wise guys: words on writing and writers

wiseguysI used to have my collection of writing quotes on the right sidebar. They rotated, which jolted the page, which some people found irritating. So I took them off. But I still add to them now and then (I added one today, as a matter of fact) and I decided to put them here all at once. Do you have a favorite among these? Do any of them strike you as off? If you have a favorite that isn’t here, please put it in the comments.

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

 

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9 Replies to “wise guys: words on writing and writers”

  1. I pretty much love them all. Also, on the Talking Heads post poll, I was the (as of this morning) lone voter for a book of your choosing….simply out of curiosity to see what you would have chosen.

    1. I suppose that means that you’re a little more adventurous than the average commenter. Or trusting. Or both. If you were to win, I would probably ask you some questions before I decide what book to send you. I like finding just the right book for an individual, and over the years I think I’ve developed a small talent for it.

      1. Having read them again, if I had to choose favorites, I would chose the Hanna Arendt quote and the Susan Griffin one.

  2. I have always been partial to the Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K LeGuin. This is a good quote on writing:

    “Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!”

  3. One of my favorites by “Dutch” Leonard was : “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”

    I’m also fond of this one by Enid Bagnold : “Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

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