Dec. 2, 2010


by Joseph Stroud

Everywhere, everywhere, snow sifting down,
a world becoming white, no more sounds,
no longer possible to find the heart of the day,
the sun is gone, the sky is nowhere, and of all
I wanted in life so be it whatever it is
that brought me here, chance, fortune, whatever
blessing each flake of snow is the hint of, I am
grateful, I bear witness, I hold out my arms,
palms up, I know it is impossible to hold
for long what we love of the world, but look
at me, is it foolish, shameful, arrogant to say this,
see how the snow drifts down, look how happy
I am.

"Manna" by Joseph Stroud, from Of This World. © Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer George Saunders, born in Amarillo, Texas (1958), the author of the books CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), and In Persuasion Nation (2006). He contributes to magazines like The New Yorker, GQ,and McSweeney's, and has won the National Magazine Award for fiction four times in the past 16 years.

He knew from the time he was a teenager that he wanted be a writer, though he majored in geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. He said that for him, growing up on Chicago's South Side, college was a vocational thing, something you did to get a job. But at the same time that he studied things like plate tectonics and geothermal gradients, he also became obsessed with the "raving romantic of a writer" Thomas Wolfe. He said, "I liked him because he was epic and broken-hearted and sloppy and emotional and in love with the world and wrote sentence after sentence beginning with the word 'O,' as in 'O Brooklyn, harbinger of cruel autumn,' or 'O mourned and never-to-be-regained Time' ... I loved his big-heartedness and the way, apparently, he had just taken his life and made a huge book out of it."

Pretty soon he'd started "pacing tragically around and phrasing [his] life in [Wolfe's] terms: "O bitter Seven-Eleven of broken love, which, mourning, how many times have I paced by you, mad visions trumpeting my ravening brain, because of the lovely (FILL IN NAME OF GIRL) lost, no more to be Regained?" But then he graduated from college and moved to Asia to work in oil fields, and held a string of jobs in places like wastewater plants and military installations, which he said sort of tempered his lyrical sentimental streak. He's also worked in a slaughterhouse, environmental engineering firm, pharmaceutical company, convenience store, and on top of Chicago roofs.

And ever since, he said, he's been working at finding a prose style that could accommodate all of the different things that he's seen: "Any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don't have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses."

Engineering left him with a dislike for "literary" language, "language that's consciously literary or purple of overly rich or full of kind of cornball metaphors." He said, "I really like lean prose, stuff that just does what it's supposed to do and gets out of there."

He wrote in his short story "Sticks" (1995): "We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow."

He teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone (2007). In it he wrote, "The generalizing writer is like the passionate drunk, stumbling into your house mumbling: I know I'm not being clear, exactly, but don't you kind of feel what I'm feeling?"

And, "Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to."

It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett, born in Los Angeles (1963). She went to a Catholic girls school in Nashville and published her first short story in The Paris Review when she was still an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College. Critics raved, and the story appeared in lots of anthologies. And then she got a bunch of rejection slips — and writer's block.

She moved back in with her mom and got a job waiting tables at T.G.I. Friday's in Nashville. She said that there were so many great things about those dark days waitressing there, like a deep sense of camaraderie — a place where, she said, "Everybody believed that they were special, that they weren't really a waiter, that they were the one who was getting out. ... I had to come to terms with the fact that I was just like everybody else, a girl with a dream and a plate of hot fajitas. You get out not so much because you're special but because you've got enough steel in your soul to crawl up."

At the end of her shifts, to keep herself awake while rolling silverware at two in the morning, she made up a story in her head, and kept adding to it during the course of a year. And then she sat down and wrote that story in six months, and it became her first published novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992).

Her fourth novel, Bel Canto (2001), published a decade later and inspired by the hostage crises in Peru, was enormously successful. It won the PEN/Faulkner award and sold more than a million copies. Since then, she's written the memoir Truth & Beauty (2004), the novel Run (2007), and most recently, the book-length essay What Now? (2008), which started out as a graduation speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence College.

She said: "The way I write, I have a novel in my head for a long time that I think about, and in those months it is so beautiful, so incredibly profound . ... The novel in my imagination travels with me like a small lavender moth making loopy circles around my head." She said: "As soon as I start to put it on the page I kill it. It always breaks my heart. For me, the greatest challenge is to stick with the book I'm writing when what I want to do is hit the delete button."

And she said: "I believe that my gift in this world is not that I'm smarter or more talented than anyone else: it's that I had a singular goal. I don't want other stuff: friends, kids, travel. What makes me happy is writing."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the novelist Elizabeth Berg, born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1948. She worked for 10 years as a nurse, and then she decided to quit her job and stay home with her two daughters. She wrote an award-winning essay about it, and that started her career as a writer. She wrote for magazines, and then wrote a novel, Durable Goods (1993), and since then she's been writing fiction at the rate of about one book a year.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer T.C. Boyle, also known as T. Coraghessan Boyle, born Thomas John Boyle in Peekskill, New York (1948). His books include The Tortilla Curtain (1995), After the Plague (2001), Drop City (2003), and recently, The Women (2009).

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