Tuesday

May 20, 2008

Looking for a Rest Area

by Stephen Dunn

I've been driving for hours,
it seems like all my life.
The wheel has become familiar,
I turn it

every so often to avoid the end
of my life, but I'm never sure
it doesn't turn me
by its roundness, as women have

by the space inside them.
What I'm looking for
is a rest area, some place where
the old valentine inside my shirt

can stop contriving romances,
where I can climb out of the thing
that has taken me this far
and stretch myself.

It is dusk, Nebraska,
the only bright lights in this entire state
put their fists in my eyes
as they pass me.

Oh, how easily I can be dazzled—
where is the sign
that will free me, if only for moments,
I keep asking.

"Looking for a Rest Area," by Stephen Dunn, from Looking for Holes in the Ceiling. © University of Massachusetts Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Norwegian novelist Sigrid Undset, (books by this author) born in Kalundborg, Denmark (1882). She's best known for her historical novels about medieval Norway, especially the three-volume Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-22) and the four-volume Olav Audunsson (1924).

Her father was an archeologist who specialized in the Middle Ages, and Undset became interested at a young age in medieval history, especially the folktales and myths of Scandinavia. When she was 16, she got a job as a secretary for an engineering company. She worked there for the next 10 years, writing her first novel in her spare time. She finished it when she was 22 years old, but her book wasn't accepted by any publishers. She spent the next two years writing her second novel, and in 1907, Mrs. Marta Oulie was published. Its first line is, "I have been unfaithful to my husband." Critics were outraged, but sales went through the roof, and it wasn't long before she was able to quit her job and devote all of her time to writing.

In the early 1920s, when she was 42 years old, Undset converted to Catholicism. Her family wasn't religious at all, and Norway was almost exclusively Protestant, so becoming a Catholic was a risky and unusual thing to do. But it was around this time that she wrote Kristin Lavransdatter, which is set in the Catholic Norway of the Middle Ages. Its main character is a young woman who is forced to choose between marrying a man she doesn't love and disgracing her family.

Kristin Lavransdatter was a huge success, and in 1928 Undset won the Nobel Prize in literature. When the Nazis gained control of Norway in early 1940, Undset joined the Resistance and moved to Sweden. Eventually she had to flee to the United States, where she made money by giving lectures across the country. She returned to Norway after the war, but she never published another book.

Undset is still one of the most popular writers in Norway today. The Kristin Lavransdatter series was made into a three-hour-long movie in 1995, and more than half the population of Norway bought tickets to see it.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Honoré de Balzac, (books by this author) born in Tours, France (1799). He devoted most of his life to writing a massive series of novels and short stories depicting all aspects of French society in the 19th century — La Comédie Humaine, or The Human Comedy.

He wrote about everyone and everything, about banks, offices, factories, the stock market, the media, and the first commercial advertisements.

Balzac had a huge influence on later 19th-century French novelists like Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. Henry James thought he was the best novelist of all time, and Willa Cather once said, "If one is not a little mad about Balzac at twenty, one will never live." Today, Balzac is rarely studied in American schools. Even in France, Balzac's novels are outsold by writers like Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and Collette.

Balzac said, "All happiness depends on courage and work."

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 »