The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, September 14, 2020


Church Mothers
by Jacinta V. White

women in white dresses surround
me after service like absent mothers
longing for baby’s return to their breasts

      rejoicing—prayers for a daughter’s return are answered—
      while they wait in line to tell me
      they knew my folks, and how they knew me

young, in pigtails and knee-highs, they
remind me when I was not yet full
of the life I now hold

      behind my eyes
      pain taking up space
      I thought no one could see

women, gray curls spiraling from beneath
their cloth hats, twist both my arms in theirs
take her to the altar one says to the other

      I am caught up in their strength
      speechless and well-taught to not
      resist this kind of salvation

we fall to our knees
caught by a purple, velvet cloud
and wooden rails

      blood and water sprinkled on my forehead
                     forgive they firmly whisper
      their breath on each of my cheeks

say you forgive

 

“Church Mothers” by Jacinta V. White, from Resurrecting the Bones. Press 53 © 2019. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


On this day in 1320Dante (books by this authordied from malaria, just months after completing Paradiso, the third and final part of Divine Comedy.

The Italian poet died in exile from his beloved city of Florence after supporting a failed challenge to the pope’s authority. Dante had been a member of the White Party, which wanted the city to remain independent from the influence of the Vatican, but the Black Party wanted to form an alliance with the pope. Dante had tried to help work out a compromise to avoid any real conflict. He traveled to Rome to negotiate with Pope Boniface about the situation, but while he was there, the Blacks launched an uprising and took over the city of Florence. Dante was actually on his way home when he got the news that he had been banished from the city. The government announced that Dante would be buried alive if he ever set foot in Florence again.

Stripped of his wealth, Dante retreated from politics and spent the rest of his life wandering from city to city in northern and central Italy, estranged from his wife and kids and often living in poverty. His only solace during his exile was writing, and sometime around 1308, he started work on his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, and he spent the rest of his life working on it. He chose to write the poem in colloquial Italian rather than Latin, which had been the language for Western literature for more than a thousand years. At the time, Italian society was fractured and politically unstable, and Dante believed that a common literary language would help bring unity to the country. It was also the first epic poem in Western literary history in which the author served as the main character.

Dante had hoped that the success of his poem would be so great that he would be invited back to his home city, but he wasn’t. Just before his death, his children visited him in Ravenna; it was the first time he had seen them since he left Florence almost 20 years before. He died a few years later on this date in 1320.

In the years after his death, the influence of Dante’s work helped establish Italian as a serious literary language worldwide. His hometown of Florence came to regret having banished him and requested that his remains be transferred back for burial. But it wasn’t until 2008 that the city officially rescinded his sentence of perpetual exile.


George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio on this date in 1741. Librettist Charles Jennens had finished the text in July, and he handed it off to Handel with great expectations. He wrote to a friend, “I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject.” Handel worked at a furious pace, doing nothing else but composing from morning to night, and completed the oratorio in only 24 days.

Messiah tells the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. It was originally written for the Easter season, and it debuted in Dublin at a charity concert the following April. The event attracted 700 people; to accommodate such a crowd, gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home, and ladies were requested to remove the hoops from their skirts. The Dublin News-Letter reported that Messiah “far surpass[ed] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom.”

It remained one of Handel’s favorite works for the rest of his life, and grew to become a beloved holiday favorite — but at Christmastime, rather than Easter.


It’s the birthday of essayist Barbara Harrison (books by this author), born Barbara Grizzuti in Brooklyn, New York (1934). She grew up with an abusive father, but when she was nine years old, she and her mother became Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she spent the rest of her childhood evangelizing. When she was 19, she went to live in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. She gave up the faith three years later and got a job as a secretary. She started writing journalism on the side, and in 1978, more than 20 years later, she came out with Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the book, she described how she struggled with her memories of the Witnesses, because they had been controlling and oppressive but also tremendously kind and courageous. She went on to write several more books of essays before her death in 2002, including Off Center (1980) and The Astonishing World (1992).

 

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

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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

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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.

Something I would’ve said in June, had I been asked

I gave my love an Italian cookbook Saturday and she cut the plastic off it and opened it and found recipes for leg of kid, eel, pork liver, braised snout, sweet-and-sour snout, and I could tell that we will be eating vegan for the foreseeable future. I was just finishing up a nice helping of short ribs and she gave me a moralistic look, the sort you might give a cannibal if there were one around. And yet—who in this household is worried about high cholesterol? Not me, the butcher boy. The Queen of Greens, that’s who. Thus once more we discover the fundamental unfairness of life. The good are punished while the wicked get off scot-free.

My favorite breakfast is a sirloin steak with two fried eggs. I’m only a writer at a desk but that meal makes me feel like a stevedore looking ahead to a day on the docks running a forklift. I feel young and strong. Then I sit down at the laptop and taptaptap for a while. Meanwhile, my love eats her steel-cut oatmeal and goes for a run in the park and worries about cholesterol.

I’ve been the beneficiary of injustice for many years. I was an indifferent student and slogged through useless humanities courses and read Kafka and Camus and wrote papers about existentialism, which was all the rage back then and which nobody knew what it was exactly nor even approximately, which allowed an ignorant twerp to write inscrutable term papers about it, meanwhile the best and the brightest were studying engineering or medicine or law and forging ahead, and I, because I have a somber face and no social skills, went into radio during a boom period, and they became serfs in tall buildings in fast-moving fields (especially engineering) where obsolescence set in around age thirty-five, and I did a radio show that, because it was nostalgic, defied change, and thus did the turtle outrun a great many hares.

The plague struck in March. All of the gifted artists I knew—musicians, actors, comedians—were out of work, whereas I, the writer of homely tropes and truisms, was busier than ever. Like most introverts, I enjoyed the pandemic to the utmost.

Life is unfair. This is what the Class of 2020 should’ve been told at commencement, if there had been one. They don’t need to hear about marching to a different drummer and lighting a candle and making a difference in the world because it’s the only one we have. That is a bowl of chicken wieners in canned beans in instant gravy.

No, they need to be told that they got a third-rate education and they need to toughen themselves up so they can blow up the gates and take over the world and seize from their greedy boomer parents a fair share of the national wealth. Manufacturing is dying: everything’s made in China. The farms are industrialized. The arts? Ha! You get paid in candy wrappers and bottle caps. Your future gets more limited every day. The rules are rigged and the country is at war with itself and people are stupefied by Twitter and Facebook and it’s time to storm the barricades.

The problem with revolution, though, is that life is unfair. The revolutionaries who go to the barricades never get to enjoy the rewards. Their grandchildren do.

Revolutionaries get into bitter feuds with fellow radicals and wind up in jail or exile, embittered by a long string of betrayals. Meanwhile, billionaires live in fear of losing the mansion and the grounds, the heated pool, the staff at the ready to satisfy your every whim, if only you had a whim, but billionaires don’t have time for whimsy. It’s a hard life on both sides of the battle. So skip it. Just declare victory and go live your life.

School can’t teach you to be independent so teach yourself. If you can be happy alone, then you’ve got a good start. Try sitting in a boat on water with nobody else around, or sit in the yard the morning after a rain, or walk in the woods at dusk. Fall is coming, when the world is gorgeous to all of the senses. Let your soul breathe; experience buoyancy without spending money. Once you learn to be good company for yourself, you’ve achieved the revolution and earned a fortune. Then you can go on to the next step, which is coming in out of the rain, and lying down in the bed you have made.

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A Prairie Home Companion: 2005 Opener

A Prairie Home Companion: 2005 Opener

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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

Read More

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

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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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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