William Maxwell

The First Mouth that Drops Open in Surprise

From “The Writer as Illusionist,” by William Maxwell, from A William Maxwell Portrait:

A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations The writer has everything in common with the vaudeville magician except this: The writer must be taken in by his own tricks. Otherwise the audience will begin to yawn and snicker. Having practiced more or less incessantly for five, ten, or twenty years, knowing that the trunk has a false bottom and the opera hat a false top, with the white doves in a cage ready to be handed to him from the wings and his clothing full of unusual, deep pockets containing odd playing cards and colored scarves knotted together and not knotted together and the American flag, he must begin by pleasing himself. His mouth must be the first mouth that drops open in surprise, in wonder, as (presto chango!) this character’s heartache is dragged squirming from his inside coat pocket, and that character’s future has become his past while he was not looking.

With his cuffs turned back, to show that there is no possibility of deception being practiced on the reader, the writer invokes a time…invokes a place…He uses words to invoke his version of hat-wand the Forest of Arden. If he is a good novelist, you can lean against his trees; they will not give way. If he is a bad novelist, you probably shouldn’t. Ideally, you ought to be able to shake them until an apple falls on your head. (The apple of understanding.)

We Are Dust and Dreams

Diffugere Nives
by A. E. Housman, from The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman 

Horace, Odes, iv, 7

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
     And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
     And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
     And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
     Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
     Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn with his apples scattering;
     Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
     Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams;
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are
     And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
     The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
     The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
     The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
     No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
     Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
     The love of comrades cannot take away.

From the You Tube page of the Favorite Poem Project.

One Day's Following Another

Excerpt from "What He Was Like," by William Maxwell from All the Days and Nights:


He himself got older. His wife got older. They advanced deeper into their seventies without any sense of large changes but only of one day's following another, and of the days being full, and pleasant, and worth recording. So he went on doing it. They all got put down in his diary, along with his feelings about old age, his fear of dying, his declining sexual powers, his envy of the children that he saw running down the street. To be able to run like that! He had to restrain himself from saying to young men in their thirties and forties, "You do appreciate, don't you, what you have?" In his diary he wrote, "If I had my life to live over again -- but one doesn't. One goes forward instead, dragging a cart piled high with lost opportunities."

Though his wife had never felt the slightest desire to read his diary, she knew when he stopped leaving it around as carelessly as he did his opened mail. Moving the papers on his desk in order to dust it she saw where he had hidden the current volume, was tempted to open it and see what it was he didn't want her to know, and then thought better of it and replaced the papers, exactly as they were before.

"To be able to do in your mind," he wrote, "what it is probably not a good idea to do in actuality is a convenience not always sufficiently appreciated." Though in his daily life he was as cheerful as a cricket, the diaries were more and more given over to dark thoughts, anger, resentment, indecencies, regrets, remorse. And now and then the simple joy in being alive. "If I stopped recognizing that I want things that it is not appropriate for me to want," he wrote, "wouldn't this inevitably lead to my not wanting anything at all -- which as people get older is a risk that must be avoided at all costs?" He wrote, "Human beings are not like a clock that is wound up at birth and runs until the mainspring is fully unwound. They live because they want to. And when they stop wanting to, the first thing they know they are in a doctor's office being shown an X ray that puts a different face on everything."

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"William Maxwell: the Wisest, Kindest Writer," NPR/Fresh Air (1.25.08)