The Prompter Room

For Friday, July 27, 2018:


Good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. …  Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous. Art is informative. And even mediocre art can tell us something, for instance about how other people live. But to say this is not to hold a utilitarian or didactic view of art. Art is larger than such narrow ideas.



The Prompter Room

For Friday, June 22, 2018:


… Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.

It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.

Susan Sontag – 2001 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, ‘The Conscience of Words,’ AT THE SAME TIME: ESSAYS AND SPEECHES

The Prompter Room

For Tuesday, December 27, 2016:


Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice.  Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life.


Quoted in THE ART OF MEMOIR by Mary Karr

The Prompter Room

For Monday, March 7, 2016:


“What moves me most in literature is the writer who says, ‘Here I stood!  I loved the world enough to write it all down.'”

Sara Ruhl, author and playwright

An iPad commercial puts it this way: ” … The powerful play goes on – and you, you may contribute a verse” (quote is, I think, from Walt Whitman).

I love this.  To think that I may actually participate in the play somehow is exciting, and if I can do so with my writing, that’s thrilling and even better.

Whatever the play is – comic, tragic, or anything in between – our words make a difference.  Whether we agree or disagree, our words make a difference.  The world needs them.

The world needs you, needs us, to love it enough to write it all down.

The Prompter Room

For Saturday, November 14, 2015:

“[T]he overlap and straining of divergent world views is a gift.  Don’t ask to live in tranquil times.  Literature doesn’t grow there.”

Rita Mae Brown

By now we’ve all heard and seen the accounts of yesterday’s horrible and heartbreaking terrorist attacks in Paris, France.  Personally, I prefer tranquil times.  At the same time, I expect we can all think back to one or more of the classics of literature that have grown out of war and conflict.

Literature may not grow in tranquil times, but it is disheartening to think that we, the human race, seem not to learn from the classic accounts.  Isn’t that one reason for literature, that we try to learn from it?

At the same time, I’ve already seen poems that seek to make sense of the horror, that share the individual and collective heartbreak most of us feel.  Nowadays, of course, the world is much more immediately connected than in Homer’s time, or Stephen Crane’s, or Hemingway’s, thanks to the sometimes-dubious wonders of technology.  We don’t have to wait days, weeks, months, or years to hear of war across the world anymore.  Would that we could learn as quickly as the poets of today.

The Prompter Room

For Thursday, November 5, 2015:

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.”

Stephen King

A young friend who writes confessed to me that she rarely reads.  She’s actually a decent writer, so I was quite surprised to hear that she’s not a reader.  At some point in her life she must’ve read, or maybe her parents read to her a lot when she was a child.  The thing is, she won’t be a better writer if she doesn’t read now as an adult.  I hope she can discover that, like a master woodworker or master mechanic, she can’t improve if she doesn’t immerse herself in the process of the craft and the art form.

Some people who write, or who say they want to write, are worried that if they read others’ writings they will end up using others’ words or ideas.  Some fiction writers won’t read other fiction, some poets won’t read other poets.  They say they want to ensure the works they craft will be their own and not derivative.  While the intention is admirable — they don’t want to plagiarize, even if it’s unintentional, or they don’t want to be influenced by anyone else — they’re truncating their growth as writers.  They eliminate their base of knowledge and example, there is no foundation upon which to build their art.

Virginia Woolf’s advice to ‘Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river’ is sound and necessary.  In my far-from-humble opinion, all writers must know the world of literature from which they spring.  They need to read the classics in all — or at least many — of the genres available to us.  We need to know fairy tales and myths, who Beowulf is and why he is important, how Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales made the evolving English language more accessible to the ‘common people’ (hat tip to Rita Mae Brown for that reminder) and what we learned from his pilgrims.  Shakespeare, of course, is a given, and so is Mark Twain and Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sylvia Plath, and so many others.  Without their hard-won foundation, we can’t know what works or doesn’t work in the writings of William Faulkner, Steinbeck or Hemingway or Kate Chopin or Naomi Shabib Nye or Mary Oliver, Langston Hughes, Zorah Neale Hurston, T. S. Eliot, or the different versions of the Faustus tales, or … or … or …

Literature represents who we are as human beings, at given times and places in the epochs of our evolution as a people.  Yes, we can write — and many people obviously do — without the foundation of all those who have gone before us.  If we haven’t grown up with this foundation, it’s never too late to start.  We become more fully developed writers, and we become better human beings because we discover, meet, and come to know, ourselves and our neighbors in the stories — in whatever genre — that have come before us.

It’s never too late to start adding tools to our toolbox.  It’s never too late to discover who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.  The more we read, the more we can discover together.  And that is why we write.

Go Set a … Mockingbird?

As a daughter of the south, I am seriously conflicted about whether or not to read Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book, Go Set a Watchman. As a writer and a lover of good literature, I know I will read it – eventually – but I know it won’t be any time soon.

Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is among my top five all-time favorite novels, and the movie of the same name occupies the same place in my movie-watching pantheon, so I want to live with the images I grew up with and loved most of my life a little while longer. For one thing, I always had my maternal grandfather in my mind whenever I watched the movie’s Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, because Daddy Tom was the equivalent of Atticus but in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was an architect, not a lawyer, but his personal and corporate human rights’ work was just as impressive and life-changing as the fictional character’s, and his example made him a real-life hero in my eyes. Daddy Tom will always be one of my heroes, but I want to keep Atticus as a hero, too.

For those who don’t know, apparently GSAW paints Atticus Finch in a much different light from TKAM. Listening to various pundits, and reading a myriad of reviews, both good and bad, both before and immediately after the book came out earlier this week, I take it that Atticus is now a racist. He denigrates African Americans (‘Negroes’ in the lexicon of the day) and wants them, as a group, ‘kept in their place’ (my quotes). Based on what I’ve heard and read, this older Atticus – now in his 70s – believes ‘Negroes are still in their childhood’ (not my quotes) as a people.

I think one of the reasons so many people are having such a hard time wrapping their minds around this ‘new’ Finch is because they’re equating – intentionally or not – the fictional character with the actor Gregory Peck. I can’t remember now if I read TKAM first or saw the movie first – probably because I’ve seen the movie and read the book so many times – but I freely admit that Gregory Peck soon came to equal Atticus for me, and I know – I know! – that’s one reason I don’t want to read the new book yet.

Peck has always been one of my favorite actors and I know – I know! – he’s not really Atticus Finch, but I can’t read GSAW until I get to the point where they’re not interchangeable anymore. The thing is (I remind myself), I don’t think Gregory Peck is the same person as the young clergyman he portrayed in the movie Keys of the Kingdom, which was also based on the book of the same name about the uprising in China in, I think, the earliest part of the 20th century. Nor is he the Hitlerite character in the movie that scared me so badly I can’t think of the name of it just now. Nor is he the characters he played in Alfred Hitchcock movies. And on and on.

So I should know better, right? And I think I’m well-read enough, and have written and edited enough of my own and others’ fictional works, that I should be able to jump this literary hurdle with relative ease. But this one’s as high as those track and field monsters in my real-life gym classes, and I’m having as hard a time now as I did then.

Continue reading “Go Set a … Mockingbird?”