quotes for writers

Twain on “show, don’t tell”

Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.

Mark Twain

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The virtues of hackery

Mario Puzo thought he was slumming when he wrote The Godfather. He was broke, an aspiring literary novelist with some respectful reviews but not many sales, and he hoped that a thriller about the mob might make a quick buck. … In fact, the writing of The Godfather released something fresh in Puzo’s imagination—a streak that was both potboilerish and also a little baroque—and if the result wasn’t “literary,” exactly, it was great pop fiction. … The director of those movies, Francis Ford Coppola, originally felt about them the way Puzo felt about his book; he considered them commercial hackwork compared with his more “artistic” films like “Rumble Fish” and “One From the Heart.”  And as in Puzo’s case, that attitude actually proved liberating, enabling Mr. Coppola to adopt a style that was grander and more operatic—more “epic,” to use the Hollywood term—but also less arty and self-conscious than the one he used for his more personal projects. Mr. Coppola’s “Godfather” enterprise went off the rails in “Part III,” which came out in 1990, when self-importance again seemed to overtake him (along with his star, Al Pacino) and he was no longer in touch with the story’s roots in pop culture and gangster-movie mythology.

Charles McGrath

I suppose there is a more compelling case to be made for artistic ambition, but it is worth remembering that great, lasting work often comes when artists aim low.

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“Never do it the same way again”

Beginners sometimes ask me how a novel is written, the answer to which is: Any way at all. One knows only when it is finished, and then if one is at all serious, he will never do it the same way again.

Thomas Berger, author of Little Big Man

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Up a tree

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

Vladimir Nabokov

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Emerson: Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and be faithful, and you will accomplish your objective. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Value of Uncertainty

“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea.”

— Pablo Picasso

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Hemingway: “Make it alive”

“You see I’m trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across — not just depict life — or criticize it — but to actually make it alive. So that when you read something by me you actually experience the thing.”

Hemingway, age 25, letter to his father, March 1925

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Quote of the Day

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.”

— William G.T. Shedd

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Mary Karr: What you are doomed to write

“It’s difficult to accept what your psyche or history dooms you to write, what Faulkner would call your postage stamp of reality. Young writers often mistakenly choose a certain vein or style based on who they want to be, unconsciously trying to blot out who they actually are.”

Mary Karr (via)

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Keats: “I was never afraid of failure”

It is as good as I had power to make it — by myself. Had I been nervous about its being a perfect piece, and with that view asked advice, and trembled over every page, it would not have been written; for it is not in my nature to fumble — I will write independently. — I have written independently without Judgment. I may write independently, and with Judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself — that which is creative must create itself — In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice. I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.

John Keats, in an 1818 letter to his publisher, responding to critics of his poem “Endymion” (punctuation as in original)

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“It’s always difficult”

I work slowly; it’s always difficult — it’s nearly always difficult. I’ve been writing steadily, really, since I was twenty years old, and now I’m eighty-one. My routine now is to get up in the morning, have some coffee, start to write. And then a little later on, I might take a break and have something to eat and go on writing. The serious writing is done in the morning. I don’t think I can use a lot of time in the beginning; I maybe can only do about three hours. I do rewrite a lot, and I rewrite and then I think it’s all done, and I send it in. And then I want to rewrite it some more. Sometimes it seems to me that a couple of words are so important that I’ll ask for the book back so that I can put them in.

Alice Munro

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“Each book should be a new beginning”

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

Ernest Hemingway, 1954 Nobel Prize Speech

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Henry James: The Art of Fiction

But the only condition that I can think of attaching to the composition of the novel is, as I have already said, that it be interesting. This freedom is a splendid privilege, and the first lesson of the young novelist is to learn to be worthy of it. “Enjoy it as it deserves,” I should say to him; “take possession of it, explore it to its utmost extent, reveal it, rejoice in it. All life belongs to you … There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory. Don’t think too much about optimism and pessimism; try and catch the colour of life itself…. Remember that your first duty is to be as complete as possible—to make as perfect a work.”

— Henry James

Read the complete essay here.

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Quote of the Day

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

— Peter DeVries (though I’ve seen this quote or something similar attributed to several writers)

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Miserable people

Writers are very often miserable people: some thrive on unhappiness, others don’t. But few are immune from feelings of deep and avid dissatisfaction. We write because we are constantly discontented with almost everything, and need to use words to rearrange it, all of it, and set the record straight.

Avi Steinberg, “Is Writing Torture?

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Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for twenty minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always twenty minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

— Cory Doctorow, “Writing in the Age of Distraction

Three Questions

In her new book, Negotiating With the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood poses three questions to herself and other novelists: Who are you writing for? Why do you do it? And where does it come from?

Mr. McEwan answered them in quick succession: “I think you could only do it for yourself under the assumption that if you like it, someone else might like it, too. Why do it? I think it’s impossible not to. Not to write seems to me to be a gross rebuke of the gift of consciousness. Where does it come from? You have to dig fairly deeply and relax your control of it … [Fiction] is a random, associative business, just the white noise of daydreaming thought.”

Ian McEwan, 2002

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Writing is frustration

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.

Philip Roth

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Write posthumously

In his 1988 book of essays, Prepared for the Worst, Christopher Hitchens recalled a bit of advice given to him by the South African Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. “A serious person should try to write posthumously,” Hitchens said, going on to explain: “By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints—of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and, perhaps especially, intellectual opinion—did not operate.

Jeffrey Eugenides (read the whole thing here)

The desire to matter

The desire to matter as much as we once did to our mother is at the broken heart of all narcissistic endeavour, whether it’s writing novels, tweeting or carrying the right kind of handbag. Writing fiction is the symptom of many psychological distortions — a terror of mortality among them — the most poignant of which is a longing for perfect recognition, perfect understanding. This is the illusion hovering at the end of every painstakingly edited line. There was a time when Franzen’s mother imitated his “wuh” sound, mimicked his O-shaped gape, as if it was a work of genius, as if it mattered to the culture. The secret motivation of even the most gifted writer may be to enjoy this again — this is our blueprint for the experience of mattering — and “writer’s block” is perhaps a fancy way of describing the moments in which this seems impossible.

Talitha Stevenson

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