Mar. 4, 2010


by Stephen Dobyns

How calm is the spring evening, and the water
barely a ripple. My son stands at the edge
tossing in pebbles, then jumping back. He knows
that someplace out there lies Europe, and he points
to an island to ask if it is France. Here
on this beach my neighbor died, a foolish man.
He had fought with his daughter, his only child,
about her boyfriend and came here to cool off
when his heart stopped. Another neighbor found him
and thought him asleep, so relaxed did he seem.
He had helped me with my house, gave me advice
on painting, plastering. For this I thank him.
As I worked, we discussed our plans, how he wished
his daughter to go to the best schools, become
a scientist or engineer. I said how
I meant to settle down and make my life here—
My son asks me about the tide, why the water
doesn't keep coming up the street to wipe out
the house where he lives alone with his mother.
Is he scared, should I console him? Should I say
that if I controlled the tide I would destroy
that house for certain? Our plans came to nothing
and now, a year later, I'm just a visitor
in my son's life. We walk down to the water,
pause, and look out at the world. How big is it?
he asks me. Bigger every day, I answer.

"Cecil" by Stephen Dobyns, from Cemetery Nights. © Penguin Group, 1987. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

It's the birthday of English novelist Alan Sillitoe, (books by this author) born in Nottingham, England (1928). He worked at a series of factory jobs, and got to know writer Robert Graves who suggested he write about his hometown of Nottingham. He did, and the result was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958).

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) wrote a letter to his publisher saying he'd just finished a new book — The Old Man and the Sea.

It's the birthday of Khaled Hosseini, (books by this author) born in Kabul (1965), author of the runaway best-selling novel The Kite Runner (2003), which has sold more than 12 million copies around the world.

He's the son of a diplomat, and his affluent family immigrated to the United States around the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, receiving political asylum as members of Afghanistan's government were being executed. They landed in San Jose, California, when Khaled was 12 with nearly nothing.

His diplomat father found work as a driving instructor in San Jose, and the family was forced to go on welfare. Khaled deferred his childhood dream of being a writer, feeling like he had to have a career that guaranteed a healthy income. So he went to medical school, made it through his residency, and had settled into a job as an internist when he began to think about writing again. He got up at 5 every morning so he could write for two hours before he went to the hospital. He wrote about his memories of Afghanistan, which were all good; they'd made it out of the country just before the Soviet invasion. He wrote a story about a friendship between an eight-year-old boy, the son of an Afghan diplomat, and one of the family's servants, an illiterate man from an ethnic minority group. The young prosperous son teaches the servant to read and write, and the servant teaches the child to fly kites.

When the book was all written and in the publisher's hands, he took a trip back to Kabul, for the first time in 27 years. When he'd left, it was a thriving affluent cosmopolitan city, but it had since spent decades in war. He knew it would be bad, but what he found was even worse than he expected. He walked the streets of his old hometown, now ravaged by war and with burqa-clad women and children all over the streets begging for money, people paralyzed by shrapnel, prevailing destitution and despair. He said, "I felt like a tourist in my own country."

He said that because his first book had been so phenomenally successful and expectations were so high, with a book contract and anxious publishers and booksellers, he had a bit of a hard time getting started on the writing of his second book. He was plagued by self-doubt about his literary capabilities and whether he could measure up to his debut success. He said that he has "this almost pathological fear of boring the reader." But eventually he found his way into the rhythm of the story, and into the inner lives of his characters. His second novel is a more ambitious book then his first, with lots of main characters, not at all autobiographical, multigenerational, and told from alternating points of view of two female narrators, their thoughts intertwined with a historical narrative of Afghanistan's past three decades. The women weren't based on anyone he knew, exactly, though were inspired by stories of people he'd encountered on his trip to Kabul. To get into his protagonists' mindset, he even tried on a burqa when no one was around, "just to see what it felt like." He said, "It steals your breath away. It's really hard to get used to."

A Thousand Splendid Suns, the story narrated by Afghani women Mariam and Laila, was published in mid-2007. The book was also hugely successful and was Britain's best-selling book in 2008. The title is an English translation from a 17th-century poem in Farsi; the Persian poet had written verses describing the splendor he'd experienced upon journeying to Kabul.

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 »