Nov. 11, 2006


by Mary Oliver

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Clouds" by Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early. © Beacon Press.

(Text not published due to copyright restrictions)

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Veterans Day, honoring Americans who have served in the armed forces.

November 11 was originally called Armistice Day because it was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. After four years of brutal trench fighting, 9 million soldiers had died and 21 million were wounded. It was called "The War to End All Wars," because it was the bloodiest war in history up to that point, and it made many people so sick of war that they hoped no war would ever break out again.

Many intellectuals and artists were disillusioned by the war. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "All this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen, living luxurious lives, mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country's pride."

It's the birthday of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (books by this author) born in Moscow (1821). As a young man, he was arrested and imprisoned for participating in radical political activities. He spent four years in a Siberian prison with murderers and thieves. When he got back to St. Petersberg, his mild epilepsy began to grow worse. He got married, but his wife came down with tuberculosis. She died the same year as his brother. At that point, Dostoyevsky's debts were so great that he had to flee Russia in order to avoid debtor's prison.

He fell into even deeper debt while traveling around Western Europe, because he became an obsessive gambler. Desperate for money, he made a deal with a publisher to get an advance on his next novel, but if he didn't finish the novel by the deadline, the publisher would take possession of the rights to all of Dostoyevsky's work.

A month away from that deadline, Dostoyevsky hadn't made any progress on the book and he began to panic. At the last minute, he hired a stenographer and dictated an entire novel to her in a few weeks, called The Gambler (1866). In the process of writing that novel, he fell in love with the stenographer and he went on to marry her. It was she who finally put his life and finances in order and created stable conditions for his work.

Dostoyevksy's next book was his first great novel, Crime and Punishment (1866). He went on to write many more novels, including The Idiot (1868), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). In the last few years of his life, his work was so popular that he began to publish an entire magazine of his own writing every month, called The Writer's Diary, which contained essays, journal entries, and fiction.

It's the birthday of Kurt Vonnegut, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1922). He's the author of many novels, including Cat's Cradle (1963), Hocus Pocus (1990), and Timequake (1997). He served in World War II, and in December of 1944, he was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. He was imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, and he was there when the city was destroyed by British and American bombers. That experience inspired his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Kurt Vonnegut said, "Anti-war books are as likely to stop war as anti-glacier books are to stop glaciers."

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Mary Gaitskill, (books by this author) born in Lexington Kentucky (1954). She had a difficult childhood. Her parents moved around a lot, and she never felt like she fit in anywhere. When she was 15, she was kicked out of boarding school. A psychiatrist recommended that her parents have her committed to a mental hospital. She ran away from home, but her parents tracked her down and had her hospitalized anyway. She was released after two months, and at the age of 16 she took off to San Francisco to live on her own.

She supported herself as a stripper and occasional prostitute until she had saved enough money to go to college, where she studied journalism. And she began writing short stories. When her first collection Bad Behavior came out in 1988, it got a lot of attention for examining the lives of prostitutes and drug addicts and sadomasochists. She said, "My experience of life as essentially unhappy and uncontrollable taught me to examine the way people, including myself, create survival systems ... for themselves in unorthodox and sometimes apparently self-defeating ways. These inner worlds, although often unworkable and unattractive in social terms, can have a unique beauty and courage."

Her novel Veronica came out in 2005, and many critics have called it a masterpiece.

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