Oct. 18, 2004

On an Anniversary

by Donald Justice

Monday, 18 OCTOBER, 2004
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"On an Anniversary" by Donald Justice, from Collected Poems © Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

On an Anniversary

Thirty years and more go by
In the blinking of an eye,
      And you are still the same
As when first you took my name.

Much the same blush now as then
Glimmers through the peach-pale skin.
      Time (but as with a glove)
Lightly touches you, my love.

Stand with me a minute still
While night climbs our little hill.
      Below, the lights of cars
Move, and overhead the stars.

The estranging years that come,
Come and go, and we are home.
      Time joins us as a friend,
And the evening has no end.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Terry McMillan, born in Port Huron, Michigan (1951). She's best known for writing about middle class black women and their search for love in novels such as Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

She grew up in working class Michigan. Her father was an alcoholic and an abusive husband, so her mother divorced him and got a job working in a series of auto plants. But McMillan says, "There were a couple winter nights I remember my teeth chattering, but I don't remember ever feeling poor. I hate that word. We never went hungry."

McMillan was the oldest daughter, and she helped pay the bills by shelving books at the local library, and it was there that she discovered literature. When she first started working there, she assumed that all writers were white. But one day, she ran across a book by James Baldwin. She said, "I remember feeling embarrassed and did not read his book because I was too afraid. I couldn't imagine that he'd have anything better or different to say than [white writers]."

She got a scholarship to college in California and studied journalism. She took a creative writing class with the author Ishmael Reed, and he told her to put off graduate school and just write. So she got a job as a secretary. And even after she became a single mother, she got up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to write. She finally published her first novel Mama in 1987.

McMillan's publisher only printed 5,000 copies of that first novel, and didn't promote the book at all. So McMillan decided she would promote herself, writing more than three thousand letters to bookstores, universities, colleges all across the country. She said, "I did it all summer long: my friends were hanging out at the beach, and I was licking envelopes." She went on a national tour, giving readings that she had set up herself, and she managed to sell out the entire first printing of her book before it was officially supposed to be published.

She's since become the best-selling African American author in history. Her novel Waiting to Exhale (1992) was one of the first novels to portray affluent African Americans, who don't have to struggle against racism or poverty. It sold 700,000 copies in hardback, 3 million in paperback and it spent 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

When asked why she's so successful, McMillan said, "I don't write about victims. They just bore me to death. I prefer to write about somebody who can pick themselves back up and get on with their lives."

Her most recent book is A Day Late and a Dollar Short (2001).

It's the birthday of the playwright Wendy Wasserstein, born in Brooklyn, New York (1950). She's best known for plays such as Isn't It Romantic and The Heidi Chronicles. Se fell in love with theater at an early age, and went to a Broadway show almost every Saturday afternoon of her childhood. In high school, she got out of gym class by volunteering to write the musical revue for the annual mother daughter luncheon.

But her parents were more interested in her schoolwork than her creativity. She remembers her sister coming home one day with a 99% on a test, and her mother asked what happened to the other point. So Wasserstein knew she was expected to choose business, law, or medicine, and that's what she planned on doing. She said, "I loved the theater, I just didn't think you could do it as a profession. I thought that I would marry a lawyer, or be one, and do productions of Guys and Dolls at [my local suburban] playhouse." But after she took a playwriting course in college, she was hooked. She turned down Columbia Business School to study drama at Yale. She was the only woman in most of her classes.

Wasserstein struggled to make it as a playwright in New York City, and applied for a job writing for the Sesame Street TV show, but they rejected her because they said she was too funny. Then in 1977, her play Uncommon Women and Others, about a class reunion of women from Mount Holyoke College, became an off Broadway hit.

She continued writing successful off-Broadway plays, publishing essays in magazines, and writing for Hollywood, but she watched as most of her friends and siblings got married and had children. She began to think a lot about what she'd sacrificed by devoting herself to theater instead of to family life.

So she wrote a play about it, and that was The Heidi Chronicles (1988), about a woman who has clung to her all her feminist ideals while all of her friends have given them up. After a sold out run off-Broadway, it moved to Broadway and became the first play written by a woman to win a Tony Award. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Wendy Wasserstein's most recent play is An American Daughter (1997).

It's the birthday of novelist Rick Moody, born in New York City (1961). He grew up in suburban Connecticut. He was a smart kid who read a lot. His parents got divorced when he was nine, and he was sent off to an expensive boarding school, where he started drinking heavily and abusing drugs. He wrote a lot, but he didn't take his writing seriously until he won a contest his senior year in high school.

In college he studied under experimental writers like John Gardner and Angela Carter. He said, "[Angela Carter] made a reading list for me on the back of an envelope. She said: 'You don't know what the hell you're talking about, read these books.'" He went on to graduate school at Columbia, but he dropped out after a year because he spent most of his time drinking. He had a hard time paying his rent or holding a job. He said, "I was a clerk at [a bookstore] and I got fired after one month. They said, 'We really like you and we respect you as a writer, but this cash register thing is just not working out.'"

He finally checked himself into a mental hospital, got sober, and then he wrote his first novel Garden State, about young people growing up in the industrial wasteland of New Jersey. But even though he'd gotten his life together, and had even gotten a job at a publishing house, he couldn't get his own book published. He even tried smuggling a copy to his favorite writer at the time, William Gaddis, but he never heard anything back. Moody had all but given up on ever publishing it, when he came back to his desk one day found a "While You Were Out" note telling him that his novel had one a special award for manuscripts that had been rejected by major publishers. It came out in 1991.

He went on to write several more novels, including The Ice Storm (1994) which was made into a movie in 1997. His most recent book is The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions (2002).

It's the birthday of the long-time New Yorker journalist, A. J. [Abbott Joseph] Liebling, born in New York (1904). As a young boy, he fell in love with the newspapers his father brought home from work every day. He said, "It is impossible for me to estimate how many of my early impressions of the world, correct and the opposite, came to me through newspapers. Homicide, adultery, no-hit pitching, and Balkanism were concepts that, left to my own devices, I would have encountered much later in life."

So he became a newspaper reporter, writing about crime and local tragedies. He said, "I [would] pound up tenement stairs and burst in on families disarranged by sudden misfortune. It gave me a chance to make contact with people I would never otherwise have met, and I learned almost immediately what every reporter knows, that most people are eager to talk about their troubles."

He tried to get a job at Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. In order to attract the attention of the editor, he hired a man to walk for three days outside the Pulitzer building wearing sandwich boards that said, "Hire Joe Liebling." Nobody noticed the sign, but Liebling got a job there anyway.

He went on to join the staff of the New Yorker in 1935, and he worked there for the rest of his life, writing about gourmet food, bare-knuckle boxing, and World War II, among other things. A new collection of his work was published this year: Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer.

A. J. Liebling said, "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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