The Reason For Thank You Notes

I’ve never won a major award. Also, I’ve never won an intermediate award or a minor award or even a free pitcher of margaritas at Trivia Night. I have in fact been overlooked in all categories of every award in every industry, including the ones that seemed a sure thing, like Best Repeated Abuse Of Split Infinitives or J.D. Power and Associates Best Customer Service (General Literature Blog Mass Market Segment). I’m not bitter-MUCH-because it’s really true that it’s an honor just to be nominated. It’s always seemed to me that the most satisfying part of winning any award in public is the opportunity to publicly express gratitude to the people that have stood with you on whatever journey you’ve been on that led you to that podium. We’ve all seen that at the big performer-centered award shows: tearful recipients clutching something gold and shiny, rushing through a list of names, trying to ward off the “shut up already” orchestra music.

It must be difficult to get that once-in-a-lifetime chance to say THANK YOU only to be thwarted by a commercial break. If you want an unlimited gratitude plan, you need to publish a book. Authors have it figured out because a published book presents legions of places to thank every family member, editor, librarian, barista, dog, cat, and historical dead-type people that offered support, inspiration, or grilled cheese sandwiches during the writing of the book. There’s a Dedication page. Not enough space there? Please, expand in the Acknowledgments section, and tell us more. Need to offer more thoughts to tie it all together? There is always the Epilogue option. As a reader, I devour every word in these sections, because I am fascinated and moved by the communities and the processes that produce my favorite books, and also I’m trying to put off doing my laundry.

All For You Author dedications run the gamut from silly to sad to serious. Often, dedications are memorials to honor loved ones who have passed, such as Charles Finch’s simple lines in his nautical mystery Burial At Sea to his grandmother “who loved sea stories”.  When it comes right down to it, though, my winner for the ultimate dedication goes to British poet and playwright Robert Browning. Robert Browning was one-half of the Victorian poetry power couple Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and there ain’t no celebrity like Victorian poet celebrity cuz Victorian poet celebrity got formal rules of comportment and sexual repression. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were already separately established on the literary B list when they married in  1846. It was during their marriage that Robert produced one of his most important works, Men and Women.  It’s a substantial work of 51 poems and in the last poem, Browning speaks directly to the reader and dedicates the entire incredible collection to his beloved wife. Think about that the next time you buy your significant other a funny Hallmark card with a picture of cartoon cat saying “I love you so much I brought you a dead mouse”.  Basically: you had the choice between epic poetry and dead rodents, and you blew it. Browning knew exactly what to do with his authorial podium – tell the whole world that his best writing was ultimately a gift for his wife. (Elizabeth was no slouch in the dedication department, either. Her masterwork, Sonnets From The Portuguese,  consists of love sonnets written to her husband and gave the world the immortal lines “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”. Take that, Hallmark.)

The Chair Recognizes  Where a dedication is limited to one person, maybe two, or a family, all limits are off in the Acknowledgements.  An author can acknowledge everybody. No worries about time limits, or forgetting someone and having to recover in the press room. Acknowledgments are a lovely way to loop in not only the professional relationships that take a book from idea to publication but all the other key people in an author’s circle. I love reading these, but my inner nerd is most happy when reading acknowledgments in any book that is history-related because I am so DOWN with learning about anyone’s research processes. History authors got some damn fine research processes, just sayin’, and nobody is finer than Laura Hillenbrand. Her meticulous, painstaking research has produced two of the finest American history books ever written, Seabiscuit and Unbroken.   Laura Hillenbrand’s research methods are an art form. YUP I SAID THAT. FIGHT ME. The acknowledgments for Seabiscuit read almost as a love letter to how intimate and personal history truly is, unpacking Hillenbrand’s tenacious approach that combines painstaking thoroughness with wildly open curiosity. Before it was history, it was someone’s life, and Hillenbrand acknowledges those lives with respect and sensitivity. GAH I just talked myself into re-reading Seabiscuit.

Just One More Thing Dedications and acknowledgments are as common as dirt. When an author wants to get atypical, then it’s Epilogue time. It’s fancy to add an epilogue. Not country club fancy. More like, expensive mascara fancy. When an author needs to put a bow on what you’ve just read, a bow that needs the emotional weight of a dedication and the space afforded by an acknowledgment, then an epilogue delivers the perfect flavor of closure.  Jenny Lawson illustrates this absolutely perfectly in her book about living with mental illness, Furiously Happy. This book is intentionally hilarious, not to downplay the seriousness of her disease, but to highlight the impact anxiety and depression have on her day-to-day life and how she chooses to cope with these chronic conditions. In her epilogue, she allows the humor to fall away in a heartfelt, raw appeal to people that she knows are sharing the same struggles. Mental illness is an isolating condition, often complicated by shame and stigma. Lawson uses her time at the podium to remind her most vulnerable readers that they are valued. It’s the perfect bow.


This is gonna be one hell of an epilogue

It’s awards season. Go ahead. Pretend you’re getting that award you know you deserve, grab a spatula, and practice your epic acceptance speech in the mirror. It will be our secret.


Action Items
Extra credit if you read any of Robert Browning’s poetry.

The Reason I Prefer Limericks

Are you entertaining entering the glamorous world of liberal arts and becoming an English major? There is a lot to ponder (what color ink should you choose to take notes? what will your unifying design theme be for your iPad and iPhone cases?), but it really comes down to whether or not you’re ready to embrace the fundamentals. Let me break it down for you. As a literature student, you have two jobs. The first job is to read everything assigned to you to read. Never mind that sometimes your reading list is a brain-baffling tossed salad of German postmodernism , world mythology, and John Milton. Nobody is asking you what you want to read. You’re reading what’s on that syllabus, so hush your mouth, put down that People magazine, and pick up that Bertolt Brecht.

Once you’ve read your assigned works, you might think you’re done. Well, you’re not, because that’s when you start your shift on your second job, which is to get your analysis on. Unleash your powers of perception and persuasion and run the time-honored drill of writing a paper. The act of writing a paper demonstrates understanding of the text, grasp of the larger ideas and context around the work you just read, and that you know how to procrastinate to a point where it becomes necessary to read The Grapes of Wrath, draft an outline, and write a paper about Steinbeck’s use of grapes as a motif in the 48 hours before the due date. Or maybe I wrote about Steinbeck using wrath as a motif? I’m not sure, as I was hallucinating by hour 37.

For the opinioned among us (looks in the mirror, points to self), crafting and writing papers is a rewarding exercise. I thoroughly enjoy making juicy literary arguments and I can cite more sources than a Kardashian has eyeliner. Fiction, non-fiction, plays, short stories, novellas, fairy tales–bring it ON. Notice anything missing from that list? I’ll fill you in. POETRY. I don’t know why, but I am incapable of articulating anything insightful about poems. It’s not that I can’t enjoy poetry. It’s that I can’t explain it. When obligated to describe why a poem has a particular quality, I’m stumped. It just comes out as “Nice letters make good word poem picture”,  and the only thing exaggerated about that example is that it’s giving me more analytic credit than I deserve. I dreaded assignments requiring any analysis of any poetry.  I once punted so hard on a paper about Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” that my teacher took me aside to ask me if everything was okay. I think she suspected me of having someone else do the assignment for me and was wondering why I’d hired a kindergartner. Sadly, that’s when I had to face an unpleasant truth: I would never be a poetry whiz. I’d never be in the same class as the amazing Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a Jazz Age writer, activist, and all-around badass. How badass, you ask? Okay: She was a Maine native, Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity poet, and named after a hospital. BIO BONUS LEVEL UNLOCKED. POINTS AWARDED, EDNA. Where Zelda Fitzgerald embodied Jazz Age liberation as a volatile live wire, celebrating conspicuous consumption and inebriated recklessness, Edna St. Vincent Millay was cooler than the other side of the pillow.  Independent, willful, and insanely talented, she lived an unconventional life characterized by artistic integrity and intellectual curiosity. And sexual curiosity. Let’s just say all the curiosity.

Savage Beauty is the gorgeous biography about Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. It does ESVM’s life justice (Four-initial monogram? Badass) spanning her early, poverty-stricken years in rural Maine, her boldness as a Vassar student, and her amazing career. All of that is interesting enough, but Milford’s meticulous research reveals an Edna who is lively, stubborn, and driven by her passion for the arts and for artists. ESVM was a born writer, composing opera librettos and plays, but it is her poetry that casts the longest shadow.

Generally, my ability to appreciate poetry is limited to crying at a well-placed poem at a movie funeral. (And you know I just paused to watch John Hannah read W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And now you’re pausing to do the same thing. I’ll wait. It’s a good scene.) There is one exception to this sad rule, and that is the sublime, brilliant ESVM poem “Renascence”.  Written when Edna was a teenager, she submitted in a national poetry contest, where it was awarded 4th place instead of an expected 1st. The ensuing “she was robbed” controversy was Edna’s first exposure to poetry fame and facilitated a full scholarship to Vassar. “Renascence”  is ambitious in scale and subject matter. Over 200 lines long, it is written in the first person, with the narrator reconciling her feelings about feeling overwhelmed and lost in a vast world. It is almost prose, almost a short story, both intimate and sweeping with a sermonlike momentum. I’ve loved it since I first read it. It’s fortunate that it’s a good, long, juicy, solid poem because it has to stand in for all the other poems that I avoid like the plague.

Like all masterpieces, “Renascence”  is deceptively simple. It’s both challenging and comforting, begging larger thematic questions (immortality and stuff) while grounding itself in a natural, mountainside setting. The real magic of “Renascence”, though, is that I never had to write a paper about it, so I never ruined it for myself or anyone else. (Um, until today.)  My poetry bandwidth is just too narrow. Trying to pin down ESVM poetic genius for research posterity would have been like trying to hammer a nail with a baguette: crumbs everywhere and a really annoyed nail.


Poetry analysis toolkit

I’m definitely calling in sick at the second job today.


Action Item
Nancy Milford writes stupendous biographies. Sadly, she has written only two–Savage Beauty, and Zelda. You go read them while I sit here and wish for her to publish another one, preferably about Zora Neale Hurston or Dorothy Parker.