Oct. 25, 2012

To prayer I think I go...

by Robert Frost

To prayer I think I go,
I go to prayer—
Along a darkened corridor of woe
And down a stair
In every step of which I am abased.
I wear a halter-rope about the waist.
I bear a candle end put out with haste.
For such as I there is reserved a crypt
That from its stony arches having dripped
Has stony pavement in a slime of mould.
There I will throw me down an unconsoled
And utter loss,
And spread out in the figure of a cross.—
Oh, if religion's not to be my fate
I must be spoken to and told
Before too late!

"To prayer I think I go..." by Robert Frost, from Collected Poems, Prose & Plays. © Library of America. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Anne Tyler (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1941). After she was born, her parents moved the family to various intentional communities; she spent most of her childhood in a community in the mountains of North Carolina. Her family raised milk goats and grew their own food, and she learned folk crafts and traditional music. Eventually, her parents moved the family to Raleigh, where she was sent to public school. She felt like a total outsider — she had never used a telephone, and her feet were so calloused from going without shoes that she could light a match on her bare feet. She said of her childhood: "I learned to be alone and to entertain myself by imagining, and when I left the commune I looked at the regular world from an unusually distant vantage point."

One summer, she was working on a tobacco farm and she found a book by Eudora Welty at the library. She read the short story "The Wide Net," and it changed her life; specifically one line of it, which was: "Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the C got through the L in a Coca-Cola sign." Thinking about that sentence, she said: "It was a kind of revelation: I knew dozens of people like Edna Earle — small-town, ordinary. I just didn't know you could write about them."

She went to Duke University when she was just 16 years old, fell in love and got married to an Iranian-born medical student, and when his student visa expired, she moved with him to Montreal. It took her awhile to find a job in Montreal, so she started working on a novel. Her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964), came out when she was 22 years old. A year later, she published another novel, The Tin Can Tree (1965).

Tyler moved to Baltimore in 1965, where she has lived ever since, and she has set most of her novels there. She said: "It's a city with grit and sort of a feisty spirit to it. I think it's a very funny city, and I love it. But I always feel that I'm an impostor when people talk about 'Baltimore writers' and feel I can pronounce upon Baltimore. Any Baltimorean can tell you I'm not a real Baltimorean."

Tyler was never very interested in being in the spotlight. She doesn't do book tours or author appearances. She stopped reading reviews of her books 30 years ago, and she says that she has one novelist friend but when they call each other up, the most they ever ask is: "Are you writing?" Earlier this year, Tyler gave her first in-person interviews in more than 30 years. When she was asked why she changed her mind about giving an interview, she said, "Why not? It's like when my husband proposed and I thought, 'Oh, why not?'

Tyler has written 19 novels, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), Breathing Lessons (1988), Back When We Were Grownups (2001), and most recently, The Beginner's Goodbye (2012).

It was on this day in 1400 that the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer died (books by this author). No one is exactly sure when he was born, but he was probably about 60 years old when he died.

Chaucer had spent his life working as a civil servant. His longest-held position was as Comptroller of Customs, which meant that he kept the books on export taxes for all of the wool, sheepskin, and leather that went through the Port of London. His position ended in 1386, and he seems to have been out of work for three years. He probably began The Canterbury Tales during that period, before he was hired as the Clerk of the King's Works in 1389. When he died in 1400, the Canterbury Tales was unfinished. In the Prologue, the innkeeper Harry Bailey declares that each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury, and two more on the way home — at the end, Harry will judge who was the best storyteller, and everyone else will buy that pilgrim a big dinner. Depending on how you count them, there are about 30 pilgrims, so there should be 120 tales. But in the manuscript Chaucer left behind, there are just 24 stories, each told by a different pilgrim.

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
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  • “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
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