Quotes from “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” that Made Me Cry

“If you could expect nothing better, why did you come to America?”

“For the sake of my children whom I wished to be born in a free land.”

“Your children haven’t done so well, Mother.” Katie smiled bitterly.

“There is here, what is not in the old country. In spite of hard unfamiliar things, there is here—hope. In the old country, a man can be no more than his father, providing he works hard. If his father was a carpenter, he may be a carpenter. He may not be a teacher or a priest. He may rise—but only to his father’s state. In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.”

“That is not so. Your children have not done better than you.”

Mary Rommely sighed. “That may be my fault. I knew not how to teach my daughters because I have nothing behind me excepting that for hundreds of years my family has worked in the land of some overlord. I did not send my first child to the school. I was ignorant and did not know at first that the children of folk like us were allowed the free education of this land. Thus, Sissy had no chance to do better than me. But the other three… you went to school.”

“I finished the sixth grade, if that is what is called education.”

“And your Yohnny” —she could not pronounce ‘j’ — “did too. Don’t you see?” Excitement came into her voice. “Already, it is starting—the getting better.” She picked up the baby and held it high in her arms. “This child was born of parents who can read and write,” she said simply. “To me, this is a great wonder.”

“Mother, I am young. Mother, I am just eighteen. I am strong. I will work hard, Mother. But I do not want this child to grow up just to work hard. What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?”

“The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.”

“I will read,” promised Katie. “What is a good book?”

“There are two great books. Shakespeare is a great book. I have heard tell that all the wonder of life is in that book; all that man has learned of beauty, all that he may know of wisdom and living are on those pages. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. It is said that these stories are plays to be acted out on the stage. I have never spoken to anyone who has seen this great thing. but I heard the lord of our land back in Austria say that some of the pages sing themselves like songs.”

“Is Shakespeare a book in the German?”

“It is of the English. I so heard our lord of the land tell his young son who was setting out for the great university of Heidelberg long ago.”

“And what is the other great book?”

“It is the Bible that the Protestants read.”

“We have our own Bible, the Catholic one.”

Mary looked around the room furtively. “It is not fitting for a good Catholic to say so but I believe that the Protestant Bible contains more of the loveliness of the greatest story on this earth and beyond it. A much-loved Protestant friend once read some of her Bible to me and I found it as I have said.”

“That is the book, then, and the book of Shakespeare. And every day you must read a page of each to your child—even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing what is great—knowing that these tenements of Willamsburg are not the whole world.”

“The Protestant Bible and Shakespeare.”

“And you must tell the child the legends I told you—as my mother told them to me and her mother to her. You must tell the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those not of the earth who live forever in the hearts of people—fairies, elves, dwarfs and such. You must tell of the great ghosts that haunted your father’s people and the evil eye which a hex put on your aunt. You must teach the child of the signs that come to the women of our family when there is trouble and death to be. And the child must believe in the Lord God and Jesus, His Only Son.” She crossed herself.

“Oh, and you must not forget the Kris Kringle. The child must believe in him until she reaches the age of six.”

“Mother, I know there are no ghosts or fairies. I would be teaching the child foolish lies.”

Mary spoke sharply. “You do not know whether there are not ghosts on earth or angels in heaven.”

“I know there is no Santa Claus.”

“Yet you must teach the child that these things are so.”

“Why? When I, myself, do not believe?”

“Because,” explained Mary Rommely simply, “the child must have a valuable things which is called imagination. The child must have a secret world in which live things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things not of this world. Then when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I, myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the Saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.”

“The child will grow up and find out things for herself. She will know that I lied. She will be disappointed.”

“That is what is called learning the truth. It is a good thing to learn the truth one’s self. To first believe with all your heart, and then not to believe, is good too. It fattens the emotions and makes them to stretch. When as a woman life and people disappoint her, she will have had practice in disappointment and it will not come so hard. In teaching your child, do not forget that suffering is good too. It makes a person rich in character.”

“If that is so,” commented Katie bitterly, “then we Rommelys are rich.”

“We are poor, yes. We suffer. Our way is very hard. But we are better people because we know of the things I have told you. I could not read but I told you of all the things I have learned from living. You must tell them to your child and add on to them such things as you will learn as you grow older.”

“What more must I teach the child?”

“The child must be made to believe in heaven. A heaven, not filled with flying angels with God on a throne”—Mary articulated her thoughts painfully, half in German and half in English—”but a heaven which means a wondrous place that people may dream of—as of a place where desires come true. This is probably a different kind of a religion. I do not know.”

“And then, what else?”

“Before you die, you must own a bit of land—maybe with a house on it that your child or your children may inherit.”

Katie laughed. “Me own land? A house? We’re lucky if we can pay our rent.”

“Even so.” Mary spoke firmly. “Yet you must do that. For thousands of years, our people have been peasants working the land of others. This was in the old country. Here we do better working with our hands in the factory. There is a part of each day that does not belong to the master but which the worker owns himself. That is good. But to own a bit of land is better; a bit of land that we may hand down to our children… that will raise us up on the face of the earth.”

“How can we ever get to own land? Johnny and I work and we earn so little. Sometimes after the rent is paid and the insurance there is hardly enough left for food. How could we save for land?”

“You must take an empty condensed-milk can and wash it well.”

“A can… ?”

“Cut off the top neatly. Cut strips down the can the length of your finger. Let each strip be so wide.” She measured two inches with her fingers. “Bend the strips backward. The can will look like a clumsy star. Make a slit in the top. Then nail the can, a nail in each strip, in the darkest corner of your closet. Each day put five cents in it. In three years there will be a small fortune, fifty dollars. Take the money and buy a lot in the country. Get the papers that say it is yours. Thus you become a landowner. Once one has owned land, there is no going back to being a serf.”

“Five cents a day. It seems a little. But where is it to come from? We haven’t enough now and with another mouth to feed…”

“You must do this: you go to the green grocer’s and ask how much are carrots the bunch. The man will say three cents. Then look about until you see another bunch, not so fresh, not so large. You will say: may I have this damaged bunch for two cents? Speak strongly and it shall be yours for two cents. That is a saved penny that you put in the star bank. It is winter, say. You bought a bushel of coal for twenty-five cents. It is cold. You would start a fire in the stove. But wait! Wait one hour more. Suffer the cold for an hour. Put a shawl around you. Say, I am cold because I am saving to buy land. That hour will save you three cents’ worth of coal. That is three cents for the bank. When you are alone at night, do not light the lamp. Sit in the darkness and dream a while. Reckon out how much oil you saved and put its value in pennies in the bank. The money will grow. Someday there will be fifty dollars and somewhere on this long island is a piece of land that you may buy for that money.”

“Will it work, this saving?”

“I swear by the Holy Mother it will.”

– from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

image via Ironic Sans

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Don’t Kill Your Darlings. Exile Them.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, but man was I stuck on this novel.


I say that in passing, but I’m forgetting that some of you don’t know I finished the third draft my fourth novel (my first publishable novel). See the update bars < if you’re looking at this on a laptop. Mobile will have them below \/.

So that happened. Huzzah.

Okay, back to block people.

Rothfuss said it best, “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block.” I think, generally, if I’m stuck on a piece it’s either because ::

  1. Distraction and anxiety have gotten in the way of my work or
  2. My ignorance has limited me. I’m up against a problem I haven’t yet encountered. If this happens, I shouldn’t freak out. I need to learn something about my opponent, about the block itself.

And I had two problems I hadn’t encountered this time around. Most people would call this “blocked,” but I call alleged “writers block” simply a worthy opponent. Every block is different, as is every opponent.

But first…

Anxiety and distraction.


I solve the anxiety and distraction problem by getting away from society and getting to a quiet place. In that quiet place I meditate (not Eastern meditation, I mean something more akin to prayer). I journal and I sit still and tell my body that sometimes it’s better to build an architecture of time than an architecture of space. I spend most of my weeks saying “I wish I had more time.” Well, The Sabbath is the day that I do have more time, the day that I build palaces and castles and giant freaking starship cruisers (complete with photon torpedoes) out of time rather than money or success out of space.

I literally make time.

I do this not by Netflix binge-watching. Not by to-do-list reading. But by dabbling in random books that peak my interest and I do not need to finish. Petting my dog for egregious amounts of time. Napping with my wife. Playing a board game. Eating leftovers. Hanky panky. But mostly thinking. Dreaming. Hoping. Praying to God the Father, which amounts not to a religious ritual but to a conversation with my friend. When I’m at my best, this too is Sabbath.

As my friend Ellie said recently:

“Some days I have to decide whether I want to be a professional writer or a professional internet browser.”

The internet really is best described as a web – an interconnected set of sticky threads that will catch you if you’re not careful. And who knows what might come along and inject its digestive juices into you once you’re caught in that snare…

So the other thing I did to combat anxiety and distractions in the last three months was install Freedom. I literally block The Internet when it’s time to write. When I’m disciplined with it, this is a beautiful thing. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. You have now changed the trajectory of my career for a third time.

Combatting ignorance.


But there were other pieces to this “stuck.” Sometimes I need to learn new information, which I’ll handle in the comments below, but sometimes I need to learn how to use a new tool. One piece of my ignorance played out like this: I was stuck not because of what I hadn’t written, but because of what I had. I knew that I needed to take an axe to some sections and completely disintegrate others into non-being, but I also knew some of these parts were workable bits of back story that I simply needed to relocate into other sections of the book, rework them into sections I had yet to write.

Then at the tail end of Writer’s UnBoxed Unconference (which I surprisingly never blogged about — I’m woefully behind on blogging), actually on the ride back to Boston, my new Aussie friend Jo Eberhardt told me she uses a “morgue” file. She highlights sections she’s unsure about. Cuts them. Pastes them into the document.

This may be the most liberating thing I’ve heard in years.

There were times in this novel where I literally highlighted fifteen thousand words and pressed DELETE and started again. That’s basically a novella, gone. It’s not as dramatic as the time I covered a typewritten novel manuscript in gasoline and struck a match, but it’s just as effective. Some of those fifteen thousand words were decent, a few were great, most of it was trash.

Other times in the writing, I couldn’t bring myself to do something that drastic. Not because I thought the given passage was gold, but because I couldn’t quite place when and where the passage went wrong, and so it stayed like a symbiont, a parasite, but one I could live with.

The morgue changed all of that. Some of it made it back into the novel. In the most extreme example, a small part of this long passage I cut from page 7 made it back into the novel on page 394. Most of it stayed out.

So yes, you need to kill your darlings, those passages you hold dear, the times you think the writing’s gold when it’s awful. But sometimes all of your children are blame-shifting one another and you don’t know which one to discipline. They all need to be put in time out so you can smoke out the darling among them, weed out the mole, the passage that needs eviscerated.

Don’t kill your darlings, exile them.


Create two files when you start – one for the stuff you’re putting in and one for the stuff you’re taking out. If your work is healthy, both files should grow as the novel grows and there should be a healthy amount of smuggling across the border between the two, exports and imports.

One of the guilds I work with in the city suggests something similar. The leader of the songwriter’s guild, Ben Grace, suggests his fellow songwriters dump every little voice memo and sound clip and lyrical phrase into one big Google Drive folder. Then as they start to coagulate, he moves them over to another folder. Stuff that only needs a new paint job he relocates in a third folder. Call them the “Bucket, Chunk, Marinade” folders if you will, but the point’s the same : you need a place where your good thoughts can congregate and then excommunicate other thoughts that don’t belong in your work in progress.

There are other things I learned this time around that got me past that second ignorance barrier, but most of those involved tricks for colliding characters or inserting more foreshadowing or making life harder on my protagonist or integrating my world’s sociological strata. Typical rewrite stuff and typical next-level tweaks like a golfer working on his downswing.

However, this morgue idea was a completely new one on me and it made a world of difference, so thanks Jo.


Readers get free stories and artists get encouraged ::

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image from Shira Gal

The Alex Seton Life Jackets


It may well be the driving force behind all art – that we learn by making decisions along with another. This is the crux of story, but it also works in terms of seeing life through the eyes of a sculptor or a painter.

The story behind Alex Seton’s Life Jackets ::

In May of 2013, authorities found twenty-eight people seeking asylum in Western Australia whose bodies had washed up on the Cocos Island. Alex Seton recreated this moment by creating marble life jackets under the title, ‘Someone died trying to have a life like mine.’ I’ll let him take the floor ::

Artists :: how does empathy give power to your message like Alex Seton’s life jackets?

Non-artists :: have you ever empathized with the deeply emotional experience of a stranger? What’s the story on that?

• • •
Free stories for readers and encouragement for artists ::

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a brooklyn, new york author