Wednesday Dec. 14, 2016

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Getting It Right

In grammar school I stuttered,
felt the hot panic on my face
when my turn to read crept up the row.

Even when I counted the paragraphs
and memorized the passage,
I’d trip on the first or second word,

and then it would be over,
the awful hesitation, the word
clinging to the lining of my throat

rising only too late to avoid
the laughter around me. I was never
the smartest kid in the room,

but I had answers I knew were right
yet was afraid to say them.
Years later it all came out, flowing

sentences I practiced over and over,
Shakespeare or Frost, my own tall tales
in low-lit barrooms, scribbled

in black-bound journals, rehearsing,
anticipating my turn, my time,
a way of finally getting it right.

“Getting It Right” by Kevin Carey from Jesus Was a Homeboy. © Cavan Kerry Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It's the birthday of Amy Hempel (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1951). She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but she didn't have anything to write about, so she moved to California and worked in a series of odd jobs. She took an anatomy class where she performed autopsies on corpses, and then she worked in a counseling group for terminally ill people. But after her best friend died of cancer, she moved to New York City. It was only after she'd left California that she could write about the life she had been living there.

She took a creative writing class from the famous editor Gordon Lish, and one day he told her to write down her most terrible, despicable secret, the thing she would never live down. The result was her first short story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," about the death of her best friend. It begins, "'Tell me things I won't mind forgetting,' she said. 'Make it useless stuff or skip it.'"

That story became the centerpiece of her first collection, Reasons to Live (1985). She's also the author of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997) and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). The Collected Stories came out in 2006. She starts each story with the last line, and writes until she gets there.

Amy Hempel said: "It comes back to the question, whom are you writing for? Who are the readers you want? Who are the people you want to engage with the things that matter most to you? And for me, it's people who don't need it all spelled out because they know it, they understand it. That's why there's so much I can't read because I get so exasperated. Someone starts describing the character boarding the plane and pulling the seat back. And I just want to say, Babe, I have been downtown. I have been up in a plane. Give me some credit."

It's the birthday of Shirley Jackson (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1916). Her short story "The Lottery" begins innocently enough:

"The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner."

As the story progresses, the reader finds that this "lottery" is a yearly ritual in which townspeople select one of their number and stone him or her to death, believing that the sacrifice ensures a bountiful harvest. The story appeared in The New Yorker in June 1948, and many readers were horrified. They canceled their subscriptions and sent in angry letters, which the magazine forwarded on to Jackson. She said, "Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends." Even her mother scolded her and suggested she write something to "cheer people up." Jackson was most horrified by letters from people who wanted to know where they could go to witness a lottery like the one she'd described.

Her best-known novel is The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a quintessential haunted house tale, but she also wrote light, humorous tales of her family life in books like Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). She raised four children and only wrote after her household work was done. She said: "I can't persuade myself that writing is honest work. It's great fun and I love it. For one thing, it's the only way I can get to sit down."

The last moonwalk took place on this date in 1972. The mission was Apollo 17, and it was the longest and most successful of all the Apollo missions. Commander Eugene Cernan holds the distinction of being the last person to set foot on the Moon. He and crew member Harrison Schmitt unveiled a plaque, which read: "Here man completed his first explorations of the Moon, December 1972. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®