The Writer’s Almanac for April 16, 2019


We Did Not Have Drinking Water in the Middle of the Ocean
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Essentially, that would be the metaphor for my entire life.
I immigrated to the land of the free,
but my people weren’t free.
Tried to speak up, little droplets of words,
to a tidal wave powering over me.
Homeland trampled, ripped in pieces,
often by people who weren’t there.
How dare they?
They had their own interests.
They couldn’t see us.
We were tiny as pebbles to them
that you push with the toe of your shoe. What kind of people
do that? I remember the ship I came to the New World on,
how rough it was, stormy sea and sky,
deck heaving, people sick on the floors at night,
but the size of our stupid hope some mornings
as we looked across calm water and thought,
Now it will be good.

“We Did Not Have Drinking Water in the Middle of the Ocean” by Naomi Shihab Nye from Transfer. Copyright © 2011 by Naomi Shihab Nye. Used by permission of The Permissions Company LLC on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.


It’s the birthday of the filmmaker and actor Charlie Chaplin, born in London (1889). He started out as a vaudeville actor in a comedy troupe. When Chaplin arrived in Hollywood, he was shocked to see how little rehearsal went into each movie. Hollywood directors at the time filmed each scene in a single take, refusing to waste money on extra film. Chaplin tried to get used to the Hollywood style, and he took all the jobs he could get, saving almost all the money he made. But he was disgusted at the quality of the movies. The camera often wasn’t pointed in the right direction to capture his movements, and many of his favorite moments ended up on the cutting room floor. At the end of five months, he asked the producer if he could direct his own movie, and he put up $1,500 of his own savings as a guarantee against losses.

That year, 1914, Chaplin directed, wrote, and starred in 16 films in six months. It was that year that he debuted his most famous character: the “little tramp,” who’s always beaten down by life, always the butt of the jokes, but who never gives up his optimism. The character made Chaplin a star, recognized around the world.


It was on this day in 1787 that the first American play” opened, at the John Street Theater in New York City. It was written by 29-year-old Royall Tyler. Tyler went to Harvard, studied law, and joined the Continental Army. He was appointed the aide to General Benjamin Lincoln to help suppress Shay’s Rebellion. After Shay left Massachusetts for New York, Tyler was sent to New York City to negotiate for Shay’s capture. And there Tyler did something that he had never done: went to see a play.

Theater was slow to take off in America. There are known performances of Shakespeare in Williamsburg in the early 1700s, and in general the Southern colonies — more open to all British customs — were happier to embrace the theater. In the North, it was looked on as a sinful form of entertainment. Massachusetts passed a law in 1750 that outlawed theater performances, and by 1760 there were similar laws in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, although performances occasionally snuck through the laws with the special permission of authorities.

In any case, Royall Tyler from Massachusetts had never been to the theater before. So on March 12, 1787, he saw a production of Richard Sheridan’s School for Scandal (1777),and he was so inspired that in just three weeks he wrote his own play, The Contrast. On this day in 1787, just barely a month later, The Contrast became the first play by an American writer to be professionally produced.

The Contrast was a success. It was performed four times that month in New York, which was very unusual. Then it moved on to Baltimore and Philadelphia, where George Washington went to see it. The Contrast was a comedy of manners, poking fun at Americans with European pretensions, and the main character, Jonathan, was the first “Yankee” stock character, a backwoods man who spoke in a distinctive American voice and mannerisms.


It’s the birthday of children’s writer Gertrude Chandler Warner (books by this author), born in Putnam, Connecticut (1890). She never finished high school, but during World War I, local school boards enlisted teachers to serve their country, and the Putnam board saw that Warner taught Sunday school and decided she could probably teach first grade. She agreed to try, and she taught 80 kids a day, half in the morning and half in the afternoon. She was good at it, and she ended up teaching in the same room for 32 years.

One day, when she was home sick, she thought up a story about kids who lived in an abandoned train car, and she brought it into her class to read to her students. She rewrote it until it was in extremely simple language that all her students could understand. In 1924, she published The Boxcar Children, the story of Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, orphans who take care of themselves living off the land until they are reunited with their grandfather. Despite protests from adults — who thought the book was a bad influence because it encouraged children to think they would get along fine without adult supervision — The Boxcar Children was extremely popular, and Warner wrote 18 sequels. After her death in 1979, ghostwriters continued the series, and there are now more than 140 Boxcar Children books.


It was on this day in 1852 that the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (books by this author) was arrested for writing an obituary for Nikolai Gogol. The young Turgenev had met Gogol briefly several times, but only spent substantial time with him once, about six months before Gogol’s death. But he was shocked and sad to hear the news, and to hear that Gogol had burned his final manuscript shortly before dying.

Turgenev wrote a short obituary, and sent it to a Moscow journal after being denied by the editor in St. Petersburg. He wrote: “Gogol is dead! What Russian heart will not be deeply moved by these words. He is dead … the man whom we now have the right — a bitter right conferred on us by death, to call great.”

For these words, Turgenev was arrested on this day and put in jail. He was released after a month, but banished to the countryside, where he essentially lived under house arrest for almost two years. In letters to friends, he told them that the obituary was just an excuse to arrest him. His book of short stories A Sportsman’s Sketches (1852) was a powerful, and popular, critique of serfdom, which the government of course did not appreciate. The Sketches had an important role in turning public opinion against serfdom, and in 1861, the system was abolished. Turgenev went on to write successful plays and novels, including Fathers and Sons (1862).


It’s the birthday of the novelist who wrote: “If you can’t annoy somebody, there is little point in writing.” That’s Kingsley Amis (books by this author), born in London (1922).

He made it big with his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954). Amis was inspired to write Lucky Jim after a visit with his good friend, the poet Philip Larkin, who worked at University College, Leicester, and lived on Dixon Drive there. Amis dedicated Lucky Jim to Larkin. It’s the story of Jim Dixon, a young, lower-middle-class professor who teaches medieval history at a nice university. He is disgusted by the pretentious academics all around him, especially Professor Welch, the head of his department.

Amis wrote every day, and he tried to get through at least 500 words. He got up late and, still in his pajamas, read all the papers. Then he shaved, took a shower, wrote for a while in the early afternoon, and had lunch. He said: “If there’s urgency about, I have to write in the afternoon, which I really hate doing — I really dislike afternoons, whatever’s happening. But then the agreement is that it doesn’t matter how little gets done in the afternoon. And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it’s only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at six o’clock and one can get into second gear. I go on until about eight-thirty and I always hate stopping. It’s not a question of being carried away by one’s creative afflatus, but saying, ‘Oh dear, next time I do this I shall be feeling tense again.'”

He wrote more than 20 novels, including That Uncertain Feeling (1955), Take a Girl Like You (1960), Ending Up (1974), and The Old Devils (1986). He also wrote books of poetry, a memoir, essays, and several books about drinking. In his book Everyday Drinking, he wrote: ” The human race has not devised any way of dissolving barriers, getting to know the other chap fast, breaking the ice, that is one-tenth as handy and efficient as letting you and the other chap, or chaps, cease to be totally sober at about the same rate in agreeable surroundings.”

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In The Lake Wobegon Virus, a mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition. Says Keillor, "The people of Lake Wobegon were waiting for the chance to go wild and so the book wrote itself."

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My future, in case you are curious

I turned 78 five days ago and gave a party, a pandemic party, it was on Zoom, 457 guests, nobody I know, they heard about it on Twitter, no gifts, just donations to your favorite charity, nobody sang “Happy Birthday,” thank you, it lasted about 28 minutes, and we played one game — Guess the Age of the Host — and most people guessed in the 40s, nothing over 50. It was also a Republican party in the sense that nothing I’ve told you is true.

The pandemic is a beautiful thing for an old guy like me. Young people do all the complaining so I don’t have to, I’m free to be cheerful. I detest physical exercise and now I have an excuse: heavy breathing spreads the virus. I also have a cover for not wanting to travel: Europe doesn’t want us. Even the Canadians don’t want us. As for restaurants, I never liked eating out; I haven’t hung out in bars since I was in college. I’m an introvert and social distancing comes naturally to me. Down deep, I have an aversion to people who subscribe to complicated conspiracy theories or who think the virus is a hoax or who like to use the word “systemic” and now I can block them on my phone. I love to watch baseball without spectators in the stands, no video close-ups of couples kissing, no mascots dancing around in cartoon outfits. And I’ve discovered that if I put one tablespoon of fermented mead in my wife’s Cream of Wheat, she becomes giddy and laughs at everything I say.

When I was 77, I could look back at my early seventies and even my late sixties and brood about the decline of civilization, but 78 means I’m looking at 80 and having to decide what sort of octogenarian I plan to be, an active youthful one who serves as an inspiration to others or a comfy old coot in a rocking chair with a quilt over his lap.

I’m familiar with the inspirational geezers — the kind who can do handstands and golf under par and bench-press a bureau dresser — you read about them in the paper on a slow news day, 80-year-old mathematicians still out on the frontiers of algorithms — and it never was my ambition to be an example to others. I am the least ambitious person I know. My ambition is to be content. I am grateful to have achieved that.

I am fond of my laptop and my iPhone and don’t crave anything better. I do not need more apps. I may need a heart valve procedure in the future but nowadays they don’t need to saw open your chest and leave you with a long zipper scar like Frankenstein’s monster, they run a little tube up an artery, and snip snip snip, as you sit there reading a book. Everything is better nowadays, how can a person complain? I come from the era of Karens and Larrys and now we have Sophias, Olivias, Avas, Arabellas — Aidans, Juans, Rolands, Noahs. This diversity bodes well for the country.

My one big ambition is to be America’s oldest productive novelist. I’m competing against Joyce Carol Oates who is four years and dozens of novels ahead of me and Anne Tyler and several others. I have a new novel coming out in a month, which won’t sell well — it has the word “virus” in the title — why? Why did I shoot myself in the foot like that?

But I’m planning to step up production in 2021 when America will be in the mood for comic fiction again, rather than the kind we’ve been reading for the past three years and 203 days. I’m going to write a novel about an old writer in isolation in the woods during a pandemic who writes a brilliant novel and decides to keep it to himself and not publish, dreading the notoriety. Then a novel about a young woman, Siobhan, who loses her mind due to unwise drug use and is given a memory transplant from a dying man of 95 and lives her life, a beautiful New York woman of 25 with clear memories of small-town South Dakota in the Thirties. And one about a colony of the Last Canasta Players in Massachusetts. As you may detect, there is a theme here. Systemic aging. Enough about youthful anguish and childhood suffering. Let’s grow up.

Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

It’s waiting for my wife to return from visiting relatives in Connecticut. She’s the one who Puts Things Together in this family. She has smaller fingers and finer digital skills, being a violinist, and unlike me, she reads directions. She assembles parts into a coherent whole. I am a writer and the problem of assembly puts me into a subjunctive mood and I might have solved it had I taken my time but what I assemble is a non sequitur and somewhere a child is weeping bitterly. So I wait for her to come home.

A couple weeks ago, a workman came to our apartment backdoor and asked me (I think) something about air conditioning. I believe he is Polish and some of his English sounded Polish to me so I notified my wife and he spoke to her and she pointed to a panel in the ceiling over the washer and dryer, and there it was, a condenser or whatever it’s called. I come from simple rural people; we worked in the sun and after a day of that, the shade was good enough, we didn’t require AC.

I used to resent competent people and now I am married to one. I was an English major in college and looked down on the engineering students in their polyester plaid shirts with plastic pocket protectors, and now we live in a digital world they designed and I can’t figure out how to make my iPhone deZoom after it has enlarged itself. I need to ask my wife, the one who reads directions.

A couple years ago, I couldn’t start my car one morning and had to call a tow truck. Back in the 20th century, you’d see a neighbor pull out of his driveway and wave to him and he’d get out jumper cables and start you up, but these days your neighbor is very likely an English major who wanted to be a writer but instead became an Executive Vice President for Branding and Inclusivity, which is a different branch of fiction, and if I wave at him, he’ll pretend not to see me. My dad, up to the mid-Sixties or so, was able to take his cars apart and do repairs. The neighbor guy and I are of a generation that Does Not Understand How Engines Work. So the tow truck started me up and I drove to a shop where the mechanic discovered that a malfunctioning lock on the trunk was draining my battery. Amazing. It’s like a boil on your rear end is the cause of your migraine. But he fixed it. This sort of competence is inspiring to me. And we are surrounded by it. If ever you should call the EMTs at 911, you’ll be swarmed by great competence.

Meanwhile, there is a cultural movement among us that argues that our world is systemically oppressive and corrupt, the institutions and laws, epistemology, mindsets, literature, politics, religion, cheeseburgers, cole slaw, rotted through and through by elitist masculine Western Eurocentric misogynistic homicidal hierarchical colonialist biases, and there is no such thing as commonality, community, competence, comedy, all of which are intrinsically unequal and tools of oppression, and I, as an oppressor, have internalized my dominance, accepting it as something earned, not inherited.

One could call this movement fascistic but it doesn’t really matter because I am 78 and the movement won’t take over the country until after I am gone, and meanwhile, in the time it took me to write this, my love has assembled the chair and I sit in it and I feel so good, I write an elitist limerick, my favorite tool of oppression:

Classic, romantic, baroque,
Whether you sleep or are woke,
Remember this, Jack,
There’s no turning back
From the fact that you know you’re a joke.

One man’s pandemic is another man’s picnic

I love reading columns that snap and crackle and poke powerful people in the kisser and I am bored by columns like this one, which is about the goodness and generosity of life, but what can I say? When you’re busy doing things you love and you skip the news for a while, life can be beautiful. My love and I have been absorbed in the lives of the mockingbird family in our backyard, the parents ratcheting at us when we set foot out back, the little beaks upraised, the relays of food, the first hesitant hops from the nest, the high anxiety, the chirps of the teenagers, and then one morning, nobody’s home. Gone. No word since.

Instead of studying Joe Biden’s 13-point lead in national polls, we were absorbed in the lives of birds. We’ve never run for public office, but we have been parents and we have empathy for them, even birds. It’s odd to me, at 77, to see two men my age running for the White House. I remember the excitement when Kennedy, 43, succeeded Eisenhower, 70. We needed that this year and it didn’t happen.

But thanks to the recumbent, the man in the large golf pants, we live in the Golden Age of delicious vicious columnry, the best of them being conservatives such as Jennifer Rubin and George Will whose outrage rises to great literary heights whereas old liberals like me sit and play “Honolulu Baby” on the ukulele and toss in a little tap dance. For Mr. Will, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is like Mother poisoning Dad and marrying a Mafia hitman. I turn to Mr. Will in the Washington Post and feast on lines like “this weak person’s idea of a strong person, this chest-pounding advertisement of his own gnawing insecurities, this low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath has proven that the phrase malignant buffoon is not an oxymoron.”

It’s a great line and I have nothing to add to it. Mr. Will is a lifelong Republican conservative and he knows in his heart that the recumbent is no more a Republican than Nancy Pelosi is a pole-vaulter and the recumbent is no more a believing Christian than he is the Dalai Lama-rama-ding-dong. It is an insane moment in the history of the Republic and it drives Mr. Will wild, but to me, it’s just a TV show and I turn it off and go sit on the shady terrace and feast on these giant blueberries grown in Peru and feel content. I toss a few of them toward the mockingbirds’ nest, hoping to lure them back, but no such luck.

I am almost 78 and America’s problems are my grandchildren’s problems, not mine, and I have been married for 25 years to a woman who thrills me and to avoid the plague we’ve spent four months in close proximity and it’s been good. I am capable of bitter sarcasm — I had a column all set to go about the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., dropping the word “colony” from its name because it suggested exclusivity and hierarchy. But I don’t care about artists’ colonies, have no interest in spending time in one, am grateful to be excluded. The higher the ark the better; I don’t want to get on board. The street carnival in Portland is not my concern, except to hope that nobody gets hurt. The Bullying that is going on over Capitalization of certain words is — how shall I say it? — Remarkable. As for racism, there is no room for it in the Christian faith where it continues to thrive.

I come from a generation that spent 57,000 American lives in a war that had no point then and has no defenders now and American cruise ships now dock at Hue and Da Nang and Saigon and folks from Omaha and Seattle eat in sidewalk cafes whose owners may have been among the guerillas who defeated us and who cares?

Madame and I have our own colony, and beyond that, each of us has a circle of pals, which the pandemic lockdown makes all the more enjoyable. Theaters are dark and concert halls, but the telephone still works and now that people are sticking close to home, the phone calls get longer and more fulfilling and launch into stories, and we don’t bother talking politics, we talk family history, which is more interesting. And if asked what we’re up to, we will talk about mockingbirds.

The birds are worried and I feel just fine

Thirty-eight percent of Americans surveyed believe the Prez is doing a good job with the pandemic, which is good news for folks offering Florida timeshares for August and telemarketers who’ll turn your songs into No. 1 hits if you give them your credit card number. Thirty-eight percent approval means that there is a big market for agates as an investment.

It’s a dangerous world out there, don’t kid yourself. I feel for the mockingbird parents on our terrace who screech at us, warning us not to grab their fledglings. We can see them in the nest, beaks wide open, squeaking for food, just like our own daughter years ago. The parents are in high anxiety. My wife and I are liberals, we eat beef and pork, have no interest whatsoever in eating mockingbird — and I feel their pain.

Violence is part of life. Every day you get dinner or you are dinner. Fish are beautiful, like fashion models parading back and forth, and then a killer dashes in and eats one: that is a fish’s way of life. The mouse is in the cornfield, shopping for his family, and he hears a rush of wings and feels sharp back pain and suddenly he is very high in the air. Our football teams are named for killers, lions, wolverines, eagles, gators. Only two for religious figures (saints, cardinals) and one for temp workers (gophers). Will the Washington NFL team now change its name to the Sergeants and the Minnesota Vikings become the Viruses? Go to Oslo and you’ll see that the Norwegians are not the marauding warriors they were back in the ninth century when they raided and pillaged widely. They’re more into tillage now.

We liberals tried to create a safe world for our fledglings. I grew up before there were seat belts so I rode standing up in the front seat as my dad drove 75 mph across North Dakota, but my children rode in podlike car seats belted in like test pilots. They rode tricycles, wearing helmets. We banned smoking. There were warnings on everything, like kitchen knives (“Sharp: may cut skin if pressure is applied.”) and ovens (“Do not insert head when gas is on.”).

No wonder we are kerfluxxed, reading about a man with no conscience, no empathy, no principles, not a shred of honesty, who presides with great indifference over a plague. As any New Yorker can tell you, the problem with the Trumps is that the 90% who are corrupt give the others a bad name. In Manhattan, where he spent his adult life, he got 10% of the vote. And now 38% of our fellow Americans think he’s doing okay when the disaster is out in the open for all to see. The body count is staggering. Vietnam does well, Japan, Italy, but America is a pitiful giant.

I’m locked up and don’t worry about catching the virus but at 78, I’m aware of mortality and can imagine going to the doctor and finding out I have a rare case of desiccated angiofibrosis of the fantods, four months to live, maybe six. I’d thank him and stop at the drugstore for a carton of Luckies and come home and get out the gin bottle.

I’d have a martini on the terrace, my first drink in eighteen years, and toss the lemon twist away and the mockingbirds would pick it up and immediately they’d calm down. With the screeching stopped, the fledglings would fly. My neighbors would smell the gin and knock on my door. I’d get out the shaker and martini glasses, and we’d have a party. They’re all liberals; they’ve lived on a fixed schedule of their children’s social, educational, recreational, and therapeutic engagements, and the gin would make us good and silly and we’d say things that don’t appear on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Things like “That which has been is that which shall be, there is nothing new under the sun” — these are Roman times, Nero is in power and he won’t relinquish it so long as the generals are loyal. He is half naked, and 38% of our people like him in just his underwear. Let the fledgling millennials talk about justice and equality, let the old man enjoy his gin and vermouth. These desiccated fantods are not going away. Nero is your problem, not mine. Hand me down another bag of pork rinds, darling, and I’ll put a porterhouse on the grill.

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My future, in case you are curious

I turned 78 five days ago and gave a party, a pandemic party, it was on Zoom, 457 guests, nobody I know, they heard about it on Twitter, no gifts, just donations to your favorite charity, nobody sang “Happy Birthday,” thank you, it lasted about 28 minutes, and we played one game — Guess the Age of the Host — and most people guessed in the 40s, nothing over 50. It was also a Republican party in the sense that nothing I’ve told you is true.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Sunday, August 9, 2020

I just turned 78 / The hour is getting late / The road leads straight / Up to the golden gate.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Friday, August 7, 2020

I’ll work all day and maybe we’ll go for a walk in the park. Can’t imagine a better birthday.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, August 6, 2020

Today I shall write to my cousin Patti who says she learned “Tell Me Why” from me and now she and her two-year-old sing it to each other. That is enough legacy for me.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, August 5, 2020

don’t think I know many authors by sight anymore. What’s worse, I doubt that others do. I think the era of Famous Writers is over.

Read More

Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Tuesday, August 4, 2020

This is the week I turn 78, a fitting age for one born on the 7th day of the 8th month, and then my next stop is 87.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Sunday, August 2, 2020

One day runs into another, one project after another but not much progress is felt, a book is opened and soon shut, and the future remains as murky as ever.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, July 30, 2020

I sang a song to my dear wife last night and now it’s echoing in the canyons of the cerebellum. I need to know more people in their 80s and 90s to serve as my scouts.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, July 29, 2020

After two days of silence in an apartment, the return of the lover is triumphant, bands play, she rides in on an elephant accompanied by men waving scimitars.

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If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

Recent reviews:

“Fans laughed, applauded and sang along throughout Sunday night’s two-hour show” -Jeff Baenen, AP News

“His shows can, for a couple of hours, transform an audience of even so-called coastal elites into a small-town community with an intimacy only radio and its podcast descendants can achieve” -Chris Barton, LA Times

“[Keillor is] an expert at making you feel at home with his low-key, familiar style. Comfortable is his specialty.” -Betsie Freeman, Omaha-World Herald

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