Sep. 29, 1998


by Billy Collins


Today's Reading: "Dharma" by Billy Collins from POETRY magazine, August, 1998.

It's the anniversary of the BABI YAR MASSACRE, in 1941. The German Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler sent four specially trained squads into Russia right behind the advancing German tanks and artillery, to round up Soviet Jews and others he termed "undesirables." In Kiev there was a ravine named Babi Yar, into which nearly 30,000 men, women, and children fell after being machine gunned.

It's the birthday of ENRICO FERMI, the physicist who achieved the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, born in Rome, 1901. When he was 33 years old he and his University of Rome colleagues split atoms by bombarding them with neutrons. He won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for that work, and when the Fascist government in Italy allowed him and his wife, who was Jewish, to fly to Sweden to accept the award, they never returned. On December 2, 1942, working in a lab set up in a University of Chicago squash court, Fermi's device, called a nuclear pile, released for the first time a controlled source of energy other than from the sun. The first nuclear device was tested two and a half years later, at Alamogordo Air Base in New Mexico, and a few weeks later the bombs were dropped on Japan.

The British naval hero, HORATIO NELSON, was born on this day in Norfolk, England, 1758. In the climactic naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars off Cape Trafalgar, Spain, on October 21, 1805, Nelson captured the French and Spanish allied fleet, ending Napoleon's quest to rule Europe. Nelson was wounded in that battle and died a few hours later.

It's the birthday of the Spanish writer MIGUEL DE CERVANTES, author of Don Quixote, born just outside Madrid in 1547. He was a sailor in the Spanish fleet off the coast of Greece, when a battle erupted with Turkish ships. Though Spain won the battle, Cervantes was later captured by pirates and sold into slavery. Five years later his family bought his freedom, and Cervantes spent the rest of his days in Seville and Madrid writing. His novel, Don Quixote, completed when he was nearly 60, made him a household name across Europe; the story of the old knight, Don Quixote, who set out on his horse, Rosinante, with Sancho Panza, seeking adventure and falling in love with the peasant Dulcinea.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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