The Writer’s Almanac for February 28, 2019


Poem for My Former Niece
by Amie Whittemore

Soon it will hurt less
to remember your hair
in my hands, softest foxtails.

Or your voice as you kicked
your feet in the bath.
Your five-year-old insights, zinnia-bright.

Being your aunt is winning
summer, warm rain, and
a tap-dancing unicorn.

It’s chocolate cake for breakfast
and a tea party with panda bears––
please, draw that for me.

That’s what I would have asked
before the divorce. Now,
in this new land, I treat you

like a unicorn. Sugar cubes
in my hand, soft whistle
in my throat.

There’s no word
for “former niece.”
I’d rather eat

500 pickles than invent
such a term.
I hope you laugh

about those pickles.
Rare egg, trust your shine.
Know I tend a bouquet for you.

“Poem for My Former Niece” by Amie Whittemore from Glass Harvest. © Autumn House Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of essayist Michel de Montaigne, (books by this author) born in Perigord, in Bordeaux, France (1533). He is considered by many to be the creator of the personal essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general. Writers up to the present time have imitated his informal, conversational style. He said, “The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness: such a state, like the region above the moon, is always clear and serene.”


It’s the birthday of novelist Colum McCann, (books by this author) born in Dublin, Ireland (1965). He’s the author of Let the Great World Spin (2009), which won the 2009 National Book Award. His fiction has been translated into 30 languages.

He grew up in suburban middle-class Dublin in a house full of books and majored in journalism. At age 21, he moved to the United States, intent on writing the great American novel that summer. He didn’t get very far. He decided he needed to go see America, so he hopped on a 15-speed Schwinn and bicycled around the country. He cycled 12,000 miles, winding through 40 states, collecting stories all along the way — stories that still make their way into his fiction a couple of decades later.

He has had a happy life, he says, the kind that doesn’t make for an interesting story. He said, “For me, the logical conclusion is that I have to write outside my life.” He said that it feels like going to college every time he writes a book: “I take a brand-new three-year crash course in that which I want to know.” To research one novel, he lived with homeless people in subway tunnels. For another, he went to Russia and hung around “hospitals and dancehalls and Stalin-era apartments.”

For a different novel, he spent a year looking at maps at the New York Public Library, and then headed off to of Eastern Europe to wander through Roma camps, “carting [his] ignorance,” he said, “to Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, and Italy.” That research was for his novel Zoli, based loosely on the life of a Polish poet from the 1950s.

Every novel is a failure, he says, in that “you can never achieve what you truly want to achieve. That thing you dreamt on the riverbank is never the thing you achieve when you are back at the writing table, or when the paper is coming out of the printer.” He wanted to “bounce back fast” from Zoli. He set out to write an epic.

That epic: Let the Great World Spin. It’s set in the 1970s and weaves together the stories of a dozen New York protagonists, including prostitutes, a young radical Irish monk, and a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her son killed in Vietnam, which famously begins with the image of the tightrope walker high in the air between the twin towers.

To get the voice of protagonist Tillie, the 38-year-old grandmother and longtime prostitute, McCann did a lot of research. He went to the New York Public Library and looked through records, trying to track down 1970s Bronx prostitutes. He tried talking with women on the stroll. He shadowed police detectives around the Bronx. He rummaged through piles of rap sheets, trying to figure out which crimes his Tillie might have committed. He read the memoir of a pimp.

He said that it took him a really long time to get Tillie’s voice — about four or five months. He was on the verge of giving up. He told his wife he just didn’t think he could do it. Then one night this line came floating to him, which went: “The skinniest dog I ever seen is the one on the side of the Greyhound buses.” It was a simple line, he said, but he recognized it as the voice he was trying to channel. He wrote all night, he said, “and wound up with six pages.”

The Tillie monologue, which is set in her jail cell and spans almost 40 pages, begins:

“They didn’t let me go to Corrigan’s funeral. I woulda walked the bakery line to get there. They put me back in the pen instead. I weren’t crying. I laid straight out on the bench with my hand over my eyes.

“I saw my rap sheet, it’s yellow with fifty-four entries. Typed up not so neat. You see your life with carbon copies. Kept in a file. Hunts Point, Lex and Forty-ninth, West Side Highway, all the way back to Cleveland.”

Colum McCann said: “I think a good novel can be a doorstop to despair. I also think the real bravery comes with those who prepared to go through that door and look at the world in all its grime and torment, and still find something of value, no matter how small.”

Available November 17th: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

If you pre-order a copy now, on publication date (Nov 17) you will receive the book plus an exclusive link to a video made by Garrison about the memoir. Plus, pre-orders will enjoy $5.00 off in our store (pay $25.00 for the hardcover instead of $30.00).

In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

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Wobegon Virus

Available September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover and eBook are available now wherever you get your books. The audiobook is available for download/streaming from Audible and wherever else you get your audiobooks. A book-on-CD collection will also be available from our shop beginning September 29 (you can preorder now).

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."

Read the first chapter and order your copy >>>


A late dispatch from the New York correspondent

A chilly night in New York, fall in the air, geese winging along a flyway over West 91st, a lively crowd watching a playground basketball game. Unusual in these pandemic days, to hear a cheering crowd. We’ve been isolating here since March, avoiding the dread virus, leading a life more like that of a lighthouse keeper than a New Yorker, no plays, no Fauré or Bizet or cabaret, though Sunday we sat in a sidewalk café and had a cassoulet, a small soirée, just three of us, me and the Missus and our friend Suzanne whom I like to hang out with because she’s older than I and very lively. She is proof that aging, though likely to be fatal, need not be dull. Gusts of talk, none of it touching on the Unmentionable.

I’m fond of fall, the beauty and brevity of it. Soon the iron gates will clank shut and we descend into the dark trenches of winter. A person always imagines there will be more warm evenings and suppers outdoors, but fall teaches otherwise. And that is what makes life beautiful, the knowledge of approaching November. Last week the world was drenched with the beauty Van Gogh was crazy for and that is why we send our kids off to school, so they don’t become obsessed with beauty and goldenness and can pay attention to algorithms and multiplicity and divisiveness. I was a mediocre student, but every fall I appeared in the classroom door, struggled through college and humanities courses of which I remember nothing at all — I should’ve studied auto mechanics — and then when I was 27, I was hired by a radio station to work the 6 a.m. shift and the same fall, a magazine bought a story of mine for $500. My monthly rent was $80. I was off to the races.

We want what we cannot have. The heart wants life to go on and on. So the old writer goes on writing stories, still hopeful, though there’s plenty of evidence that you hit your peak at forty. You sit doing something you’ve done steadily since childhood and it’s still of keen interest. And Sunday night I dreamed about writing. I’d written a book about the Soviet Union and was invited to talk about it up in the Berkshires and drove on winding roads through little hill towns to a house where I walked up a strange steep staircase with tiny steps to the attic where a dozen people sat around a table to hear my talk. I joked about who should leave first if there were a fire and nobody laughed. They were all communists and took sharp issue with my book and shouted at me in Russian, which I understood but could not speak. The quiet domestic pandemic life has been bringing me a wild dream life.

We bought a new TV in August to liven up our days and somehow cannot figure out how to tune in news programs — which platforms are they on — so we don’t watch them, which is a relief. I’m tired of hearing the name in the news, don’t care to hear words that rhyme with it such as “dump,” “hump,” “lump,” “chump,” “rump,” “slump,” look at the news online and avert my eyes from the smug New York playboy face with the fruitcake hair. It’s time for the election now though it’s September. The election should’ve been held a year ago. The man is a bad dream. I’m an American, I love hamburgers, country music, baseball, small towns on the prairie, the American September, Levi jeans, the poetry of Jim Harrison and Maxine Kumin, and this guy is a Russian who learned his English at the movies. He isn’t one of us, not even slightly.

Nonetheless, life is good. Our happiness never depended on foreign con men. I’m here because my parents loved each other and even though Hitler had overrun much of Europe and was bombing England and people could see what was coming, nonetheless those two nestled in each other’s arms and took their pleasure and I appeared in 1942, on the day of the American assault on Guadalcanal. We got through the Forties and we’ll get through the Twenties. Water is coming out of the tap, the mail is left at the doorstep, the buses are running, and the grocery store is open, we’re in business. The election approaches. Let’s get it done.

Some great music is played on old fiddles

It’s great to see an old, old magazine in headline news for something other than its obit and bravo to The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg for the “losers” and “suckers” story on Trump and his contempt for military service or anything else nonprofitable. It’s been hot news for several days, it got Joe Biden highly impassioned and powerfully articulate, and if any of Trump’s entourage who heard him say what he said would step up and tell the truth, we could get this election over with in a hurry and get on with our lives.

As an old man, I’m pleased by the success of old institutions. The New York Times and the Washington Post have never been so day-to-day excellent as they’ve been in covering the Twitter presidency. The big story isn’t about actions he’s taken or not, it’s about his flagrant contempt for the office, the law, science, knowledge of all sorts, American history and tradition, his laziness and short attention span, his small world of wealthy advisors, his weird sycophants, his whole reality show, a phenomenon never before seen in our time, government by social media based on something he heard on Fox. Journalists at the big papers were trained to take government seriously, and how do they cover a president who doesn’t give a rip?

One old institution that’s been flummoxed by Trump is public radio, the industry where I spent forty happy years creating fiction. At news, which is its primary business, public radio has been lost in the wilderness. Its big marquee shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, have never laid a hand on Trump so he’s never bothered to insult them. Part of their problem is gentility: a deep fear of vulgarity, which rules public radio from the top down. Back where I’m from, Minnesota, public radio assiduously avoids the darkness in favor of covering the arts, education, civic uplift, small children, pets, colorful hobbies. It doesn’t try to cover business — much too complicated — or sports, though it loves meteorology: every snowfall is thoroughly examined. The real journalism is practiced by citizens with cellphones who upload video of the forest fires dancing around the houses in the California hills, who caught the cop with his knee on George Floyd’s neck in south Minneapolis back in May. Public radio is capable of inviting a sociologist and a social psychologist to discuss the history of racism for forty-five minutes, but it’s the video by passersby that unleashed a powerful popular agitation for social change.

Radio was Rush’s medium, it lent itself to incantatory hallucinations about the Apocalypse, and he opened the doors to a parade of wild wackos, one of whom is about to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. I did a different style of radio, a goulash of old jazz and antique oddities, wishing people a happy birthday, offering joke contests, taking phone calls from the irate. Rush’s style thrives, my sort of show is deader than downtown Detroit. We’ve moved into Podcastville and the production of small clever idiosyncratic audio that gives the listener the sensation of belonging to an exclusive club. Live radio shows are dead because they’re available to everyone. You want to subscribe to “What’s In, What’s Up,” where you can feel united with your tribe of superior intellects.

This is Trump’s bond with his believers. They adhere to him no matter what because all the people they loathe also loathe him. Foreigners, city people, English majors, Times readers, the latte crowd. Loathing is not a prime Christian value but it binds his evangelical base to him even though the man is a stranger to the Word and has never knelt in church except at his three weddings. I feel bad for my evangelical friends; they know what they’re doing, they’ve made a deal with the dark side and so far haven’t seen any benefits, except for the pleasure of making Anglicans and Methodists writhe in misery.

This is why I’m proud of The Atlantic, which now, having recently subscribed to, I can report is a great read. I’m an old man, I don’t have time to waste reading or listening to crap. The Atlantic has been around since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s day and he would be proud of its renaissance. Emerson said, “There is a tendency for things to right themselves.” This November, I hope he’s right.

Destroying (not) the American way of life

As a Democrat accused by Republicans of trying to take away people’s hamburgers, I have to speak in my own defense. I am second to none in my fondness for the beef patty in a bun, a thin slice of onion, and mustard. I do not eat hamburger in a croissant; I am not that type of person. Ketchup is for French fries, mustard for burgers. No mayo, please. The Democrat who’s trying to take away hamburgers is my wife but it’s only my hamburger she’s after, not yours. She thinks they’re unhealthy. I enjoy them even more for her opposition.

As for our wanting to destroy the American Way of Life, I wouldn’t know how to go about that since there are so many Ways of Life involved. Love of human variety is part of it: we’re not a race or breed, we’re an amalgam of strangers and the fact that we can make space for each other is remarkable. Walk down the street and you pass people with headphones tuned to Beyoncé, Brahms, a preacher proclaiming the gospel, a Scientologist, Sean Hannity, poetry plain, poetry strange, Gershwin, George Strait, a podcast about strategic planning. Yes, the country is at war on social media, but in everyday life, Americans show each other enormous tolerance. We look, we smile, we move on.

For me, America means the love of spaciousness, driving west from Minnesota over the open prairie, preferably on two-lane roads, looking at farms, farming being the hardest work there is and unpredictable and dangerous. And also walking through Lower Manhattan and sensing the human history around you in the five-story brick buildings, the people who escaped an emperor or kaiser or czar to come here, no English to speak of, in behalf of their children. They believed that in a free society they would be judged by their character and their competence, not by their social connections. They worked terribly hard at whatever work came their way, in order to secure the right to be American. Certainly, the country produced its share of con men and card sharps, windbags, hustlers, but hard work and competence was honored here, more than family dynasties. We don’t bow to the grand pooh-bahs, we put a whoopee cushion on the throne.

When it comes to patriotism, it’s the American way to play it cool and not walk around jingling your medals. My high school biology teacher was a combat pilot in the Korean War, my phy-ed teacher was a Navy lieutenant on a forward observation boat at Normandy on D-Day, and neither of them went around talking about it, for the simple reason that they had survived and friends of theirs had died and self-aggrandizement dishonors the sacrifice of others. I asked the movie director Bob Altman about his wartime experience and he told me he lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Forces in 1942 and become a B-17 pilot at the age of nineteen and the plane was loud and hard to handle and it was freezing cold at high altitudes. That was all he cared to say. It wasn’t for him to play the hero.

I know people who will likely vote for the man with his arms wrapped around the flag and I don’t try to talk them out of it but the business about hamburgers and destroying the American Way of Life is garbage of a low order and if you buy into it, you’re heading down a lonely road. Unreality is not a good strategy. It’s a beautiful country and we’re meant to enjoy it and to care about one another. I’ve been watching baseball on TV, a great sport for immigrants, and there seem to be more Latino names than ever, more players of color, but it’s the same beautiful game. This past week, I saw two perfect bunts, a rarity, the batter places his bat to tap the 90 mph pitch into the sweet spot in the infield, left or right, to advance the runners and also arrive safely at first. It doesn’t matter who does it, it’s astonishing. If the umpire were to call a bunt foul that clearly was fair, and if the opposing team were willing to accept this blatant lie, that would violate the American Way, and that is exactly what we’re seeing today. And that is a shame.

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Writing

A late dispatch from the New York correspondent

A chilly night in New York, fall in the air, geese winging along a flyway over West 91st, a lively crowd watching a playground basketball game. Unusual in these pandemic days, to hear a cheering crowd. We’ve been isolating here since March, avoiding the dread virus, leading a life more like that of a lighthouse keeper than a New Yorker, no plays, no Fauré or Bizet or cabaret, though Sunday we sat in a sidewalk café and had a cassoulet, a small soirée, just three of us, me and the Missus and our friend Suzanne whom I like to hang out with because she’s older than I and very lively. She is proof that aging, though likely to be fatal, need not be dull. Gusts of talk, none of it touching on the Unmentionable.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, September 10, 2020

I spoke with the humorist Calvin Trillin tonight who was enjoying his nightly whiskey. He said the Village is like Paris with all the outdoor dining, but no tourists.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Tuesday, September 8, 2020

I was in radio for years and now my voice is thin and creaky, all the baritone notes are gone from disuse.

Read More

Some great music is played on old fiddles

It’s great to see an old, old magazine in headline news for something other than its obit and bravo to The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg for the “losers” and “suckers” story on Trump and his contempt for military service or anything else nonprofitable. It’s been hot news for several days, it got Joe Biden highly impassioned and powerfully articulate, and if any of Trump’s entourage who heard him say what he said would step up and tell the truth, we could get this election over with in a hurry and get on with our lives.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The doctor looked way down my throat / And told me to sing a high note

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The Lake Wobegon Virus: Chapter One

“Well, it has been a quiet year in Lake Wobegon…”

Read the first chapter of Garrison’s new novel here

Read More

Destroying (not) the American way of life

As a Democrat accused by Republicans of trying to take away people’s hamburgers, I have to speak in my own defense. I am second to none in my fondness for the beef patty in a bun, a thin slice of onion, and mustard. I do not eat hamburger in a croissant; I am not that type of person. Ketchup is for French fries, mustard for burgers. No mayo, please. The Democrat who’s trying to take away hamburgers is my wife but it’s only my hamburger she’s after, not yours. She thinks they’re unhealthy. I enjoy them even more for her opposition.

As for our wanting to destroy the American Way of Life, I wouldn’t know how to go about that since there are so many Ways of Life involved. Love of human variety is part of it: we’re not a race or breed, we’re an amalgam of strangers and the fact that we can make space for each other is remarkable. Walk down the street and you pass people with headphones tuned to Beyoncé, Brahms, a preacher proclaiming the gospel, a Scientologist, Sean Hannity, poetry plain, poetry strange, Gershwin, George Strait, a podcast about strategic planning. Yes, the country is at war on social media, but in everyday life, Americans show each other enormous tolerance. We look, we smile, we move on.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Sunday, August 30, 2020

The chill of fall is in the air, doing my stretching exercises out on the terrace, looking out at the Upper West Side.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, August 27, 2020

This is the test: who would you want to spend the whole day with for an entire week? Don’t marry until you know the answer.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The book is done, the writing and editing, and it’s going to the typesetter and so the author falls into a slight depression with the end of a long project.

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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. 

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