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In His Own Words: James Michener

by Vicraj Gill

In Monday’s profile of Bloomer James Michener, Robert Goree described the author in his youth as “a social scientist with Keats running around in his head.” The following excerpts, along with other moments from Michener’s oeuvre, reflect the sense of rapture that marked much of Michener’s historical fiction. They also represent his colorful upbringing, considerate nature, and sage insights on writing as an older author.


“A ship, like a human being, moves best when it is slightly athwart the wind, when it has to keep its sails tight and attend its course. Ships, like men, do poorly when the wind is directly behind, pushing them sloppily on their way so that no care is required in steering or in the management of sails; the wind seems favorable, for it blows in the direction one is heading, but actually it is destructive because it induces a relaxation in tension and skill. What is needed is a wind slightly opposed to the ship, for then tension can be maintained, and juices can flow and ideas can germinate, for ships, like men, respond to challenge.” —Chesapeake (1978)

“I do not believe that pure reason can solve the perceptual problems unless it is modified by poetry and art and social vision.” —Interview with Parade Magazine (1991)

“The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. The permanent defeat of life comes when dreams are surrendered to reality.” —The Drifters (1982)

“He had obtained a clearer view of his homeland by leaving it and seeing it through the eyes of others.” —Poland (1983)

“I think young people ought to seek that differential experience that is going to knock them off dead center. I was a typical American school boy. I happened to get straight A’s and be pretty good in sports. But I had no great vision of what I could be. And I never had any yearning.

My job was to live through Friday afternoon, get through the week, and eat something. And then along came these differential experiences that you don’t look for, that you don’t plan for, but, boy, you better not miss them. The things that make you bigger than you are. The things that give you a vision. The things that give you a challenge.” —Interview with the Academy of Achievement (1991)

“Good writing, for most of us, consists of trying to use ordinary words to achieve extraordinary results.” —The World Is My Home (1991)

“Few people listen to critics more than I. If Vincent Canby says a movie is good, I go see it. If Jonathan Yardley or Anatole Broyard tells me a book is first rate, I go buy it. If John Canaday or Jack Kroll assures me that a picture is worth looking at, I look. But I never bother with what critics say about my own work; indeed, I refuse to read them. A critic is most helpful in advising you how to spend your money; he is useless in telling you how to spend your life.” —from a 1984 feature in the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph

“Things are going to go wrong, and I think we are false to life if we don’t portray it. But there is also the hope that some lucky clown is going to come along and stumble into the gold mine. And I think you are also entitled to hold out that hope.” —Interview with the Academy of Achievement

“The artist must be somewhat opposed to society—against received knowledge. He must be prepared to explore strange alleyways, to rebuke accepted wisdom, to confuse and challenge and reconstruct new patterns. The artist is by nature a semi-outlaw.” —The Novel (1992)

“It heartens me to think of Verdi who composed thundering operas in his eighties; Michelangelo who did fine work in his ninetieth year, and Titian, who painted better than ever in his one hundredth. My personal hero is the Japanese wood block artist Hokusai about whom I wrote. He said: ‘If I live to be 90, I’ll have really learned how to draw.’ He died at 89, short of the mark, but still trying.” —Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph

Bloom Post End

Homepage photo credit: Vincent Cianni

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