Feb. 28, 2012

Sun Gazers

by Stephen Dobyns

My stepdaughter is three and we have some games
we play when she gets back from day care and I
have finished my work for the day. In one game,
while I try to find her she climbs on a chair
and closes her eyes because with her eyes shut
she thinks I can't see her but must prowl around
calling her name, which I do to amuse her.
Then tiptoeing back I give her a slight poke,
which pleases her as proof of my cleverness,
that I've found her secret place in all that dark.
The mind too, I think, has many eyes, which we
open one by one, as if the world's too bright,
as waking at night and turning on the lamp
I keep an eye squinched shut and feel unprepared
to face the glare. My stepdaughter with eyes shut
feels safe as I circle her dark hiding place—
to look around her means perceiving danger,
yet soon she will come to look into the light.
Death too is a kind of light, a larger sun
we spend our lives learning to look into
as if by seeing we might defeat our end,
like those Indian holy men who live by
staring at the sun, trying to discover
what lies past common sight, and so die blind.

"Sun Gazers" by Stephen Dobyns, from Cemetery Nights. © Penguin Books, 1987. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "Even on the most exalted throne in the world, we are only sitting on our own rear end." That's French author Michel de Montaigne (books by this author), born near Bordeaux (1533). He was a learned man, a lawyer and a statesman, but he retired from public life in 1571 — on his 38th birthday — to begin a life of study. His chief subject was himself, and he wrote about it in a series of essays called Essais, after the French word meaning "trial" or "attempt." He was revolutionary in his belief that, by examining one's own life, one could better understand the wider world and the human condition. His best friend, the humanist scholar and poet Étienne de la Boétie died in 1563, and Montaigne missed their conversations greatly. His essays were like letters, a kind of conversation between Montaigne and an unknown correspondent; perhaps he thought of his dead friend as he wrote them.

In the essays, he wrote, "Don't discuss yourself, for you are bound to lose; if you belittle yourself, you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved."

And "Not being able to govern events, I govern myself."

And "The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself."

And "I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself."

It's the birthday of Colum McCann (1965) (books by this author). He was born in Dublin, into a middle-class home full of books. His father was features editor at The Irish Press. He went to journalism school at 17, then went to work at The Irish Press himself.

When he was 19, he spent a summer in New York City. He loved it, and vowed to return to America, which he did when he was 21. He went up to Cape Cod, bought a typewriter, and spent a summer trying to write profound things. But at the end of the summer, he had not written an entire single page, and he couldn't even comprehend the few sentences that he'd tried to write. He decided he needed to go out and explore America, to add a different set of experiences to his young life.

So he hopped on a bicycle and pedaled across the country for a year and a half, winding through 40 states and traversing 12,000 miles on two wheels. In Texas, he went to college, and he met Allison Hawke, who would become his wife.

In 2009, he published Let the Great World Spin, and it was a huge success. The book is set in the 1970s and weaves together the stories of a dozen New York protagonists, including prostitutes, a young radical Irish monk, and a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her son killed in Vietnam. It also won the National Book Award for fiction in 2009.

"I believe in the democracy of storytelling," said McCann in an interview. "I love the fact that our stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I feel humbled by the notion that I'm even a small part of the literary experience. I grew up in a house, in a city, in a country shaped by books. I don't know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story, or to listen to a story. They're the only thing we have that can trump life itself."

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