Oct. 18, 2010


by Eliza Griswold

Was it dissatisfaction or hope
that beckoned some of the monkeys
down from the trees and onto the damp
forbidden musk of the forest floor?

Which one tested his thumbs
against the twig
and awkwardly dug a grub
from the soil?

What did the tribe above think
as it leaned on the slender branches
watching the others
frustrated, embarrassed,
but pinching grubs
with leathery fingers
into their mouths?

The moral is movement
is awkward. The lesson is fumble.

"Evolution" by Eliza Griswold, from Wideawake Field. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1851 that Moby-Dick was first published, in London, under the title The Whale. Only 500 copies were printed, but the publisher, Bentley, decorated some of them with beautiful bindings. The Whale was divided into three volumes. They had dark blue covers and white spines painted with gold whales. But either the artist didn't read the novel or didn't know much about whales, because the whales were right whales, not sperm whales like Moby-Dick, with their distinctive bulbous heads.

It's the birthday of the man who said, "I can write better than anyone who can write faster than me, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better than me." That's the journalist A.J. Liebling, (books by this author) born in New York (1904). He started at Dartmouth when he was just 15 but he was kicked out for missing chapel too many times. Despite that, he went to journalism school at Columbia, then got hired and fired by The New York Times, spent some time in Paris where he became a fan of French culture and food, and went on to write for The New Yorker for the rest of his life. He was a war correspondent during World War II, and otherwise he wrote about sports, food, and about the American press in his monthly column, "Wayward Press." He said, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

And, "The way to write is well, and how is your own business."

It's the birthday of novelist Rick Moody, (books by this author) born in New York City (1961). He had a typical privileged childhood in the Connecticut suburbs. He went to an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, where he became enamored with short stories by John Cheever. But then his parents got divorced, and he started doing drugs, pretty much anything he could get his hands on. He rebelled against everything that he associated with his middle-class suburban upbringing, including John Cheever. He said, "The mention of Cheever and any of his ilk was enough to provoke in me tirades about conformism and hypocrisy and oppression." Eventually, he changed his mind again about the famous short-story writer and decided that he admired him after all.

He went to Brown University and then to Columbia to study creative writing. At Brown he studied with John Hawkes and Angela Carter. He said, "Carter had the audacity to tell me that drugs were not good for my work and that I was reading crap; she said she would be happy to give me a reading list. I read every book she told me to read." He shaped up for Carter, but his drinking problem got worse through the years. And he disliked graduate school at Columbia, where one professor asked the class to raise their hands if they thought Moody's work was boring, and another told him he would never be a writer.

He had a total breakdown when he was 25 years old, working on his first novel. He had too much cocaine and alcohol in his system and was experiencing frightening hallucinations, so he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. After he left, it took him six months before he could write again because he was so used to drinking while he wrote — even during his days at Brown, John Hawkes had let his students drink wine in the classroom. Sometimes Moody had been so drunk that he couldn't even focus on the screen while he was typing. So it took him awhile to figure out how to write sober, but once he did he said that his writing got better because he could step outside himself and actually understand his characters. And he finished his novel, which he published in 1992 as Garden State,a novel about lost 20-somethings in suburban New Jersey. He said that his breakdown is visible in the novel: "You can see that like a big fault line running through the book — the before and the after. I think it's a truly dreadful book but it's emotionally accessible and vulnerable and I admire that."

Some critics complained that Moody didn't know enough about New Jersey or about working-class 20-somethings to write Garden State. So he wrote The Ice Storm (1994), about one Thanksgiving weekend in the life of two dysfunctional, privileged, suburban Connecticut families in 1973. It got good reviews, and after it was made into a film starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver, the novel became a best-seller. Moody has written a number of novels and short-story collections since then, including The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven (1995) and The Diviners (2005), and a memoir, The Black Veil (2002). His most recent book is The Four Fingers of Death (2010), which is more than 700 pages long and deals with — among other things — a failed mission to Mars, a talking chimpanzee, and a severed hand that spreads deadly bacteria. The whole book is supposedly a novelization of a fictional 2025 remake of an actual 1963 B-movie, The Crawling Hand.

Rick Moody said, "I think literature is best when it's voicing what we would prefer not to talk about."

And, "In my style, the idea is that it's more ornate because that's what consciousness is. To the extent that it hurtles, that it's circular and hurtling, it's because that's how I feel consciousness is, that's what it's like to be a person. You don't have these perfectly transparent, simple thoughts. You have thoughts that are all cluttered up, like overused bookshelves. Do I think there's content that's important and even essential in those sentences? Absolutely I do."

It's the birthday of novelist Terry McMillan, (books by this author) born in Port Huron, Michigan (1951). In 1992, she published Waiting to Exhale, a novel about four friends from Phoenix, successful career women in their 30s who are holding their breath for the right man to come along, "waiting to exhale." It stayed on The New York Times best-sellerlistfor 38 weeks and was one of the 10 best-selling books of the year. A few years later, Waiting to Exhale (1995) was made into a blockbuster film starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett. Last month, McMillan published a sequel to Waiting to Exhale, called Getting to Happy (2010), and it debuted at number four on the best-seller list.

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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