Wednesday

Aug. 22, 2012

Night Creatures

by Jim Harrison

"The horses run around, their feet
are on the ground." In my headlights
there are nine running down the highway,
clack-clacking in the night, swerving
and drifting, some floating down the ditch,
two grays, the rest colorless in the dark.
What can I do for them? Nothing, night
is swallowing all of us, the fences
on each side have us trapped,
the fences tight to the ditches. Suddenly they turn.
I stop. They come back toward me,
my window open to the glorious smell of horses.
I'm asking the gods to see them home.

"Night Creatures" by Jim Harrison, from Songs of Unreason. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Ray Bradbury (books by this author), born in Waukegan, Illinois (1920). He published more than 500 works — novels, stories, plays, and poems — including the novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), about a "fireman" book burner in a world where books and printed material are illegal.

On his 80th birthday, he said: "The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me. The feeling I have every day is very much the same as it was when I was 12." Bradbury died earlier this summer at the age of 91.

It's the birthday of writer Dorothy Parker (books by this author), born Dorothy Rothschild in Long Branch, New Jersey (1893). Her mother died when she was young, and her father remarried a devout Catholic woman whom Parker despised. Parker dropped out of high school when she was 14 and never went back, although she rarely admitted later in life that she had never graduated from high school. She told one reporter: "Because of circumstances, I didn't finish high school. But, by God, I read."

After Parker's stepmother died, she lived alone with her father for many years, taking care of him as his health failed. After he died, she wasn't sure what to do. She found a job playing piano at a dance academy, and decided to try writing some light verse. She sold a poem to Vanity Fair, and the editor liked her so much that he got her a job writing captions at Vogue, which was also owned by Condé Nast. For an underwear layout, she wrote the caption: "From these foundations of the autumn wardrobe, one may learn that brevity is the soul of lingerie, as the Petticoat said to the Chemise." She didn't fit in well with the proper and stylish culture of Vogue, so she went back to Vanity Fair. She worked as the drama critic there while P.G. Wodehouse was on vacation, and she wrote poems and stories for the magazine. She and two of her coworkers — Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood — started the Algonquin Round Table, a group that met daily over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel to play games, write funny poems, and make witty remarks. Their verbal escapades were recorded and printed in the newspaper, and Parker became famous for her witticisms. Members of the Algonquin Round Table were allowed in by invitation only.

Throughout the 1920s, she published poems and reviews — she wrote book reviews for The New Yorker in a column called "Constant Reader." About Beauty and the Beast by Kathleen Norris, she wrote: "I'm much better now, in fact, than I was when we started. I wish you could have heard that pretty crash Beauty and the Beast made when, with one sweeping, liquid gesture, I tossed it out of my twelfth-story window."

In 1934, Parker married her second husband, Alan Campbell, and they moved to Hollywood to work as screenwriters, which they were successful at. At a time when the average screenwriter made about $40 a week, Parker made $2,000 a week. She and her husband were nominated for an Academy Award for the film A Star is Born (1937), and she was nominated again with a co-writer for Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman (1947). She became active in left-wing politics, especially labor unions and the Spanish Civil War. In 1949, she was put on the Hollywood blacklist, and her screenwriting days were over. Parker stopped writing much at all. She wrote bits for radio and occasional pieces for Esquire.

Toward the end of her life, Parker said of the Algonquin Round Table members: "These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days — Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them. It was not legendary. I don't mean that — but it wasn't all that good. There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth."

She died at the age of 73 and left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Annie Proulx (books by this author), born Edna Ann Proulx in Norwich, Connecticut (1935). She said, "Spend some time living before you start writing."

Proulx was in her 50s when she started writing fiction; her first book was a collection of short stories, Heart Songs (1988). When her editor drew up the contract, he asked if he could put in a clause that she might someday write a novel. She said: "I just laughed madly, had not a clue about writing a novel, or even the faintest desire. I thought of myself as a short-story writer. Period, period, period." Five years later, her second novel, The Shipping News (1993), won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

Her books include Accordion Crimes (1996), Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999), and most recently, Bird Cloud: A Memoir (2011).

She said: "What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, 'Write what you know.' It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given. If we write simply about what we know we never grow."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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