Aug. 4, 2012

The Real Work

by Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

"The Real Work" by Wendell Berry, from Standing by Words. © 1983, Used by permission of Counterpoint. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." That's the poet and essayist, Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author), born in Field Place, Essex, England (1792). He grew up in a wealthy family and went off to Oxford, where he was kicked out for writing risqué poetry and declaring his atheism in a pamphlet he published. The family cut him off financially at the age of 19.

Shelley left England and eloped to Scotland with his 16-year-old bride. There he was mentored by the English philosopher William Godwin. Chronically broke, Godwin saw in Shelley's wealthy family his salvation and encouraged the poet to make good with his father. While Godwin's outspoken socialism appealed to Shelley, so did his intellectual daughter, Mary, and soon the two had left both their families to roam around Europe together.

Shelley and Mary traveled to Switzerland, where they rented an adjoining house to Lord Byron. The two writers were good for one another, and in 1816, Shelley published his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. That same year, Percy's previous wife committed suicide, and Percy and Mary married in a failed attempt to gain custody of Percy's orphaned children. The court refused, citing the poet's belief in "free love" as the reason, and the children went into foster care.

The next few years were the most productive of Shelley's life. He wrote "Adonis," an elegy for his friend John Keats; "Prometheus Unbound," a drama in verse; and The Cenci, a tragedy. He is also credited with making major contributions to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818).

He died before the age of thirty, attempting to sail the coast of Spain in his ship, the Don Juan.

Shelly said," Do it now — write nothing but what your conviction of its truth inspires you to write."

Today is the birthday of the poet and teacher Robert Hayden (books by this author). Born Asa Bundy Sheffey in Detroit, Michigan (1919), he was given up for adoption as a child and raised by a foster family. He was a skinny and severely nearsighted boy and was often ostracized by the other children of "Paradise Valley," the Detroit ghetto where he grew up, and which served as the backdrop to much of his writing. He found comfort in the world of books and went on to the city college, before taking a job in 1936 with the Federal Writers' Project. He researched black history and folk culture, gaining knowledge that would inform his work for the rest of his career. In 1940, he published his first collection of poetry, Heart Shape in the Dust, still heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. He quickly mastered traditional form, and his poetry later become known for its use of multiple voices and the vernacular of black life, such as in his best-known poem, "Middle Passage," about the revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad. In 1946, he took a job at Fisk University, where he would teach for the next 23 years. In 1985, he was the first African-American to be awarded the post of Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.

He said, "Art is not an escape, but a way of finding order in chaos, a way of confronting life."

Today is the birthday of author and 44th (and current) president of the United States, Barack Obama (books by this author). Born in Honolulu, Hawaii (1961), to a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, served a term each in the Illinois Senate and U.S. Senate before entering the White House in 2008. Obama's position at the law journal got him a book deal, originally to be on race relations in the U.S., but it turned out to be a memoir, entitled Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995). The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama's second book, was released just months before he announced his campaign for the presidency, and it quickly became a New York Times best-seller. Since assuming office, he has authored the children's book Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to my Daughters (2010).

It's the birthday of Louis Armstrong born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1901), in a poor section of town known as "The Battlefield." When he was six years old, Louis formed a vocal quartet with three other neighborhood boys and performed on street corners for tips. The Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, hired Louis to work on their junk wagon. Louis purchased his first cornet with money the family lent him.

In 1913, he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that's where he learned to play the cornet. Armstrong listened to pioneers like New Orleans cornetist King Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break by letting him play in the Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922. Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925-1928) were among the first 50 items preserved by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Armstrong said, "If ya ain't got it in ya, ya can't blow it out."

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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