Nov. 11, 2009

The Hero's Luck

by Lawrence Raab

When something bad happens
we play it back in our minds,
looking for a place to step in
and change things. We should go outside
right now, you might have said. Or:
Let's not drive anywhere today.

The sea rises, the mountain collapses.
A car swerves toward the crowd
you've just led your family into.
We all look for reasons. Luck
isn't the word you want to hear.
What happened had to,

or it didn't. Maybe
the exceptional man can change direction
in midair, thread the needle's eye,
and come out whole. But even the hero
who stands up to chance has to feel
how far the world will bend

until it breaks him. He can see
that day: the unappeasable ocean,
the cascades of stone. A crowd
gathers around his body. He sees that too.
someone is saying: His luck just ran out.
It happens to us all.

"The Hero's Luck" by Lawrence Raab, from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes, (books by this author) born in Panama City in 1928. His father was a Mexican diplomat, and growing up, Carlos moved all over the place—to Brazil, the United States, Argentina, Chile—but every summer he spent in Mexico with his grandmothers, and they were both storytellers. He said, "They were the storehouse of these great tales of migrants, revolution, highway robberies, bandits, love affairs, ways of dressing, eating -- they had the whole storehouse of the past in their heads and their hearts. So this was, for me, very fascinating, this relationship with my two grannies -- the two authors of my books really." And he has written many books, including The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), Terra Nostra (1975), The Old Gringo (1985), and The Campaign (1990). His most recent book available in this country is Happy Families, which was translated into English last year.

He said, "Don't classify me, read me. I'm a writer, not a genre."

It's the birthday of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, (books by this author) born on this day in Moscow in 1821. He was one of seven children, and his father was an alcoholic and treated the children roughly. After his mother died, Fyodor was sent off to private school, then to military school, and when he was a teenager his father died. He went to school and trained to become an army engineer, but after he graduated, he decided to devote his life to writing instead. He wrote a novel, Poor Folk (1846), and showed it to his friend, a poet, who showed it to a famous literary critic, and they went to Dostoevsky's house in the middle of the night and woke him up to tell him that he was a new literary hero.

But his next novel and stories were failures, and he fell out of favor with the Russian literary elite. So he started hanging out with a different crowd, one that had meetings and discussed utopian socialism, and because of that, Dostoevsky was arrested. He spent eight months in solitary confinement, and then he was sentenced to death. He was marched outside to be shot. But as he was waiting for the gun to fire, he was informed that his sentence had been commuted to exile in Siberia. He spent eight years there, four of them doing hard labor, four as a lieutenant. He came back from Siberia with a new commitment to writing, and a new set of religious ideas.

And he went on to write some of the greatest classics of Russian literature, including Notes from Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

He said, "There is no subject so old that something new cannot be said about it."

It's the birthday of the novelist who said: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' […] and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal." That's Kurt Vonnegut, (books by this author) born on this day in Indianapolis (1922).

In 1952, he published a science fiction novel, Player Piano, and published a few more books, but they didn't get noticed much. He couldn't even get a job teaching English at the local community college, and his son remembers that his mom used to go into bookstores and special order her husband's books so that they at least made it onto the bookstore shelves. Cat's Cradle (1963) finally got him some good reviews, but still didn't sell well. He thought maybe he should give up on writing. Then, in 1969, he published Slaughterhouse-Five, and it got rave reviews and went to No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list, and suddenly, he was a famous novelist.

He said: "I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

It's the birthday of Abigail Adams, (books by this author) a First Lady, a president's mother, and a prolific letter-writer. She was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1744. While her husband, John Adams, traveled, first as a judge, then as a diplomat, she stayed at home, taught her children, ran the farm herself, and wrote her husband letters that tell a great deal about American life in the late 18th century.

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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