The audio and text for this poem are no longer available.

"Desert Places" by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost. © Henry Holt and co. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of screenwriter and novelist William Peter Blatty, (books by this author) born in New York City, New York (1928), who is best known for this theological horror tale The Exorcist (1971). Blatty did not start out as a horror writer. One of his early works was the screenplay for A Shot in the Dark (1961), a farce starring Peter Sellers as the inept detective, Inspector Closeau.

It's the anniversary of the first motion picture that was made, in 1894, when Thomas Edison Studios filmed a comedian named Fred Ott sneezing.

It's the birthday of landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, born in Solingen, Germany (1830), who joined a survey team in the American western frontier in 1859 and sketched the magnificent scenery he witnessed, including the Rocky Mountains, the Yosemite Valley, and the Merced River.


It's the birthday
of cartoonist and illustrator Charles Addams, born in Westfield, New Jersey (1912). Addams, the only child of a well-to-do family, began drawing in high school, copying his favorite comic strips, such as Krazy Kat. He attended three different colleges, each for only one year, and then took a job lettering, drawing, and retouching photos for Macfadden magazines for fifteen dollars a week. By 1935, he had a contract with The New Yorker to draw cartoons for them; he also sold cartoons to Life, Collier's, and Cosmopolitan. The cartoon that first made him famous appeared in the January 14th issue of The New Yorker. It was a drawing of a woman skier whose tracks pass on either side of the tree behind her; an observer stares back in disbelief while the woman glides nonchalantly on. He eventually drew more than 1300 cartoons for the magazine. 1937 marked the first appearance of a cartoon that featured several members of a rather macabre group of people known as the Addams Family. At first, Addams drew only Morticia and Lurch, the family butler, who vaguely resembled Boris Karloff. Soon, he introduced other family members, including Wednesday, Pugsley, Grandmama, and Thing. The first book of his cartoons, Drawn and Quartered, was published in 1942, which was followed by other titles including Addams and Evil (1947) and Monster Rally (1950). In the early 1960s, a television producer approached Addams about doing a situation comedy based on his characters. The Addams Family television series was broadcast on ABC from September 1964 through September 1966, and the Charles Addams fan base expanded from thousands to millions.

It's the birthday
of novelist, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, (books by this author) born in Notasulga, Alabama (1891). When she was two years old, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, America's first incorporated all-black town. Her father was a carpenter and preacher who was several times elected mayor of their town. In 1920, she enrolled in Howard University and then to Barnard College in New York City. While in New York, Hurston published the "Eatonville Anthology," a series of fourteen brief sketches, some only two paragraphs long, including glimpses of a woman beggar, an incorrigible dog, a backwards farmer, the greatest liar in the village, and a cheating husband. Her best work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written in just seven weeks and published in 1937. She wrote her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942. Although for a time she was the most prolific and most famous black woman writer in America, interest in her work faded away in the 1950s, and so did her money. She worked at odd jobs for the next ten years, writing a few magazine articles every now and again. Her death in 1960 in a welfare home went largely unnoticed and she was buried in an unmarked grave.



After school on ordinary days we listened
to The Shadow and The Lone Ranger
as we gathered around the tabletop radio
that was always kept on the china cabinet
built into the wall in that tenement kitchen,
a china cabinet that held no china, except
thick and white and utilitarian,
cups and saucers, poor people's cups
from the 5 & 10 cents store.
My mother was always home
from Ferraro's Coat factory
by the time we walked in the door
after school on ordinary days,
and she'd give us milk with Bosco in it
and cookies she'd made that weekend.
The three of us would crowd around the radio,
listening to the voices that brought a wider world
into our Paterson apartment. Later

we'd have supper at the kitchen table,
the house loud with our arguments
and laughter. After supper on ordinary
days, our homework finished, we'd play
monopoly or gin rummy, the kitchen
warmed by the huge coal stove, the wind
outside rattling the loose old windows,
we inside, tucked in, warm and together,
on ordinary days that we didn't know
until we looked back across a distance
of forty years would glow and shimmer
in memory's flickering light.

"After School on Ordinary Days" by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from Italian Women In Black Dresses. © Guernica Editions, Inc., 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Alexandra Ripley, (books by this author) born in Charleston, South Carolina (1934). She wrote several books, including Who's That Lady in the President's Bed (1972) and New Orleans Legacy (1987), before finding fame (or infamy) in 1991 as the author, chosen by Margaret Mitchell's estate, of the sequel to Gone with the Wind, called Scarlett.

It's the birthday of legendary "King of Rock and Roll" Elvis Aaron Presley, born in Tupelo, Mississippi (1935).

It's the birthday of writer and poet Charles Tomlinson, (books by this author) born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England (1927).

It's the birthday of writer and educator Evelyn Wood, born in Ogden, Utah (1909), who founded the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Institute in 1959, to teach high-speed reading.

It's the birthday of novelist Dennis Wheatley, (books by this author) born in London, England (1897). He was one of the twentieth century's most prolific and best-selling authors, and was called by the Times Literary Supplement "The Prince of Thriller Writers."

It's the birthday of novelist (Margaret) Storm Jameson, (books by this author) born in Whitby, England (1891). Her first novel, The Pot Boils, was published in 1919. This was followed by many other works of fiction, including a trilogy about a family of Yorkshire shipbuilders: The Lovely Ship (1927), The Voyage Home (1930), and A Richer Dust (1931).

It's the birthday of poet and novelist John Neihardt, (books by this author) born near Sharpsburg, Illinois (1881). He moved to Nebraska in 1901, where he became fascinated with the Native Americans he met. His book of five epic poems, A Cycle of the West, begun in 1912 and published in 1942, was an account of the death of Crazy Horse and the Battle of Little Big Horn. His most famous work, based on interviews, is Black Elk Speaks (1931).

It's the birthday of writer Wilkie Collins, (books by this author) born in London, England (1824). In his time, Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and best paid Victorian fiction writers. He wrote twenty-five novels, more than fifty short stories, fifteen plays, and more than one hundred non-fiction pieces. He wrote Antonina (1850), Mr Wray's Cash-Box (1852), and Basil: A Story of Modern Life (1952). He was a close friend of Charles Dickens for more than twenty years, and, although they were both loved authors in their time, Dickens' work survives and Collins' does not.


It's the birthday of physicist Stephen Hawking, (books by this author) born in Oxford, England (1942). After the publication of his 1988 best-seller, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, he became a celebrity as well as a scientist.



The old lady who's walking along Concourse A
Rather slowly in front of you, is making her way
To get on a plane to fly to Denver
Though she is in pain, she won't complain ever.
She walks all bent over. She's 91.
But her sister died and there's work to be done.
She must bury her sister and clean out the condo
And see to her niece who's retarded, sweet Rhonda.
There's a funeral to arrange, words to be said,
And her brother is useless, he's gone in the head.
Stuff to be cleaned out, a condo to sell,
And a 50-year-old child who can't care for herself.
She's an old lady who's needed out there.
She's heading for Denver on a wing and a prayer

"Sonnet for Mary" by Ralph Edwards. Reprinted with permission of the author.

It's the birthday of novelist Judith Krantz, (books by this author) born in New York City, New York (1927). Before she achieved her phenomenal success as an author, Krantz was a fashion editor for Good Housekeeping magazine, then a freelance journalist. It wasn't until she was 51, and her children were grown, that she wrote her first book. She began working on a novel, writing six and a half hours a day, five days a week. After nine months, her book, Scruples, was completed. It was published in March of 1978. Four months later it became number one on The New York Times best-seller list and remained there for almost one year. Her other works include Princess Daisy (1980), Mistral's Daughter, and her autobiography, Sex and Shopping: Confessions of a Nice Jewish Girl (2000). She said: "I have only one reader — me. I'm the average reader. If I like it, that's all I worry about."

It's the birthday of cartoonist Murat Bernard "Chic" Young, born in Chicago, Illinois (1901). He originally created the comic strip "Blondie" about a Jazz Age flapper who marries a playboy from a prominent family. But the strip soon changed direction: Two children and a dog were added to the cast, the family became middle-class, and Dagwood became a regular working stiff.

It's the birthday of adventurer and travel writer Richard Halliburton, (books by this author) born in Memphis, Tennessee (1900). The only child of a well-to-do family, he left home to embark on a career of dare-devil deeds, including riding an elephant over the Alps, flying a crimson red biplane upside down over the Taj Mahal, swimming the length of the Panama Canal, and laughing in the face of danger for more than 20 years. He wrote about his adventures in books like The Royal Road to Romance (1925), The Flying Carpet (1932), and Seven League Boots (1935). By the mid-1930s, his books were so popular that his publishers gave him a blank check to travel wherever he wanted and do whatever he pleased — as long as he promised to write about it afterward. In 1939, he was attempting to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco when he sent this message: "Southerly gales, squalls, lee rail under water, wet bunks, hard tack, bully beef, wish you were here instead of me." He was never heard from again.

It's the birthday of novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Karel Capek, (books by this author) born in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic (1890). A writer of novels, visionary romances, travel books, stories, and essays, Karel is best known for his plays, especially R.U.R. (1921), which introduced the word "robot" to the world. He got the idea when he was reading while riding in an automobile. He looked up from his reading and suddenly the crowds looked to him like artificial beings. At the premiere of R.U.R., audiences and critics were both fascinated and terrified by its vision of a technically advanced society unable to control its ultimate labor-saving creation, the robot.

It's the birthday of playwright Brian Friel, (books by this author) born Bernard Patrick Friel, near Omagh, Country Tyrone, Northern Ireland (1929). In 1959, his short stories began to appear in The New Yorker magazine, which gave him the courage to give up his teaching and start writing full time. His first major play was Philadelphia, Here I Come!, produced on Broadway in 1966. Other major works include Translations (1980) and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990).

It's the birthday of writer and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, (books by this author) born in Paris, France (1908). She is best known for her influential study of women in society, The Second Sex, published in 1949. The book is considered to be the most important treatise on women's rights up until the 1980s.



It's hard to believe, but at one point the water rose to this
level. No one had seen anything like it. People on rooftops.
Cows and coffins floating through the streets. Prisoners
carrying invalids from their rooms. The barkeeper consoling
the preacher. A coon hound who showed up a month later
forty miles downstream. And all that mud it left behind. You
never forget times like those. They become part of who you
are. You describe them to your grandchildren. But they think
it's just another tale in which animals talk and people live
forever. I know it's not the kind of thing you ought to say...
But I wouldn't mind seeing another good flood before I die.
It's been dry for decades. Next time I think I'll just let go and
drift downstream and see where I end up.

"High Water Mark" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark (buy now) © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the poet Philip Levine, (books by this author) born in Detroit (1928). He's the author of many collections of poetry, including What Work Is (1991), The Simple Truth (1994), and The Mercy (1999). He discovered writing before he really knew what it was. He said, "As a boy of fourteen, I took long walks and talked to the moon and stars, and night after night I would reshape and polish these talks, but the moon and stars never answered."

After college, he tried getting a job in advertising, but he couldn't stand it, so he supported himself working in various auto factories around Detroit. Looking around at the other men in the factories, he realized none of them had a voice. Nobody was speaking for them or writing for them. He said, "As young people will... I took this foolish vow that I would speak for them, and that's what my life would be. And sure enough I've gone and done it. Or I've tried anyway."

Philip Levine said, "In a curious way, I'm not much interested in language. In my ideal poem, no words are noticed. You look through them into a vision of... just see the people, the place."


It was on this day in 1776 that Thomas Paine published his political pamphlet Common Sense arguing for American independence from Great Britain. At the time of the publication, Paine had been living in America only two years. He'd grown up in England, where he'd struggled to earn a living as a tax collector. He saw firsthand the corruption of the British government, and had recently been fired from his job when he met Benjamin Franklin in London, and Franklin encouraged him to move to America.

He arrived just in time to see the colonies rebelling against problems in the British tax system, similar to what he had experienced back in England. He got a job as a journalist, and he immediately began to write about the political situation. After the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, he decided that the only solution to the conflict would be total independence for the American colonies. But when he expressed those ideas in his newspaper, he lost his job.

He spent the next several months traveling around Pennsylvania, going to various bars and taverns and talking to ordinary people about their opinions on American independence. He used these conversations to develop a writing style that an ordinary person could easily understand, and he used that style to write his pamphlet "Common Sense," published on this day in 1776.

The pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies, more copies than any other publication had ever sold at that time in America. It helped persuade many Americans to support revolution, and seven months later, the colonies officially declared independence.


It's the birthday of the poet Robinson Jeffers, (books by this author) born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1887). His father was an Old Testament scholar who taught him Greek and Latin, but from an early age he was also interested in science. He spent his free time either writing poetry or constructing homemade wings with which he attempted to fly. In college, he studied medicine, anatomy, astronomy, and forestry. He was still trying to figure out what to do for a living when he inherited enough money to support himself writing poetry, so he moved to the coast of California and built himself an observation tower so that he could observe the natural world and write about it.

His scientific studies had persuaded him that human beings were just one animal species whose time on earth would be brief, and he explored this idea in his poetry. He wrote,

"[Nature] knows the people are a tide That swells and in time will ebb, and all Their works dissolve ... As for us: We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident As the rock and ocean that we were made from."

He was living in his tower, without electricity or plumbing, publishing his books of poetry at his own expense, when an editor chose one of his poems for an anthology of California verse. Jeffers sent the editor his new collection, Tamar and Other Poems (1924), as a thank you gift, and the editor liked it so much that he sent it around to various magazines, where it got great reviews. Jeffers sent all the copies of the book he had to New York, and they immediately sold out.

Within a year, Jeffers was hailed as a genius, compared to Sophocles and Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Real estate agents started using his name to sell land in Carmel, California, where he lived.

But after his initial success, he began to write long narrative poems that no one could categorize. They told stories of sex and violence, more like the novels of Faulkner than any poetry being written at the time. Critics didn't know what to make of these poems, and so by the 1940s, Jeffers had sunk back into obscurity. He's been reassessed in the last two decades as possibly one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. A new collection of his work, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, came out in 2001.

Robinson Jeffers wrote,

"Man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems."

It's the birthday of historian Stephen E. Ambrose, (books by this author) born in Decatur, Illinois (1936). He was the son of a small-town doctor, and he became a football star at the University of Wisconsin, where he played both offense and defense and often spent the entire 60-minute game on the field. If he had been a little bigger, he would have considered turning pro. But after taking a class with a popular history professor on campus, he decided to devote his life to history.

He was 28 years old when a small university press published his first book, Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff (1962), a biography of General Henry Halleck. Only a few thousand copies of the biography were printed, and Ambrose assumed that it had only been read by the academic community. But one day he got a phone call from the former President Dwight Eisenhower, who had read his book on Halleck and liked it so much that he wanted Ambrose to be his own biographer. Ambrose wrote several books about Eisenhower, including The Supreme Commander (1970) and Eisenhower: The President (1984), and those books helped him make the leap from academic to popular historian.

He went on to write many best-selling books about American history, including Band of Brothers (1992) and Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996). He participated in the more than 1,400 interviews of World War II veterans, collecting oral histories of the war, and he drew upon those interviews to write one of his most popular books, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (1994). Ambrose was the founder and director of the National D-Day Museum, which opened in New Orleans in 2000. He died in 2002.

Stephen Ambrose believed that he became a successful historian because he got so much practice telling stories to his students. He said, "There is nothing like standing before 50 students at 8 a.m. to start talking about an event that occurred 100 years ago, because the look on their faces is a challenge — 'Let's see you keep me awake.' You learn what works and what doesn't in a hurry."

He also said, "As I sit at my computer... I think of myself as sitting around the campfire after a day on the trail, telling stories that I hope will have the members of the audience, or the readers, leaning forward just a bit, wanting to know what happens next."



The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
          and the new president proves that he's a dummy.

But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn't help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
               so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat,
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
                you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
                    and touch it on its flank,

and I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
               had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,

still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

"The Change" by Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means To Me. © Graywolf Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of one of the founding fathers of our country, Alexander Hamilton, born in the British West Indies (1755 or some sources say 1757). He's the man on the $10 bill.

He grew up on the tiny island of Nevis, where his father abandoned the family and his mother died when he was just a boy. He was taken in by a local merchant who gave him a job at a general store. He turned out to be quite good at accounting, so when he was thirteen, his boss took a trip to Europe and left young Alexander in charge of the store. He started writing on the side, and an article about a recent hurricane so impressed the adults around him that they all pitched in to pay for his passage to New York, where he could attend school.

He arrived in America just as rebellion against Great Britain was brewing, and he immediately began to write for New York newspapers in support of the colonies' rights. He impressed George Washington so much that he became Washington's right hand man when he was barely twenty-years old. After the revolution, when many American politicians believed that the colonies should remain mostly independent of each other, Hamilton was one of the earliest supporters of a strong central government.

In just three years, between 1787 and 1790, he served on the constitutional convention, wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, which helped garner support for the new constitution, became the first secretary of the treasury, and set up the U.S. National Bank.

While serving on Washington's cabinet, Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson became bitter enemies, and set out to undermine each other with gossip about each other's scandalous private lives. Hamilton was having an affair at the time, and there were rumors that Jefferson had had children with one of his slaves. But despite their bitter rivalry, Hamilton later spoke in favor of Jefferson as president over Aaron Burr, whom he considered a scoundrel.

Four years later, Burr challenged him to a duel. They met at sunrise in a wooded area of Weehawken, New Jersey, above the Hudson River. Hamilton showed up for the duel to prove his courage, but he purposely fired his gun straight up into the air. Burr aimed at him anyway, and Hamilton was mortally wounded and died the next day.

He hasn't been as well remembered as Washington or Jefferson, but by setting up the national treasury, the national bank, the first budgetary and tax systems, and most of all by helping gather support for the U.S. constitution, he did more to design the system of government we now live under than almost any other man.

The columnist George F. Will said, "We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton's country."

Alexander Hamilton wrote, "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."


It's the birthday of the psychologist and philosopher William James, (books by this author) born in New York City (1842). He was the older brother of the novelist Henry James, and one of the most prominent thinkers of his era. He was a man who started out studying medicine and went on to become one of the founders of modern psychology, and finished his life as a prominent philosopher.

He was a professor of physiology at Harvard when he was hired to write a textbook about the new field of psychology, which was challenging the idea that the body and the mind were separate. He could have just written a summary of all the current ideas in the field but instead decided to explore the issues of psychology he found most interesting and perplexing. He took twelve years to finish the book called, The Principles of Psychology (1890). It was used as a textbook in college classrooms, but was also translated into a dozen different languages, and people read it all over the world.

One of the ideas he developed in the book was a theory of the human mind which he called "a stream of consciousness." Before him the common view was that a person's thoughts have a clear beginning and end, and that the thinker is in control of his or her thoughts. But William James wrote, "Consciousness ... does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows."

James's ideas about consciousness were especially influential on writers, and novelists from James Joyce to William Faulkner began to portray streams of consciousness through language, letting characters think at length and at random on the page. Consciousness itself became one of the most important subjects of modern literature.

He also helped invent the technique of automatic writing, in which a person writes as quickly as possible whatever comes into one's head. He encouraged audiences to take up the practice as a form of self-analysis, and one person who took his advice was a student named Gertrude Stein, who went on to use it as the basis for her writing style.

William James wrote, "The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures."

He also wrote, "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."


It's the birthday of novelist Alan Paton, (books by this author) born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He's best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for twenty-five years as a public servant and educator.

He was the son of English settlers in South Africa. After graduating from college, he took a job as a teacher in a Zulu school. He had long wanted to be a writer, and wrote two failed novels about his experiences in the Zulu community before deciding he needed to put writing on hold and get involved in the fight against apartheid.

He went to Johannesburg and got a job transforming a reformatory from a prison into an educational institution. He became known among the residents of the reformatory as the man who pulled out the barbed wire and planted geraniums. He became one of the foremost authorities on penal systems in South Africa, and he began giving talks on the subject. After World War II, he decided to go on a world tour of penal institutions, to learn as much as he could about improving those in his own country.

It was only after he'd left South Africa that he realized he could no longer put off writing fiction. One evening in Norway, sitting in front of a cathedral at twilight, he found himself longing for home, and when he got back to his hotel room he started writing his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When it was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller. It's the best-selling novel in South African history. It still sells about 100,000 copies a year.



I eye the driver of the Chevrolet
pulsing beside me at a traffic light

the chrome-haired woman in the checkout line
chatting up the acned clerk

the clot of kids smoking on the sly
in the Mile-Hi Pizza parking lot

the meter reader, the roofer at work
next door, a senior citizen

stabbing the sidewalk with his three-pronged cane.
Which one of you discarded in a bag

—sealed with duct tape—in the middle of the road
three puppies four or five weeks old

who flung two kittens from a moving car
at midnight into a snowbank where

the person trailing you observed the leg
and tail of the calico one that lived

and if not you, someone flossing her teeth
or watering his lawn across the street.

I look for you wherever I go.

"Which One" by Maxine Kumin, from Jack and Other New Poems. © W.W. Norton, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist Jack London, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1876). He is best known as the author of over fifty books, including The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906). His best known short story is "To Build a Fire."

London was mostly self-educated. He read Ouida's Signa in 1883, a book about a poor Italian child who eventually earns fame as an opera composer. London credited reading this book as the beginning of his literary aspirations.

After graduating from grammar school in 1889, London began working long hours at a cannery, sometimes up to eighteen hours a day. Desperate for a different life, he borrowed money from his foster mother and bought a sloop named Razzle-Dazzle from French Frank, an oyster pirate, and then Jack London became an oyster pirate himself. When his sloop became too damaged to sail, London became a member of the California Fish Patrol.

London worked on a sealing schooner off the coast of Japan in 1893, and when he returned to America there were no jobs and he became a vagrant. In his memoir The Road (1907), London wrote about those days, including the tricks he used to evade train crews when he stowed away, and how he convinced strangers to buy meals for him. He even spent thirty days in jail in Buffalo, New York, before returning to California. Then he met a librarian named Ina Coolbrith at the Oakland Public Library. London called her his "literary mother."

London graduated from high school in Oakland and then spent a year at the University of California before poverty forced him again to seek his living through adventure. He sailed to Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush, and when this did not make him rich, London turned to writing and began seriously to seek publication for his stories.

He came close to abandoning a career in writing when The Overland Monthly was slow to pay for a story they had accepted. But he was saved, both "literally and literarily," when The Black Cat accepted his story "A Thousand Deaths" and paid him forty dollars to publish it. London's short story "An Odyssey of the North" appeared in the first issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Around this time, London also became vocal as a socialist. In 1896, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a story about London, giving speeches on socialism in Oakland's City Hall Park. He was arrested for this practice in 1897. He ran for mayor of Oakland as a socialist in 1901 and 1905, and published several essays on socialism, including Revolution, and Other Essays (1910).

Jack London said, "The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."

It's the birthday of the novelist Haruki Murakami, (books by this author) born in Kyoto, Japan (1949). He is best known in America as the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995).

Murakami is the child of Japanese literature teachers, but he was more interested in American literature as a boy. He studied literature and drama at Waseda University and Tokyo, and after graduation Murakami operated a jazz bar called "Peter Cat" in Tokyo for eight years. During this time Murakami became familiar with Western music, and that is why so many of his novels have musical themes.

Murakami did not write at all until after age thirty. He claims that he was inspired to write his first novel Hear the Wind Sing (1979) while watching a baseball game. He worked on the novel for many months, usually after finishing his workdays at the jazz club, and the finished book had short chapters and a fragmented style. Murakami sent the novel to a writing contest and won first prize.

In 1987, Murakami published Norwegian Wood and became popular in his home country, so he left Japan and traveled through Europe before coming to America. He taught at Princeton University and Tufts University and published two more novels. After a gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995, Murakami returned to Japan and his writing became less comedic and more serious.

Haruki Murakami said, "I have drawers in my mind, so many drawers. I have hundreds of materials in these drawers. I take out the images and memories that I need."

It's the birthday of the man who has given us the novels of Easy Rawlins and Fearless Jones, Walter Mosley, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles (1952). He is the author of Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first mystery novel featuring Easy Rawlins, which was also made into a movie. Mosley worked for several years as a computer programmer before becoming a writer. He said, "I took up writing to escape the drudgery of that every day cubicle kind of war."

Mosley became well known when Bill Clinton said in 1992 that Mosley was one of his favorite writers. Since that time, Mosley has earned national acclaim, and his work has been translated into twenty-one languages.

Walter Mosley said, "I don't see writers as teachers because books are kind of shared items [...] when writers write them, they are hardly anything and when people start to read them, they begin to change and to grow."

It's the birthday of John Winthrop, born in Suffolk, England (1588). He is best known as the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the leader of The Winthrop Fleet of 1630, the largest fleet of Englishmen ever to depart for the New World.

Winthrop was a deeply religious man, and he believed that the Anglican Church needed to rid itself of Catholic ceremonies. He and his followers decided to leave England because they thought that God would punish their country for this heresy, and they thought they would be safe in the New World.

He was elected governor of the colony before their departure in 1630, and he was re-elected several times after they had arrived in the New World. As governor, he tried to keep the number of executions for heresy to a minimum and he opposed the veiling of women, which many colonists supported.

He is famous for his "City on the Hill" sermon. He claimed in this sermon that Puritans who had come to the New World had a special pact with God to create a new, holy community. He also claimed that the rich had a holy duty to look after the poor.



Unlike the Eskimos we only have one word for snow but we have a
lot of
modifiers for that word. There is too much snow, which, unlike rain,
does not
immediately run off. It falls and stays for months. Someone wished for
this
snow. Someone got a deal, five cents on the dollar, and spent the
entire family
fortune. It's the simple solution, it covers everything. We are never
satisfied
with the arrangement of the snow so we spend hours moving the snow from
one
place to another. Too much snow. I box it up and send it to family and
friends.
I send a big box to my cousin in California. I send a small box to my
mother.
She writes "Don't send so much. I'm all alone now. I'll never be able
to use so
much." To you I send a single snowflake, beautiful, complex and
delicate;
different from all the others.

"Too Much Snow" by Louis Jenkins, from Just Above Water © Holy Cow Press!, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of short story writer Lorrie Moore, (books by this author) born in Glens Falls, New York (1957). She's the author of the short story collections Like Life (1990) and Birds of America (1998). She skipped a grade in school when she was growing up, and the difference in age between her and her classmates made her feel especially small and shy. She said, "I felt so completely thin that I was afraid to walk over grates. I thought I would fall down the slightest crevice and disappear."

She started writing in college, and published her first story in Seventeen. She was so happy she proceeded to send them everything she'd ever written. She said, "They couldn't get rid of me. I was like a stalker. I sent them everything, and of course they didn't want anything more from me."

It was only after she told her parents about her publication that she found out they had both wanted to be writers themselves. Her father went up into the attic and brought down stories that he'd once submitted to The New Yorker, and her mother admitted that she'd given up journalism for nursing.

In grad school, Moore realized she had to decide whether she wanted to devote her life to writing or to the piano, which had been her first love. She said, "The typewriter and the piano were actually similar ideas, for my mind and for my hands. I was completely unaccomplished musically [but] I was having ecstatic experiences in the practice room and wasn't getting any writing done. So I had to choose." She chose writing, and published her first book of short stories by the time she was twenty-six years old.

Lorrie Moore's first book was Self Help (1985), in which the stories were written in the style of how-to manuals, including "How to Be an Other Woman," "How to Talk to Your Mother," and "How to Be a Writer."

"How to Be a Writer" begins, "First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age —' say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire."

When she was once asked in an interview why she writes so often about characters who make lots of jokes, she said, "I feel that when you look out into the world, the world is funny. And people are funny. And that people always try to make each other laugh. I've never been to a dinner party where nobody said anything funny. If you're going to ignore that [as a fiction writer], what are you doing?"

It's the birthday of the novelist Edmund White, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1940). He realized he was gay when he was twelve years old, but he kept trying to blame it on things like his shyness or the fact that his mother was over protective. He came out of the closet to his father, and his father didn't believe him until he hired a private investigator to follow him around. White spent years going to psychoanalysts, trying to cure himself. He said. "I wanted to be normal, to have a wife and kids, not have a lonely old age." He finally came to terms with his sexuality when a new psychotherapist turned out to be gay as well.

He got a job working for Time Life Books, and he wrote fiction on the side. He wrote five novels about contemporary homosexual life, but he couldn't get any of them published. So finally he wrote Forgetting Elena (1973), about a man who wakes up after a party and can't remember who he is. It was the first novel White had written that didn't mention homosexuality, and it got great reviews. The writer Vladimir Nabokov called it the best new novel he'd read in years.

But even though White had had his first success with a novel that didn't address his own sexuality, he decided that if he was going to be a writer, he wanted to write about his own experiences, and so he set out to become the foremost gay novelist in America. His third novel A Boy's Own Story (1982) was the first gay coming of age novel in America, and it became a best-seller in the United States and England. He has gone on to write a series of novels, chronicling the history of gay society in his lifetime, including The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000.)



«

»

  • “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