Nov. 18, 2000

The Small Cabin

by Margaret Atwood

Broadcast date: SATURDAY, 18 November 2000

Poem: “The Small Cabin,” by Margaret Atwood, from Selected Poems 1965-1975, (Houghton Mifflin).

The house we built gradually
from the ground up when we were young
(three rooms, the walls
raw trees) burned down
last year          they said

I didn't see it, and so
the house is still there in me

among branches as always     I stand
inside it looking out
at the rain moving across the lake

but when I go back
to the empty place in the forest
the house will blaze and crumple
suddenly in my mind

collapsing like a cardboard carton
thrown on a bonfire, summers
crackling, my earlier
selves outlined in flame.

Left in my head will be
the blackened earth: the truth.

Where did the house go?

Where do the words go
when we have said them?

It's the birthday of poet, novelist, story writer and essayist, Margaret Atwood, born in Ottawa, Canada (1939). Her father was a forest entomologist, and she grew up in a log cabin in a remote area of Northwestern Québec. Her novels include Surfacing (1972), The Handmaid's Tale (1985), The Robber Bride (1993) and Alias Grace (1996).

"I became a poet at the age of sixteen. I did not intend to do it. It was not my fault. My hair darkened overnight, my nose lengthened, I gave up football for the cello, my clothes changed colour in the closet, all by themselves, from pink to black. I stopped humming the songs from Oklahoma and began quoting Kirkegaard..”

It's the birthday songwriter Johnny Mercer, born in Savannah, Georgia, (1909). Although he never learned to read music, he was one of the most versatile and prolific songwriters of the last century. A beautician named Sadie Vimmerstedt once sent him a line written in pencil on a scrap of paper: "I want to be around to pick up the pieces when somebody's breaking your heart." He wrote words and music around it and listed Mrs. Vimmerstedt as co-author. After Tony Bennett made it a hit (1963), she collected $3,000 a year in royalties.

It's the birthday of English playwright and humorist W. S. Gilbert, born in London (1836). He was 34 when he met Sir Arthur Sullivan, and they started working together the following year. As “Gilbert and Sullivan,” they produced a string of comic operas including The Pirates of Penzance (1879), H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Mikado (1885) and The Yeomen of the Guard (1888).

On this day in 1820, Antarctica was discovered by 21-year-old U.S. Navy Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer. Palmer had been the captain of his own ship, the schooner Galina, for two years a boat that he kept taking deeper into the South Sea looking for seals to hunt. He came across a broad, mountainous stretch of southern Antarctica that's now named for him, Palmer Land. Like the rest of Antarctica, it's buried in about 7,000 feet of ice.

It's the birthday of Louis Jacques Daguerre, born at Cormeilles in Normandy (1789), inventor of the first practical process of photography. The first photographs had been taken by a Frenchman named Nicephor Niepce in 1816. But it took eight hours exposure time and Niepce was only able to partially fix that image. Working with iodized silver plates and mercury, Daguerre got the exposure time down to 20 minutes. The process was named for him, and by 1850 there were over 70 daguerreotype studios in New York City alone.

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
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »