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Writers on Writing


  • We ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If a book does not wake us up with a blow on the head, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, why are we reading it?We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we have been banished to the woods, far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the sea frozen within us.  Franz Kafka
  • The writer has to be responsible to signs and dreams. If you don’t do anything with it, you lose it. Joy Williams
  • Writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock. Ann Beattie
  • I often think of the space of a page as a stage, with words, letters, syllable characters moving across. Susan Howe
  • One of the things [fiction] does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before. Ursula K. Le Guin
  •  With nonfiction, you’ve got your material, and what you’re trying to do is tell it as a story in a way that doesn’t violate fact, but at the same time is structured and presented in a way that makes it interesting to read. John McPhee
  • (On sitting down to write) It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff. This is especially true of the first draft. Every day you’re making up the earth you’re going to stand on. Peter Carey
  • Writing  nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing. Joan Didion
  • (On meeting J. D. Salinger) Then he said . . . ‘I’d like you to publish my novel.’ I said, ‘What novel?’ He said, ‘Oh, it isn’t finished. It’s about a kid in New York during the Christmas holidays.’ Robert Giroux, publisher.
  • Housman’s reference to the hairs rising at the back of one’s neck as one reads a poem remains a test of quality. Such response is individual and cannot merely be generalized, dismantled, controlled. Shirley Hazzard
  • I assemble stories—me and a hundred million other people—at the sentence level. Not by coming up with a sweeping story line. Amy Hempel
  • People who didn’t live pre-Internet can’t grasp how devoid of ideas life in my hometown was. I stopped in the middle of the SAT to memorize a poem, because I thought, This is a great work of art and I’ll never see it again. Mary Karr
  • I discovered you could write prose the way you do poetry. You don’t approach it from the idea that what you have to say is inside you. It’s a materialist approach, for want of a better word. You make something. You give up expressing and start inventing. Harry Mathews
  • Moments of crisis [in my writing] were to become a way of exploring and testing character. How we might withstand, or fail to withstand, an extreme experience . . .  Ian McEwan
  • A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend. Lorrie Moore
  • I’ve cultivated the first-person style as opposed to the third person. It’s a problem. A really good novelist is able to write in the third person, but I have never been able to write well in the third person. Kenzaburo Oe
  • It’s a deep dirty secret, in Australia, that I’m the wrong class to be a poet. Les Murray
  • A story doesn’t have to be simple, it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional but, especially if it’s multidimensional, you need to find the clearest, most engaging way of telling it. Salman Rushdie
  • Nonfiction writers are second-class citizens, the Ellis Island of literature. We just can’t quite get in. And yes, it pisses me off. Gay Talese
  • Journalism requires a horizontal gaze; it is absolutely factual. On the other hand, fiction requires a vertical gaze—delving deeper into the non-facts, the unconscious, the realm of the imaginary. Luisa Valenzuela
  • On translating Italo Calvino: I had problems with Calvino because he thought he knew English . . . At one point he fell madly in love with the word feedback . . .  William Weaver
  • Eighty percent of success is showing up. ˜Woody Allen
  • Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.  P.J. O’Rourke
  • I will tell you what I learned. Never let go of your vision. Listen to the opinions of teachers and friends and agents and editors and publishers but listen closer to your own voice. It is your job to bring your vision to someone. It is not your job to bring their vision to someone. That is not what art is all about. ˜Ron Savage
  • A good story never leaves you. It enlarges the space in your head. ˜Amanda Lohrey
  • . . . [T]he primal thing is the voice. Is it arresting or seductive? Do I want to listen to this voice? Does it . . . induce me to put all else aside?’  ˜Amanda Lohrey
  • For if you had written for the [writing] workshop, something that would have been accepted and even praised, it could have been that bloodless and soulless story you do not want to write. At least it would not have been your story. And it is partly the rejection and your reaction to it that has made, will eventually make, the story better. As any writer who has been there will tell you, there are a few benefits in being the darling of the workshop, but none that last. None at all.  ˜Jennifer Goldring
  • I have lost too much by losing, or rather by not having acquired, the note-taking habit . . . . To catch and keep something of life—that’s what I mean.  ˜Henry James
  • One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone.   ˜Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Plays and short stories are similar in that both start when all but the action is finished.  ˜Angus Wilson
  • If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will.  ˜Flannery O’Connor
  • First sentences are doors to worlds. ˜Ursula Le Guin
  • If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life, that are complete and fulfilled.
    ˜ John Cage, 1948
  • Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.  ˜ John Cage, 1948
  • Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, not to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.  ~John Cage
  • The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean. ~Robert Louis Stevenson
  • What  three things do you wish someone had told you about being a writer? The most important are things you’ve probably heard, but you’re just not ready to listen, or able to listen, until you get there:
    1) How intense the feeling of vulnerability would be once my work was published
    2) Just how far into the territory of self-doubt the process would take me
    3) That it never really feels as though the work is done–but you need to recognise the moment when it’s time to let it go anyway.
    ~Kirsten Tranter
  • Jane Fonda denied she used a ghostwriter for her autobiography. She wrote ‘barefoot, with a down parka over my pajamas, hair akimbo, shivering with cold, teeth chattering, tears running down my face.’ The reviewer adds . . . ‘ which is of course the way most good writing is done.’
    ~Vanessa Grigoriadis in a Sunday NY Times book review
  • Adult Truths 1. There is a great need for a sarcasm font. 2. Bad decisions make good stories. 3. The freezer deserves a light as well. 4. It’s hard deciphering the fine line between boredom and hunger.
  • All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening.  ~Alexander Woollcott
  • Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.  ~Alexander Woollcott
  • There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day. ~Alexander Woollcott
  • His huff arrived and he departed with it. ~Alexander Woollcott
  • . . . An editor’s read is a mean, carping, joyless thing. It aims to find fault, to pinpoint sources of disappointment, to prod and poke at enjoyment and find it less than it appeared to be. It aims . . . to detect what needs to be changed. But . . .  this read must still hold within it a normal read-for-pleasure. That means keeping an eye on how I would be enjoying myself if I were reading for pleasure, because that is what the editor is concerned to assess and improve.  ~Mandy Brett, senior editor, Text Publishing
  • Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.  ~Lawrence Kasdan
  • Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you … it is the occurring which is difficult.   ~Stephen Leacock
  •  Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It’s like passing around samples of sputum.  ~Vladimir Nabokov
  • . . . . [T]he written word must be so set down that it rises up immediately in its readers to the level of the ear, and becomes a vital presence in their consciousness. It asks . . . to be performed; to be returned to the world of orality it came from; it asks to be said, to be sung.  ~William Gass
  • A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.   ~E.B. White
  • Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw it, bury it, unearth it—and gnaw it still.  ~Henry David Thoreau
  • Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.  ~Raymond Chandler
  • Everyone has gone through the loss of faith in the material. Sometimes the novel dies beneath you like a horse, and when it begins to really smell, bury it. But not until it’s really putrid do you bury it.  ~Thomas Keneally
  • When all things are equal, translucence in writing is more effective than transparency, just as glow is more revealing than glare.  ~James Thurber
  • Everywhere I go I am asked if the universities stifle writers. In my opinion they don’t stifle enough of them.  ~Flannery O’Connor
  • I am constantly meeting ladies who say, ‘how lovely it must be to write’, as though one sat down at the escritoire after breakfast, and it poured out like a succession of bread and butter letters, instead of being dragged out, by tongs, a bloody mess, in the small hours.  ~Patrick White
  • The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.
    ~ Samuel Johnson
  • The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. ~Marcel Proust
  • Writing is like jumping out of a plane with some yarn and trying to knit a parachute before you hit the ground.   ~Neil Gaiman
  • Don’t get it right, just get it written. ~James Thurber
  • You are telling stories, . . .  trying to make a difference, . . . trying to test the envelope of literature. You are honest. Focus on that and the fact that honesty is not always rewarded. Actually, it very seldom is. If you can accept that, then you are already a writer and nobody can take it from you.  ~Sébastien Doubinsky, writer, posting on Robin Mizzell’s blog, Treated and Released.
  • I have made three rules of writing for myself that are absolutes: Never take advice. Never show or discuss a work in progress. Never answer a critic.  ~Raymond Chandler
  • Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.  ~Truman Capote
  • Over the years, I’ve found one . . . simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write.  ~Norman Mailer
  • Stop writing the sunny hours and write from where it hurts: No one wants to read polite. It puts them to sleep.  ~Anne Bernays
  • The impulse for much writing is homesickness. You are trying to get back home, and in your writing you are invoking that home, so you are assuaging the homesickness.  ~Joan Didion
  • I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’ ‘What if’ is always the key question.  ~Stephen King
  • Childhood is the purest well of experience from which a writer can draw. ~Patrick White
  • . . . . [C]ulture goes to sleep, the nation is born again. . . and this . . . current carries the fragile boat of the human world into the open sea of the future, where there is no sympathetic understanding . . . . How is it possible to fit this boat out for its long voyage if we do not supply it with everything necessary for a reader who is at once alien to us and so precious? Again, I compare a poem to an Egyptian ship of the dead. Everything needed for life is stored in this ship, and nothing is forgotten.  ~Osip Mandelstam
  • Editing should be . . . a counseling rather than a collaborating task . . . . [The editor] should say to himself, “How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?” and avoid “How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?”  ~James Thurber
  • The novel tends to tell us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that intensely. ~VS Pritchett
  • The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with . . . people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature. Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.  ~James Thurber
  • Creative writing is the Self escaping onto the paper. ~E.B. White
  • The intake of breath, just before a story starts, is life at its most delicious. ~Alethea Black
  • Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. ~George Washington Carver
  • True artists, whatever smiling faces the may show you, are obsessive driven people.  ~John Gardner
  • I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I’m not there, they go away again.  ~Philip Pullman
  • The artist is not so much a person endowed with the luck of vivid, eventful days, as a person for whom any immediate encounter leads by little degrees to the implications always present for anyone anywhere.  ~John Gardner
  • The job of the writer is to travel into wilderness and bring back meaning in buckets made of words, to give it as drink to the thirsty, to slake the thirst of those who have lived isolated for too long inside their own houses, to give them the living experience of wild water.  ~Stephen Harrod Buhner
  • The spirit won’t stand waiting for years until the mechanics of learning are mastered. It must be enlisted from the first or it will fly away to other things.  ~Robert Frost
  • When you find you do have a response–trust it. It has a meaning. ~William Stafford
  • After 40 years, the problem remains, each time. You can’t start writing until you know what you are doing, and you don’t know what you are doing until you start writing. I still have to resist the false intuition that I need to know as much as possible in advance. The essential thing is to know as little as possible. Ideally, when things fall out well, you shouldn’t feel clever, you should feel lucky.  ~Tom Stoppard
  • There are two means of refuge from the misery of life— music and cats. ~Albert Schweitzer
  • A catless writer is almost inconceivable. It’s a perverse taste . . . since it would be easier to write with a herd of buffalo in the room than even one cat; they make nests in the notes and bite the end of the pen and walk on the typewriter keys.  ~Barbara Holland
  • If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much.  ~Mark Twain
  • Cats are rather delicate creatures and they are subject to a good many ailments, but I never heard of one who suffered from insomnia.  ~Joseph Wood Krutch
  • Writing is not just about words . . . . [P]unctuation and paragraphing . . .  are hidden secrets that we see all the time. . . . [I]n the final text, they’re invisible to most readers, but the difference that invisibility makes to a story is enormous. A writer who doesn’t know how to use commas and em-dashes and colons and white space is short-changing themselves and their narrative.  ~Gillian Pollack

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