The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, March 16, 2020

827 The Only News I know
by Emily Dickinson

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—


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

Robert Goddard launched the first liquid-fueled rocket on this date in 1926. Goddard had been interested in outer space since he read H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a boy of 16 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Though he’d always been interested in science, he started thinking seriously about rockets the following year, in 1899. As he recounted in his autobiography, he was up in a cherry tree, preparing to prune its dead branches, when he began to daydream: “It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet.”

Eight years later, while studying at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Goddard began experimenting with a rocket that was powered by gunpowder. He had a theory that a rocket engine could produce thrust even in the vacuum of space, without any air to thrust against. The government wasn’t really interested in the idea of space travel, so he had a hard time getting grants for his research, and he ended up paying for most of it himself. Finally, a grant from the Smithsonian Institution enabled him to do research and publish a paper on “A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes” in 1920. In the paper, he speculated that rockets could be used to reach the moon.

The New York Times heard about his paper and ridiculed him. He went from being a relative nobody to a laughingstock literally overnight. But he persisted, and on this date in 1926, he completed the first successful launch of his liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. Similar to a blowtorch, his rocket was equipped with two lines running from a fuel tank into a combustion chamber; in this case, the lines delivered gasoline and liquid oxygen. The rocket achieved a height of 41 feet and an average speed of 60 miles per hour. Unfortunately, his wife Esther’s movie camera ran out of film, so there’s no record of this first foray into space exploration.

Today is the birthday of Sid Fleischman (books by this author), born Avron Zalmon Fleischman in Brooklyn, New York (1920). Fleischman grew up in San Diego, and as a teenager toured the country with vaudeville acts as a magician. After college he became a journalist, and then he started writing suspense novels and screenplays.

One day, his daughter Jane came home from school with the autograph of a children’s author. Fleischman’s wife, Betty, pointed out to the children that their father was also a writer. Jane said, “Yes, but no one reads his books.” So he started in at once, and his first of many children’s books, Mr. Mysterious & Company, was published in 1962. He won the Newbery Award in 1987 for his novel The Whipping Boy (1986), which tells the story of a spoiled European prince and his servant who receives the prince’s punishments, because it’s a crime to strike the prince. He also wrote a memoir: The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life (1996).

He said: “The books we enjoy as children stay with us forever — they have a special impact. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, the author must deliver his or her best work.”

It’s the birthday of poet César Vallejo (books by this author), born in Santiago de Chuco, Peru (1892). As a young man, he worked as a miner, and then as a cashier at a sugar plantation that employed slave laborers. He was horrified by the exploitation of poor workers, and he became a socialist.

In 1920, he was at a festival in his hometown — a festival that deteriorated into lootings and arson. He was mistakenly arrested and thrown in jail, and he spent the next four months writing the poetry that would appear in his first major collection, Trilce (1922).

It was on this day in 1850 that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (books by this author) novel The Scarlet Letter was published.

Hawthorne sent the manuscript to his publisher, James Fields, in February of 1850. Fields went to work getting the novel typeset, and he also did what most American publishers did in those days: worked to get a version published in England at the same time. There were no American copyright laws, so it was extremely difficult for American authors to make money on their books. England, on the other hand, did have copyright laws, so if American authors could get a British version published they could make some money there. However, Fields didn’t quite get everything in place by March, so by the time The Scarlet Letter was published in America, there were stolen versions all over Britain.

Fourteen years after The Scarlet Letter was published, Hawthorne had still made less than $2,000 from it. But it was a big seller. The first edition, a run of 2,500 copies, sold out in 10 days. The Scarlet Letter tells the story of the exiled Hester Prynne, who has a child out of wedlock and is forced by the community to wear a large scarlet letter “A” — for “adultery” — on her chest.



Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

A modest proposal: Make today a new day

The beauty of quarantine is that you don’t have to see people you don’t want to see, which simplifies life, just as memory loss does. Life comes down to basics. Sleeping, eating, talking, reading, writing, cooking, doing your business. Days are so quiet that a cup of ginger tea might be a highlight or my wife’s beautiful shoulders where she stands in the kitchen and I put my hands on her, and feel like singing a few lines of Verdi’s “Celeste Aida”. But she’s slicing onions for supper so I don’t. Never sing a big aria to a woman holding a knife, she may forget which opera this is.

In the opera, Aida is locked in a tomb with her lover, Radamès, which is like quarantine but without grocery deliveries and no Zoom. Saturday I did a Zoom chat with fellow workers from back in our touring days, doing shows, and we reminisced about shows in outdoor venues in the rain and the show from Yellowstone where a bison lay down to sleep in front of the satellite dish and the show where squirrels ate the mike cables, the show in Dublin where the audience was completely schnockered.

We won’t be sitting around telling pandemic stories five years from now, stories about sitting on the terrace and looking at the moon, and that’s okay by me. I’m not as interested in stories as I was back in the day. Since January 2017, the nation has seen a thousand fascinating stories out of Washington, each one with the same name in the headline, all of them unbelievable and fascinating, and after three years, a person is exhausted. What remains to happen? Will there be a big statue of him holding a Bible? Will he sign an executive order making the coronavirus go away? Will Jared be put in charge of the Pentagon?

My wife, who I almost sang Verdi to, said a sweet thing the other day. She said, “I wish people would just focus on the future, rather than the past.” I had been saying something about renaming our national capital because George and Martha had 300 slaves, renaming it Emerson after Ralph Waldo who had no slaves and had all his teeth and said smart things, such as “If a man can make a better mousetrap, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” He recommended good books, good friends, and a sleepy conscience. He was in favor of curiosity and science and ambition. All Washington said was “I cannot tell a lie” and that was not true. He was a general who got lucky and caught the British in a trap. Emerson was a philosopher and a poet. If you renamed Washington Emerson, people would start reading him and this would be a far better country.

But she’s right. This country is guilty of mistreating its children. Seventeen million of them struggle to get enough food; malnutrition in the first three years of life can cause enduring problems. Lousy schools limit a child’s prospects for a happy life. Feeding and teaching children are things we know how to do. A sensible society looks after its children, its future. Nothing you do for children is wasted. We can condemn each other for old mistakes, but if we decide that 2021 is a new start and we start looking forward with a clear eye, then we can get somewhere. If Mississippi can finally surrender the Confederacy and take down its flag, there’s hope for the rest of us.

The city of Washington is an object of general scorn and abuse across the land. Let’s wipe the slate clean, rename it Emerson, and restart the idea of good government and common sense. We desperately need his optimism. “Trust thyself,” he said. “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries. Let us not be invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, advancing on Chaos and the Dark.” This year, we’ve seen the worst. Good. Now we know what it is. Now we can rise above it and join forces and work for what should be, equality, justice, prosperity, and good sense.

“Bad times have a scientific value,” he said. “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.” Washington state and all the Washington counties are enough for George. “This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it.” No need to make a statue of Ralph on a horse, just quoting him is good enough.

Some good advice from an old memoirist. Take it.

My advice to you, young people, is to start asking questions of your elders about family history and who did what when and why and don’t stop until you get answers because, though you’re much too cool to be interested in family history now, someday you’ll want to know these things and by that time they will all be dead.

Okay? Read that paragraph over a couple of times to yourself and then go do it.

I’m trying to finish a memoir and I realize now how much I don’t know and I was too busy careering around as my elders began taking the long walk and I didn’t sit down and ask for the story. My elders were self-effacing Midwesterners brought up not to talk about personal things and they kept many secrets from me such as how did the men fall in love with the women and vice versa, they being such righteous folk and sensible and circumspect. Mother came from a family of thirteen, Dad from eight, and when I knew them, they were all settled in comfortable marriages, and what I want to know is what transpired when they were infatuated and savoring sensual moments and looking forward to throwing caution to the wind.

It happened, even in cautious Christian families like mine. I see the pictures of my youthful aunts in their white summer dresses sashaying around the lakes of Minneapolis and I sense adventure and light-heartedness, not wary mothers I knew them as.

I know that my parents met on July 4, 1931, as teenagers at a picnic at the Keillor farm and were crazy about each other but I wish I’d asked them for more details. He was a farmboy, she was a city girl, slender and shy, and they didn’t marry until six years later, it being the Depression and all, but what happened in those six years? I grew up with two parents who held hands and flirted with each other all their long lives and I’m grateful and I want to know how come and there’s nobody left to ask.

I write about my life, the lost world of hitchhiking, which I knew as a kid and got picked up by angry half-drunk men who raged against the government, their bosses, their Army commanders, their wives, and I got a view of life you couldn’t get in school or from the newspaper. It’s gone and so are the downtown department stores of Minneapolis, the smells and bells, the ladies with white gloves who ran the elevators. I went to a state university back when tuition was so cheap you could pay for your education with a part-time low-wage job, no debt, no need to ask your dad for money, and so you were free to make impractical plans such as become a writer of fiction. I came from a fundamentalist family that was wary of higher education and I plunged into campus life and before I knew it I had four close friends, Larry and Barry and Maury and Arnie, all of them Jewish. I did an early-morning radio show back when people listened to radio religiously, before YouTube and Google and InnerTube and Bugle and iPod and pPod and all the other platforms.

It’s all interesting, but it’s the love stories that a person craves. You want to know that you’re descended from passionate irresponsibility, not a business arrangement or a science experiment, but two people mysteriously drawn to each other. My mother’s parents, William and Marian, courted in Glasgow and she was four months pregnant when they married. Their brood of thirteen children testifies to their feelings for each other. Dad’s parents, James and Dora, were twenty years apart in age. He was an old bachelor on the school board and she was a teacher; she boarded with him and his sister. He came to school and helped her clean blackboards and clap erasers and he kissed her and they ran off and got married. They came home in the buggy and he left the horses standing in harness all night, the reins on the ground, as he carried Dora into the house, his sister having disembarked for a house up the road. It’s good to know these things.

Sit your people down and ask questions. The secret of investigative journalism is: ask questions and keep asking — people want to spill the beans, they just need some warming up. Apply the heat. You will thank me for this someday. I won’t be around but you’re welcome.

In mid-June, we look ahead and think big

I’ve now spent three months in a Manhattan apartment with my wife and daughter, a life that is not so different from, say, living in a lighthouse in the Orkneys. We can see tall buildings, some bright lights, helicopters overhead, but it’s not the New York high life I dreamed of growing up in Minnesota. The problem is that I like it just fine. Solitude suits me pretty well. So why am I here?

I look back at dining out and I don’t miss it, two hours in a loud room where waiters with big personalities serve you tiny portions of a dish that includes much too much lentils to be worth $48. I look back at dinner parties and most of them were two hours too long and the conversation felt like a rehash of the Op-Ed page.

In quarantine, you learn that there’s a lot to be said for a fifteen-minute phone conversation with one other person who’s been in lockdown too and is excited by verbal communication with another human being.

I’m not complaining. People have died from the virus, many of them my age (77). I’m a writer, a trade that can be practiced in a lighthouse as well as in New York. I loved working in the reading room of the New York Public Library but sitting in my kitchen in the month of May, I wrote a novel about a small town in Minnesota. It can be done.

I’m a hermit in a cave. My daughter is fully engaged with her social circle via electronics that I, having grown up with a paper tablet and a No. 2 pencil, know zilch about. My wife knows about it and Zooms with people and puts on a mask and walks through Central Park and I, the fragile old guy with underlying conditions and other conditions lying under those, sit in my room and am okay with that. What once was a punishment is now a privilege.

Thanks to a sensible governor, New York has come through the plague reasonably well, but now comes the hard part: do we want to stay?

I came here because in the eighth grade, a teacher handed me a copy of the New Yorker magazine with a story by John Cheever and I loved his writing and loved the magazine, the urbanity, the humor, the curiosity. I once saw John Updike on the downtown Broadway local train, a thrilling experience. I once went to a party at a writer’s that was so wonderful I stayed until 5 a.m. and stood on the street and felt too happy to go home to bed. I bought a notebook at a newsstand and went to a café and sat and wrote and had breakfast. People passing, heading for the subway, the writer deep into invention.

For true New Yorkers, the city is the only place to be. But for a guy who wrote a novel in the back bedroom? I don’t think so. I don’t need to see Times Square and its flashing signs and canyons of glass where rivers of humanity move through, most of them simply for the experience of being in Times Square.

Locked up for three months, I’ve lost interest in the big city. The Orkneys have sandstone cliffs, seal colonies, and the electricity is wind-generated. Exports include beef, whiskey, cheese, and seafood. The climate is mild, thanks to the Gulf Stream. There are sheep and many lighthouses. Surely there would be one that would welcome a lightkeeper.

It sounds wonderful to me, sleeping in a room under the glass dome, the light sweeping over the North Sea, the sense of public service, warning fishermen from the rocks. Being the only novelist on the island. And I’d escape from the heavy burden of being an American, which has become onerous lately. In my Orknitude, I would only be an old man in a tower and a provider of light.

It’s a perfect plan and now all I need to do is convince my wife. I’m looking at her now as she reads the paper. Surely a man with my language skills can sway this woman’s heart. My darling, my love, take my hand, let us speak of things to come. We’ve done New York. Let me tell you of a wonderful place far away. Put your trust in your husband. If, after ten years, you don’t like the island of Graemsay, I promise we’ll move straight back.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, July 1, 2020

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Now and then some statues need replacing

When I heard that the statue of Stonewall Jackson had been pulled down in Richmond, I wondered why it was in Richmond when Stonewall was from North Carolina and made his career in Nashville, then I remembered that in addition to the country singer, there had been a Confederate general.

In fact, the singer had been named for the general, which was no problem in country music in the Fifties. I used to sing a song of his, “Don’t be angry with me, darling, if I fail to understand all your little whims and wishes all the time. Just remember that I’m dumb, I guess, like any foolish man, and my head stays sorta foggy cause you’re mine,” which, in the annals of love poetry, doesn’t rank with “My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June” or “Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night” nor even “Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby,” but still I sang it, I admit, not considering its Confederate connections.

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I’ll spend my twilight years writing comic novels intended to usher people my age into the next world. It’s a high aspiration, ushering. I say, “Exit laughing.”

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I got the mean pandemic blues / Sit in my PJs, don’t wear shoes / Seldom shave, don’t use a comb / Got no job, just work from home.

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The News from Manhattan: Friday, July 3, 2020

Writing a memoir I discover what an antique I am and I try to make light of it, of course, but the world I knew is gone.

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A modest proposal: Make today a new day

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I honestly wonder if I ever need to leave this apartment ever. Big events come to us.

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I loved sitting and admiring Erica Rhodes on Zoom last night from a comedy club in Minneapolis.

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The reason to write a novel is to say what you think in a form that allows enormous freedom — you can put the thoughts in different characters.

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An exciting day, editing galleys and I’m down to the last twenty pages. The end is in sight. An author has to be a tough critic, especially an old one.

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A lovely evening on our New York terrace made even lovelier by the host, 77, arising from his chair, tripping on it, losing his balance, then stumbling over.

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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). 

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