Sep. 24, 2001

My Life Before I Knew It

by Lawrence Raab

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Poem: “My Life Before I Knew It,” by Lawrence Raab from The Probable World (Penguin Poets).

My Life Before I Knew It

I liked rainy days
when you didn't have to go outside and play.
At night I'd tell my sister
there were snakes under her bed.
When I mowed the lawn I imagined being famous.
Cautious and stubborn, unwilling to fail,
I knew for certain what I didn't want to know.

I hated to dance. I hated baseball,
and collected airplane cards instead.
I learned to laugh at jokes I didn't get.
The death of Christ moved me,
but only at the end of Ben Hur.
I thought Henry Mancini was a great composer.

My secret desire was to own a collie
who would walk with me in the woods
when the leaves were falling
and I was thinking about writing the stories
that would make me famous.

Sullen, overweight, melancholy,
writers didn't have to be good at sports.
They stayed inside for long periods of time.
They often wore glasses. But strangers
were moved by what they accomplished
and wrote them letters. One day

one of those strangers would introduce
herself to me, and then
the life I'd never been able to foresee
would begin, and everything
before I became myself would appear
necessary to the rest of the story.

It’s the birthday of writer and illustrator Alexis deVeaux, born in New York City (1948), an inner-city writing teacher and community worker. He is the author of  Na-ni, a story about a poor Harlem child whose dream of a new bicycle is dashed when the family’s welfare check is stolen.

It’s the birthday of author (Woodrow) Wilson Rawls, born in Scraper, Oklahoma (1913). There were no schools in Scraper, so his mother taught her family at home as best she could. Rawls grew up wanting to be a writer like Jack London, but he was ashamed of his poor grammar and spelling, and one day in a fit of despair he burned his first five book manuscripts that he’d stored away in a trunk. His wife encouraged him to rewrite some of what he’d destroyed, so he wrote non-stop for three weeks, creating 35 thousand words, which became the book Where the Red Fern Grows (1961), which was successful along with his second book, Summer of the Monkeys (1976). He said, “If you want to be a writer, you start writing and keep writing. Someday you will make it if you don’t give up.”

It’s the birthday of F(rancis) Scott Fitzgerald, born in St. Paul (1896),  named for his distant relative, Francis Scott Key. As a boy he always wanted to write, and he wrote in the backs of his schoolbooks and in the margins of his math papers. He also tried writing musical comedy his freshman year at Princeton. He wrote an operetta for the Triangle Club and said, “To do this I failed in algebra, trigonometry, coordinate geometry and hygiene. But the Triangle Club accepted my show, and by tutoring all through a stuffy August, I managed to come back a sophomore and act in it, as a chorus girl.”  He flunked out of Princeton, joined the army, then became an advertising man in New York City at $90 a month. He returned to St. Paul and wrote This Side of Paradise (1920), which became a bestseller, and he and his wife became famous as Scott and Zelda, symbols of the Jazz Age of the 1920s. He was the author of The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender is the Night (1934). Despite his fame, Fitzgerald’s books did not sell all that well, and he spent lavishly to support their life and his alcoholism and the treatment of Zelda’s mental illness. He died of a heart attack at 44 before completing his final novel, The Last Tycoon (1941). He once said, “All good writing is swimming under the water and holding your breath.”

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  • “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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