Nov. 8, 2009

The Sacred

by Stephen Dunn

After the teacher asked if anyone had
    a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
    said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he'd chosen, and others knew the truth
    had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
    the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
    and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
    in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

"The Sacred" by Stephen Dunn, from Between Angels. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1912, George Bernard Shaw (books by this author) wrote the following letter to English actress Stella Campbell:

Stella, Stella
Shut your ears tight against this blarneying Irish liar and actor. Read no more of his letters. He will fill his fountain pen with your heart's blood, and sell your most sacred emotions on the stage. … He is treacherous as only an Irishman can be: he adores you with one eye and sees you with the other as a calculated utility. He has been recklessly trying to please you, to delight you, to persuade you to carry him up to heaven for a moment (he is trying to do it now); and when you have done it, he will run away and give it all to the mob. … Oh dont, dont, DONT fall in love with him; but dont grudge him the joy he finds in being in love with you, and writing all sorts of wild but heartfelt exquisite lies — lies, lies, lies, lies — to you, his adoredest.

In 1914, Stella Campbell played the role of Eliza Doolittle in Shaw's play Pygmalion when it made its London debut. He'd written the play several years earlier — for her, specifically — but the London production was held up due to injuries she sustained in a car accident. So Pygmalion first opened in Vienna in 1913, in a German version that Shaw translated himself. When Campbell played Eliza Doolittle on opening night in London, she was 49 years old.

The correspondence between Stella (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) and Shaw lasted for 40 years, from 1899 to 1939.

It's the birthday of Indian novelist Raja Rao, (books by this author) born in Hassan, in southern India (1909). His native language was Kanarese, but he wrote all of his books in English. He grew up going to Muslim schools in India, majored in history and English, and moved to France at 19 to study at the Sorbonne.

At the time, India was still under British colonial rule, and Rao was one of the first Indian writers to try to capture with the English language the rhythm of Indian life. One critic noted that he "commandeered the language of the colonizer to represent the experience of the colonized."

He wrote his first novel, Kanthapura (1938), when he was only 21 years old. Rao's works include the short-story collection The Cow of the Barricades (1947), a biography of Gandhi, as well as the novels The Cat and Shakespeare (1965), The Policeman and the Rose (1978), and The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988). In the 1960s, he began teaching Indian philosophy at the University of Texas, and he remained in Austin until he died in 2006 at the age of 97.

He said, "Writing is my dharma."

It's the birthday of the woman who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1897). She started out as a journalist, and later she became an activist. She said, "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell, (books by this author) born in Atlanta (1900). Growing up, she always tried to be at the center of attention. She said, "If I were a boy, I would try for West Point, if I could make it; or, well, I'd be a prize fighter — anything for the thrills." She had many suitors when she was young. She fell in love with a man who went to fight in World War I, and he never returned. Then in 1922, she married a man named Berrien Upshaw. He was a cruel and violent husband, and the marriage ended after two years.

Around the same time, she began writing feature stories for an Atlanta newspaper. She got the job when she lied to the editor, saying she was a "speed demon" on a typewriter. She traveled all over the city, writing about rodeos, beauty contests, summer camps, hospitals, and prison cells. She also wrote for a gossip column called "Elizabeth Bennett." Mitchell remarried a few years later, and in 1926 she developed a terrible pain in her ankle. She couldn't walk, so she had to quit her job and stay in her apartment. She passed the time reading books. After it seemed like she'd read everything in the library, she decided to try to write a book herself. She wrote Gone With the Wind, starting with the last chapter. The book tells the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a woman born on a plantation who loses everything after the Civil War.

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
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