Writers: Take Heart!


I'd forgotten all about writer Amanda McKittrick Ros, then came across this gem while I should have been doing something a little productive, i.e., anything, really:


On Visiting Westminster Abbey

by Amanda McKittrick Ros


Holy Moses! Have a look!

Flesh decayed in every nook!

Some rare bits of brain lie here,

Mortal loads of beef and beer,

Some of whom are turned to dust,

Every one bids lost to lust;

Royal flesh so tinged with 'blue'

Undergoes the same as you. …

Famous some were–yet they died;

Poets–Statesmen–Rogues beside,

Kings–Queens, all of them do rot,

What about them? Now–they're not! "


Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860 – 1939), born Anna Margaret Ross, was an Irish writer who wrote both poetry and novels. She holds the dubious distinction of being called by critics "one of the world's worst poets," due to her flamboyant, flowery prose, overuse of alliteration, and convoluted phrasing. Still, Amanda has many admirers who find her work to be boldly original and tremendously entertaining. In either case, her books are now handsomely priced collector's items."



Hideous or fun and jaunty? You must sample her prose:

"Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!"


Erm. Right, then. Just so  you know, writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and I believe a couple other esteemed gentlemen are said to have participated in challenges in which they'd read one of her books aloud, until one of them started laughing uncontrollably, that person losing the contest.

I would love to have been there… Born too late! Oh! Woe! Inseminated into my mother's womb, squeezed through her maternal orifice but too soon! Too soon!

Next time you're frustrated with the progress of your writing have a look at Ms. Ros's. Could it really be as bad as this? Hint: If the answer's yes, you may as well go ahead and self publish, like everyone else.


P.S.: You may be able to get etexts of her works for free, through either Amazon or Project Gutenberg.


Quotation: On collecting things that inspire art


"Collections are about looking at stuff around me and being in complete awe."

                                                                                                                            - Maira Kalman








Art by Maira Kalman


Bio from her website:

Maira Kalman was born in Tel Aviv and moved to New York with her family at the age of four. She was raised in bucolic Riverdale, the Bronx. She now lives in Manhattan.

She has written and illustrated thirteen children's books, including Ooh-la-la-Max in Love, What Pete Ate, and Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John Jay Harvey. Her most recent children's book, 13 WORDS (Harper's) was a collaboration with Lemony Snicket.

She is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker Magazine, and is well known for her collaboration with Rick Meyerowitz on the "New Yorkistan" cover in 2001. Maira is currently creating an illustrated column for The New Yorker based on travels to museums and libraries.

Recent projects include illustrating Strunk and White's classic The Elements of Style. A small opera based on the text was composed by Nico Muhly. She has created two monthly online columns for the New York Times. The first, The Principles of Uncertainty (2006-07), was a narrative journal of her life. The second, And The Pursuit of Happiness (2009) was a year long exploration of American History and democracy beginning with a story on the inauguration of Barack Obama. Both columns are now collected in book form, published by the Penguin Press.



It’s A Long Long Way to Bleak House


From Bleak House by Charles Dickens:

"It was interesting when I dressed before daylight to peep out of the window, where my candles were reflected in the black panes like two beacons, and finding all beyond still enshrouded in the indistinctness of last night, to watch how it turned out when the day came on. As the prospect gradually revealed itself and disclosed the scene over which the wind had wandered in the dark, like my memory over my life, I had a pleasure in discovering the unknown objects that had been around me in my sleep. At first they were faintly discernable in the mist, and above them the later stars still glimmered. That pale interval over, the picture began to enlarge and fill up so fast that at every new peep I could have found enough to look at for an hour. Imperceptibly my candles became the only incongruous part of the morning, the dark places in my room all melted away, and the day shone bright upon a cheerful landscape, prominent in which the old Abbey Church, with its massive tower, threw a softer train of shadow on the view than seemed compatible with its rugged character.  But so from rough outsides (I hope I have learnt), serene and gentle influences often proceed."



From A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry:

"And in one of those kingdoms he saw for the first time his princess, Gretta Lawlor, who truly was one of the beauties of the city, there would be no lie in that. Dublin could show many beauties, skinny and destitute though they might seem. And she was among the finest, though of course she knew nothing of that.

She was sitting by a window writing on a piece of paper, though he never found out what she was writing. Her face made his stomach weak, and her arms and breasts made his legs of poor use to him. She had the strange look of an old painting because the light was on her face. It was a neat, delectable face and she had long yellow hair like something caught in the act of falling. Maybe in her work, if she had work, she kept it tied and pinned. But here in her privacy it was glistening with the secret lights of the old room. Her eyes had the green of the writing on a tram ticket. Her breasts in a soft blue linen dress were small, thin, and fiercely pointed. It was almost a cause for fainting on his part, he had never witnessed the like. He held the pheasants up in the gloom and noticed for the first time that they had a curious smell, as if left hanging too long, and they were starting to decompose. She was just thirteen in that time."


Totally  unrelated? Not completely. In the Bleak House quote Esther Summerson is falling in love with John Jarndyce, though she might be shocked if someone pointed this out to her. She's his ward, and he her guardian. The age difference is significant, though not insurmountable. She trembles and fumbles when he's near but doesn't quite recognize what she's feeling is attraction. Not yet. And as for him? He's genial and kind, protective and thus thoroughly loveable, though not in a designing way. For Esther everything in the world is coming alive. She'll connect the dots soon enough.

Fast forward in time to just before WW I, hop across the pond to Ireland, and young Willie Dunne is struck by the beauty of Gretta Lawlor. She's so pretty she makes him forget he's holding (gag) dead pheasants. Now that, my friends, is pretty.

Each is awakening to the prospect of first love slowly unfolding, Esther the prim Victorian and Willie the adolescent Irishman. And, both scenes involve a window. Significant? Oh, I think so.

Funny, I wanted to post quotes from both works, because I'm alternating reading them at present, but didn't see the similarities until I'd typed them out. Interesting, the subconscious mind, isn't it?


Harper Lee’s Christmas Memory, ‘McCalls’ 1961

Christmas to Me

by Harper Lee

Several years ago, I was living in New York and working for an airline, so I never got home to Alabama for Christmas–if, indeed, I got the day off. To a displaced Southerner, Christmas in New York can be rather a melancholy occasion, not because the scene is strange to one far from home, but because it is familiar: New York shoppers evince the same singleness of purpose as slow moving Southerners; Salvation Army bands and Christmas carols are alike the world over: at that time of year, New York streets shine wet with the same gentle farmer's rain that soaks Alabama's winter fields.

I missed Christmas away from home, I thought. What I really missed was a memory, an old memory of people long since gone, of my grandparents' house bursting with cousins, smilax, and holly. I missed the sound of hunting boots, the sudden open-door gusts of chilly air that cut through the aroma of pine needles and oyster dressing. I missed my brother's night-before-Christmas mask of rectitude and my father's bumblebee bass humming "Joy to the World."

In New York, I usually spent the day, or what was left of it, with my closest friends in Manhattan. They were a young family in periodically well-to-do circumstances. Periodically, because the head of the household employed the precarious craft of writing for their living. He was brilliant and lively; his one defect of character was an inordinate love of puns. He possessed a trait curious not only in a writer but in a young man with dependents; there was about him a quality of fearless optimism–not of the wishing-makes-it-so variety, but that of seeing an attainable goal and daring to take risks in its pursuit. His audacity sometimes left his friends breathless–who in his circumstances would venture to buy a townhouse in Manhattan? His shrewd generalship made the undertaking successful: while most young people are content to dream of such things, he made his dream a reality for his family and satisfied his tribal longing for his own ground beneath his feet. He had come to New York from the Southwest and, in a manner characteristic of all natives thereof, had found the most beautiful girl in the east and married her.

To this ethereal, utterly feminine creature were born two strapping sons, who, as they grew, discovered that their fragile mother packed a wallop that was second to nobody's. Her capacity to love was enormous, and she spent hours in her kitchen, producing dark, viscous delights for her family and friends.

They were a handsome pair, healthy in mind and body, happy in their extremely active lives. Common interests as well as love drew me to them: and endless flow of reading material circulated amongst us; we took pleasure in the same theatre, films, music: we laughed at the same things, and we laughed so much in those days.

Our Christmases together were simple. We limited our gifts to pennies and wits and all-out competition. Who would come up with the most outrageous for the least? The real Christmas was for the children, an idea I found totally compatible, for I had long ago ceased to speculate on the meaning of Christmas as anything other than a day for children. Christmas to me was only a memory of old loves and empty rooms, something I buried with the past that underwent a vague, aching resurrection every year.

One Christmas, though, was different. I was lucky. I had the whole day off, and I spent Christmas Eve with them. When morning came, I awoke to a small hand kneading my face. "Dup," was all its owner had time to say. I got downstairs just in time to see the little boys' faces as they beheld the pocket rockets and space equipment Santa Claus had left them. At first, their fingers went almost timidly over their toys. When their inspection had been completed, the two boys dragged everything into the center of the living room.

Bedlam prevailed until they discovered there was more. As their father began distributing gifts, I grinned to myself, wondering how my exceptionally wily unearthments this year would be received. His was a print of a portrait of Sydney Smith I'd found for thirty-five cents; hers was the complete works of Margot Asquith, the result of a year's patient search. The children were in agonies of indecision over which package to open next, and as I waited, I noticed that while a small stack of present mounted beside their mother's chair, I had received not a single one. My disappointment was growing steadily, but I tried not to show it.

They took their time. Finally she said, "We haven't forgotten you. Look on the tree."

There was an envelope on the tree, addressed to me. I opened it and read: "You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas."

"What does this mean?" I asked.

"What it says," I was told.

They assured me that it was not some sort of joke. They'd had a good year, they said. They'd saved some money and thought it was high time the did something about me.

"What do you mean, do something about me?"

To tell the truth–if I really wanted to know–they thought I had a great talent, and–

"What makes you think that?"

It was plain to anyone who knew me, they said, if anyone would stop to look. They wanted to show their faith in me the best way they knew how. Whether I ever sold a line was immaterial. They wanted to give me a full, fair chance to learn my craft, free from the harassments of a regular job. Would I accept their gift? There were no strings at all. Please accept, with their love.

It took some time to find my voice. When I did, I asked if they were out of their minds. What made them think anything would come of this? They didn't have that kind of money to throw away. A year was a long time. What if the children came down with something horrible? As objection crowded upon objection, each was overruled. "We're all young," they said. "We can cope with whatever happens. If disaster strikes, you can always find a job of some kind. Okay, consider it a loan, then, if you wish. We just want you to accept. Just permit us to believe in you. You must."

"It's a fantastic gamble," I murmured. "It's such a great risk."

My friend looked around his living room, at his boys, half buried under a pile of bright Christmas wrapping paper. His eyes sparkled as they met his wife's, and they exchanged a glance of what seemed to me insufferable smugness. Then he looked at me and said softly; "No, honey. It's not a risk. It's a sure thing."

Outside, snow was falling, an odd event for a New York Christmas. I went to the window, stunned by the day's miracle. Christmas trees blurred softly across the street, and firelight made the children's shadows dance on the wall beside me. A full, fair chance for a new life. Not given me by an act of generosity, but by an act of love. Our faith in you was really all I had heard them say. I would do my best not to fail them. Snow still fell on the pavement below. Brownstone roofs gradually whitened. Lights in distant skyscrapers shone with yellow symbols of a road's lonely end, and as I stood at the window, looking at the lights and the snow, the ache of an old memory left me forever.

– – –

"Christmas To Me" was published in McCalls December 1961.

Overheard in Bar Harbor, Maine

Three college aged boys walking past the local bookstore (in which I'd just bought two books by local authors, as I'm wont to do while traveling) were talking about the demise of books and the rise of the eBook, and one of them said (in reply to a comment I couldn't quite make out):

"Electronic books have a smell, too. They smell like sweet, sweet digitization."


From ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ by Alan Paton

"There is not much talking now. A silence falls upon them all. This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens the pages of these messengers of doom. Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of the heart."

‘Pages for You’ by Sylvia Brownrigg

"She came from a place where autumn meant oncoming dampness and fog, the new drawl of the school year: a plain, dull gravity of shoulders and hope. Nothing like this fierceness of light and the brisk bite of cold on the cheek, which seemed playful, a love nip, rather than a somber slap of warning that winter might come. She was not yet wary of the winters here, having not moved through one. She knew this approaching splendor meant death and decay, the boding of ice-poisoned branches and slippery black streets, but could not make herself feel the grief in it. All this vividness she could read only as exhilaration. Not melancholy."