Aug. 17, 2010


by Stephen Dunn

After the paintings
of David Ahlsted

We have lived in this town,
have disappeared
on this prairie. The church

always was smaller
than the grain elevator,
though we pretended otherwise.
The houses were similar

because few of us wanted
to be different
or estranged. And the sky

would never forgive us,
no matter how many times
we guessed upwards
in the dark.

The sky was the prairie's
double, immense,
kaleidoscopic, cold.

The town was where
and how we huddled
against such forces,
and the old abandoned

pickup on the edge
of town was how we knew
we had gone too far,
or had returned.

People? Now we can see them,
invisible in their houses
or in their stores.

Except for one man
lounging on his porch,
they are part of the buildings,

they have determined
every stubborn shape, the size
of each room. The trailer home
with the broken window

is somebody's life.
One thing always is
more important than another,

this empty street, this vanishing
point. The good eye knows
no democracy. Shadows follow

sunlight as they should,
as none of us can prevent.
Everything is conspicuous
and is not.

"Midwest" by Stephen Dunn, from Landscape at the End of the Century. © W.W. Norton, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of V.S. Naipaul, (books by this author) born in Chaguanas, Trinidad (1932). His grandparents had come to Trinidad from India as indentured laborers. He grew up with six sisters and one brother, and he was very intelligent, and won a scholarship to Oxford University in England.

In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

On this day in 1993, Random House offered Colin Powell (books by this author) $6 million for My American Journey — the largest advance ever for a celebrity memoir — and it became the fastest-selling book in the publisher's history. Since then, the largest advance for an autobiography — and for any book ever — was for Bill Clinton's My Life (2004), at $15 million.

It was on this day in 1907, despite a heavy rainstorm in Seattle, thousands of people showed up for the opening of Pike Place Market. It is the oldest continually operating farmers' market in the country.

It's the birthday of Jonathan Franzen, (books by this author) born in Western Springs, Illinois (1959). He grew up in St. Louis.

He graduated from Swarthmore, spent a year in Berlin on a Fulbright, and worked at Harvard in the seismology lab, studying earthquakes. When he was 22 years old, he started writing his first novel, and six years later it was published as The Twenty-Seventh City (1988). It got a lot of good reviews, but it didn't make much of a splash in more mainstream culture, and Franzen was disappointed. The same thing happened with his second novel, Strong Motion (1992). So he wrote an essay for Harper's called "Perchance to Dream" and complained that America no longer had any place for a "big, social novel" that was both literary and relevant. He said that America had become obsessed with money, technology, and celebrity.

Then he went ahead and wrote a big, social novel that the critics loved but was also a best-seller: The Corrections (2001). He wrote it over a period in which his marriage broke up, his father succumbed to Alzheimer's disease and died, and his mother got cancer and died as well. He said, "The most important experience of my life, really, to date, is the experience of growing up in the Midwest with the particular parents I had."

Since then, Franzen has published a book of essays called How to Be Alone (2002) and a memoir, The Discomfort Zone (2006). His first novel since The Corrections is coming out in a couple of weeks. It's called Freedom, and it's the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, a progressive couple from St. Paul who find themselves middle-aged and no longer in control of their lives that once seemed so perfect. Walter is working for the coal industry, their teenage son has moved out to live with Republicans, and Patty is torn between her husband and his best friend from college.

Jonathan Franzen said, "I come from a kind of old-fashioned Midwest, and I live in a technocorporate, postironic, cool, late-late-late Eastern world. The two worlds hardly ever talk to each other, but they're completely, constantly talking to one another inside me. [...] I have my parents talking to me in my head and then other parts of myself talking back. I think this is potentially an interesting conversation."

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