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Poem: "Afraid So" by Jeanne Marie Beaumont from Curious Conduct © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Afraid So

Is it starting to rain?
Did the check bounce?
Are we out of coffee?
Is this going to hurt?
Could you lose your job?
Did the glass break?
Was the baggage misrouted?
Will this go on my record?
Are you missing much money?
Was anyone injured?
Is the traffic heavy?
Do I have to remove my clothes?
Will it leave a scar?
Must you go?
Will this be in the papers?
Is my time up already?
Are we seeing the understudy?
Will it affect my eyesight?
Did all the books burn?
Are you still smoking?
Is the bone broken?
Will I have to put him to sleep?
Was the car totaled?
Am I responsible for these charges?
Are you contagious?
Will we have to wait long?
Is the runway icy?
Was the gun loaded?
Could this cause side effects?
Do you know who betrayed you?
Is the wound infected?
Are we lost?
Can it get any worse?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Izaak Walton, born on this day in 1593. An English biographer, he is best known for The Compleat Angler, or The Contemplative Man's Recreation (1653)—a guide to the joys of fishing with over 300 new printings. It combines practical information about fishing with philosophy, descriptions of nature, and quotations and continues to be one of the most popular fishing books ever written.

Walton said, "... and so, if I might be judge, God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling."

It's the birthday of the English writer John Dryden, born in the village of Aldwincle All Saints in Northamptonshire (1631). He wrote plays, poems, essays, and satires, and he was the leading literary figure of the late seventeenth century. He wrote the following poem in imitation of Horace, Book 3, Ode 29 (1685).

Happy the Man
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

It's the birthday of the creator of Mary Poppins, P. L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers, born Helen Lyndon Goff, in Mayborough, Queensland, Australia (1899). She is most celebrated for her Mary Poppins books. Before the publication of Mary Poppins, she adopted P. L. Travers as her literary pseudonym.

Travers spent her childhood in Australia and in her twenties, after working as an actor, dancer and writer in Australia, she went to Dublin and became friends with George Russell, known as "AE," the great Irish poet and economist.

In 1933, while recovering from an illness at her home in Sussex, Travers wrote the first stories in the series and made them into a book about a prim British nanny who appears at a household in a high wind and floats away when the wind changes. Mary Poppins (1934) was published the following year. The book was an immediate success in Britain and the United States. Between 1935 and 1988 she published seven sequels, including Mary Poppins Comes Back and Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. The 1964 Walt Disney movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke was based on Travers' stories.

She said in an interview, "Mary Poppins is both a joy and a curse to me as a writer. As a writer you can feel awfully imprisoned, because people, having had so much of one thing, want you always to go on doing more of the same."

On this day in 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden; or, Life in the Woods. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson said he saw a "tremble of great expectation" in Thoreau just before publication day. It took five years to sell off the first edition of 2,000 copies. Since then, millions of copies of Walden have been sold.

On this day in 1846, the Smithsonian Institution was founded. Twenty years earlier, a British scientist named James Smithson drew up his last will and testament with his nephew as beneficiary. Smithson made clear that if the nephew should die without an heir (as he did in 1835), the estate should go to the United States of America to found, in Washington, "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Smithson never visited the U. S., and did not correspond with anyone living there. Why he gave his estate to the U. S. is a mystery.

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Poem: "Suck It Up" by Paul Zimmer from Crossing to Sunlight: Selected Poems © University of Georgia Press. Reprinted with permission.

Suck It Up

Two pugs on the undercard step through
The ropes in satin robes,
Pink Adidas with tassels,
Winking at the women in the crowd.
At instructions they stare down hard
And refuse to touch their gloves,
Trying to make everyone believe
That this will be a serious dust-up.

But when the bell rings they start
Slapping like a couple of Barbie Dolls.
One throws a half-hearted hook,
The other flicks out his jab,
They bounce around for a while
Then grab each other for a tango.
The crowd gets tired of booing
and half of them go out for a beer,
But I've got no place to hide.

A week after a cancer scare,
A year from a detached retina,
Asthmatic, overweight, trickling,
Drooling, bent like a blighted elm
In my pajamas and slippers,
I have tuned up my hearing aids to site in
Numbness without expectation before
These televised Tuesday Night Fights.

With a minute left in the fourth,
Scuffling, they butt their heads
By accident. In midst of all the catcalls
And hubbub suddenly they realize
How much they hate each other.

They start hammering and growling,
Really dealing, whistling combinations,
Hitting on the breaks and thumbing.
At least one guy crosses a stiff jab
With a roundhouse right and the other
Loses his starch. The guy wades into
The wounded one, pounding him
Back and forth until he goes down,
Bouncing his head hard on the canvas.

The count begins but he is saved
By the bell and his trainers haul
Him to his stool as the lens zooms in.

I come to the edge of my La-Z-Boy,
Blinking and groaning from my incision,
Eager for wise, insightful instruction.

He gets a bucket of water in his face,
A sniff on the salts while the cutman
Tries to close his wounds with glue.
His nose is broken, eyes are crossed,
His lips bleed like two rare steaks.
His cornermen take turns slapping his cheeks.
"Suck it up!" they shout.
"Suck it up!"

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Joyce Sutphen, born in St. Cloud, Minnesota (1949). She's the author of Straight Out of View (1995), Coming Back to the Body (2000), and Naming the Stars, (2003). Sutphen spent her childhood on a farm near St. Joseph, Minnesota. She said, "Like many of the people I had read about, I set out on a long journey to find truth and beauty. As usual, the road led straight back to the beginning: home, country roads, the sun setting through the woods."

It's the birthday of Herbert Hoover, born in West Branch, Iowa (1874), son of a Quaker blacksmith. In 1928 he ran for president with a reputation as a humanitarian for saving millions of Europeans from starvation during and after World War I. During the campaign, Hoover said: "We are nearer today to the ideal of the abolition of poverty and fear from the lives of men and women than ever before in any land." A year later the 1929 stock market crash sent the country into the worst economic collapse in its history.

On this day in 1912, Virginia Stephen married Leonard Woolf. She was 30, he was 31, and they married at London's St. Pancras Registry Office. Together, the couple founded the Hogarth Press in their dining room. They taught themselves how to print. Their first project was a printed and bound pamphlet containing a story by each of them. They published Virginia Woolf's novels, a collection of Freud's papers, and the works of writers who were then unknown, including Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, and E.M. Forster.

It's the birthday of one of Brazil's best-loved writers: Jorge Amado, born near Ilhéus, Brazil (1912). He is one of the most widely translated novelists in the world; they called him the "Pele of the written word." His 32 books sold millions of copies in 40 languages. Brazilian hotels, bars and restaurants, as well as brands of whiskey and margarine, were named for characters from his books. He's the author of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958), Home is the Sailor (1961), and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966).

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Poem: "To Walt Whitman in Heaven" by Betsy Sholl from Late Psalm © The University of Wisconsin Press. Reprinted with permission.

To Walt Whitman In Heaven

Things that look good and aren't: high fashion,
Manifest Destiny, limp wires the electrician thinks
are dead till he grabs hold and then, O Infinite—
coursing-through-finite—thank God his spastic dance

is only a shock—one yelp and he shakes
it off. Not so easy for the girl next door
feeling her first kiss begin to fester
as the young man's buddies drive by hooting

and one calls out, how far did ya get? Whadda
we owe?
It's enough to make everything
look bad. So, a list then of what turns out
to be good: the loud-mouthed parrot

down the block that scared off two robbers,
the junior prom I spent alone in my room
reading you, Walt Whitman, your great
barbaric yawp entering my mind like salt

water coursing through fresh, stinging my wounds,
till every image was sharp—the lunatic,
the lily-faced boy in the makeshift hospital,
contralto, runaway, cloud scud, your voice

whispering through sea spray to ferry crowds,
just as you feel, so I felt ... What doesn't change
and remain, remain and grow strange? The lace
bodice from my mother's slip my daughter

now sews onto the cuffs of her new jeans,
the crooked front tooth that has traveled through
how many kisses from my mother's mouth
to mine, and on to my son. What is a list?

The neighbor girl goes through her catalog
of moves under the hoop—sky hooks, lay-ups,
fall-away jumpers. Long after dark, she's out there
dribbling her heart on the asphalt, tossing it up,

nothing but net. Painful, yes, but how else
will she get to that sweet agony within,
your great loitering contradictions? She dodges
and spins, as if shedding a skin, steps around

the driveway to keep the motion light flaring
as she passes from shadow into Technicolor,
banks a shot, jabs the air to cheer herself on,
point guard, center and crowd all in one,

and I almost see you in the dark,
on the fringe, though I can hardly say what
you mean, in the sweet mysterious night vapor
hovering over blacktop and lamp-green lawn.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of short story writer Andre Dubus, born in Lake Charles, Louisiana (1936). He wrote stories about regular people like bartenders, mechanics and waitresses in collections such as The Cage Keeper and Other Stories (1989) and Dancing after Hours (1996). In 1986, after publishing several books of short stories, Dubus stopped to help a woman and a man stranded on the side of the highway, and he was hit by a passing car. He saved the woman's life by throwing her out of the way, but he lost one of his legs and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. He said, "Some of my characters now feel more grateful about simple things—breathing, buying groceries, sunlight, because I do." He also said, "We don't have to live great lives, we just have to understand and survive the ones we've got."

It's the birthday of poet Louise Bogan, born in Livermore Falls, Maine (1897). She wrote many books of poetry, including The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968). For many years she was the poetry critic for The New Yorker magazine. Bogan said, "Surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy."

It's the birthday of British short story writer and novelist Angus Wilson, born in Bexhill, Sussex, England (1913). He's known for his satirical fiction about the English middle class in novels like Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956).

It's the birthday of the Scottish poet who wrote under the name Hugh MacDiarmid. He was born Christopher Murray Grieve, in Langholm, Scotland (1892). He started out writing poetry in English, but he felt there was something wrong with it. Then one day he tried writing poetry in the Scottish dialect that he had spoken when he was a child. Writing in dialect freed him from the restraint he felt when writing in English. At the time, the literary establishment looked down on people writing in Scottish dialect, so Grieve published his poetry under the name "Hugh MacDiarmid." His masterpiece was A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926).

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Poem: "Where We Are (after Bede)" by Stephen Dobyns, from Velocities © Viking Penguin, 1994. Reprinted with permission.

Where We Are
(after Bede)

A man tears a chunk of bread off the brown loaf,
then wipes the gravy from his plate. Around him
at the long table, friends fill their mouths
with duck and roast pork, fill their cups from
pitchers of wine. Hearing a high twittering, the man

looks to see a bird—black with a white patch
beneath its beak—flying the length of the hall,
having flown in by a window over the door. As straight
as a taut string, the bird flies beneath the roofbeams,
as firelight flings its shadow against the ceiling.

The man pauses—one hand holds the bread, the other
rests upon the table—and watches the bird, perhaps
a swift, fly toward the window at the far end of the room.
He begins to point it out to his friends, but one is
telling hunting stories, as another describes the best way

to butcher a pig. The man shoves the bread in his mouth,
then slaps his hand down hard on the thigh of the woman
seated beside him, squeezes his fingers to feel the firm
muscles and tendons beneath the fabric of her dress.
A huge dog snores on the stone hearth by the fire.

From the window comes the clicking of pine needles
blown against it by an October wind. A half moon
hurries along behind scattered clouds, while the forest
of black spruce and bare maple and birch surrounds
the long hall the way a single rock can be surrounded

by a river. This is where we are in history—to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night—a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of English poet Robert Southey, born in Bristol, England (1774). He was one of the leading poets of his day, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and was Poet Laureate of England. Today, we've forgotten almost everything he wrote except for one short children's story he published anonymously called "The Story of the Three Bears" (1837). He said his uncle had told him the story as a child. It was about an old woman who invades the house of three bears, tries out their porridge, their chairs, and their beds, and then jumps out the window when they come home.

At the end of the story, Southey wrote, "Out the little old woman jumped; and whether she broke her neck in the fall, or ran into the wood and was lost there, or found her way out of the wood and was taken up by the constable and sent to the House of Correction for a vagrant as she was, I cannot tell. But the Three Bears never saw anything more of her." The story was rewritten many times by other authors. In the later versions, the old woman became a little girl and she was named "Goldilocks."

It's the birthday of comic novelist Wallace Markfield, born in Brooklyn (1926). He's best known for his first novel To An Early Grave (1964) about four men who spend the day driving across Brooklyn to their friend's funeral. He also wrote Teitelbaum's Window (1970) and You Could Live If They Let You (1974). For most of his writing life, he felt that he was writing in the shadow of his literary idol, Saul Bellow.

It's the birthday of the woman who invented the characters Dick and Jane to help teach children how to read, Zerna Sharp, born in Hillisburg, Indiana (1889). Sharp's idea was to use pictures and repetition to teach children new words. She took her idea to Dr. William S. Gray, who had been studying the way children learn to read, and he hired her to create a series of textbooks. She didn't write the books, but she created the characters Dick, Jane, their sister Sally, their dog Spot, and their cat Puff. Each story introduced five new words, one on each page.

It's the birthday of classics scholar Edith Hamilton, born in Dresden, Germany (1867). Her parents were both Americans, and she grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hamilton started learning Latin and Greek when she was seven years old, and she went on to study classics in Europe. She was the first woman admitted to the University of Munich. After college, Hamilton moved back to the United States and worked for years as the head mistress of a prep school. In her spare time, she read Greek philosophy and literature. It wasn't until after her retirement that she began to publish books about Greek civilization like The Greek Way (1930).

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Poem: "Touch Me" by Stanley Kunitz, from Staying Alone, Real Poems for Unreal Times © Miramax Books, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
               and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1961 that East Germany sealed off the border between East and West Berlin. Germany had been divided since the end of World War II: East Germany was controlled by the Soviet Union and West Germany was controlled by a democratic Government. The city of Berlin lay inside East Germany, but West Germany controlled half the city. If people living in Communist countries in Eastern Europe could get to West Berlin, they could then escape to West Germany. Between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million people left East Germany through West Berlin. The East Germany government built the Berlin wall around West Berlin to stop the flight of skilled labor, which threatened its economy.

The first part of the wall was built at 2 a.m. on this day in 1961, made of cinder blocks and barbed wire. It was later replaced with a fifteen-foot concrete wall with watchtowers, guns, electric wire, and mines. It came to symbolize the Cold War's division of Eastern Europe from Western Europe. Between 1961 and 1989, almost two hundred people were killed trying to cross the wall.

When the wall finally came down in November of 1989, people rushed into West Berlin. Capitalism took over almost immediately, when entrepreneurs began collecting pieces of the wall and shipping them to the United States to be sold as souvenirs. More than 20 tons of the wall were shipped to America, just in time for the Christmas shopping season, to be sold, along with an "informative booklet and a declaration of authenticity," for $10 to $15 in gift shops and department stores.

It was on this day in 1940 that Germany began to bomb England during World War II, beginning the Battle of Britain. France had just been conquered, and Germany's plan was to destroy Great Britain's Royal Air Force before it began a land invasion of the country.

The British had the most advanced radar systems in the world, which helped them shoot down many of the German bombers, but by the middle of August they had lost a quarter of their planes. The British pilots were flying so many missions a day that as soon as they landed they fell asleep in their cockpits. Churchill said, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Everything changed on August 24th, when a German bomber accidentally bombed London. Britain responded by bombing Berlin. Hitler was so angry that he ordered his air force to bomb London exclusively, turning his attention away from the Royal Air Force. Historians say that if Hitler had focused on destroying the Royal Air Force, he probably would have won the battle. Instead, the British weathered the bombing raids until the United States could join the war, and the Germans were eventually defeated.

Today is believed to be the birthday of the first man ever to print a book in English, William Caxton, born in Kent, England (1422). He was a wealthy trader and merchant, and also a part time linguist and translator. He was living in Cologne, Germany, when he translated a book about the history of Troy. The printing press had been invented about twenty-five years earlier, but it had only recently started to spread beyond Germany. Caxton realized that the new technology of printing would make the job of distributing his books a lot easier. So instead of copying the book by hand, he printed the book he had translated about Troy in 1475. He eventually went back to England, where he established the first English printing press. He printed all the available English literature, including Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (c. 1478). For a long time, people in England called printed books "Caxtons."

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Poem: "Away In Virginia, I See a Mustard Field and Think of You" by Barbara Crooker from Impressionism © Grayson Books: West Hartford, CT, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

Away In Virginia, I See a Mustard Field and Think of You

because the blue hills are like the shoulders and slopes
of your back as you sleep. Often, I slip a hand under
your body to anchor myself to this earth. The yellow
mustard rises from a waving sea of green.

I think of us driving narrow roads in France, under
a tunnel of sycamores, my hair blowing in the hot wind,
opera washing out of the radio, loud. We are feeding
each other cherries from a white paper sack.

And then we return to everyday life, where we fall
into bed exhausted, fall asleep while reading,
forget the solid planes of the body in the country
of dreams. I miss your underwear, soft from a thousand
washings, the socks you still wear from a store
out of business thirty years. I love to smell your sweat
after mowing grass or hauling wood; I miss the weight
on your side of the bed.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of short story writer Alice Adams, born in Fredericksburg, Virginia (1926). She had a difficult relationship with her mother, who was a failed writer. Adams grew up thinking that if she became a writer then maybe her mother would like her. She took a creative writing class in college. Her teacher said she was a very nice girl and she should get married and forget about all this writing.

She did get married, and had a child, but the marriage broke up, and she spent several years as a single mother, working as a secretary. Her psychiatrist told her to give up writing and get remarried, but instead she published her first novel, Careless Love (1966), and a few years later she published her first short story in The New Yorker. She wrote many novels but she's best known for her short stories, in collections like After You've Gone (1989) and The Last Lovely City (1999).

It's the birthday of comedian and humorist Steve Martin, born in Waco, Texas (1945). He's known as a comedian and actor, but he has also written several plays, including WASP (1995) and Meteor Shower (1997). And in the year 2000 his novel Shopgirl (2000) was published. He said, "I believe entertainment can aspire to be art, and can become art, but if you set out to make art you're an idiot."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the famous lines:

"Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out."

Ernest Thayer, author of the baseball poem "Casey at the Bat", was born on this day in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1863). He came from a wealthy manufacturing family and went to Harvard, where he edited Harvard Lampoon magazine. One of his co-editors was William Randolph Hearst, and it was Hearst who later gave him a job writing funny poems for the San Francisco Examiner's Sunday editions. He published "Casey at the Bat" in the Examiner on June 3, 1888. Thayer eventually quit writing poems for the Examiner. He never wrote anything else of value. He spent the later part of his life working on a book of philosophy that he never published.

It's the birthday of humorist and newspaper columnist Russell Baker, born in Loudoun County, Virginia (1925). He is the author of many books of essays, including Poor Russell's Almanac (1972), So This Is Depravity (1980), and the memoir Growing Up (1982). In high school, he won an essay contest with an essay called "The Art of Eating Spaghetti" and got a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University.

He later took a job for the Baltimore Sun, covering the police beat, and eventually worked his way up to being a White House correspondent. He thought that covering the President of the United States would be exciting, but it turned out to be incredibly boring. He said, "[Most of the job was] sitting in the lobby and listening to the older reporters breathe."

Eventually, Baker got a job writing a humor column called "The Observer" for the New York Times and was one of the first writers for the times to write in casual American English. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1979. He said, "I've had an unhappy life, thank God."

It's the birthday of novelist John Galsworthy, born in Surrey, England (1867). It was on a sailing trip in the spring of 1893 that he met a man named Joseph Conrad, who was the first mate of the ship and was working on his first novel. Conrad told him all kinds of stories about adventures at sea. Galsworthy was so inspired by meeting someone who planned to write for a living that when he returned to London he gave up his law practice and began writing fiction.

His first great success was The Man of Property (1906). He based the novel's villain on his wife's ex-husband. After he finished the first draft, he spent two years rewriting and revising, and his wife went over every single word with him. The novel was a huge success and he followed it with sequels, including In Chancery (1920) and To Let (1921). Together the novels are known as The Forsyte Saga.

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Poem: "The Strain of Mercy" by Fred Chappell from Family Gathering © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission.

The Strain of Mercy

Aunt Agnes takes it all in stride:
Uncle Einar's boorishness,
Cousin Lilia's need to hide,
Cousin Willoughby's sordid mess
He thinks is a "bohemian life,"
Aunt Alicia's wandering wits,
What Uncle Lewis did to his wife,
The way that Uncle Nahum sits
In his creepy corner and calculates,
Aunt Wilma's plans for sweet revenge,
Cousin Hubert in dire straits,
The inevitable and dreaded change
Coming to young Elizabeth,
Cousin Ellie's hordes of mates,
Uncle Ozzie's fear of death.

She recognizes what we are,
Yet holds us in affection
As steadfast as the morning star,
As if our faults had no connection
With the persons we are within.
She doesn't pretend an ignorance
Of our dark collective sin;
She only believes that circumstance
Has gone against us every one,
That by blind forces we were driven.

We make a painful silent moan
At being so horribly forgiven.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of contemporary poet Mary Jo Salter, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (1954). She's the author of several collections of poetry, including Sunday Skaters (1994), A Kiss in Space (1999), and Open Shutters (2003).

It's the birthday of food writer Julia Child, born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, California (1912). She was a tomboy growing up, and never cooked anything. She grew to be more than six feet tall, and when she went to college she wanted to be a basketball star. She eventually changed her mind and tried to write a novel, but that didn't work out either.

She became interested in gourmet food while working for the Office of Strategic Service during World War II She started taking cooking lessons, and she studied at Cordon Bleu, the famous school of French cooking. While in France, she joined an elite gastronomic society of women called "The Circle of Gourmets."

She wrote her first cookbook with two members of the society. In the first draft, she wrote eight hundred pages about poultry alone, but her publisher convinced her to cut back on the length. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961. It was called the best book about French cooking ever written in English. She appeared on a talk show program to talk about her book, and demonstrated how to make one of the recipes. A TV producer saw her, thought she was a madwoman, and gave her her own cooking show.

It's the birthday of novelist Edna Ferber, born in Kalamazoo, Michigan (1885). She wrote many bestselling novels in her lifetime, but is best known for her novel Show Boat (1926), about a family that runs a theater on a boat. The novel was the basis for the musical with songs by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern.

It's the birthday of essayist Thomas De Quincey, born in Manchester, England (1785). He's best known as the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822), the first drug addiction memoir, which greatly influenced later generations of bohemian writers, from Charles Baudelaire to William S. Burroughs.

De Quincey began using opium at a time when it was a perfectly legal, common painkiller, sold in liquid form as laudanum. He was a nineteen-year-old college student when he had his first experience with the drug. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon, and he'd been suffering from a toothache.

De Quincy soon dropped out of college and started reading Romantic poetry. He bummed around, hung out with intellectuals, and impressed everyone he met with his brilliant conversation. He became friends with Coleridge and Wordsworth, who encouraged him to write, but he was a terrible procrastinator and never got anything done, especially since he was taking opium every day. Finally, instead of quitting opium in order to write, he decided to write about taking opium, and his anonymous memoir became a huge best seller.

It's the birthday of Sir Walter Scott, born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1771). His novels, such as Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819) were among the first novels taken seriously by scholars and critics. He started out as a poet in 1796. He didn't handle money well, though, and to pay off his debts, he decided to publish a novel, which back then was like deciding to write for a soap opera. To protect his reputation, he published the novel Waverley (1814) anonymously, and it became a huge bestseller.



  • “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
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