Jun. 3, 2014

Naming the Baby

by Faith Shearin

When you are dreaming of the name
you are also dreaming of who they
might be. They are invented in darkness —
under cloak of skin — and, for the better
part of a year, are a swelling
or a set of symptoms. The name
books are like a box of chocolates
and when you open them you see
how many kinds there really are.
There are names of people you
have known and disliked and names
that make the wrong sounds and names
that suggest your child will be
like everyone else's. There are names
that turn your child into a character
in a novel and names that recall
the time when your great grandmother
was young. Naming the baby is a way
of dreaming about a creature who is
almost but not quite. It is a way of
imagining the soul of a person you
are making but have not made.
The name is the first way you see
the baby: their title, the syllables
that conjure a shape from the lantern.

"Naming the Baby" by Faith Shearin from The Empty House. © Word Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of poet Allen Ginsberg (1926) (books by this author). He was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in Paterson. His father, Louis, was a poet and high school teacher; his mother, Naomi, was a communist and a paranoid schizophrenic. Naomi and Allen were very close; when she was in the grip of her delusions, he was the only one she trusted, and he often accompanied her to her therapy appointments. She spent much of his childhood institutionalized. Ginsberg spent eight months in a mental institution himself in the late 1940s, when he was arrested for harboring stolen goods; he chose to plead insanity.

He went to Columbia University, first intending to study law, but during his freshman year he met Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs. He later said, "I think it was when I ran into Kerouac and Burroughs — when I was 17 — that I realized I was talking through an empty skull ... I wasn't thinking my own thoughts or saying my own thoughts." Ginsberg left Columbia in 1948, traveled, and worked some odd jobs, and in 1954, he moved to San Francisco. He met poet Peter Orlovsky there; they fell in love and were partners until Ginsberg's death. In October 1955, Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery. The next day, bookstore owner and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent him a telegram quoting Emerson's letter to Whitman: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." "Howl," which was written to be read aloud, revived oral poetry. Ginsberg said that it, along with the rest of his work, was autobiographical, and that at its core was his pain at dealing with his mother's schizophrenia.

His mother died in 1956; two days later, he received a letter from her in the mail, in which she had written, "The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window — I have the key — Get married Allen don't take drugs — the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window." He had wanted to have a kaddish — the Jewish mourners' prayer — recited at her funeral, but there weren't enough Jewish men present, so he wrote his poem "Kaddish" (1961) in reparation:

Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream — what is this life?

Toward the Key in the window — and the great Key lays its head of light on top of
     Manhattan, and over the floor, and lays down on the sidewalk — in a single vast
     beam, moving, as I walk down First toward the Yiddish Theater — and the place of
you knew, and I know, but without caring now [...]

He said, "Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does."

Today is the birthday of the "founding mother of the historical romance genre": Kathleen Woodiwiss (1939) (books by this author), born Kathleen Erin Hogg in Alexandria, Louisiana. She met her future husband, Air Force Lieutenant Ross Woodiwiss, at a dance when she was 16, and they eloped. She worked part-time as a fashion model and saved her money to buy a typewriter, which she gave to her husband one Christmas. She told him it was for him to write his poetry on; she really bought it for herself, and she worked on her first novel, The Flame and the Flower, during his absences, afraid to tell him what she was up to. The hefty manuscript was turned down eight times, but then she sent it to some paperback publishers; an editor at Avon, raiding the slush pile for something to read on a rainy afternoon, was captivated, and the book sold 600,000 copies on its publication in 1972.

Woodiwiss single-handedly remade the romance genre, setting the standard for nearly every bodice-ripper to follow. Previously, romance novels had been pretty thin, literally and figuratively. Her books were often 700 pages long, heavily plotted, and full of carefully researched historical detail and steamy sex scenes. Her heroines were strong and dynamic, considering the genre and the time period.

Woodiwiss wrote 12 more books after The Flame and the Flower, taking her time on each one to get the historical details right. She died of cancer in 2007, and her last book, Everlasting, was published posthumously.

It's the birthday of author Larry McMurtry (1936) (books by this author), born in Wichita Falls, Texas, and raised in nearby Archer City. His hometown is about 80 miles from the town of Thalia, which is the setting for several of McMurtry's novels, like his first, Horseman, Pass By (1961), as well as Leaving Cheyenne (1963) and The Last Picture Show (1966) and its four sequels. He writes a lot about small-town life in Texas, and sometimes he writes historical novels about the frontier, like his Pulitzer Prize-winning epic Lonesome Dove (1985), although he strongly resists romanticizing the Old West and doesn't hold a very high opinion of cowboys in general.

In the early 1960s, when he was at Stanford on a Wallace Stegner fellowship, he began working as a rare-book scout, haunting used-book stores in search of first editions and other valuable books, which he would buy on behalf of antiquarian booksellers. It was a great job for a bookish kid who liked to hang around and browse the shelves, and when he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1970, he opened his own store in Georgetown, called Booked Up. In 1988, he opened a second Booked Up in his hometown of Archer City, in four large buildings that once housed a car dealership. He bought up the stock of failing independent bookstores all over the country, and he filled the towering white shelves with hundreds of thousands of volumes.

He doesn't see his current vocations — author and bookseller — as entirely different from his cattle-ranch roots. He told The New York Times: "The tradition I was born into was essentially nomadic, a herdsmen tradition, following animals across the earth. The bookshops are a form of ranching; instead of herding cattle, I herd books. Writing is a form of herding, too; I herd words into little paragraphlike clusters." He occasionally talks about giving up fiction, but he'll never give up the bookstores.

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