Feb. 4, 2011


by Jo McDougall

"They're benign," the radiologist says,
pointing to specks on the x ray
that look like dust motes
stopped cold in their dance.
His words take my spine like flame.
I suddenly love
the radiologist, the nurse, my paper gown,
the vapid print on the dressing room wall.
I pull on my radiant clothes.
I step out into the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal,
the Niagara Falls of the parking lot.

"Mammogram" by Jo McDougall, from Satisfied with Havoc. © Autumn House Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Robert Coover, (books by this author) born in Charles City, Iowa (1932). His father was a newspaper editor. Charles City was a charming small town, but his family moved to a coal-mining community in Illinois, which Coover said was "a violent town, quite ugly in many ways." In 1951, Coover was back home from college during Christmas break, looking for a job. So he worked for his dad's newspaper, helping cover a horrific local mining accident. He was so disturbed that he started writing a short story about it, but in his story one of the miners survived, and assumed he had been saved for some divine purpose.

Coover didn't publish anything right away. He finished college, then got drafted into the Navy. After three years as a lieutenant in Europe, he decided that he wanted a total change of pace. Some friends let him stay in their primitive cabin on a remote Canadian island, where he did nothing but write for a month. He brought a big jar of peanut butter, the Bible, and the works of Samuel Beckett. During his time on the island, he decided that writing was more than a job — it was a vocation.

So he got to work. In 1961, he published his first short story, "Blackdamp," a revised version of the one he had written about the mining accident. And that story turned into his first novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966). In the novel, Giovanni Bruno is the only miner to survive a mining accident, and he decides to start a religious cult, the Brunists.

Coover has written many novels, books of stories, and essays. His books include Pricksongs and Descants (1969), experimental stories; The Public Burning (1977), the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, narrated by Richard Nixon; Briar Rose (1996), a dark and poetic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale; and most recently, a take on the noir detective genre, a novel called Noir (2010), which begins: "You are at the morgue. Where the light is weird. Shadowless, but like a negative, as though the light itself were shadow turned inside out."

Robert Coover said, "We need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us. Story is what penetrates."

And, "Creative-writing workshops have absolutely nothing to do with our nation's literature, though writers sometimes, more or less by chance, turn up in them, looking for an agent or romance or someone to start a new magazine with them. Creative-writing workshops mostly have to do with creating other creative-writing workshops. And this is all right, I suppose, because writing is good for people, or at least not seriously harmful. It teaches them to read, for one thing. We don't need more writers, but we do need more readers. We need creative-reading workshops. Students would still have to write in them, but for nobler ends."

And, "The absurdity of politics is not new. Satire is always possible. The execution of satirists by enraged politicians is also always possible."

It was on this day in 2004 that 19-year-old student Mark Zuckerburg launched the website Facebook out of his Harvard dorm room. One year earlier, he had been disciplined by the school for creating a site called Facemash, which hacked into online dorm sites and paired ID photos of two Harvard students at a time, asking viewers to rate which of them was more attractive. Facemash didn't go over well with most of the campus. He had to dismantle the site, but he wasn't expelled. A year later, he picked up on an idea that a few other students had, to create an online social site, and he ran with it. Facebook was a hit from the beginning.

Facebook began as a social network for Harvard only, and then expanded to other Ivy League schools, then slowly to college campuses across the country. In 2005 it started opening networks in high schools, and by a year later, anyone over the age of 13 with a valid e-mail address was allowed to join. As of now, there are more than 500 million users worldwide, and the company is valued at more than $43 billion.

Last year Facebook became the subject of a film, The Social Network (2010).

It's the birthday of theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (books by this author) born in Breslau, Germany (1906). He was a star student who earned his doctorate in theology when he was just 21. In 1930, he went to New York City to study at Union Theological Seminary. He didn't think much of the school, but he loved the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he taught Sunday school, learned gospel music, and started to think about the role of social justice in Christianity.

He went back to Germany, and he was ordained in 1931, when he was 25 years old. But a couple of years later, Hitler rose to power, which caused a huge rift in the German Evangelical Church. The big debate was not about Hitler's racist policies toward Jewish people, per se, but whether the Church should continue to convert and baptize Jewish people. Everything about the history of Christianity pointed towards "yes" — proselytizing, converting, and baptizing were central to the religion. But a group of hard-core Nazi followers within the German Evangelical Church decreed that only Aryan people should be welcomed into the church, no matter what. Bonhoeffer opposed the pro-Nazi contingent within the Church, and he was outspoken in his opposition to the Nazis and Hitler especially. Two days after Hitler was inaugurated as the chancellor, Bonhoeffer — who was then 26 years old — got on national radio and gave a speech about the danger of following any leader who demanded a cult-like following, saying that such a leader could easily become a "misleader." The German authorities cut him off during his speech.

From then on, he worked tirelessly to oppose the Nazi regime. He wrote essays and gave lectures about the obligation of the Church to fight social injustice and to fight for non-Christians as well as Christians. He worked to publicize the truth about what was happening under the Nazis, sending updates to his friends and contacts outside of Germany, because he was afraid that the international community would believe the propaganda by powerful Nazi supporters in the German Evangelical Church. In 1933, he turned down a position in Berlin in protest because only Aryan pastors were allowed to serve. He had succeeded in forming a splinter group within the Church called the "Confessing Church," which was opposed to the Nazi regime, but slowly more and more of his friends within the Confessing Church cowed to Hitler's influence.

Frustrated and lonely, he accepted a position in London. He returned to Germany two years later, in 1935, but his work was becoming increasingly difficult. He was banned from Berlin and from any public speaking. He trained young, radical pastors in secret. After the widespread violence and burning of synagogues in November of 1938, known as Kristallnacht, some Christians maintained that this was the curse of the Jewish people, since they were responsible for Jesus' execution. Bonhoeffer had no patience with that argument. He said that the Nazis were simply evil and that Christianity had no place in their doctrine.

By 1939, the situation had gotten so dire, and Bonhoeffer's opportunities were so limited, that he decided to leave Germany and come to the United States, where he had been offered a position at Union Seminary. As soon as he got there, he changed his mind, convinced that he was being a coward. He went back to Germany and started working as a double agent. On the surface he was working for German Military Intelligence, for the Abwehr, the rival to the Schutzstaffel (or SS). In reality, Bonhoeffer was spreading information about the German Resistance, as were many other members of the Abwehr, including its leader. Despite a lifetime of pacifism, Bonhoeffer finally joined in the attempt to assassinate Hitler, convinced it was the only option.

He was arrested in 1943 on much smaller charges of misusing his position as an intelligence agent. He was in prison for 18 months, where he continued to write, and his writings were smuggled out of prison and later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

In 1944, after an attempt to assassinate Hitler failed, the extent of Bonhoeffer's work in the resistance movement came to light. The SS uncovered the extent to which the Abwehr was working to undermine the regime, and Hitler ordered them all executed. Bonhoeffer's final message was to a friend and bishop in England: "This is the end — for me the beginning of life." He was killed on April 9, 1945; three weeks later, Hitler committed suicide, and one month after Bonhoeffer's death, Germany surrendered.

In prison, he wrote: "We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of writer Stewart O'Nan, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1961). He worked for years as an aerospace engineer, and when he came home from work every day he would go down to his basement and write. He learned to write by copying out sentences from writers like James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Franz Kafka, and then trying to break them down into their component parts. He wrote some short stories and the drafts of two novels, but he wasn't satisfied with them.

Then, one summer, he got a job doing research on the writer John Gardner. He sifted through boxes of Gardner's drafts and revisions, and it was then that he realized how much work went into writing fiction. He said, "It was not brilliance or facility that was necessary, but the determination to bear and even enjoy the dull process of wading into one's own bad prose again, one more time, and then once again, with the utmost concentration and taste, looking for opportunities to mine deeper."

In 1994, he published his first novel, Snow Angels, about a murder in a small town in western Pennsylvania.

He said: "Writing fiction is impossible, or at least it seems that way in the beginning. Fiction is charged with showing us the way we truly feel and who we truly are, and to do this you have to write better than you're able to."

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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