Sunday

Oct. 21, 2012

This is as far as the light
of my understanding
has carried me:
an October morning
a canoe built by hand
a quiet current

above me the trees arc
green and golden
against a cloudy sky

below me the river responds
with perfect reflection
a hundred feet deep
a hundred feet high.

To take a cup of this river
to drink its purple and gray
its golden and green

to see
a bend in the river up ahead
and still
say
yes.

"Midlife" by Julie Cadwallader-Staub. Reprinted with permission of the author.

It's the birthday of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (books by this author), born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England (1772). He was a very ambitious young man, who lectured on religion, wrote journalism, and single-handedly tried to launch his own magazine. But he was exhausting himself and falling into a depression when he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth. They met only briefly in 1795, but they struck up a correspondence and began exchanging poems. Wordsworth encouraged Coleridge to stop writing journalism and focus on poetry, and Coleridge took the advice.

That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge's life. They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together throughout that summer, though Wordsworth preferred to stay on the path while Coleridge liked rough terrain. That winter, they spent several days hiking along the coast, and to pass the time, they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he'd had since he was a kid. It became his masterpiece, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798), the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills a bird. And for the rest of his voyage, he is tormented by sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.

Within a few years of writing "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge's life began to fall apart. He became addicted to opium, which ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He had a habit of starting enormous projects that he could not then finish, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.

His friends hated the fact that he had wasted so much of his talent. They'd all considered him the most brilliant writer and thinker they'd ever known, but he accomplished so little. Near the end of his life, his friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge: "His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged."

It was on this day in 1879 that Thomas Edison finally struck upon the idea for a workable electric light. People had been trying to make electric lights since the 1820s to replace kerosene and gas lamps, but they had chosen the wrong material for the filament: platinum. And Edison tried carbonized cotton thread, carbon filament that worked much better. He later improved the design with a tungsten filament that lasted longer and glowed brighter.

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin (books by this author), born in Berkeley, California (1929). She grew up in a family of academics. Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, was a psychologist and writer. Her father, Alfred Kroeber, was the first person to receive a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University—he's been called the "Dean of American anthropologists." He specialized in researching Native American cultures, and so Ursula grew up with Native American myths.

When she was young, over the course of 10 years, she wrote five novels, none of which were published. Publishers in the 1950s thought her writing was too "remote." So she began to write science fiction and fantasy, and she has been incredibly prolific for the last four decades. She has published more than 100 short stories, 20 novels, 11 children's books, six volumes of poetry, and four volumes of translation. She's best known for her Earthsea books, a fantasy series that takes place in a world populated by wizards and dragons. She also wrote the Hainish Cycle — science fiction novels set in an imaginary universe where the residents are genderless.

An interviewer once asked her advice for writers, and she replied: "I am going to be rather hard-nosed and say that if you have to find devices to coax yourself to stay focused on writing, perhaps you should not be writing what you're writing. And if this lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte. I mean, what is the problem? If writing bores you, that is pretty fatal. If that is not the case, but you find that it is hard going and it just doesn't flow, well, what did you expect? It is work; art is work."

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 »