sailed past the towers of capitalism and Miss Liberty and under the Verrazano Bridge and around Sandy Hook out onto the vast inhospitable ocean, sitting on deck chairs with blankets over our legs. My wife looks as if she were born to this way of life; you’d never guess she’s from Minnesota.

The cruise business is booming as a way to see the world while sleeping in one bed and not having to pack your clothes every day. What QM2 offers is something more. It’s the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners, a slender ship, and its selling point is a style of life. An enormous dance floor with a first-rate dance band playing foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and cha-chas, and the floor crowded with dancers in tuxedos and gowns, expressing their inner elegance. The songs are not about rebellion and being true to yourself, but about the nearness of you, being unable to take my eyes off of you, fascination, walking hand in hand, side by side.

Ballroom dancing is a vanishing culture. If someone came to Minnesota and asked me where they could foxtrot to a live band, I wouldn’t have a clue. There are music clubs where people in their twenties can jump around in the dark to hip-hop and punk, but ballroom dancing is not about self-expression, it’s about two people making each other feel graceful. It’s a conversation. The tango has parameters. So does the mambo. But within each dance is a whole stylistic vocabulary of dips and turns and spins, kicks and bows, hands outstretched, a shimmy shimmy shake. The handsome crooner sings: “Music and passion are always in fashion at the Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana,” a song out of the deep archive, but the dancers take to it like fish to water, old coots and grandes dames, the limber, the arthritic, the expansive, the conservative, all dancing to the same rhythm but in variant styles.

Everyone has had a life — captain of industry, civil engineer, investment banker, p.r. exec, trial lawyer — but none of that matters now, as the band swings into “I get no kick from champagne, mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all, but I get a kick out of you” — the dancers are all united in courtship, the men in black-tie uniformity, the women individual, in a gala performance that seems to be vanishing from the world.

The textbook pattern of the dance is only the entry point, and within each form is a whole vocabulary of variations, a bounce, a twist, a kick, a spin. To find freedom of expression within a form is one of the chief pleasures of life.

My wife loves all this and I love to be her consort. We hike around the promenade deck, one-third mile, the Atlantic sliding by, we dress for dinner, we go dancing. A man needs to extend himself when called upon.

I chatted with the singer between sets. Michael Burke. He’s Irish, young, rock ’n’ roll is his natural style, but he is very convincing as a crooner. He has seven sisters in Ireland and so he needs no home of his own, he sings on ships and when he needs a month off, he picks which sister to lodge with. This man knows about family.

As for me, a week on the ocean dancing with Madame has changed my view of things. Self-expression is fine for other people, but not for me. Freedom is much overrated as an experience. Harmony, love, closeness, adoration are to be preferred.

A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I walk around New York City on these perfect summer nights, sirens passing, helicopters chunking above, subway rumbling below, diners in sidewalk cafes, dogs walking their owners, and after a little while, I look for an excuse to sit down. I’m walking because I’m a sedentary guy who is scheduled to fly to Prague with my ambulatory wife who will want to see castles and parks and museums and who will be gratified if I can keep up with her. I don’t care about castles; I am a democrat. My favorite museum is in Cooperstown. But I shall be her consort, walking three steps behind, my head up, fulfilling my role.

Walking around the big city, whenever I see a lighted ballfield, I turn in that direction and find a spot by the backstop and sit. Manhattan is an island, short on space, and so the Parks Department likes to lay out four ballfields in one rectangle, the four home plates in the corners, the diamonds aiming in toward the middle, so that the outfielders are intermingled with each other. A center fielder may backpedal for a long fly ball and make the catch next to someone else’s second base. It’s a whole new ballgame. Interdependence is the key, which is an amazing thing in a country as divided as ours is. I know New Yorkers who’ve never been to Kansas. Hard for me to accept that as normal.

It’s sort of like the great Rose Reading Room at the Public Library on 42nd Street, that hushed chapel where a couple hundred people sit silently at long tables, reading or tapping on laptops, each in his or her separate bubble, bubbles that may be fragile and so a severe decorum is observed. The little skritch of an iPhone camera would violate it. So people don’t. It’s basic cooperation, same as a shortstop saying, “You’re good, you’re good, you’re good” to reassure a backpedaling right fielder from next door to keep his eye on the fly ball, that his path is clear.

New York is a big sports town because a goodly percentage of the population is close enough to the poverty line to be aware of it and pro sports stardom is the fairy tale of poor kids growing up to be rich. I know Midwestern kids who have zero interest in athletics, whose passion is playing video games. There are not many multimillionaire video gamers and they don’t care.

Writing a best-selling novel was my fairy tale, and I’m completely over it now, but in the reading room, I like to imagine that the young African-American woman and the young Vietnamese guy at my table are entertaining that dream. American literature is leaning toward minority authors because that dream is powerfully attractive. A coming-of-age novel about an immigrant family with an abusive father and overwhelmed mother and a nerdy kid with a terrible stutter who, by Chapter 3, you realize is the author of the book. I know Midwestern writers who have zero interest in the novel, whose passion is poetry. There is one millionaire poet in America, Billy Collins, and all the others are earning less than $50K/year teaching creative writing.

My game these days is the memoir and, at 75, I am one of the oldest memoirists around. Most of them are in their 40s. I waited for some sort heartbreak that would make my memoir interesting, but nothing happened, and then I realized that I had married so well that life was likely to go on pleasantly into dementia and beyond, so I’m now almost finished with the first draft. It’s all about luck. People are going to resent it.

I think of the poets vs. the novelists on one diamond, and we memoirists, Shirts vs. Skins, on the adjacent one. I’m a Shirt, a writer who does not tell all. If I start to talk about my impoverished youth when I was sent to walk along the railroad track to pick up coal to heat our house and then I remember that there was no track near our house and anyway the trains were diesel, I realize I have wandered into the novelists field, and I yell, “Sorry!” and I come back. Same if I get too engrossed in describing the woods. The truth is, I was lucky. It could’ve been worse. I married blindly and well. None of us will make it to Cooperstown but it’s okay. A summer night in New York. Be grateful.

 

A series of poems read by Garrison

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. In 1964 on this day, the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 16, 2018

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Today is Bloomsday, which commemorates the day on which the events of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses take place. Joyce chose June 16th, 1904, for the setting because it was the day of his first date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin is believed to have performed his famous kite experiment and proved that lightning is electricity. Franklin, as it turns out, was lucky to have conducted this experiment safely. Several others who attempted it after him were electrocuted.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of a man whose image has become one of the most popular cultural icons of the past half century: Che Guevara, born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina (1928).

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

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Today is the birthday of W.B. Yeats, born in Dublin in 1865. In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, an actress & activist who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married.

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It was on this day in 1942 that Anne Frank was given a small red and white diary as a gift for her 13th birthday. About a week after her birthday, on June 20th, she wrote: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me … because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”

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Aspen Institute – Limericks

Aspen Institute – Limericks

Garrison was invited to the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Words Summer Soirée, on the premise that he would talk about storytelling. Instead, he decided to tell some limericks.

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Letterman appearance (1983)

In this clip from the archives, Garrison talks to David Letterman about his first bestselling book, Happy to Be Here. Explaining his past difficulty writing a novel, Garrison jokes, “I tried to write a novel, David, but I had a basic problem, which was that I was able to move people into a scene, but I was never able to get them out again.”

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Writing

Aboard the Queen Mary 2

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

Read More

A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Making myself useful for heaven’s sake

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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The Quotable Keillor

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
― Garrison Keillor, We Are Still Married: Stories & Letters

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“If you lived today as if it were your last, you’d buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn’t you?”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“I can see how I could write a bold account of myself as a passionate man who rose from humble beginnings to cut a wide swath in the world, whose crimes along the way might be written off to extravagance and love and art, and could even almost believe some of it myself on certain days after the sun went down if I’d had a snort or two and was in Los Angeles and it was February and I was twenty-four, but I find a truer account in the Herald-Star, where it says: “Mr. Gary Keillor visited at the home of Al and Florence Crandall on Monday and after lunch returned to St. Paul, where he is currently employed in the radio show business… Lunch was fried chicken with gravy and creamed peas”.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“The rich can afford to be progressive. Poor people have reason to be afraid of the future.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

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A friendly column, nothing about him whatsoever

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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Someone to sit next to me

There was so much good news last week. Gorillas appear to be thriving, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and there are about 361,919 of them, twice as many as had been believed. Humpback whales, who were nearly hunted out of existence in the 19th century, are making a comeback in the seas off Antarctica: the birth rate is on the upswing, according to a new study. (The animals are the size of a school bus and have a life expectancy similar to ours.) And a study at the University of Michigan shows that people who work out even 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don’t.

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Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a corporate speechwriter and a copywriter. I am 55.5 and would like to meet the right man who enjoys words. I placed a personal ad but got a response from a man in Federal Prison. It seemed intrusive to ask how he landed himself there, so I didn’t respond. I’ve got many friends and I’m perfectly okay-looking. What should I be doing? Taking trips? Moving to another country with a shortage of middle-aged women? Making a systematic request to my entire list of acquaintances to ask them to produce one person? What would you do? I am about to give up.  

-Exhausted by Love

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What’s been going on around here lately

The Swedish Academy’s decision to not award the Nobel Prize in Literature this spring hit me hard, of course. I figured this would be my year and was counting on the cash prize of a cool million bucks. A man needs a little boost now and then. I know I do. People associate me with radio but I was also a Novelist — okay? Novels. With characters and dialogue. Lonely guys looking out rain-spattered windows at bare trees and wondering, “Who am I anyway?”

I did some of that last Saturday morning. I am married to a perfectionist, and so my faults are more clear to me than necessary. I am 75 years old, people. How many men of 75 are actively engaged in self-improvement? Are there rehab programs for us? Inspirational books aimed at us? No.

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Forgot password? Try “LIFEISGOOD42J75#REAL”

It’s spring in Minnesota finally. My lawn is greenish, birds sing in the morning, we go walking in a sweater, no gloves. There is still ice on the lakes, but if you don’t look at them, you don’t notice. Life is good. This is not pointed out often enough, the goodness of life, because journalists know that Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for exposing corruption and sending the mayor to jail for skimming money off the School Milk Fund so the kiddos get 2% rather than whole milk, it’s not given for writing about a walk in the park on a sunny day. Nonetheless, we do have parks and the sun does shine.

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