Mar. 9, 2005

Moment of Inertia

by Debra Spencer

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Poem: "Moment of Inertia" by Debra Spencer, from Pomegranate. © Hummingbird Press. Reprinted with permission.

Moment of Inertia

It's what makes the pancake hold still
while you slip the spatula under it
so fast it doesn't move, my father said
standing by the stove.

All motion stopped when he died.
With his last breath the earth
lurched to a halt and hung still on its axis,
the atoms in the air
coming to rest within their molecules,
and in that moment
something slid beneath me
so fast I couldn't move.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1913 that Virginia Woolf delivered the manuscript for her first novel, The Voyage Out, to the Duckworth Publishing House. She had been working on it for almost seven years. She first mentioned it in a letter in 1907. She wrote, "I have wasted all my time trying to begin things and taking up different points of view, and dropping them, and grinding out the dullest stuff, which makes my blood run thick."

By 1912, she had written five drafts of the novel, including two different versions that she worked on simultaneously. Between December 1912 and March 1913, she rewrote the entire novel one more time, almost from scratch, typing 600 pages in two months.

The book was finally accepted, and then she had to work on correcting the proofs. She found the experience of re-reading her own work in print almost unbearable. She had a nervous breakdown, and spent two years recovering. The experience helped persuade her and her husband to start their own publishing house so she wouldn't have to go through the agony of submitting her work to others.

The Voyage Out was eventually published in 1915, but it didn't sell well. It took fifteen years to sell 2,000 copies. Critics don't consider it a great work, but among the novel's cast of characters is a woman named Clarissa Dalloway, a character who would stick in Virgina Woolf's mind for more than a decade until she wrote an entire novel about that woman called Mrs. Dalloway (1927).

It's the birthday of crime novelist Mickey Spillane, the pen name of Frank Morrison, born in Brooklyn, New York (1918). He spent his childhood defending himself as the only Irish boy in a tough Polish neighborhood. His father worked in a hardware store, and it was there that Spillane saw a typewriter for the first time. He later said, "I would type on it... I loved the sound it made... [and] I knew I was going to be a writer."

As a high school student, he wrote for a local newspaper, and he covered bootlegging scams and other criminal activity. He would make carbon copies of the newspaper stories and turn one copy in as a writing assignment for school and get paid for the other. In 1940, he got a job as a scripter of comic books for Funnies, Inc. Other writers required a week to produce a Captain Marvel story while Spillane could write one in a day.

After he served in World War II as a fighter pilot, Spillane bought some land in the Catskill Mountains, where he lived in a tent while building his own house. He kept a typewriter on a wobbly table in that tent, and wrote at night by the light of a Coleman lamp. It was there that he wrote his first novel I, the Jury (1947), which introduced his famous detective Mike Hammer. It begins, "I shook the rain from my hat and walked into the room. Nobody said a word. They stepped back politely and I could feel their eyes on me."

I, the Jury got terrible reviews when it came out in hardcover. The critic for the New York Herald Tribune called Spillane, "An inept vulgarian." The hardcover only sold 7,000 copies. But when the paperback came out, with one of the most sexually explicit covers ever printed on a book at that time, it sold a quarter of a million copies in one week, and it went on to sell about 9 million.

Spillane published six more books in two years, all best-sellers, including My Gun Is Quick (1950); The Big Kill (1951), and Kiss Me, Deadly (1952). He was known for including far more graphic sex and violence in his books than any other writer at the time. His work helped spark the pulp fiction craze of the 1950's, and he was one of the targets for a U.S. Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency.

Spillane never got as much respect as other detective novelists like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, but he sold many more books than they did. Six of his books are now among the 25 top-selling novels of the 20th century. It's estimated that there are about 130 million copies of his books in print.

Spillane was once asked why detective Mike Hammer is always depicted drinking beer. He said, "Mike Hammer drinks beer, not cognac, because I can't spell cognac."

And, "If you're a singer you lose your voice. A baseball player loses his arm. [But] a writer gets more knowledge, and if he's good, the older he gets, the better he writes."

It's the birthday of Vita Sackville-West, born in Knole, England (1892). She grew up in an incredibly wealthy family, but she never got along with her mother, who was the illegitimate daughter of a famous Spanish dancer. Sackville-West said, "I used to be taken to [mother's] room to be 'passed' before going down to luncheon on party days... and I was always wrong and miserable, so that parties used to blacken my summer."

Sackville-West spent most of her childhood wandering around her family's huge house, which had 52 staircases and 365 rooms. She began to write, and by the time she was 18, she had written eight novels and five plays.

She married for convenience and she said, "[I became] the correct and adoring wife of the brilliant young diplomat." But it turned out that both she and her husband were homosexual, so while they remained married good friends for the rest of their lives, they each had many affairs.

Around 1918, Sackville-West began going out in public dressed as a man. The first time she ever put on men's pants she said, "I ran, I shouted, I jumped, I climbed, I vaulted over the gates. I felt like a schoolboy." She went on to have several affairs with women, most famously with Virginia Woolf. She inspired Woolf's novel Orlando, about a character who lives for centuries as both a man and a woman. It was Woolf who published Sackville-West's novel The Edwardians (1930), which became a big best-seller.

She went on to write many more novels, as well as plays, poetry, and biographies, but she's also remembered as one of the great gardening writers of all time. In the 1930's, she and her husband spent years restoring a castle estate called Sissinghurst that had fallen to ruin. Sackville-West grew to love the country, spent much of her time working on the garden, and she began contributing a weekly gardening column to the London Observer. She kept it up almost 15 years.

At the time, gardening was been considered a masculine hobby, and most members of the British upper class employed gardeners to do all the actual work. But Vita Sackville-West wrote about the joys of digging around in the dirt, pulling weeds, and arranging the flowers herself. She persuaded many people to start their own gardens, and she helped start many gardening trends, including single color gardens, the incorporation of wildflowers, and the planting of climbing roses at the base of apple trees.

Vita Sackville-West thought of her gardening column as insignificant compared to the rest of her writing until, in 1954, she was awarded a medal by the Royal Horticultural Society. She wrote of the award to her husband, "I was rather pleased but even more astonished. It is all due to those beastly little Observer articles... Haven't I always said that one got rewarded for the things that one least esteemed?"

Vita Sackville West said, "I suppose the pleasure of country life lies really in the eternally renewed evidences of the determination to live."

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