Oct. 8, 2011

Mrs. Miller

by Charles Douthat

And to the south lived dear old Mrs. Miller,
the first next door neighbor I really knew.
A doctor's widow. White-streaked, yellow hair.
With a nervous New York way of talking
though she'd lived out West for twenty years.

A grown daughter—Dorothy—lived with her,
worked somewhere, drove a red sports car.
Fruit trees grew behind their gabled house
and a crunching path of white crushed stone
ended at a Japanese-style fishpond.

I was tall enough then to climb the bamboo fence
and pull oranges from the tree that overhung
their pond. What fruit I couldn't reach, fell.
In January, you'd see lazy, blurred goldfish
tailing beneath navels floating on the pond.

Saturdays, I'd wash Mrs. Miller's Buick
with a bucket, soap and sponge. The fifteen cents
she paid was good money in '61. Later, on the lanai,
she'd pour my coke, wave away her cigarette smoke,
and engage me in grown-up conversation.

"Since nothing ever goes according to plan," she'd say,
"You'd think we'd figure out the plan."
I was at most eleven. She was a drunk, I suppose.
Confused, but open-hearted. Lonely, of course.
The first person like me I'd known.

"Mrs. Miller" by Charles Douthat, from Blue for Oceans. © NHR Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of historian and nonfiction author Walter Lord (1917) (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland. As a young boy, he became fascinated with the sinking of the Titanic, prompted in part by his mother's stories of ocean liners she'd sailed on, and also by what he put down to typical boy behavior: "I suppose if there is anything more exciting to a young boy than an ocean liner, it is an ocean liner sinking." Lord grew up and took a job at an advertising agency during the day, but at night he was still researching the Titanic and interviewing its survivors. He then crafted a factually accurate — and yet dramatic and compelling — story of the final night of the unsinkable ship: A Night to Remember was a best-seller upon its release in 1955, and it remains the chief source of information for Titanic buffs. Lord credits the success to the subject: "The appeal seems universal. To social historians it is a microcosm of the early 1900s. To nautical enthusiasts it is the ultimate shipwreck. To students of human nature it is an endlessly fascinating laboratory. For lovers of nostalgia it has the allure of yesterday. For daydreamers it has all those might-have-beens.''

Historian and author David McCullough credits Lord with inspiring him to write popular histories and biographies, and he studied A Night to Remember to learn how it was done. "He really knew how to do research and how not to use all the research he found," McCullough told The New York Times after Lord's death in 2002. "He was very good at knowing what to leave out, using what he knew to give the right atmosphere, without troweling it on."

After the success of A Night to Remember, Lord quit his day job to write full time. His next book was an examination of the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, called Day of Infamy (1957). He also wrote about several other pivotal moments in history, including the Battle of Midway, the Dunkirk evacuation, and the Alamo.

It's the birthday of Frank Herbert (books by this author), born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1920. He's best known for his science fiction masterpiece Dune, which was rejected by 20 publishers before it was finally accepted by Chilton — a publisher who was best known for producing auto repair manuals — in 1965. He lied about his age to get his first newspaper job in 1939, and he worked as a photographer for the U.S. Navy during World War II. He took a wide variety of courses at the University of Washington, not to earn a degree but to learn about things that interested him. He became interested in the environmental and conservation movement early on, and got the idea for Dune — which is set on an extremely arid planet where people conserve and recycle every last drop of moisture — while researching an article on the sand dunes of the Oregon coast. He used some of the profits from the book to develop solar- and wind-powered energy for his home.

He said, "A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating. You're there now doing the thing on paper. You're not killing the goose, you're just producing an egg."

Today is the birthday of poet Philip Booth (books by this author), born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1925. He went to college at Dartmouth, where he met and became a protégé of Robert Frost. His poetry is rooted in the Maine coast where he grew up, and where his ancestors lived for hundreds of years before him. "Almost all my mother's ancestors — my grandparents, great-grand-parents, great-great, and so on — are buried in the cemetery here," he said in a 1989 interview with The American Poetry Review. "In the November of the year I often go and look at their graves and see their names and the years carved on them. It gives me a very pleasant and not at all morbid sense of the relations, the relationships, that one has with a place." He usually stayed close to home, not giving many readings, because he felt that time spent on public appearances took away from time spent making a true, private connection with his readers through his poetry. He would spend hours writing and revising in his office upstairs, in the house where five generations of his family had lived before him.

It's the birthday of Goosebumps author Robert Lawrence Stine (1943) (books by this author), who was born in Bexley, Ohio, and writes horror stories for kids and young adults under the name "R.L. Stine." He first started writing when he was nine years old, after he found an old typewriter in the attic. He brought it down to his room and started banging away, turning out joke books. His "Fear Street" and "Goosebumps" series became so popular that, at one point, he was turning out a book every two weeks to keep up with demand. (He's cut back to one book a month.) He's sold more than 400 million books, making him one of the most successful children's authors of all time. When asked where he comes up with his story ideas, he said that he usually starts with a good spooky title and makes up the story afterward. "I've never gotten any ideas from my dreams," he told a Teen Ink interviewer. "I have the most boring dreams. One night I dreamed I was making a bologna sandwich."

Today is the birthday of journalist, author, and critic Benjamin Cheever (1948) (books by this author). He's the son of John Cheever, the brother of Susan Cheever, and the husband of New York Times critic Janet Maslin. He started his writing career as a reporter at The Rockland Journal-News in Nyack, New York, in 1970, and when he wrote his first novel, he found that the family name was no guarantee of success. He wrote: "For those of you who think nobody will turn down a book with Cheever at the top of the page, I'm here to tell you they're out there. By the dozens." He did eventually publish that novel (The Plagiarist [1992]), and three more. He's also edited a volume of his father's letters, and written a children's book (The First Dog [2009]) and two books of nonfiction: Selling Ben Cheever: Back to Square One in a Service Economy (2002) and Strides: Running Through History with an Unlikely Athlete (2007).

In 1977, he was in the middle of a rocky marriage, and as an outlet, he took up running. He's now been a marathon runner for 34 years. He ran his first Boston Marathon on the day that his father won the Pulitzer. He wrote in Strides: "When you run a marathon, you mean it. We're built for running. We dream of flying. For now, though, we're built for running."

It's the birthday of British poet and author Blake Morrison (books by this author), born in Skipton, North Yorkshire, in 1950. He worked for the Times Literary Supplement and then went on to become literary editor for The Observer and The Independent. In addition to journalism, he's written fiction, poetry, criticism, libretti, and adapted a couple of works for the stage.

He wrote a memoir called And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), about his complicated relationship with his father, Arthur. Arthur, a country doctor, never approved of his son's literary aspirations, even after Morrison became a successful writer and critic, and the story unfolds as the family cares for Arthur in the last few weeks of his life. The book was made into a film in 2007, starring Jim Broadbent and Colin Firth. Morrison also wrote Things My Mother Never Told Me (2002), about his mother's life in Ireland.

On this day in 1956, Yankees pitcher Don Larsen pitched a perfect game. He faced 27 batters and not a single one made it to base. It remains the only perfect World Series game — indeed, the only perfect post-season game — and one of only 20 perfect games in baseball history.

For the fourth time in five years, the Yankees were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers; it was Game Five and the series was tied two games to two. According to Larsen, he didn't even know he would be pitching until he got to the ballpark. He'd had a disastrous Game Two, lasting only two innings and allowing four runs on four walks. The Yankees had been up 6-0 when he took the mound, and they ended up losing, with a score of 13-8. Larsen was as stunned as anyone when he reported to the park for Game Five to find that manager Casey Stengel had tucked a baseball in his spikes. In the locker room after the game, Larsen said, "When it was over, I was so happy, I felt like crying. I wanted to win this one for Casey. After what I did in Brooklyn, he could have forgotten about me and who would blame him? But he gave me another chance and I'm grateful."

Today is the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Bret Lott (1958) (books by this author). He was born and raised in Los Angeles by Southern parents, went to school in Massachusetts, and now lives in Charleston, South Carolina. "I never intended to be an author," he claims. "I intended to become a park ranger." He also considered careers in teaching, marine biology, and cola sales.

He's the author of seven novels, including Ancient Highway (2008), A Song I Knew by Heart (2005), and Jewel (1999). He's also written several collections of short stories and two memoirs: Fathers, Sons, and Brothers (2000) and Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life (2005). He's also an evangelical Christian, and says: "I was a Christian before I decided to become a writer. As a consequence, the things that I first wrote were these terrible Christian allegories. I was trying to beat people over the head with the written word. You know, 'Be a Christian! Be a Christian!' It was terrible. It was lousy. I had a real breakthrough when I realized that that is not the purpose of a story. The gospel is spread one-on-one."

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