Jul. 22, 2012

Family Stories

by Dorianne Laux

I had a boyfriend who told me stories about his family,
how an argument once ended when his father
seized a lit birthday cake in both hands
and hurled it out a second-story window. That,
I thought, was what a normal family was like: anger
sent out across the sill, landing like a gift
to decorate the sidewalk below. In mine
it was fists and direct hits to the solar plexus,
and nobody ever forgave anyone. But I believed
the people in his stories really loved one another,
even when they yelled and shoved their feet
through cabinet doors, or held a chair like a bottle
of cheap champagne, christening the wall,
rungs exploding from their holes.
I said it sounded harmless, the pomp and fury
of the passionate. He said it was a curse
being born Italian and Catholic and when he
looked from that window what he saw was the moment
rudely crushed. But all I could see was a gorgeous
three-layer cake gliding like a battered ship
down the sidewalk, the smoking candles broken, sunk
deep in the icing, a few still burning.

"Family Stories" by Dorianne Laux, from Smoke. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of S.E. Hinton (books by this author), born Susan Eloise Hinton in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1948). She grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the north side of town. She went to Will Rogers High School, and the student body tended to divide up into two gangs: the blue-collar Greasers and the Socs, short for "socials," who were the kids whose families got rich from oil. Hinton loved to read, but she was fed up with all the teen novels about dating and the prom. One day, one of her friends was beaten up on the way home from school on suspicion of being a "Greaser," so she decided to write a book that reflected her own world more accurately. She wrote The Outsiders (1967) during her junior year in high school, the same year she earned a "D" in her creative writing class.

The Outsiders was the third book she'd written, but the first that was published, and her editors suggested she use the name S.E. Hinton, because people would never believe a girl could write about such a gritty subject. She used the money to buy a horse because she'd always wanted to be a cowboy. She followed The Outsiders with That Was Then, This Is Now (1971), Rumble Fish (1975), and Tex (1979). The Outsiders remains her most popular book, and for many years it was also the book most frequently stolen from school libraries.

Today is the birthday of the American poet Stephen Vincent Benét (books by this author), born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1898). His father was a military man who read poetry to his children. All of the Benét kids grew up to become writers of some sort.

Stephen published his first book at age 17, went to Yale, and served in World War I as a civilian, because his poor vision kept him out of the Army; after the war, he submitted his third volume of poetry — Heavens and Earth (1920) — in place of a master's thesis. He also wrote three novels and some short stories, but he's best known for a long poem that he wrote while in Paris: John Brown's Body (1928). It's an epic in eight sections, and tells the story of the Civil War, beginning with John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and ending just after Lincoln's assassination.

He also wrote the short story The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937), which was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post. It's a tall tale about a New Hampshire farmer who sells his soul to the Devil and then hires orator Daniel Webster to argue his case in front of a midnight jury of American villains. Webster rises from his grave to take the case, saying, "If two New Hampshiremen aren't a match for the devil, we might as well give the country back to the Indians."

He wrote, "Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways."

It's the birthday of American poet Emma Lazarus (books by this author), born in New York City (1849). She came from a wealthy Jewish family, and her father paid to have her first collection of poems published when she was 17. Her early work impressed Ralph Waldo Emerson, and they corresponded for many years. In the 1880s, she was horrified to hear of violent anti-Semitic attacks in Russia and Germany, and her work took on a new Zionist focus. She became concerned with the plight of the poor and the refugee, and organized relief efforts for immigrant Jewish families. The Statue of Liberty committee approached her in 1883 and asked her to write a poem that they could auction off to raise money for the monument. She responded with "The New Colossus." The statue was erected in 1886, but she was in Europe. She sailed back to New York the following year, but she was too ill with Hodgkin's lymphoma to go on deck to see it as the boat passed, and she died without ever seeing the statue she'd help raise. "The New Colossus" includes the famous lines, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

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  • “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
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  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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