Thursday

Nov. 1, 2012

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

"X" by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir. © Counterpoint, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is All Saints' Day, and Pope Julius II chose this day in 1512 to display Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. It took Michelangelo four years to complete the paintings that decorate the ceiling of the chapel. The paintings are of scenes from the Old Testament, including the famous center section, "The Creation of Adam." The chapel itself was built about 25 years earlier, and various Renaissance painters were commissioned to paint frescos on the walls.

Michelangelo was 33 years old at the time, and he tried to point out to the pope that he was a sculptor, and not really a painter, but the pope wouldn't listen. Michelangelo used his skills as a sculptor to make the two-dimensional ceiling look like a series of three-dimensional scenes — a technique that was relatively new at the time. It took him four years to finish the job, between 1508 and 1512. He worked from a scaffold 60 feet above the floor, and he covered about 10,000 square feet of surface. Every day, fresh plaster was laid over a part of the ceiling and Michelangelo had to finish painting before the plaster dried.

The German writer Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "We cannot know what a human being can achieve until we have seen [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel]."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1871). As a young man, he considered becoming a professional baseball player. He played catcher on his prep school team. At the time, baseball catchers wore almost no protective gear, and the catcher's mitt was basically a gardening glove with a little extra padding. Stephen Crane became famous within his prep school league for being able to catch anything, even barehanded. One of his teammates said, "He played baseball with fiendish glee."

Crane had started cutting classes to spend all his time in New York City, and he was fascinated by what he found there. He began writing for New York City tabloids while he was still a teenager. His first novel was Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). Booksellers wouldn't stock it, so he gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest. He said, "I cannot see why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment."

Then, after reading a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers, Crane decided to write a Civil War story himself. The result was his novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the story of Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment, hoping to experience the glory of battle that he's read about in school.

The Red Badge of Courage made him famous. It was called the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one could believe that its author was a twenty-four year old who'd never been in battle himself. Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane; they'd fought beside him in various Civil War battles. When the writer Hamlin Garland asked him how he'd conveyed the battlefield scenes so vividly, Stephen Crane said he'd just drawn on his own experience as an athlete.

Crane spent the rest of his life working as a war correspondent. On New Year's Eve in 1896, he was on a boat to Cuba to cover the Spanish American War when the boat hit a sandbar and sank. He barely survived in a small dingy with three other men and spent 30 hours at sea, eventually jumping ship and swimming to shore. The event damaged his health and contributed to his death of TB a few years later at the age of twenty-eight, but it also inspired his short story "The Open Boat" (1898).

It's the birthday of the playwright A.R. Gurney (books by this author), born Albert Ramsdell Gurney Jr. in Buffalo, New York (1930). In the Buffalo of his youth, the theater was the center of town, and both of his grandmothers had season tickets to the theater. But none of his cousins would agree to go with their grandmas, so he went every Sunday, and he loved it. He decided that he wanted to be an artist of some sort, and when he was eight years old, he made a formal announcement at the family dinner table that he would not be going into his father's business.

His first major off-Broadway play was called The David Show, a satire of 1960s culture and politics, using characters from the Old Testament. It opened off-Broadway in 1968. Gurney was teaching at M.I.T. at the time, and on opening night a bunch of his students threw him a party — they brought him cake and a jug of wine. But then the play got totally panned by the New York Times critic Clive Barnes. He wrote, "We leave the smooth nothingness of Mr. Gurney's play with its empty intellectual beaches and gently lapping waters of inconsequentiality." It closed after only one night. Gurney was so distraught that he didn't want to go back and face his students, but they brought in another jug of wine and told him to stick it out.

He has gone on to write more than 40 plays, plus one-acts, a libretto, and three novels. His plays include Scenes from American Life (1971), Love Letters (1989), Sylvia (1995), and most recently, Heresy (2012).

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 »