MONDAY, 19 JUNE, 2006
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Poem: "Six National Guardsmen Blown Up Together" by Peg Lauber from New Orleans Suite © Marsh River Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Six National Guardsmen Blown Up Together

Today the six come home for good,
those who grew up together on the bayous,
like those boys in the Civil War
who enlisted together, died together,
sometimes leaving small towns
with no young men—
a whole generation gone. These six hunted,
fished, trapped together, but someone
tracked them, hunted them
a world away from their usual prey—
alligators, nutrias, crawfish, bass.

Right across the canal out front
is the Naval base's runway approach
where we'll hear or even see
the big cargo plane carrying
what is left of the men coming in,
rumbling and lumbering along, scaring
the brown pelican and his mate
flying low up the channel
and scattering seventeen members
of the Cajun Air Force,
those bigger white pelicans,
cruising, then banking away.

Only the gulls will remain
gliding around with mournful
screeches, appropriate requiem.
Then silence, all planes grounded
in respect for the relatives, the wives
who huddle on folding chairs, bent
weeping into their small children's hair,
the children frightened, weeping with them,
now understanding that their father
in that flag-draped box will not,
like a Jack, pop out
if they touch a button—
that nothing, nothing
will ever be the same.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of film critic Pauline Kael, (books by this author) born in Petaluma, California (1919). In 1965, she published a collection of movie reviews and essays on film criticism called I Lost It at the Movies, and it became a best-seller. She went on to become the film critic for The New Yorker magazine for almost twenty-five years.

She said, "You have to be open to the idea of getting drunk on movies."

It was on this day in 1964 that the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act after a long battle in the Senate. Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law thirteen days later. It was this piece of legislation that outlawed all segregation on the basis of race in the United States. The text of the law was extremely specific, listing all the places of public accommodation where segregation was forbidden, including any inn, hotel, motel, restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, gasoline station, motion picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena, stadium, or other place of exhibition or entertainment.

It's the birthday of short-story writer and memoirist Tobias Wolff, (books by this author) born in Birmingham, Alabama (1945). He's the author of several collections of short stories, including In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), but he's best known for his memoir about his childhood, This Boy's Life (1989). His first novel, Old School, came out in 2004.

Tobias Wolff said: "There are very few professions in which people just sit down and think hard for five or six hours a day all by themselves. [If you become a writer] you have the liberty to do that, but once you have the liberty you also have the obligation to do it."

It's the birthday of the journalist and music critic Greil Marcus, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1945). He started out as a music critic for various magazines, and he has gone on to write many books of criticism, including Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975).

It's the birthday of mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal, (books by this author) born in Clermont, France (1623). He's known for writing a book about religion called Thoughts (1669), but he also invented the first mechanical calculator, demonstrated that a vacuum could exist in nature, and invented the mathematics of probability.

TUESDAY, 20 JUNE, 2006
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Poem: "After Love" by Maxine Kumin from Selected Poems 1960-1990. © WW Norton & Company. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

After Love

Afterwards, the compromise.
Bodies resume their boundaries.

These legs, for instance, mine.
Your arms take you back in.

Spoons of our fingers, lips
admit their ownership.

The bedding yawns, a door
blows aimlessly ajar

and overhead, a plane
singsongs, coming down.

Nothing is changed, except
there was a moment when

the wolf, the mongering wolf
who stands outside the self

lay lightly down, and slept.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1977 that the trans-Alaska Pipeline began to pump oil for the first time. It was the largest private construction project ever completed in United States history, built to carry oil from an oil field on the northern slope of Alaska, eight hundred miles away from the nearest harbor.

Environmentalists sued to stop the project, and the battle was fought in the U.S. Congress. It came down to the Senate, where the votes were split fifty-fifty. Vice President Spiro Agnew broke the tie in 1973, voting for the project.

Tens of thousands of people poured into Alaska to work on the pipeline, and they often worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. They were paid about $2,000 a month, and got to eat free steak and lobster. The pipe they built was forty-eight inches in diameter, and it stretched eight hundred miles, zigzagging over three mountain ranges and crossing thirty-four major rivers, including the Yukon.

It took about three years to complete, and $8 billion to build. But once it began pumping, about 1.9 million barrels of crude oil began flowing through the pipe every day, traveling at about seven miles an hour to the port of Valdez. There have been problems with leaks, but one problem that environmentalists worried about was solved. In order to not disturb the migration of the Caribou, the pipe was built about ten feet above the ground. Today the Caribou, along with many other animals, walk underneath the pipe without even noticing it.

It's the birthday of Vikram Seth, (books by this author) born in Calcutta, India (1952). He's the author of A Suitable Boy (1993), the longest single-volume work of fiction in English since 1747. The first draft was 5,000 pages long. His editor helped him trim it down to about 1,500 pages. Seth wrote on the dedication page, "Buy me before good sense insists / You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists."

It's the birthday of the historian Peter Gay, (books by this author) born in Berlin (1923). In his book Savage Reprisals (2003), he argues that novelists make bad social historians because they are so often inspired to criticize society by their own desire for revenge.

It's the birthday of poet Paul Muldoon, (books by this author) born in Portadown, Ireland (1951). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including Moy Sand and Gravel (2002), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

It was on this day in 1893 that the verdict was announced in the trial of Lizzie Borden, who had been accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an ax. She was found not guilty.

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Poem: "Hug" by Ron Padgett from You Never Know. © Coffee House Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The older I get, the more I like hugging, When I was little the
people hugging me were much larger. In their grasp I was a rag
doll. In adolescence, my body was too tense to relax for a hug.
Later, after the loss of virginity—which was anything but a
loss—the extreme proximity of the other person, the smell of
hair, the warmth of the skin, the sound of breathing in the
dark—these were mysterious and delectable. This hug had
two primary components: the anticipation of sex and the plea-
sure of intimacy, which itself is a combination of trust and
affection. It was this latter combination that came to character-
ize the hugging I have experienced only in recent years, a hug-
ging that knows no distinctions of gender or age. When this
kind of hug is mutual, for a moment the world is perfect the
way it is, and the tears we shed for it are perfect too. I guess it
is an embrace.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the Summer Solstice and the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. For those of us in the north, today will be the longest day of the year and tonight will be the shortest night.

The reason it has been getting warmer and warmer for those of us in the north is not that we're any closer to the sun. In fact, the entire earth is about three million miles farther from the sun at this time of the year. The difference in the temperature is due to the fact that our planet is tilted on its axis, and at this time of year, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, receiving more direct radiation for longer periods of time each day.

It is that slight tilt, only 23 and 1/2 degrees, that makes the difference between winter and summer. As the northern hemisphere begins to tilt toward the sun, the temperature rises enough that we can take off our jackets, hats, and mittens, but more importantly the rise in temperature allows most of the plants we eat to germinate. Wheat and many other plants require an average temperature of at least 40° F to grow. Corn needs a temperature of 50° F, and rice needs a temperature of 68° F.

It's the birthday of naturalist and writer Donald Culross Peattie, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1898). He's best known for his two books about the natural history of American trees: A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950) and A Natural History of Western Trees (1948).

It's the birthday of cartoonist and children's book author and illustrator Berke(ley) Breathed, (books by this author) born in Encino, California (1957). He drew the comic strip Bloom County, with Milo Bloom, Bill the Cat, and Opus the penguin. Breathed won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1987. He published a number of collections of Bloom County, including Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things (1985), Bloom County Babylon (1986), and Classics of Western Literature: Bloom County 1986-1989 (1990). Then, in 1989, Breathed decided to terminate the strip.

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan, (books by this author) born in Aldershot, England (1948). The author of Amsterdam (1999) and Atonement (2002), he's still one of the few literary fiction writers who doesn't shy away from violence and suspense in his work. He said, "I want something to happen in my stories, and I want to sort of push them to the edge. ... Most threats in life come from the unpredictable, random, cruel behavior of other people.

It's the birthday of Jean-Paul Sartre, (books by this author) born in Paris (1905). When Sartre was offered the Nobel Prize in 1964, he refused it, saying he didn't want to be made into an "institution."

It's the birthday of author Mary McCarthy, (books by this author) born in Seattle, Washington (1912). McCarthy published several novels, including The Group (1963), about a group of Vassar students, but she had a hard time making things up, so most of her novels are autobiographical. She said, "What I really do is take real plums and put them into an imaginary cake." Most critics believe that her best book is the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957).

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Poem: "Who Was That Man?" by Paul Bussan from A Rage of Intelligence: Poems. © PSB Publishing. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Who Was That Man?

I love those movies
About a stranger
Who rides into town
On the back of a horse,
And proceeds to start
A chain of events
That makes each person
Take stock of their lives,
So that after he's gone
Everyone's better
Or worse for the wear
Than they were
Before he arrived.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1944 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the GI Bill of Rights. It was one of the most important and influential pieces of legislation ever signed by an American president, but the newspapers barely covered the story at the time. They were too busy reporting on the Allied invasion of Europe.

The law was passed in part because of the experience of veterans of the First World War. Many of them had lost their jobs during the Great Depression and became homeless. They had been promised a veteran's bonus when they reached the age of retirement, but many worried they'd never live that long, since they were sleeping under bridges and starving on the street. A group of veterans went to Washington, D.C., to demand their bonuses early, and they had to be driven out of the city with tanks and tear gas.

Legislators in Congress didn't want that to happen again, especially since there would be so many veterans coming home from World War II. Economists at the time were predicting a post-war depression, and politicians were terrified of the idea of nine million unemployed former soldiers wandering the country. The first version of the GI Bill just guaranteed unemployment benefits for a year. A congressional committee threw in the idea that veterans should get money to go to college if they wanted to.

The presidents of many of the most prestigious universities around the country thought the GI Bill was a terrible idea. They argued that flooding the universities with veterans who might not have the same level of education as traditional college students would ruin the whole university system. Other critics said that the GI Bill would encourage laziness, helping veterans avoid real jobs. But the Congress and the president went ahead and passed the GI Bill anyway.

Even the supporters of the bill didn't think very many GIs would really want to go to college. In fact, about a million veterans applied for the money within the first year after the war, and ultimately 2.2 million veterans used the money to obtain higher education, many of them becoming the first members of their families to receive a college diploma. Before the war, about 10 percent of Americans attended college. After the war, that figure rose to about 50 percent.

The surge in enrollment was difficult for many college campuses. New students set up Quonset huts and surplus barracks on campus lawns. A college in Ohio set up a dormitory in a Coast Guard boat on the Muskingum River. Stanford converted a military hospital into a set of apartments.

And contrary to most expectations, the grade-point averages at most colleges went up with the influx of veterans, and dropout rates went way down. Professors at the time said that the veterans were the most serious and disciplined students they'd ever seen. The cost to taxpayers of the GI Bill was about 5.5 billion dollars, but the result was 450,000 engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, 17,000 writers and editors, and thousands of other professionals. It helped spur one of the greatest economic booms in American history.

It's the birthday of novelist Dan Brown, (books by this author) born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1964). He's the author of one of the best-selling books of all time: The Da Vinci Code (2003). It's estimated that there are about sixty million copies of The Da Vinci Code in print worldwide.

Brown's first three novels have all become paperback best-sellers. Even books that Brown used as sources for The Da Vinci Code are seeing their sales increase thanks to all the publicity. A movie of the novel came out last month (2006).

It's the birthday of filmmaker Billy Wilder, (books by this author) born Samuel Wilder in the town of Sucha, which is now part of Poland (1906). He came to the United States after Nazis took power in Germany in the 1930s. He learned English by going out on dates with any American woman who was willing, and started writing screenplays for Fox Film Corporation.

He went on to become a director because he got sick of watching his best dialogue get cut from the movies he worked on. He made all kinds of movies: musicals, comedies, dramas, but most of his movies are about hypocrisy. His first major success as a director was Double Indemnity (1944), and he also directed Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like It Hot (1959).

FRIDAY, 23 JUNE, 2006
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Poem: "To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain (buy now)

To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling

   The keen stars were twinkling,
And the fair moon was rising among them,
     Dear Jane!
   The guitar was tinkling,
But the notes were not sweet till you sung them

  As the moon's soft splendour
O'er the faint cold starlight of Heaven
     Is thrown,
  So your voice most tender
To the strings without soul had then given
     Its own.

  The stars will awaken,
Though the moon sleep a full hour later,
  No leaf will be shaken
Whilst the dews of your melody scatter

  Though the sound overpowers,
Sing again, with your dear voice revealing
     A tone
  Of some world far from ours,
Where music and moonlight and feeling
     Are one.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Tonight is Midsummer Night's Eve, also called St. John's Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It's a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead. That's where the word "honeymoon" comes from.

Shakespeare set his play A Midsummer Night's Dream on this night. It tells the story of two young couples who wander into a magical forest outside Athens. In the play, Shakespeare wrote, "The course of true love never did run smooth."

It's the birthday of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, (books by this author) born in a suburb of Odessa in 1889. She was a beautiful, fashionable, twenty-two-year-old woman when she published her first collection of poetry in 1912, and it became a sensation. The book was filled with love poems inspired by her affair with the then-unknown Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and no Russian woman had ever written so frankly about love. Akhmatova became a celebrity overnight.

But within a few years, life in Russia became much more complicated, and Akhmatova had a lot more to write about than love affairs. In her poem "In Memoriam July 19, 1914," about the start of World War I, she wrote, "We grew a hundred years older in a single hour."

After the Bolshevik Revolution, most writers and intellectuals tried to flee the country, but Akhmatova and her husband decided to stay. She wrote, "No, not under an alien sky, / Not protected by alien wings,— / I was with my people then, / There, where my people, unfortunately, were." Her husband was shot in 1921 for allegedly participating in an anti-Bolshevik plot, and the following year, the government informed her that she would no longer be able to publish her poetry. She began working on translations, and more or less stopped writing her own poems.

Then Akhmatova's son was arrested by the government. She was horrified. For seventeen months, she went to the prison in Leningrad every day to try to get news about her son's well-being. There were crowds of other women there, doing the same thing, and one day a woman recognized Akhmatova as the formerly famous poet. Akhmatova later described the incident, writing, "A woman with bluish lips standing behind me ... woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear, 'Can you describe this?'"

That woman's question helped inspire Akhmatova to begin writing her ten-poem cycle, "Requiem," which many Russians consider the greatest piece of literature ever written about Stalinist Russia.

Even though she wasn't allowed to publish her poetry, the government remained suspicious of her activities, and government agents eventually installed a microphone in her house. To take precautions that her poetry would be preserved, she developed a system: Whenever she wrote a new poem, she would invite a friend over to read and memorize it. Then, she would burn the only copy.

By the end of her life, she had gained more freedom, and she'd become one of the most renowned poets in the world. She died on the thirteenth anniversary of Stalin's death, on March 5, 1966. A complete collection of her poetry didn't come out in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s.

It's the birthday of playwright Jean Anouilh, (books by this author) born in Bordeaux, France (1910). His work spanned five decades, and his plays include The Lark (1953), The Waltz of the Toreadors (1952), and Becket (1961).

Jean Anouilh said, "Life is very nice, but it lacks form. It's the aim of art to give it some."

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Poem: "Learning to Float" by April Lindner from Skin. © Texas Tech University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Learning to Float

Relax. It's like love. Keep your lips
moist and parted, let your upturned hands
unfold like water lilies, palms exposed.

Breathe deeply, slowly. Forget chlorine
and how the cement bottom was stained
blue so the water looks clear

and Caribbean. Ignore the drowned mosquitoes,
the twigs that gather in the net
of your hair. The sun is your ticket,

your narcotic, blessing your chin,
the floating islands of your knees.
Shut your eyes and give yourself

to the pulsating starfish, purple and red,
that flicker on your inner lids.
Hallucination is part of the process,

like amnesia. Forget how you learned
to swim, forget being told
Don't panic. Don't worry. Let go

of my neck. It's only water. Don't think
unless you're picturing Chagall,
his watercolors of doves and rooftops,

lovers weightless as tissue,
gravity banished, the dissolving voices
of violins and panpipes. The man's hand

circles the woman's wrist so loosely,
what moors her permits her to float,
and she rises past the water's skin,

above verandas and the tossing heads
of willows. Her one link to earth,
his light-almost reluctant-touch, is a rope

unfurling, slipping her past the horizon,
into the cloud-stirring current. This far up,
what can she do but trust he won't let go?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of essayist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce, (books by this author) born near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio (1842). He took a job as a printer's assistant on an antislavery newspaper when he was fifteen, and then became the second person in his county to volunteer for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War.

He fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, including the Battle of Shiloh. During one short campaign, more than a third of his company was killed. But Bierce rose to the level of lieutenant, becoming an expert in typography. Then, in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, he was shot in the head. He later wrote about being shipped to the hospital on a flatcar in a rainstorm, surrounded by hundreds of moaning injured soldiers. He survived, but his friends and family said that injury changed him forever, made him bitter and suspicious.

He headed out west to San Francisco, which was a boomtown of 60,000 people, full of outlaws, gamblers, sailors, and goldmine millionaires. It was also a city full of writers, with six newspapers covering city life. One of the writers who had gotten started around the same time as Bierce was Mark Twain. But Bierce managed to make a name for himself writing fierce social criticism and satire.

He also wrote short stories about the Civil War, some of the bleakest war stories ever written. Bierce's most famous story is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," about a spy condemned to die by hanging, only to escape when the rope snaps. He runs through the forest, away from enemy gunfire, and eventually finds his home plantation, and is about to embrace his wife when he feels a blow on his neck, and it turns out the whole escape was a daydream in the split second before his death.

One of Bierce's books that's never gone out of print is his Devil's Dictionary (1906), a collection of ironic definitions. The Devil's Dictionary includes the definitions:

"Bride. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her."

"Saint. A dead sinner revised and edited."

It was on this day in 1997 that the Pentagon attempted to end the speculation that the United States had ever intercepted a wrecked alien spacecraft, along with alien bodies, fifty years ago in Roswell, New Mexico. At a press briefing, Pentagon officials issued an official government document called "The Roswell Report: Case Closed." It was 231 pages long and stated that the United States had never captured any alien beings, either dead or alive, and that no alien spaceships had ever invaded U.S. airspace, especially not in the vicinity of Roswell, New Mexico.

But the announcement only fueled more conspiracy theories. According to polls, 34 percent of Americans believe that intelligent beings from other planets have visited Earth; of those, 65 percent believe a UFO crash-landed near Roswell, and 80 percent believe the U.S. government knows more about extraterrestrials than it chooses to let on.

SUNDAY, 25 JUNE, 2006
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Poem: "Green Canoe" by Jeffrey Harrison from Feeding the Fire. © Sarabande Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Green Canoe

I don't often get the chance any longer
to go out alone in the green canoe
and, lying in the bottom of the boat,
just drift where the breeze takes me,
down to the other end of the lake
or into some cove without my knowing
because I can't see anything over
the gunwales but sky as I lie there,
feeling the ribs of the boat as my own,
this floating pod with a body inside it...

also a mind, that drifts among clouds
and the sounds that carry over water—
a flutter of birdsong, a screen door
slamming shut-as well as the usual stuff
that clutters it, but slowed down, opened up,
like the fluff of milkweed tugged
from its husk and floating over the lake,
to be mistaken for mayflies at dusk
by feeding trout, or be carried away
to a place where the seeds might sprout.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1903, Marie Curie announced her discovery of radium, for which she won her first of two Nobel Prizes. She was still a doctoral student. That evening, at a party in her honor, the guests went out to the garden and her husband, Pierre, pulled a little tube out of his pocket. Suddenly the tube started to glow, lighting up the darkness. But the guests could see that Pierre's fingers were scarred and that he was finding it hard to hold the tube. He was holding radium.

It was on this day in 1942 that Dwight D. Eisenhower became the commander of the U.S. troops in Europe. He had been a military man for more than twenty years, but he'd never seen combat. All he'd ever done was train soldiers and write a guidebook of World War I battlefields in France.

Eisenhower (books by this author) captured the attention of his commanders with his performance supervising military games. He also impressed senior military officers by how photogenic he was. They knew they needed a commander who would be a good public face for the American troops.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949), George Orwell, (books by this author) born Eric Blair in a small village in Bengal, India (1903). He went to an English boarding school and then worked as a policeman in Burma before becoming a journalist.

He wrote about the Spanish Civil War, and fought on the side of the loyalists, fighting against Franco. But he also witnessed the Stalinist faction of the communist party that began to suppress the other leftist groups, arresting them and censoring newspapers and organizing armed militias. Orwell himself had to go into hiding in order to avoid arrest or even execution by the Stalinists.

He eventually had to flee the country. The experience of the war changed his life. He came to believe that it wasn't Fascism or Communism that was evil, but simply idealism taken to any extreme. At a time when most intellectuals still supported Communism in Russia, Orwell became one of the first leftist writers to speak out against Stalin. He began to work on a political allegory about the Communist revolution that became Animal Farm, about a group of farm animals that overthrow their farmer, Mr. Jones. Because England and Russia were still allies at the end of World War II, he had trouble publishing the book, but when Animal Farm finally came out after the war, it made Orwell famous.

Orwell spent the last years of his life writing 1984, about a future in which England has become a totalitarian state run by an anonymous presence known only as Big Brother. He died a few months after it was first published, but it has since been translated into sixty-two languages and has sold more than ten million copies.



  • “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
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  • “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
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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