Aug. 8, 2009

Passing the Spot

by Robert Winner

I pass the spot where I almost died
in a car crash; it happened fast—
a stick turned into a snake.

Our arms and hands pulled us out of it,
our body cells wanting to live
while our minds' dumb generals
slept at headquarters.

How easy it was to meet and talk with her—
the other driver, our sideswiped cars
askew at the roadside, moored in grass.
It was gentle, intimate:
we were brother and sister

conspiring against dying.
The heart took a deeper breath.
We knew ourselves one
with the sparrows and flies,

and the red-haired trooper
who wrote our information in his notebook.
The trees looked new, and her face
I was almost in love with:
young, incredibly interesting.

"Passing the Spot" by Robert Winner, from The Sanity of Earth and Grass. © Tilbury House, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of journalist Randy Shilts, born in Davenport, Iowa (1951). He was one of the first mainstream journalists to cover the gay community and the early spread of AIDS. Randy Shilts said, "I view my role in life as writing stories that wouldn't get written unless I [write] them."

It's the birthday of essayist, short-story writer and novelist Elizabeth Tallent, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1954). Tallent began writing short stories and sold her first one, "Ice" (1980), to The New Yorker. Two years later, she published her first work of nonfiction, Married Men and Magic Tricks: John Updike's Erotic Heroes (1982). She continued writing fiction too, publishing short stories in various periodicals and in a collection called Constant Flight (1983). Her first novel, Museum Pieces (1985), takes place largely in the basement of an archeologist's New Mexico museum.

It was on this day in 1946 that Harold Ross wrote a memo about John Hersey's Hiroshima story that began "A very fine piece beyond any question; got practically everything. This will be … the classic piece on what follows a bomb dropping for a long time to come."

It was exactly one year and two days after the U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima (the bomb was dropped August 6th, 1945) and The New Yorker was devoting an entire August issue to John Hersey's reporting. Hersey had been one of the first Western reporters to arrive in Hiroshima. To document the aftermath, he decided to write about how individual persons were affected, and he focused his stories on the lives of six people in Hiroshima at the time of the explosion.

The memo that Harold Ross wrote on this day was addressed to Joseph Wigglesworth, The New Yorker staff member whose job it was to compile the query sheets from various editors at the magazine on any given piece. Harold Ross had a reputation for turning in funny, quirky query sheets — and lengthy ones, too. For Hersey's Hiroshima article, Ross had written several hundred questions and observations. In the memo, he admitted, "I probably read it over-zealously."

Ross wrote: "There is, I think, one grave lack in this piece. It may be Hersey's intention that there be. If so, ask consideration for what I say anyhow. All the way through I wondered about what killed these people, the burns, falling debris, the concussion — what? For a year I've been wondering about this and I eagerly hoped this piece would tell me. It doesn't. Nearly a hundred thousand dead people are around but Hersey doesn't tell how they died. Would it be possible — if so, would be wise — to tell on Galley 7 where he gives the one hundred thousand people, how many were killed by being hit by hard objects, how many by burns, how many by concussion, or shock, or whatever it was?"

In the final version that was published, Hersey wrote: "Many people who did not die right away came down with nausea, headache, diarrhea, malaise, and fever, which lasted several days. Doctors could not be certain whether some of these symptoms were the result of radiation or nervous shock. … The doctors realized in retrospect that even though most of these dead had also suffered from burns and blast effects, they had absorbed enough radiation to kill them. The rays simply destroyed body cells — caused their nuclei to degenerate and broke their walls."

Harold Ross suggested mentioning the vomiting earlier and describing it more thoroughly. Ross also wrote "I would suggest that Hersey might do well to tuck up on the time — give the hour and minute, exactly or roughly, from time to time. The reader loses all sense of the passing of time in the episodes and never knows what time of day it is, whether ten a.m. or four p.m."

John Hersey's piece appeared a few weeks later, in The New Yorker's last issue of August. Hersey would later say, "What has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence, in the sense of fear of specific weapons, so much as it's been memory. The memory of what happened at Hiroshima."

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 »