Sep. 29, 2006

Gray's First Sober Year

by William Notter

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Gray's First Sober Year" by William Notter from More Space Than Anyone Can Stand. © Texas Review Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Gray's First Sober Year

This new life is better
than a dozen beer-joint romances
or a hundred drunks at fishing camp.
My habit now is not drinking,
and waking up where I belong.
I can see colors again,
and I don't feel like a turd in the punchbowl
whenever I go around people.

I'll mow the weeds for Sharon
and almost enjoy it. She's even given up
checking my breath whenever I come home.
I went shopping for our anniversary
and wound up crying in the store,
but not the kind of tears you cry
when your wife catches you lying in the shed
with your pistol jabbed up in your mouth
and vodka running out your nose.

The only thing she could think to do
was check me into another detox,
and this time it finally took.
This year has made me different—
vodka could never do that for long.
Some days when I wake up early
and listen to Sharon lying there breathing,
it feels like somebody snuck in while we slept
and changed our sheets.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is believed to be the birthday of the man who's generally credited with inventing the modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes, (books by this author) born near Madrid (1547). He was one of the unluckiest authors in the history of Western literature. In 1570 he enlisted in the army in order to help fight back the invasion of the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. He fought bravely in a battle off the coast of Greece, even though he was shot twice in the chest and once in his left hand. The battle was a victory, and he became a war hero, receiving special recognition from the king.

Unfortunately, he and a group of other military men were captured by Algerian pirates on the way home from the war. They were held for ransom in North Africa for five years. Cervantes led four escape attempts and all four attempts failed. As punishment for his escape attempts, he was chained to a wall for months at a time.

When he was finally ransomed and returned to Spain, Cervantes assumed that since he was a famous war hero, he would have no trouble getting government work when he got back to Spain. But nobody even remembered the battle he had fought in. The Spanish economy was in terrible shape, and it was nearly impossible to find a decent job. So he began writing plays. He knew he had to work quickly in order to make his name, and so in the course of just a few years, he managed to produce more than 30 plays.

But not one of Cervantes's plays was a success. As a desperate measure, he took a terrible job as a kind of a tax collector. He had to travel around the countryside in all kinds of weather, arguing with shopkeepers and farmers, enduring accusations of corruption everywhere he went. Even priests hated him. He was excommunicated by half a dozen churches. He was in his 50s, barely supporting his family, unhappy in his marriage, and failing to achieve success as a playwright or poet.

Then in 1595, he got caught up in a financial scandal. He was charged with embezzlement, even though historians believe that he was probably one of the only honest employees working for the government at the time. Having escaped five years of captivity in Africa, Cervantes now found himself imprisoned in his own country for a crime he didn't commit.

Cervantes later wrote that it was during that time in the Royal Prison of Sevilla that he first had the idea for his masterpiece, Don Quixote (1605). He conceived of it as a parody of the chivalric romance genre, which was popular at the time. And so Cervantes invented the character of Don Quixote, a middle-aged man who has read so many romances that he comes to believe they are true. He embarks upon a career as a knight, fighting for righteousness and for the love of his lady, Dulcinea del Toboso, who is actually a peasant wench. He takes as his squire a farmer he knows named Sancho Panza, and the two go off to engage in jousts with windmills.

The first volume of the novel was a best-seller, but unlucky as always, Cervantes didn't make much money from it. There was no copyright at the time, and pirated editions were published all over Europe.

Miguel de Cervantes said, "Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be."

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




  • “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
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show