Wise Guys

I add to this list when I come across something that strikes me. If you have a quote you’d like to suggest for the list, please comment below and if at all possible, include the author and source.  It’s the academic in me to want to give full credit wherever possible.

The quotes are in no particular order. Also, you will find the occasional sentence or two quoted from a novel because, well. I love it.

Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

— E.L. Doctorow, Paris Review. The Art of Fiction No. 94

A story is told as much by silence as by speech.

— Straight

Rule one of reading other people’s stories is that whenever you say ‘well that’s not convincing’ the author tells you that’s the bit that wasn’t made up. This is because real life is under no obligation to be convincing.

— Neil Gaiman, Journal. 22 March 2003.

A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in it first.

— Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man. 1989

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friends.

— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I do not think I can get any nearer than this to the sources of my story-telling; I can only say that the process, though it takes place in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness, is always illuminated by the full light of my critical attention.

— Edith Wharton, cited by John Updike in The New Yorker. 16 April 2007

Being a writer means having homework for the rest of your life.

— Lawrence Kasdan

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.

— Thomas Mann, Essays of Three Decades. 1942

People have writer’s block not because they can’t write, but because they despair of writing eloquently.

— Anna Quindlen, NYT 23 September 1992

Even writers need relief from words.

— Sarah Vowell, O Magazine. March 2009.

Blind people got a hummin jones if you notice.

— Toni Cade Bambara, My Man Bovanne. Gorilla My Love. 1972.

I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. … We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible.

— Andrea Barrett, The Art of Fiction, Paris Review No. 180

There is only one plot—things are not what they seem.

— Jim Thompson, As quoted in Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson

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

— Stephen King, On Writing. Chapter One.

Easy reading is damn hard writing.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others

— Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.1929.

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.

— François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Discours en vers sur l’homme. 1737

So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.

— Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.

— Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go

Writing: the only time in your life when you really are Master of a Universe.

— Lynn Viehl

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina 1877

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

— Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1885

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.

— Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome 1911

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.

— Octavia E. Butler, Locus Magazine. June 2000.

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.

— Baltasar Gracián, between 1601-1658

Writing is both mask and unveiling.

— E.B. White, Letter to Scott Elledge. 16 February 1964

It’s all a draft until you die.

— Unattributed

Fiction is the truth inside the lie.

— Stephen King, It. (Foreword) 1986.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

— Mark Twain, Letter to George Bainton, 15 October 1888

Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, Beloved Infidel. 1958: 156-157

The business of the novelist is not to relate great events, but to make small ones interesting.

— Arthur Schopenhauer, On Thinking for Oneself

The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamouring to become visible

— Vladimir Nabokov

Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.

— Pablo Picasso

The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then when they are up there, throw rocks at them.

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

— George Orwell, Why I Write

There is a busybody on your staff who devotes a lot of time to chasing split infinitives… I call for the immediate dismissal of this pedant. It is of no consequence whether he decides to go quickly or to quickly go or quickly to go. The important thing is that he should go at once.

— George Bernard Shaw, Letter to The Times of London

A novel can educate to some extent, but first a novel has to entertain. That’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with — — who may not often read anything but the Sears catalog — — to read my books.

— Barbara Kingsolver, Publishers Weekly

…writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me.’

— Jhumpa Lahiri, Notes from an apprenticeship. The New Yorker. 13/20 June 2011

Starting to write a book: There is no agony like it.

— Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. 1977.

They sicken of the calm who know the storm.

— Dorothy Parker, Sunset Gun: Poems

The writing is – I’m free from pain. It’s the place where I live; it’s where I have control; it’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing.

— Toni Morrison, NPR: Fresh Air. 20 April 2015

History is the unfolding of miscalculations.

— Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, 1971.

if a book is well written, I always find it too short.

— Jane Austen, Catherine or the Bower

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

— Mary Heaton Vorse, as quoted by Sinclair Lewis in “The Colophon” 1937

After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.

Write what should not be forgotten

If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952.

The story–from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace–is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.

— Ursula LeGuin, The Language of the Night, 1979.

Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.

If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.

— Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

It’s a terrible poison, writing.

— A.S. Byatt

The more research you do, the more at ease you are in the world you’re writing about. It doesn’t encumber you, it makes you free.

— A.S. Byatt

Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.

— Zadie Smith, 2000. White Teeth

If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise: attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it.

— H.G. Wells (attributed), Sir Osbert Sitwell

Falling in Love

A couple times in my life I’ve avoided falling in love. The first time I was aware of doing it was in 1985, which was a watershed kind of year for me: I had a breast cancer scare (that turned out to be benign); My father went into a steep decline and died; A six-year long relationship finally crashed and burned; I met the Mathematician; I started field work for my doctoral dissertation; and I saw a movie that I tried not to see.

The Eric Garden was a tiny theater on Nassau Street in Princeton, just across from the university. I didn’t often have money or time for the movies, but then one day I saw a new movie poster to the left of the ticket booth.  Recall that this was long before you could google a movie trailer to see what it was about, so the poster was all I had, but on that basis it was clear to me that this was a movie I would adore.

Look at it, this object of my reluctant admiration. I still get a flush when I see it, all these years later.

The odd part: I simply could not make myself buy a ticket and go inside. I waited until the last day of its run, and then, sure enough, I was very put out with myself for waiting.  I would have happily bought another twenty tickets and seen it twenty more times. Assuming of course my graduate school budget had stretched so far. Because I waited, it was a couple years before I could see it again, but I thought about it, a lot. 

So now this phenomenon has repeated itself, but this time with a novel. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came out in 2009 so it has been about eight years that I’ve successfully avoided reading it. I somehow knew that I would love it, and so I stayed away from it. 

I’m here to confess that again, I was wrong to wait. I just finished it, at 2 a.m., and I’m kicking myself because now I know that The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of those novels that I will re-read every year. I’ll start feeling lonely for it first. Then the story will keep intruding into whatever I’m thinking about until I  give in, sit down and read it again. There are maybe six novels and just as many movies that have this ability to kidnap my attention.  

As I just finished reading this novel, I need to think about it for a while before I’ll be able to put into words why I like it as much as I do. Of course that will mean reading it again. Once or twice, at least.

Who Writes Like Me: Literature Maps

I recently came across Literature-Map, a website that has some magic formula it uses to predict which authors you will like based on the name you give them. So say you adore Hemingway and are hoping to find an author you’ll adore just as much. You go to this website and type in his name,  and up pops a map. You can see Hemingway’s map here.  

According to this map, you will probably like Faulkner and Salinger (because their names are closest in proximity to Hemingway’s), and you probably won’t like Nabokov or Joyce or even Shakespeare. 

So of course I had to experiment. I put in Sara Donati, and something like this showed up (click for a larger image):

Note first: This image has been edited; I took off the names of some authors simply because I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether or not our work is similar.  

Some things that I found interesting:   there aren’t many authors whose work is similar to mine. I’m not even similar to myself, which is quite a trick. The closest in physical proximity are Jean Auel, Rebecca Cable, and Marion Bradley. Furthest away are Patricia Veryan, Stephen Frey, Kerry Greenwood and Karin Slaughter. 

To try to figure this out, I used color coding. Light blue means I have only vague associations for the author. I may have read something of theirs, but without some research I don’t remember what that could have been, or what I felt about it.  I read a lot, so I’m a little surprised that I’m unfamiliar with so many of these authors. Especially as many of them (apparently) write in a way that appeals to readers who are drawn to my work. 

Light red means I do remember this author’s work, and I really don’t see any similarity. In fact, in some of these cases, I would rather not be compared. 

Light green means I know this author’s work and I like it. Almost none of the light green authors are in near proximity, which is no surprise at all. Let me just approach this another way. 

The Literature-Map people compare Hemingway to writers like Dickens, Tolstoy, Rand and Twain. Why these authors in particular? Why is Shakespeare on this map, but not Austen?

Why is Stephen Frey, of all people, on my map? I love Karen Slaughter’s gritty crime novels, but they are set in modern day Atlanta and have to do with themes that are in no way similar to the stories I write. Why is she on my map?

I’ll answer my own question: the algorithms behind these maps are defective. I let the Visual Thesaurus help me with this particular cloud:

Maybe there’s a website out there that does a better job of predicting a reader’s tastes, but if so, I haven’t come across it. Please let me know if you have. 

Writers Resist

You may have heard about Writers Resist, and if not, here’s the skinny, from their website:

Our democracy is at risk. Growing public cynicism and an alarming disdain for truthfulness is eroding our most dearly held democratic ideals. As writers we have tremendous power to bypass empty political discourse and focus public attention on the ideals of a free, just, and compassionate society…. 

Throughout the US and in other countries, writers are organizing their own Writers Resist events on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, January 15, 2017.

Invited speakers will read from a curated selection of diverse writers’ voices that speak to the ideals of Democracy and free expression. The public is encouraged to attend.

I’m cynical by nature, so I’ll just admit that while Writers Resist is an appealing idea, it doesn’t seem to me to promise very much in the long-run. It’s not as though we’ll have any particular insight into strategies for resistance. We’re just one more group of people who are frightened and angry and worried. 

But it doesn’t hurt, and it may well help in some ways for writers to get together and invite the rest of the non-writers in their communities to come listen to them read and talk. So I offered my help and ended up creating the poster for the Bellingham Writers Resist Event. And here it is. 

It may just be depression that’s weighing me down, but this whole thing makes me feel weary.