Mar. 3, 2010

Avian Time

by Reginald Gibbons

The collection manager of the bird specimens at the natural history
museum told of often stopping, on his way to work during spring and fall,
at the immense convention building—tall, long and wide—on the shore of
Lake Michigan, where on the north side he would gather the bodies of the
migratory birds killed by their collisions against the expanse of glass before
first light.

     The north side, whether in fall or in spring—a puzzle.

     Are these particular birds blown off course by winds, and do they return
in starlight or dimness before dawn or under dark clouds toward shore,
making for the large bulk they might perceive as forest?

     They have been flying along this same route for tens of thousands of
years, and not yet has their thinking formulated this obstacle of the city
that has appeared in the swift stroke of a hundred and fifty cycles of their

"Avian Time" by Reginald Gibbons, from Slow Train Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories. © The University of Chicago Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1875 that the opera Carmen appeared on stage for the first time at the Opéra-Comique in France. Georges Bizet died of a heart attack just three months after the opera's debut. He was worn out from rehearsals. Carmen is still the most popular French opera of the 19th century.

It's the birthday of This American Life host Ira Glass, born in Baltimore (1959), who started working in radio, by his own account, "totally by accident." He was 19, had just finished his freshman year of college, and was looking for a summer job with an ad agency or a TV station. He searched all over Baltimore and couldn't find anything, but someone at a rock 'n' roll station knew someone at NPR's headquarters in Washington and gave Ira a phone number and said, "They're kind of a new organization, so call."

He managed to talk his way into an internship despite the fact he'd never once listened to public radio. He started out as a tape cutter and as a desk assistant, graduated from Brown University, and continued working for public radio as newscast writer, editor, producer of All Things Considered, reporter, and substitute host.

With each story he did, he would incorporate specific elements that would either play up his strengths or make him work on improving his weaknesses. He was a really good tape cutter, and he'd always put in a least one or two tape-to-tape transitions, where the story would go from one quote to the next without any intervening narration. He didn't like the way he sounded on tape, and he invented a whole series of stories where he interviewed people and then cut himself out of the tape completely.

As he went on, he found that the most interesting stuff came out when the interviewer was chatting, seemingly casually, with the interviewee. Now he says: "If I had to give just one piece of advice to beginning reporters about the single-fastest way they could improve their stories, it'd be to get themselves into the quotes. Asking tough questions. Cajoling the interviewee. Joking with the interviewee. Thinking out loud."

In 1995, he launched This American Life. In its first seasons, he managed to convince a lot of otherwise reluctant stations to carry his show because if they did, they could also use the entertaining pledge-drive skits that he created and produced, which always brought in lots of money for stations.

With This American Life, he's done stories about babies switched at birth, about frenemies, and poultry, and mind games, and guns, and infidelity, and the devil, and highway rest stops, and credit default swaps.

Ira Glass said in a recent interview: "It's hard to make something that's interesting. It's really, really hard. ... Basically, anything that anyone makes. ... It's like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that's written or anything that's created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity. It's all tending toward mediocrity in the same way that all atoms are sort of dissipating out toward the expanse of the universe. ... So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will. ... That feels exactly the same now as it did the first week of the show."

He's the editor of an anthology called The New Kings of Nonfiction (2007).

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