Jun. 25, 2007


by Tess Gallagher

MONDAY, 25 JUNE, 2007
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Choices" by Tess Gallagher, from Dear Ghosts. © Graywolf Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don't cut that one.
I don't cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

     for Drago Stambuk

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist and essayist George Orwell, (books by this author) born Eric Arthur Blair in Bengal, India (1903). He came from a middle class family, but managed to win a scholarship to a distinguished boarding school, where most of his classmates were upper class kids. He did not fit in at all. He said, "In a world where the prime necessities were money, titled relatives, athleticism, tailor-made clothes, neatly brushed hair, a charming smile, I was no good."

So after school he decided to get as far away from England as possible. He went to live in the English colony of Burma, where he took a job as a member of the Imperial Police. He quit after five years because, he said, "I could not go on any longer serving an imperialism which I had come to regard as very largely a racket."

So he returned to London and decided to become a writer, even though he'd never shown much interest in writing before. He wanted to write about the poor and homeless, so went undercover as a street person, wearing ragged old clothes and living in the slums of East London and Paris, working as a dishwasher. The result was his first book Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). He later told an interviewer that he had chosen to live with the poor in order to get over his guilt at having been part of the British Imperial Police. He said, "I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man's dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants."

Orwell went on to write several novels, but he supported himself largely as a journalist, publishing about four newspaper articles a week, averaging about 200 a year. He considered himself basically a socialist, and much of what he wrote was political commentary. And then he had a life changing experience when he went to cover the Spanish Civil War. In Barcelona, he got to see a communist utopia at work, and he was amazed. He said, "Many of the normal motives of civilized life—snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.—had simply ceased to exist. ... I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for." But in a very short time, the Stalinists began to suppress the other leftist groups, arresting them and censoring newspapers and organizing armed militias.

The experience persuaded him that it wasn't Fascism or Communism that was evil, but simply idealism taken to any extreme. And as World War II broke out, he began to worry that idealism was about to conquer Europe and stamp out any kind of freedom. He was so pessimistic about the future of the world that he found it impossible to write fiction. He took a job with the BBC, and got a chance to witness how governments on all sides of the war were using propaganda to rewrite the history what was happening. So in 1943, Orwell resigned his position at the BBC. He had wanted for years to write a book about his idea that utopias so easily turn into nightmares, so he finally did.

The book was only about 100 pages long, and most of the main characters were talking animals. When he submitted it to publishers in London, they all turned him down. Orwell considered publishing the book himself as a pamphlet, but finally a small publisher picked it up, and when Animal Farm came out in 1945, the book made Orwell famous.

Orwell spent the last years of his life suffering from TB and writing 1984 (1949), about a future in which England has become a totalitarian state run by an anonymous presence known only as Big Brother. It has since been translated into sixty-two languages and has sold tens of millions of copies. Today, critics have estimated that every year one million people read George Orwell for the first time.

It was on this day in 1942 that Dwight D. Eisenhower became the commander of the U.S. troops in Europe. He had been a military man for more than twenty years, but he'd never seen combat. All he'd ever done was train soldiers. He would go on to become supreme commander of the entire Allied Armies in Europe, and he helped plan many of the major offensives during the European theater of the war, including D-Day.

It was on this day in 1950 that North Korea invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War. Most of the actual combat occurred in the first year of the war, but it dragged on and on. Truce negotiations began in 1951 and they were the longest truce negotiations in the history of warfare, lasting two years and seventeen days, with 575 meetings between the opposing sides. Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 on the platform that he would end the war, and when he was elected that's what he did.

The Korean War was the first war the United States had concluded without success. There were no celebrations when it ended. About 37,000 Americans and more than a million Koreans lost their lives. Eisenhower said, "Three years of heroism, frustration, and bloodshed are over."

On this day in 1903, Marie Curie announced her discovery of radium, for which she won her first of two Nobel Prizes.

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 »