Mar. 28, 2012

Places I Have Heard the Ocean

by Faith Shearin

In a cat's throat, in a shell I hold
to my ear — though I'm told
this is the sound of my own
blood. I have heard the ocean
in the city: cars against
the beach of our street. Or in
the subway, waiting for a train
that carries me like a current.
In my bed: place of high and low
tide or in my daughter's skates,
rolling over the sidewalk.
Ocean in the trees when they
fill their heads with wind.
Ocean in the rise and fall:
lungs of everyone I love.

"Places I Have Heard the Ocean" by Faith Shearin, from Moving the Piano. © Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Nelson Algren (1909) (books by this author). Born Nelson Algren Abraham to working-class parents in Detroit, he grew up in Chicago's immigrant neighborhoods. He wrote his first story, "So Help Me," during the Great Depression, while he was working at a gas station in Texas. His life — and work — changed dramatically after he was caught stealing a typewriter and spent five months in jail. His later novels and stories would feature the down-and-out, the loser, and the reject. He became known as a writer of Chicago; he wrote: "If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life's work."

In A Walk on the Wild Side (1956), set in the world of pimps and prostitutes in New Orleans, Algren gives his three rules for life: "Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own." The novel is, in many ways, about the contempt of a nation for its dispossessed, and in it he wrote: "When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don't have enough."

Nelson Algren, who said, "A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery."

Today is the birthday of Mario Vargas Llosa (books by this author), born in Arequipa, in southern Peru (1936). He went to a military academy in Lima, which he hated. His father was authoritarian in nature and wanted to drum any literary aspirations out of his son with a rigid, disciplined lifestyle. The plan backfired: Not only did Vargas Llosa continue writing, but he also used his experiences at the academy as inspiration for his first novel, The Time of the Hero (1963).

He ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990, against Alberto Fujimori, but lost. He's subsequently renounced politics, saying, "Literature and politics are mutually exclusive. A writer is someone who works alone, who needs total independence. A politician is someone who is totally dependent, who has to make all kinds of concessions, the very thing a writer can't do."

His latest book, The Dream of the Celt, was published in Spanish in 2010; its English translation will be published later this year.

It's the birthday of Russell Banks (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). Banks' latest novel, Lost Memory of Skin (2011) — a finalist for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction — was inspired by an encampment of sex offenders living under a causeway near Banks' Miami high-rise apartment.

Virginia Woolf committed suicide on this day in 1941 (books by this author). A lively, witty, productive, creative person, whose life was overshadowed by her death. She wrote three of her best books in the space of just a few years in the 1920's: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928).

It's the birthday of the journalist Iris Chang (books by this author), born in Princeton, New Jersey (1968). She was a talkative, but serious, child. She began writing while she was still in grade school, starting an advice column à la "Dear Abby." She won a "young author" competition when she was 10, and in high school, she was always writing and publishing something. When she began working as a journalist, she drove herself very hard, not eating or sleeping for days at a time. She wrote books about the Nanking Massacre, the history of the Chinese in America, and the Bataan Death March — which was the book she was working on when she had a nervous breakdown. She stopped taking her medication because it made her groggy and unable to work. She was in therapy and had a plan for recovery. But she was unable to overcome her illness, and she committed suicide not far from her home in San Jose, California, in 2004.

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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