May 1, 2008

Words That Make My Stomach Plummet

by Mira McEwan

Committee Meeting.       Burden of Proof.
                  The Simple Truth.      Trying To Be Nice.
Honestly.   I Could Have Died.        I Almost Cried.
              It's Only a Cold Sore.
   It's My Night.     Trust Me.    Dead Serious.
I Have Everything All Under Control.
                I'm Famous For My Honesty.
       I'm Simply Beside Myself.      We're On The Same Page.
                Let's Not Reinvent The Wheel.
For The Time Being.   There Is That.
                      I'm Not Just Saying That.
   I Just Couldn't Help Myself.             I Mean It.

"Words That Make My Stomach Plummet" by Mira McEwan, from Ecstatic. © Allbook Books, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Joseph Heller, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1923). He grew up in the Coney Island surrounded by Ferris wheels, cotton candy, and con artists. During World War II, he flew bomber missions. Most of his targets were bridges, but he once had to bomb a village, and that made him uncomfortable. He always felt a little guilty in between missions, sitting around while his friends were out risking their lives, but one of his tent mates had a typewriter, so he started writing stories to pass the time. Several years after the war, he began to write Catch-22, which was published in 1961.

In the novel, a World War II bomber pilot named Yossarian tries to get himself declared insane so he can stop flying bombing missions. Unfortunately, there is a regulation called Catch-22, stating that if you want out of combat duty you aren't crazy. Heller wrote, "[A pilot] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to."

It's the birthday of Bobbie Ann Mason,(books by this author) born in Mayfield, Kentucky (1940). She grew up on a dairy farm reading Nancy Drew novels, studied journalism in college, went to work for a magazine where she wrote about teenage film stars, and then went to graduate school and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Nabokov's Ada.

She did not begin writing fiction until her 30s. She said, "Around 1978, I realized that I could write contemporary stories about western Kentucky, and that was the big move for me." She began submitting stories to The New Yorker and though many were rejected, an editor showed interest in her writing and feeling encouraged, she worked harder and wrote faster. In the span of a year of a half, she had submitted 20 stories. The first 19 were rejected, but the magazine bought her 20th submission and in 1980 published her first story.

She said, "It took me a long time to discover my material. It wasn't a matter of developing writing skills, it was a matter of knowing how to see things. And it took me a very long time to grow up. I'd been writing for a long time, but was never able to see what there was to write about. I always aspired to things away from home, so it took me a long time to look back at home and realize that that's where the center of my thought was."

She wrote a memoir, Clear Springs, published in 1999. She said, "I think it's a natural impulse to want to find some kind of coherence and meaning in your life, to find that it has a narrative, and that there are patterns. There are themes in your life, and themes that connect back to previous generations. You can see where you fit into the puzzle. Your life starts to make sense, in terms of what you've done before and what you're doing now."

Her short-story collections include Shiloh and Other Stories (1982), Midnight Magic (1998), and Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail (2001). She's written several novels, including In Country (1985), Spence + Lila (1988), and An Atomic Romance (2005).

She said, "Since Huckleberry Finn, or thereabouts, it seemed that all American literature was about the alienated hero. I had a vague sense that I wanted to violate that somehow, that I was sick of reading about the alienated hero. I think where I wind up now is writing about people who are trying to get into the mainstream, or they're in the mainstream, just trying to live their lives the best they can. Because the mainstream itself is the arena of action.''

It's the birthday of screenwriter and novelist Terry Southern, (books by this author) born in Alvarado, Texas (1924). His first novel, Flash and Filigree, came out in 1958. His second, The Magic Christian (1960), was not a popular success, but it did earn him the admiration of Stanley Kubrick, who invited him to collaborate on the screenplay for Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which appeared in (1963). Life magazine called it "a film so original, irreverent and appalling that it practically divided the nation into two enemy camps." And film critic Robert Sklar said was one of the most important films of the 1960s because "it satirized the cold-war mentality and helped lay the groundwork for the 1960s counterculture." It was nominated for an Academy Award, as was another of Southern's screenplays, Easy Rider (1969).

His photo appeared in the collage on the cover of the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He said, "The important thing in writing is the capacity to astonish. Not shock—shock is a worn-out word—but astonish. The world has no grounds whatever for complacency."

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
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