Wednesday Mar. 22, 2017

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What a wonder I was
when I was young, as I learn
by the stern privilege
of being old: how regardlessly
I stepped the rough pathways
of the hillside woods,
treaded hardly thinking
the tumbled stairways
of the steep streams, and worked
unaching hard days
thoughtful only of the work,
the passing light, the heat, the cool
water I gladly drank.

“VII.” by Wendell Berry from A Small Porch. © Counterpoint, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (1930) (books by this author), widely known for his musicals West Side Story (1957), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), and Into the Woods (1987). Sondheim has won eight Tony Awards, more than any other composer. His life in the theater began at the age of nine, when he saw his first Broadway musical. It was called Very Warm for May. Sondheim says: “The curtain went up and revealed a piano. A butler took a duster and brushed it up, tinkling the keys. I thought that was thrilling.”

Sondheim grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the son of a Seventh Avenue dress manufacturer. His parents were wealthy, but neglectful, and it wasn’t until he was 10 years old, and befriended James Hammerstein, the son of legendary lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, that he felt accepted and loved. Oscar Hammerstein took Sondheim under his wing, teaching him about lyrics and harmony.

It’s the 70th birthday of the prolific novelist James Patterson (books by this author), born in Newburgh, New York (1947).  Patterson claims two spots in the Guinness Book of World Records: he is the first author to sell 1 million e-books, and he has had the most New York Times No. 1 best-sellers of any single author. He sells more than Stephen King, Dan Brown, and John Grisham, combined.

He writes seven days a week, every week. Last year he wrote two novels, and more than 3,000 pages of other outlines, but he still finds time to play golf, have lunch with friends, and catch up on favorite TV shows in the evening. He writes for adults, kids, and teens, and never runs out of ideas. He gets so many ideas, in fact, that he often hires co-authors to flesh out the detailed outlines he gives them. His publisher — Little, Brown — has a team of 12 staffers that handle Patterson’s books, and Patterson’s only. And he’s demanding, especially of the marketing team. “I know what I want in all my books,” he told Vanity Fair. “It’s my way or the highway. I know who my readers are and how to engage them, how to scare them, how to get people to feel for the characters, how to make my readers laugh.”

It’s the birthday of American poet Billy Collins (1941) (books by this author), who once said, “While the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly in the window pane.” Collins is widely considered the most popular poet in America.

Billy Collins grew up in Queens. His mother was a nurse who could recite verse on numerous subjects, and his father was an electrician who used to bring home copies of Poetry Magazine. Collins was a focused and voracious reader, tackling Compton’s Encyclopedia at the age of four before moving on to books like Black Beauty, The Yearling, and the Lassie series. His mother read to him often, and, Collins says: “I have a secret theory that people who are addicted to reading are almost trying to re-create the joy, the comfortable joy of being read to as a child by a parent or a friendly uncle or an older sibling. Being read to as a child is one of the great experiences in life.”

Collins never attended a writing program, or took writing workshops, though he did meet poet Robert Frost when Frost visited his class at Holy Cross College. The students were shy, though, so Frost spent most of the evening talking to the Jesuits. Collins remembers mostly staring into his soup. He published his first poems in the back of Rolling Stone magazine. They paid $35.00 a poem. He didn’t publish his first book until he was 40 years old. He said, “I thought I would be completely content if I was recognized at some later point in my life as a third-rate Wallace Stevens.”

Billy Collins uses a Uni-Ball Onyx Micropoint pen in 9 x 7 notebooks to draft his poems before typing them out. When he thinks he might have enough for a book, he puts all the pages on the floor and walks on top of them in his stocking feet, trying to figure out the order. He revises his work carefully, he says, because, “Revision can grind a good impulse to dust.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Louis L’Amour (books by this author), born in Jamestown, North Dakota (1908). He was the author of many novels, including How the West Was Won (1963) and The Quick and the Dead (1973). One of the hardest-working and best-selling novelists ever; he wrote 101 books in his lifetime.

He knew he wanted to be a writer from the time that he could walk, but he decided early on that he had to go out into the world to find things to write about. He said: “A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.”

So L’Amour quit school when he was 15 and traveled around the west, working as an animal skinner, ranch hand, and lumberjack. Wherever he went, he got people to tell him their own stories and whatever stories they knew about the Old West. Once, he met a gunman who had ridden with Billy the Kid, and who had gone on to sell real estate.

In the early 1930s, L’Amour hopped an East African Schooner and made his way from Africa to Asia. He lived with bandits in the mountains of China and then started boxing professionally in Singapore. He won 34 of his 59 boxing matches by knockout.

When L’Amour got back to the United States, he started writing for pulp fiction magazines, because he needed money and the pulp magazines paid him the fastest. He wrote all kinds of adventure stories, but eventually settled on Westerns. The only reason his publisher didn’t ask him to change his feminine sounding last name was that he worried L’Amour might punch him out.

L’Amour’s first big success was Hondo (1953), about a love triangle between a cowboy, an Apache warrior, and a young widow living on a remote Arizona ranch. It begins, “He rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare. His buckskin shirt, seasoned by sun, rain, and sweat, smelled stale and old. His jeans had long since faded to a neutral color that lost itself against the desert.”

On this date in 1621, the Wampanoag chief Massasoit signed a treaty with Plymouth colonists. The colonists sent Edward Winslow to make initial contact with Massasoit on his first visit; Winslow brought him some knives and jeweled copper chain, and later described the chief as “a very lusty man, in his best years, an able body, grave of countenance, and spare of speech.” Massasoit agreed to negotiate a treaty with the colony’s governor, John Carver. It was the first treaty between white European colonists and a Native American people, and it wasn’t complicated: both communities agreed to come to the others’ aid in case of enemy attack, and agreed that the Wampanoag had the right to deal with any white settler who harmed them, and vice versa. The treaty held until 1671, when the colonists attempted to confiscate Wampanoag weapons. Massasoit’s son, whom the colonists knew as Philip, negotiated a new treaty, but by 1675, open hostility between the white colonists and the Native Americans had broken out. It became known as “King Philip’s War.”

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