Dec. 5, 2010
Notes from the Delivery Room
victim in an old comic book,
I have been here before,
this place where pain winces
off the walls
like too bright light.
Bear down a doctor says,
foreman to sweating laborer,
but this work, this forcing
of one life from another
is something that I signed for
at a moment when I would have signed anything.
Babies should grow in fields;
common as beets or turnips
they should be picked and held
root end up, soil spilling
from between their toes—
and how much easier it would be later,
returning them to earth.
Bear up ... bear down ... the audience
grows restive, and I'm a new magician
who can't produce the rabbit
from my swollen hat.
She's crowning, someone says,
but there is no one royal here,
just me, quite barefoot,
greeting my barefoot child.
It's the birthday of John Berendt, (books by this author) born in Syracuse, New York (1939), the author of the blockbuster best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994). He majored in English at Harvard, worked for Esquire magazine in New York, and in the 1980s began visiting Savannah often, at first because he could get cheap weekend flights there from New York. He became fascinated with the place, saying he was drawn to the city's "penchant for morbid gossip," which he explained like this:
"People in Savannah don't say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on her coat.' Instead, they say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on the coat that her third husband gave her before he shot himself in the head."
In 1985, he moved to Savannah to write a book about it, though he didn't have a contract. He wanted to be able to write at his own pace, without the pressures of a deadline or advance. It took him seven years to write. When he was done he sent the manuscript to his agent in New York — not a publisher — and his own agent rejected the story, saying that it was "too local." But he himself was sure that it was at least publishable, so he gave the manuscript to a different agent, who loved it, and sent it off to five different publishers — all of whom made offers within three days. After publication in January 1994, the book spent 216 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
Berendt said: "When I'm writing, I like to gain distance from my work so I can tell how it will strike a reader who is seeing it for the first time. I do this through a trick I devised while I was living in Savannah writing Midnight — I would call my apartment in New York, the answering machine would pick up, I'd read the page of text I'd just written, then I'd hang up. A minute later, I'd call my apartment again and listen to the "message." Hearing my own voice reading the page over the phone — my voice having traveled 1,800 miles (900 each way ) — gave me just the detached perspective I needed."
His advice to aspiring writers:
"Keep a diary, but don't just list all the things you did during the day. Pick one incident and write it up as a brief vignette. Give it color, include quotes and dialogue, shape it like a story with a beginning, middle and end — as if it were a short story or an episode in a novel. It's great practice. Do this while figuring out what you want to write a book about. The book may even emerge from within this running diary."
It's the birthday of novelist Lydia Millet, (books by this author) born in Boston (1968) and raised in Canada, the daughter of an Egyptologist and an editor. She spent a lot of her early 20s dabbling in academia, attended some master's programs, and worked as the copy editor of Hustler magazine, which she said was funny, ugly, and more educational than her time in graduate school. At 27, she published her first novel, a satire-filled work called Omnivores (1996).
And then she wrote the novel My Happy Life (2002) — which earned her the PEN/USA Fiction Prize — and the novels Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005), Everyone's Pretty (2005), and How the Dead Dream (2008). Her most recent book, a collection of short stories called Love in Infant Monkeys (2009), was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. The Publishers Weekly blog lists Lydia Millet as one the "top 15 Underrated Writers."
She lives in Tucson, where in addition to writing fiction she works at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, editing and writing press releases and annual reports and other materials about endangered species. She said, "My life is all taken up with animals."
Her book My Happy Life, narrated by a woman abandoned in a decaying psychiatric hospital, begins:
"The door is locked from the outside; they went away and forgot me. It is not
difficult: many times I have almost forgotten myself.
Because the world is full. It is teeming with us.
What happened was, the last one who remembered me was gone. It was Jim the night orderly, who faded away. And then the others left too. They closed the hospital and left me in this room, which was locked. And is still.
The swinging ball has not yet come. I think the building is waiting. Sometimes I think that I hear it sigh, like an old dog sleeping.
So now I seem to be alone. That is, if any-one saw me, they would take me for alone.
But I am not alone. I have you.
And aloneness is only a ghost. It likes to seep through cracks, at night or in the winter. But there are no cracks here. Here I feel sewn up, surrounded by substance like a nut in velvet or an eye in a sock. The room is seamless and all over my skin, enclosing. To keep me company, I have both dreams and memories.
Excuse me: if I could open the door I would leave, certainly."
From the archives:
It's the birthday of Calvin Trillin, (books by this author) born in Kansas City, Missouri (1935), who started out working for the religion section of Time magazine, which he did not like. He said, "I finally got out of that by prefixing everything with 'alleged.' I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go."
In 1967, Trillin began writing a regular column for The New Yorker magazine called "U.S. Journal," which he saw as a chance to write about ordinary people who didn't usually get covered in the national press. As a result of traveling so much Trillin began eating in a variety of local restaurants, and at a time when most food writers focused on gourmet food from France, Trillin wrote about barbecue ribs in the Midwest. His first collection of food writing was American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater (1974), in which he declared that the top four or five restaurants in the world are in Kansas City.
His recent books include Tepper Isn't Going Out (2001), Feeding a Yen (2003), About Alice (2006), and Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (2008).
It's the birthday of the essayist and novelist Joan Didion, (books by this author) born in Sacramento, California (1934). She grew up as a nervous, preoccupied child. She said, "I was one of those children who always thought the bridge would fall in if you walked across it. ... I thought about the atomic bomb a lot ... after there was one." At one point in her childhood, she lived near a mental hospital, and she would wander around the hospital grounds with a notebook, writing down all the most interesting snippets of conversation she heard.
She made her name as a journalist in the 1960s even though she always said she wasn't suited for the job. She said: "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. ... Writers are always selling somebody out."
Her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), about her grief following the death of her husband, won the National Book Award.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®