Oct. 15, 2011


by George Bilgere

Jerry is at his usual table this morning
with his cup of coffee and his laptop,
working on his science fiction/fantasy novel.

In every café in America
men and women are hard at work
on their science fiction/fantasy novels.
Perhaps you are one of them. If so,
I salute you; it's a very competitive field.

Forty years, says Jerry, I sold life insurance.
Now I can do what I really want to do.

The planet where his story takes place
has three suns, and the problem he's working on
is how do the aliens there tell time.

I suggest having everyone wear three watches,
which Jerry doesn't think is funny.
This is a serious novel, he's taking it seriously,
and he's wants to get everything just right.

Forty years I sold life insurance, he says.
Now I can do what I really want to do.

"Problem" by George Bilgere. © George Bilgere. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Italian writer Italo Calvino (books by this author), born in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba (1923). His parents were scientists — his father an agronomist, his mother a botanist — and they were working in Cuba at the time of their son's birth, but moved back to Italy not long afterward. As a boy, he listened to the radio constantly, dreaming about the outside world. When he discovered his talent for writing, he began writing radio plays.

When Calvino was 21, at the height of World War II, he joined the Italian Resistance and spent a violent 20 months fighting in the Maritime Alps. Afterward, he dropped out of college, abandoning any pretense of studying agronomy, which he had never liked anyway. He moved to Turin, and he said that his life really began there, after the war. He found a community of novelists, so he decided to write novels instead of plays. He said, "If one gets used to translating into a novel one's experiences, one's ideas, what one has to say becomes a novel; one is left with no raw materials for another form of literary expression." At first, he wrote realism, like his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1947), set during the war. He labored over three more novels, but he didn't like any of them. Finally, he made a decision. He said: "I had made efforts to write the realistic-novel-reflecting-the-problems-of-Italian-society and had not managed to do so. (At the same time I was what was called a 'politically committed writer.') And then, in 1951, when I was 28 and not at all sure that I was going to carry on writing, I began doing what came most naturally to me. Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic." So he wrote The Cloven Viscount (1952), the story of Medardo, a 17th-century nobleman who is hit by a cannonball and cloven into two people, one good and one evil, but both only half a person. The bad Medardo wants to make everyone else miserable, and is constantly destructive; the good Medardo wants to heal everyone and everything, and spends a lot of time fixing the bad deeds of his counterpart. No one really likes either Medardo — one is too cruel, the other is so nice he makes people uncomfortable. Then the two Medardos fall in love with the same girl and end up fighting each other, and, finally, getting stitched back together.

Calvino went on to write many novels that blended fantasy and reality, including The Baron in the Trees (1957), Invisible Cities (1972) and If on a winter's night a traveler (1979).

He said, "What stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary."

And, "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."

And, "I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars."

It's the birthday of the Roman poet Virgil (books by this author), born near Mantua, Italy (70 B.C.E.). Not much is known about his early life, and although some biographers made him out to be a country bumpkin, he probably came from a well-off family who sent him off to get a good education. He may have been socially awkward and sickly, but no one knows for sure. He left behind some of the most beloved poems written in Latin: his pastoral poems, the Eclogues; his poems about farming, the Georgics; and the poem he wanted destroyed, The Aeneid. Emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write The Aeneid, and he worked on it for 11 years, but it still wasn't finished at the time of his death. He left behind a request that the unfinished poem be burned, but Augustus forbade this from happening. The emperor's orders were followed, and the Aeneid became a classic, and Virgil's best-known work.

He said, "Every man makes a god of his own desire."

It's the birthday of novelist P.G. Wodehouse (books by this author), born Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in Guildford, England (1881). He's best known for his novels and short stories about the butler Jeeves. He said: "I was writing a story, 'The Artistic Career of Corky,' about two young men, Bertie Wooster and his friend Corky, getting into a lot of trouble, and neither of them had brains enough to get out of the trouble. I thought: Well, how can I get them out? And I thought: Suppose one of them had an omniscient valet? I wrote a short story about him, then another short story, then several more short stories and novels. That's how a character grows." He wrote more than 100 books, including Summer Lightning (1929), Thank You Jeeves (1934), Young Men in Spats (1936), The Code of the Woosters (1938), and Joy in the Morning (1946).

He said: "Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel — if it's a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, 'Which are my big scenes?' and then get every drop of juice out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, 'This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay,' you're sunk. If they aren't in interesting situations, characters can't be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them."

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
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