Mar. 9, 2011


by Irene McKinney

None of this is personal, not the way you'd think.
The moon keeps on traveling and I can see it
from my balcony each night and each night
different but it's not my own, not like we want

things to be our very own. But it sways me
nevertheless and stands in for certain losses
and gains and for even that much I'm grateful.
I stand at the back door and stare.

"Personal" by Irene McKinney, from Vivid Companion. © Vandalia Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1933 that newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress and began the first hundred days of enacting his New Deal legislation. For the next several months, bills were passed almost daily, beginning with the Emergency Banking Act, followed by federal programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

As part of the New Deal's cultural programs, grouped together as Federal One, the Roosevelt administration created the Federal Writers' Project, which employed more than 6,600 out-of-work writers, editors, and researchers — among them Zora Neale Hurston, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, and Ralph Ellison — and paid them subsistence wages of around $20 a week. The main occupation of the Federal Writers' Project was the American Guides Series. There was an American Guide for each of the existing states of the time, as well as Alaska, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and several major cities and highways. Not mere travel guidebooks, they were also collections of essays on various subjects from geography and history to architecture and commerce.

In addition to the American Guides Series, the FWP collected the life histories of more than 10,000 Americans. Under the direction of folklore editor Benjamin A. Botkin, the FWP writers interviewed people of all socioeconomic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. Botkin, like many intellectuals of the period, was deeply disturbed by the growing Fascist movement in Europe, and wanted to promote tolerance and pluralism at home. He saw the collection and publication of these life histories as a way to do that.

Perhaps the FWP's most valuable contribution to American history and culture was the collection of the first-person accounts of more than 2,300 former slaves, which were assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the 17-volume "Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves."

Of course, the program was not without its detractors. Republicans were convinced that FDR's plans would ruin the country, and some considered the New Deal a Communist plot. Many of the writers employed by the FWP tried to downplay or conceal their involvement with the project, even as they drew on their experiences for later work. W.H. Auden called it "one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by a state." Nevertheless, the project produced 275 books, 700 pamphlets, and 340 "issuances" — assorted leaflets, radio scripts, and articles. Although states were permitted to continue Writers' Project programs until 1943, the federal program was terminated in 1939, due to the country's need for a larger defense budget.

On this day in 1997, Jean-Dominique Bauby (books by this author) died of pneumonia. Born in Paris in April 1952, Bauby was a journalist and the editor-in-chief of the French fashion magazine ELLE. He suffered a massive stroke late in 1995, at the age of 43, and awoke nearly three weeks later to find himself a victim of "locked-in syndrome." Although his mental faculties remained intact, he was almost entirely paralyzed, save for his left eyelid. Taken from his life as worldly bon vivant and a father of two, he spent his final year and a half in Room 119, in the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, on the Channel coast. His days settled into a routine of doctors and therapists, alleviated by weekly visits from his young children, with whom he could still play Hangman.

He also wrote a book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: a Memoir of Life in Death. He would compose and edit entire chapters of it in his head early in the mornings, and then would dictate it, a letter at a time, to his secretary. She would recite the alphabet slowly and he would blink when she came to the correct letter, and in this manner a brief and beautiful book was born. The memoir was published in France on March 7, 1997; two days later, Bauby died. In 2007, the memoir was made into a film, directed by Julian Schnabel.

Bauby wrote: "My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas's court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions."

On this day in 1959, the Barbie doll first appeared, at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. A woman named Ruth Handler noticed a lack of adult-like dolls for little girls; most dolls were designed to look like babies. Since her daughter liked to give her dolls grown-up roles, Ruth went on a quest. On a trip to Germany, she found exactly what was lacking in the States: an adult-figured "Lilli doll," modeled (unbeknownst to Ruth) after a prostitute in a cartoon, and created as a toy for adults. She brought home three Lilli dolls, and though her husband Elliot doubted they would sell, his company Mattel changed the doll's design, renamed it Barbie (after Ruth's daughter), and debuted it on this day in 1959. Mattel has sold more than 1 billion Barbie dolls, and the Barbie was recently awarded "Top 100 Toy" status by TIME magazine. Over the years, Barbie has gone from a fashion-forward teenager to a career woman — a stewardess, nurse, and secretary in the 1960s, and a doctor, astronaut, firefighter, and president of the United States in later years. The more literary-minded collector can obtain Barbie (and her boyfriend Ken) dressed as characters from Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, and Twilight.

It's the birthday of technology writer David Pogue, (books by this author) born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1963, one of the best-selling "how-to-guide" authors ever. He's written several books in the For Dummies series, including the first guide to Mac computers and guides to opera and classical music and magic. His novel Hard Drive was a New York Times "notable book of the year." Though he's best known for his commentary on technology, he is also a music and theater geek who spent 10 years conducting and arranging Broadway musicals in New York. Demand for composers was slightly less urgent than demand for computer experts, however, and he made his first foray into technology by teaching Broadway folks like Stephen Sondheim how to use their Macs. In between his numerous regular print and television appearances, he finds time to write song spoofs, cartoons, and various animations, which he publishes on his website. He recently hosted a NOVA miniseries on PBS called "Making Stuff," which explored the materials that will shape our future.

It was on this day in 1913 that Virginia Woolf (books by this author) delivered the manuscript for her first novel, The Voyage Out, to the Duckworth Publishing House. She had been working on it for almost seven years. She first mentioned it in a letter to her friend Violet Dickinson in 1907, full of excitement at the thought of a future, however uncertain, as a writer; she wrote, "I shall be miserable, or happy; a wordy sentimental creature, or a writer of such English as shall one day burn the pages."

By 1912, she had written five drafts of the novel, including two different versions that she worked on simultaneously. Between December 1912 and March 1913, she rewrote the entire novel one more time, almost from scratch, typing 600 pages in two months.

The book was finally accepted, but the extensive revision process took its toll on Woolf and may have contributed to a mental breakdown that delayed the novel's publication. The Voyage Out was eventually published in 1915 and received generally favorable reviews. The London Observer remarked that the book showed "something startlingly like genius ... a wild swan among good grey geese." It sold slowly in spite of its reviews; it took 15 years to sell 2,000 copies. The novel does show glimpses of what would become Woolf's Modernist style, and what's more, one of its characters — Clarissa Dalloway — would stick in Virginia Woolf's mind for more than a decade, until she wrote an entire novel about that woman called Mrs. Dalloway (1927).

It's the birthday of writer Victoria Mary—better known as Vita Sackville-West, (books by this author) in Sevenoaks, Kent, England (1892), born to luxury in a mansion with 365 rooms and 52 staircases. Her childhood was marred by a difficult relationship with her mother, and she once wrote, “I don't remember either my father or my mother very vividly at that time, except that Dada used to take me for terribly long walks and talk to me about science, principally Darwin, and I liked him a great deal better than mother, of whose quick temper I was frightened."

She started writing early; before her 19th birthday she'd written eight novels and five plays. She was also prolific, going on to write a great many more books, including several volumes of poetry and a handful of biographies. She is best known for her novels, including Seducers in Ecuador (1924), The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), and Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour (1932).

When she was 21, Vita married the dashing diplomat Harold George Nicolson, and the two — both bisexual — had what has come to be known as an "open marriage." They enjoyed a close and companionable relationship, and wrote each other frequent and affectionate letters whenever they were apart.

One of Vita Sackville-West's most famous romances was with writer Virginia Woolf. Virginia's brother-in-law, Clive Bell, introduced the two in December 1922. Vita wrote of the meeting to her husband: "You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality ... she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain; then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. ... She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well. ... I have quite lost my heart." Virginia, for her part, later wrote that Vita was "like an over ripe grape in features, moustached, pouting, will be a little heavy; meanwhile she strides on fine legs, in a well cut skirt, & though embarrassing at breakfast, has a manly good sense & simplicity about her. ... Oh yes, I like her; could tack her on to my equipage for all time; & suppose if life allowed, this might be a friendship of a sort."

Vita was also the inspiration for what her son Nigel called "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature" — namely, Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando: A Biography (1928). As Woolf wrote in her diary, "And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other." Orlando was made into a movie, starring Tilda Swinton as the young nobleman/woman commanded by Queen Elizabeth I to stay forever young.

Vita Sackville-West kept up one of the most famous gardens in England, and was she went on to write a great many books, including the novels Seducers in Ecuador (1924), The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), and Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour (1932). She wrote several volumes of poetry and a handful of biographies, including one of St. Joan of Arc.

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