Jul. 14, 2008

A Snap Quiz in Body Language

by David Wagoner

We can't hear what they're saying, but that man
is holding that woman in his arms. Your assignment
is to deduce their thoughts from what they do.
They've left no apparent space between their bodies.
It could be called a close embrace, but notice
her arms are at her sides, her hands relaxed,
her face impassive, while he's whispering
something in her ear. His upper torso
is tilted slightly forward. Hers is yielding
but not in a way suggesting sweet surrender.
Is this a seduction scene? Is she being held
for questioning? Should she call a lawyer?
He's looking into her eyes now. How wide open
would you say they are? What does he see in them?
If he were to let her go, class, what would she do?

"A Snap Quiz in Body Language" by David Wagoner from A Map of the Night. © University of Illinois Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, born in Okemah, Oklahoma (1913). He was one of the only American artists whose reputation never really suffered, though he was openly affiliated with the Communist Party.

Guthrie never finished high school, but he spent his spare time reading books at the local public library. He took occasional jobs as a sign painter and started playing music on a guitar he found in the street.

Texas was hit by the same drought that created the Dust Bowl in the mid-1930s, and Guthrie followed workers who were moving to California, where he began to write songs about the people who'd lost their farms and their homes.

One of Guthrie's first famous songs was "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh," in which he wrote, "A dust storm hit, an' it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an' it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an' blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run,
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh;
So long, it's been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin' my home,
And I got to be driftin' along."

His songs grew increasingly political and became more and more sympathetic to the plight of people facing hard times during the Great Depression. Like many people at the time, he thought the Depression was a sign that capitalism had collapsed. He wrote a column for the Communist Party newspaper the People's World. But he never officially joined the Communist Party. He said, "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life."

Guthrie went on to write thousands of songs, including "Hobo's Lullaby," "Hard, Ain't it Hard," "Pastures of Plenty," "This Train is Bound for Glory," "I Got No Home in the World Anymore," "Billy the Kid," "Jackhammer John," "Sharecropper Song," and "Someday."

Woody Guthrie once said, "I hate a song that makes you think that you're not any good. ... Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or your hard traveling. I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.

It's the birthday of playwright and librettist Arthur Laurents, (books by this author)born in New York City (1918). He is best known for writing the book for Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), but he has written and directed many other plays, including Home of the Brave (1945), The Bird Cage (1950), A Clearing in the Woods (1957), and Invitation to a March (1960).

It's the birthday of Graydon Carter, born in Toronto, Canada (1949). His father was a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who took photographs from the air and helped to make the first maps of northern parts of Canada. As a boy, Graydon had a great sense of humor and especially loved to play practical jokes. At church camp one summer, he replaced the sugar container at the ministers' table with Epsom salt, a laxative. Later, as a teenager, he drew up fake press passes that were exact replicas of the real ones for the Montreal World Expo, and he and his friends were able to sneak into the event.

He dropped out of the University of Ottawa before graduating and in 1973 started his own magazine, The Canadian Literary Review. Five years later, he moved to New York City and became a writer at Time magazine. He also contributed to GQ, and it was there that he met Kurt Andersen, with whom he started Spy magazine in 1986. Spy poked fun at people in the upper echelons of society; it regularly made reference to Laurence "churlish dwarf billionaire" Tisch and also to Donald "short-fingered vulgarian" Trump, among others.

After several years at Spy, he became the editor of the New York Observer, a weekly catering to Manhattanites with money—a demographic that had been a prime target of Spy's satire. Within a year, Carter became the editor at Vanity Fair. Condé Nast publications, which owned the magazine, had decided to move longtime Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown over to The New Yorker, and Carter replaced Brown at Vanity Fair.

Many doubted his ability to attract and retain lucrative advertisers, which Brown had shown a special knack for doing. In his first years at the helm of Vanity Fair, the magazine performed only mediocrely, and many jokingly called it "Vanishing Flair."

But Carter soon began to come up with features that gave the magazine a stamp distinctly his own and that would eventually make it unprecedentedly successful. He initiated the Hollywood issue and a music issue, set up the Vanity Fair Oscar party, and introduced more long-form journalism into its format. He also made the magazine increasingly political and began using the Editor's Letter page to attack the actions of the Bush administration—especially its policy about Iraq, which Carter was criticizing even before the war had begun. He wrote, "I see none of the worry lines that should be etched in the face of a man taking the greatest military power ever assembled to war."

In 2005, the magazine broke the "Deep Throat" story. It also provided highly praised coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and published a photo diary of the hurricane's destruction and its victims and of people who helped with aid and relief efforts.

Carter has taken on several Hollywood projects. Several articles that appeared in his magazine were optioned into films, including one on the Enron meltdown and one a profile on real-estate mogul and suspected murderer Robert Durst. Carter himself made a documentary about producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture.

He's unanimously described as "enthusiastic" by those who know him. The man with whom he cofounded Spy, Kurt Anderson, said Carter "always thinks whatever he is doing at the moment is the greatest, most fantastic thing."

He said, "I edit for someone like me. Somebody getting on an eight-hour plane flight or eight hours spent on the beach or a one-hour lunch break or a 20-minute subway ride."

And, "When I first took over the title, I said, 'This looks easy.' I didn't realize all the levels, all the playing fields you have to play on. I have a fashion readership. I have a political readership. I have a literary readership. I have New York's social scene, Hollywood. I have America. I have Europe. And then you have men and women. It's a very complex magazine."

And, "I think Americans, more so than any other culture, love second and third acts."

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