Dec. 2, 2013
A Dream Within a Dream
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow—
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett (books by this author), born in Los Angeles (1963). She grew up Catholic and went to an all-girls Catholic school in Nashville, where she still lives. She said: "Catholicism really trained me for fiction writing. I think it has to be the greatest religion for a fiction writer because it is so much a tradition of story and parable. I spent my whole childhood on my knees in front of pieces of carved marble, and in my heart I was filling that stone with enormous life. That gets at the essence of storytelling."
She went to Sarah Lawrence College, where one of her teachers was the short-story writer Grace Paley. She said that Paley would cancel classes and take the students to protests, and that she discouraged any kind of pretension in their writing. Patchett said: "She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don't step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can't teach you how to have something to say."
Patchett's books include Bel Canto (2001), Truth and Beauty (2004), Run (2007), and State of Wonder (2011).
It's the birthday of writer George Saunders (books by this author), born in Amarillo, Texas (1958), the author of the books CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation (2006). He contributes to magazines like The New Yorker, GQ,and McSweeney's, and has won the National Magazine Award for fiction four times in the past 16 years.
He knew from the time he was a teenager that he wanted be a writer, though he majored in geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He said that for him, growing up on Chicago's South Side, college was a vocational thing, something you did to get a job. But at the same time that he studied things like plate tectonics and geothermal gradients, he also became obsessed with the "raving romantic of a writer" Thomas Wolfe. He said, "I liked him because he was epic and broken-hearted and sloppy and emotional and in love with the world and wrote sentence after sentence beginning with the word 'O,' as in 'O Brooklyn, harbinger of cruel autumn,' or 'O mourned and never-to-be-regained Time' ... I loved his big-heartedness and the way, apparently, he had just taken his life and made a huge book out of it."
Pretty soon he'd started "pacing tragically around and phrasing [his] life in [Wolfe's] terms: "O bitter Seven-Eleven of broken love, which, mourning, how many times have I paced by you, mad visions trumpeting my ravening brain, because of the lovely (FILL IN NAME OF GIRL) lost, no more to be Regained?" But then he graduated from college and moved to Asia to work in oil fields, and held a string of jobs in places like wastewater plants and military installations, which he said sort of tempered his lyrical sentimental streak. He's also worked in a slaughterhouse, environmental engineering firm, pharmaceutical company, convenience store, and on top of Chicago roofs.
And ever since, he said, he's been working at finding a prose style that could accommodate all of the different things that he's seen: "Any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses."
Engineering left him with a dislike for "literary" language, "language that's consciously literary or purple of overly rich or full of kind of cornball metaphors." He said, "I really like lean prose, stuff that just does what it's supposed to do and gets out of there."
He wrote in his short story "Sticks" (1995): "We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow."
He teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. In his collection of essays The Braindead Megaphone (2007) he wrote, "The generalizing writer is like the passionate drunk, stumbling into your house mumbling: I know I'm not being clear, exactly, but don't you kind of feel what I'm feeling?"
And, "Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®