On Writing, Editing

Chinua Achebe: “If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.”

Nelson Algren: “Any writer who knows what he’s doing, isn’t doing very much.”

Dorothy Allison: “Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is the way you can both hate and love something you are not sure you understand. . . [another] one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make . . . I tell stories to prove I was meant to survive, knowing it is not true.”

Martin Amis: “The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.”

Lillie Amman: “Editing isn’t just correcting what’s wrong. It’s also improving what’s right.”

Donald Antrim: “I write because writing is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It is slow and painstaking and frustrating. I do not begin with an idea or a theme, and I don’t make outlines. I don’t have a plan for the ending or, usually, for the next page or the next line. Even short pieces might take shape over years. Everything that I have ever seen, done, or felt, had, shared, or lost, is in play, and the word of the day is, on most days, confusion. But there is also love. […]I no longer regret writing, or the life I have made along the way. I’ve learned too much and come too far, and I am in pursuit of an art form. It took a long time, and a lot of work, to get to this point, and I will never find an end to it. I have a problem that can keep me busy for the rest of my life. I have something to look forward to.”

Margaret Atwood: “Good writing of any kind by anyone is surprising, intricate, strong, sinuous.”

Ramona Ausubel: “People will tell you that you need a thick skin to be a writer, but I think part of what makes a good writer is the ability to be porous, to be able to feel all the intricate and complicated notes, the particular music of each moment. No writer should turn the volume down on her own emotional register. That’s her instrument. We have to feel everything.”

Francis Bacon: “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”

Vytautas Bagdanavičius: “As the author shapes his material, he cannot avoid expressing what he knows — what concerns his cultural environment as well as himself . . . The literary work reflects and attests to its culture of origin, not by its circumstances, but by its philosophy. The author may embellish the story in his own way, he may regroup the details, but his central core of ideas remains profoundly linked with reality, at least in the sense of being a profound image of the author’s own spirit.”

Mikhail Bakhtin: “Language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention.”

James Baldwin: “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. . . . The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

Richard Bausch: “There are people out there suffering the wounds and sorrows and terrors of existence who do not have the words to weather it, and it is the writer’s place to give expression to that part of experience . . . to give forth nothing less than the knowledge that no one, in the world of stories and of art, is ever totally alone.”

Elizabeth Bear: “The most important thing I have learned about writing is that failure is not just part of the process. It is the process. If we never fail, that means that we’re not trying techniques and skills and effects that are beyond our abilities, and not only do we stagnate as artists–our skill sets actually begin to contract. We actually get worse when we don’t allow ourselves to overreach and fail.”

Marvin Bell: “A writer, reading as a writer, absorbs the sounds, rhythms, feel, mind, even the look of the text.”

Gabrielle Bellot: “Language is always in a process . . . of motion and evolution. To write in English means to write in a language that expands. A language in perpetual bloom.”

David Biespiel: “Those traits — performance, empowerment, and thrill as factors of a good heart — are also, to my mind, signal aspects of the poet’s voice.”

Robin Black: “There is precisely one time during which a writer is ignorant of the challenges and failures and frustrations of any given story, and that is when the story is still only an idea for a story.”

Mary Clearman Blew: “I wonder why fiction is thought to plumb more ‘truth’ than nonfiction does, when in either genre it’s the witchcraft of association and the projection of imagination that opens doorway after doorway in the haunted labyrinth that folds and unfolds and never comes to an end.”

Zan Bockes: “Basically, I survive to write because I write to survive.”

Louise Bogan: “The truth always comes out quite queer. It sounds so distorted and improbable that the writer’s interest is kept, in spite of himself.”

Amy Boggs: “It’s hard when writing doesn’t live up to an idea, but ideas are the easy part. Writing is hard as hell.”

Elizabeth Bowen: “Writers do not find subjects; subjects find them.”

Ray Bradbury: “[Writing is] the exquisite joy and madness of my life, and I don’t understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them. If I had to work at it I would give it up. I don’t like working.”

Peter Bricklebank: “If your writing is to surprise your readers, then you must surprise yourself, and that’s achieved by unearthing just who it is you really are. And whenever there is excavation going on, people will watch, fascinated.”

Rosellen Brown: “For whatever reason we drink from this sweet and bitter cup called writerly ambition, and no matter how, at its best, it should quench our thirst, it will not satisfy us. Our ego needs are deep — unassuageable — or we could have never done this difficult thing, and done it for so long; we wouldn’t have found it worth the dangers.”

Laynie Browne: “Living writers are oxygen for living writers.”

Peter Carey: “At night I tend to read around the subject I’m writing about — I’m so self-absorbed and obsessive, I can’t help it. But the most important thing with research is to feel confident enough to throw out 98% of it.”

Willa Cather: “On the whole writing interests me more than anything else. If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make it an adventure every day.”

Aadita Chaudhury: “Writing isn’t simply about organizing your thoughts, it’s also a marker of where you stand in a transient and abstract space. IT is in that space that creators and researchers of all kinds do the most work in.”

Paddy Chayefsky: “I’m not a great writer, I’m a great rewriter.”

Julie Checkoway: “The writer in the family of writers can choose, or not, to pass familial goodness on — the wisdom of work, the wisdom of books — with as much goodwill as she can muster.”

Alexander Chee: “Time is our mink, our Lexus, our mansion. In a room full of writers of various kinds, time is probably the only thing that can provide widespread envy more than acclaim. Acclaim which of course means access to money which then becomes time.”

Lucille Clifton: “Trust the poet in yourself. Trust the language. No poet ever gets exactly where they want to. Every poet I know feels they almost did it.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “There is no real ‘better than you’ [to write something]. There’s just the story that you produced. That’s what it is. Either you repeatedly asked questions or you didn’t. But you made a choice. Someone else might be more curious than you, but the functionality of them being more curious than you is that they just asked more questions. That was a deep sort of lesson — that the winner is the person who keeps asking questions.”

Jean Cocteau: “Literature is a force of memory that we have not yet understood.”

Kerry Cohen: “A memoir is not a collection of cool stories. It is not a chaotic or fascinating adventure. A memoir grows from the wild desire to make sense of what happened to you . . . As you make sense of your story, you’re providing a way for others to make sense of their stories.”

Eugenia Collier: “Literature is a reservoir of truth to which those who thirst continuously bring their pitchers.”

Pat Conroy: “I’ve seen memoirists who go nuts for absolute scrupulous word-for-word truth telling. It’s an impossible standard. If you have to write it perfectly, the story won’t be told. Here’s what I know: If a story is not told, it’s the silence around that untold story that ends up killing people. The story can open up a secret to the light.”

Molly Larson Cook: “The ‘ease of correcting’ on a computer diminishes the real work of writing well — revision. Writers get the idea that revision is simply changing a word here and there rather than ‘revisioning’, or rethinking the writing.”

Patricia Cornwell: “Writing is solitary. You can’t write unless you are willing to spend a lot of time alone.”

Lisa Cron: “Plot is about action, story is about the underlying why. The plot is what we can see with the naked eye, the story is about what we can’t.”

Alexander M. Crow: “All English is broken — it’s how it is remade that is important. Language constantly evolving, being enriched.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “The point of writing is to create information, not simply to pass it along.”

Mark Cugini: “I write poetry because poetry makes failing okay. It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel full — of hope and heart and wonder. And I don’t know how else to do that.”

Edwige Danticat: “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously . . . knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

datrappert [LibraryThing reviewer]: “As personal as writing is, it is also inherently social.”

Robertson Davies: “If you look back a few thousand years, you realize that we have advanced fantastically from the day when the first amoeba crawled out of the slime and made its adventure on land. If you take a long view, I do not see how you can be pessimistic about the future . . . of the world. … It is very much easier to be tragic than it is to be comic. … And if you try to see things a little more evenly, it’s surprising what complexities of comedy and ambiguity and irony appear in it. And that, I think, is what is vital to a novelist.”

Deborah Dean Davis: “Every writer is a giant eye making its way through the world, looking at things more closely than the average eye. … Go ahead and make your world your writing partner.”

Pamela Dean: “I don’t think editors are any crueller than the general populace, they just have more opportunity.”

Carl Dennis: “The primary task of the writer is to construct a speaker whose company is worth keeping.”

Kate Dicamillo: “Somehow, through sheer audacity, through dumb luck, through willpower, through instinct, through defiance, through faith, through something unknowable, inexplicable, magical, I had conjured something from nothing. And that is what writing is.”

Colm Dickey: “A writer’s life not as a bildungsroman with the inexorable progress towards a foregone conclusion, but instead as a continuously evolving and dynamic process, the act of which often tangentially and coincidentally interacts with the writer herself.”

James Dickey: “What I aspire to do in writing — to make the thing seem so natural that the earth itself might have said it.”

G. Lowes Dickinson: “A rose in a moonlit garden, the shadow of trees on the turf, almond bloom, scent of pine, the wine-cup and the guitar; these and the pathos of life and death; the long embrace, the hand stretched out in vain, the moment that glides for ever away, with its freight of music and light, into the shadow and hush of the haunted past, all that we have, all that eludes us, a bird on the wing, a perfume escaped on the gale — to all these things we are trained to respond, and the response is what we call literature.”

Annie Dillard: “The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses — to secure each sentence before building on it — is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a route, may begin a strand of metaphor or event out of which much, or all, will develop. Perfecting the work inch by inch, writing from the first word toward the last, displays the courage and fear this method induces.”

E. L. Doctorow: “How do you know what you know until you’ve written it? Writing is knowing.”

Ariel Dorfman: “One of the reasons I write is to find out what it is that interests me in that first phrase. I want to unravel the experience hidden there.”

Helen Dunmore: “Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”

Leon Edel: “There is the teller and the tale, and the teller must be capable of handling the poetry and the humor, the richness and poverty of existence. . . A biographer gets to know a subject better than the subject ever knew himself or herself, because the biographer has read everything . . . in lives we have repetitious patterns . . . A biographer (who is by no means a doctor and certainly not a therapist) defines the subject’s nature by looking at what the mind brings to the surface and transforms into language.” 

Deborah Eisenberg: I don’t really think you should doggedly strive to write from your own life because I don’t think you know what your own life is. And I don’t think you should doggedly strive to invent because what does that mean? I mean, how do you invent?

Philip Eisner: “The art of fiction lies not in telling the audience what they want to know — they want to know everything — but in controlling which questions they ask. A reader without questions is a bored reader, who has no reason to turn the page.”

Warren Ellis: “I make a decent living at this job, which puts me into a rare percentile among those identifying as professional writers. I almost always have work, I get to travel, and I can provide for the people around me. But it never gets easier. . .You have to want to live like this. You have to love the words more than anything.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself and all things.”

Michael Robert Evans: “Editing is primarily about people.”

William Everson: “If you think interpreting a text is simply a matter of properly focusing your attention and paying heed to details, try it and see. You will find that real illuminative insight occurs only when you yourself have assented to the archetype which your author is pursuing. And only he can convince you of that.”

Joe Fassler: “Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. […] Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face those feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time. It takes courage to be there. . . But the things that you’ve experienced in your life become the writing that you do. And there’s no easy way to get to it.”

Grant Faulkner: “The reason I became a writer in the first place: that ineffable impulse to explore matters of the soul, the need to put words to the hidden spaces of life, the desire to probe life’s mysteries… I wanted to cavort through words again, to invite the dervishes of rollicking recklessness back into creation.”

Melissa Febos: “The job of the writer — especially the memoirist — is to enact on the page processes both painful and transformative, to offer a vicarious experience that might encourage readers to answer the knocking of their own most daunting questions, their own transformations.”

Elena Ferrante: “Our heads are crowded with a very heterogeneous mix of material, fragments of time periods, conflicting intentions that cohabit, endlessly clashing with one another. As a writer I would rather confront that overabundance, even if it is risky and confused, than feel that I’m staying safely within a scheme that, precisely because it is a scheme, always ends up leaving out lots of real stuff because it is disturbing. . . . Searching to unravel things is useful, but literature is made out of tangles.”

Lucy Ferris: “To enter the realm of my imagination, my ‘writing head’, I have to forget time. Forget spare time, writing time, cooking time, teaching time, sleeping time. I have to obliterate time altogether. . . . Some of us cannot — indeed, must not — structure writing time. The secret lies not in having an hour, or a day or a week or even a year, in which to accomplish something we call ‘writing’, but in returning to a state in which the words ‘hour’ and ‘week’ have no meaning.”

Ashley Ford: “My inspiration comes from a lot of reflection. . . I ask myself a lot of questions I have no idea how to answer. Then, I write about them as honestly and as beautifully as I can. I don’t necessarily answer the question, but I turn my uncertainty into something tangible.”

Janet Frame: “A writer must stand on the rock of herself and her judgment or be swept away by the tide or sink in the quaking earth . . . What was the use of my having survived as a person if I could not maintain my own judgment?”

Frankétienne: “I have an ambiguous language. I have a chaotic language. I have a baroque language. I have an opaque language, and I claim my opacity because life is opaque . . . The aesthetic of opacity, the aesthetic of the baroque, is much stronger than that of transparency.”

Esther Freud: “Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.”

Robert Frost: “You cannot correct people into poets.”

Robert Frost: “To learn how to write is to learn to have ideas.”

Joanne Veal Gabbin: “Writing is central, for writing is sanctuary; it is the art of discovering a safe place in which to be.”

Rita Gabis: “The structure of an MFA program does not teach you how to work independently with passion and consistency. . . It is the poet who creates her own structure who continues to grow and write and publish and thrive.”

John Gardner: “Writing is the only religion I have.”

William H. Gass: “Every real book . . . is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness.”

Amina Gautier: “Write the book that depletes all of your talent so that you have to go out and get some more before you can write the next book.”

Gail Godwin: “The old writer wants to use up his fatal tissue like biscuit dough, pushing the leftovers into another and another artful shape — down to the last strange little animal.”

Natalie Goldberg: “Maybe it’s the gap, the feeling that someone isn’t listening, doesn’t get it, has half heard us, that compels us to write and explain. That’s why we turn around and speak to our past, as if others can hear us now, as if we can finally hear ourselves.”

Kenneth Goldsmith: “We’re reading and writing more than we have in a generation, but we are reading and writing differently — skimming, parsing, grazing, bookmarking, forwarding, retweeting, reblogging, and spamming language — in ways that aren’t yet recognized as literary . . . Learning and engagement continues as before, but it takes new and different forms.”

Ariel Gore: “Memoir isn’t about processing our relationships with one another. It’s about integrating the enormity of everything. It’s about taking the traumatic, disparate moments of life that are scattered around us and sewing them back together into something beautiful that maybe emboldens people who are going through the same thing — which we all are — because the ‘same thing’ is life and it’s hard and fucked up and delicious.”

Vivian Gornick: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

Daphne Gottlieb: “Even the worst poem can evolve into something wonderful in revision, but what’s not written will never be anything at all.”

Remy de Gourmont: “Freely to write what one chooses is the sole pleasure of a writer.”

Nicola Griffith: “The writer as artist is a kind of shaman: we explore unknown territory and bring back maps. . . We have to wander before we find the path, and then climb the path alone. Every new novel is a journey; every new journey a risk.”

Thom Gunn: “I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life . . . I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience.”

Allan Gurganus: “Dialogue is not what characters say to each other but what they do to each other.”

Alex Haley: “Every death is like the burning of a library.”

Elizabeth Hardwick: “Being a writer … is a strange life . . . The most peculiar thing about it is that when you write you are required to think and having once noticed that, you observe how little the rest of life makes such a demand. It demands something else, many things of course, but not sitting and thinking the way you must when you write, when you revise, when you abandon, start over, refine, all of that.”

Carla Harryman: “I prefer to distribute narrative rather than deny it.”

Karen Hartman: “I write plays from inquiry and moral confusion, on subjects that trouble me. So it’s not activist in that sense of holding up a sign saying, “Think X. Do Y.” And yet I trust the power of revealing what was ignored or hidden, making a range of lives more known . . . There is a politics in just shedding some light.”

Kent Haruf: “It doesn’t seem to me there’s a scarcity of talent among students who want to write. But what there is a lack of is a talent for work, that it’s so difficult to write and it takes so long to learn how to write well that most people give it up before they get good enough.”

Robert Hass: “A case could be made for the emergence of the nature essay that is the effort to hold together what the development of evolutionary biology and modern geology and geography had torn asunder.”

Jeet Heer: “Almost everything I’ve learned about writing has come from being edited. … One of the key reasons to write is so you can get attention to your thoughts. No one gives more attention than a good editor.”

Ernest Hemingway: “If a writer stops observing, he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.”

Aleksandar Hemon: “All writing is experimenting with writing. […] I don’t know what I’m doing or what I’m going to do, and no education, other than compulsive reading, could prepare me for what I need to do. […] The worst thing for a writer to have is the fear of not knowing.”

Brenda Hillman: “Punctuation re-invents an original privacy in the social space between words. … Punctuation marks beg for the sanity of not going forward, of resting, of secrecy, surprise, exaggeration, saying something inside of saying something.”

Jane Hirshfield: “For me, words were not about pleasing or entertaining others but about creating a place of refuge, where I could find something out about what it means to have and be a self. […] Writing allows the self to be set down and looked into, questioned, changed.”

Chelsea Hodson: “I think it’s the easiest thing in the world to dismiss women writing about themselves as ‘overindulgent’, but I’m not here to make a political statement or change anyone’s mind. My work is often indulgent and self-absorbed. And?”

Cynthia Hogue: “Critical writing is spiritual practice.”

Gregory Howard: “Here is maybe an obvious supposition: writing is about being bewitched, obsessed, fascinated (which like obsession is defined in relation to spells and witchcraft—fascinarum is Latin for spells). Here is another: the only way to convey the meanings of obsessions, meanings larger than ourselves, is to build a craft, to engage with form and with language. In other words, writing is a way of dealing with obsessions that might otherwise isolate and ruin us.”

Lynn Hunt: “Writing is not the transcription of thoughts already consciously present in my mind. Writing is a magical and mysterious process that makes it possible to think differently. … Thought does emerge from writing. Something ineffable happens when you write down a thought.”

Kameron Hurley: “The magic, for me, happens in the rewriting. But you can only rewrite something you’ve actually written . . . Writing is not about achieving perfection. Writing is a quest for perfection, and like any quest for perfection, is doomed to fail. What you want to do is fail better, fail harder, and move on.”

Pico Iyer: “Writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.”

C. L. R. James: “You must be able to write what you have to say, and know that that is what matters.”

Marlon James: “In creative writing, I teach that characters arise out of our need for them.”

P. D. James: “It takes me as long to develop the plot and work out the characters as to write the book. Sometimes longer…It is a curious process — I feel that the characters in the story already exist in a limbo outside my control, and what I’m doing over the months of gestation is getting in touch with them, and learning about them.”

Bob Johansen: “While problems can be summarized in a formula or an algorithm, it takes a story to understand a dilemma.”

Franz Kafka: “A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Bhanu Kapil: “I came to believe in duration. How a narrative becomes itself in time. How cycles of dormancy and expression are weirdly nutritive. How failure itself becomes a site of possibility: an aperture for chance.”

Zvonko Karanović: “The deepest human need is to prolong life through writing.”

Mary Karr: Starting when I was five, I always identified as a writer. It had nothing to do with income. I always told people I was a poet if they asked what I did. That’s what I still tell them now.”

Robert Kelly: “We sleep in language, if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.”

Stephen King: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Barbara Kingsolver: “This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’, and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”

Judith Kitchen: “My challenge as a writer is not to describe, but to interact. Not to confirm, but to activate and resurrect.”

Ellen Klages: “I am a round peg in genre’s polyhedral hole; I write about childhood, and it’s an odd landscape, with contradictions around every corner. It is a time of play and imagination, freedom from responsibility. But it’s also a time of someone else’s rules and supervision, both for safety and surveillance. Everything — and everyone — might be dangerous . . . . I write about fear and wonder, and discovering who you are and where you belong. Many of my stories appear to have happy endings.”

Jerzy Kosinski: “I love writing more than anything else. Like the heartbeat, each novel I write is inseparable from my life.”

Steve Kowit: “The power of poetry rests to a large degree on the emotional intensity it generates. Try to make the reader feel.”

Maxine Kumin: “A powerful poet writes out of staunchly held convictions.”

Akira Kurosawa: “With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expressions, the camera and microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this. . . . If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.”

Stephen Kuusisto: “I do not write about what I see, I write about what I do not see with words that feel good to the ear. When I write about the morning skin of ice on a birch tree I’m saying it because it feels right, not because I’ve watched it.”

William Langewiesche: “Writing is a privileged profession. If you can do it, it gives you an excuse to go out into the world, and the world is a really interesting place. It gives you a universally understood reason to knock on doors and ask questions. … A writing profession allows a deep relationship with the world. And then the actual process of writing allows you to think about it.”

Katherine Larson: “I live more authentically when I write. I pay more attention. I’m more curious. More imaginative. I ask more interesting questions.”

Ursula Le Guin: “A toneless, inexact language is incapable of creating landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event. … Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful, and coherent story.”

Tanith Lee: “All lives are important, all people are important, because everyone is a book. Some people just have easier access to it.”

Vernon Lee: “All writing is a struggle between the thinking and feeling of the writer and the thinking and feeling of the reader.”

Mark Leyner: “I don’t know if this is true for every writer, but my writing and the way I configure myself, my pride in myself and my identity—those things are very interwoven. … A certain kind of writer will say, I needed to discover the narrative voice of this book before I could do anything. My problem was prior to that. I felt like I had to discover, invent, concoct, configure the writer.”

Phillip Lopate: “In attempting any autobiographical prose, the writer knows what happened . . . but not necessarily what to make of it . . . You have to translate, at first awkwardly, inexpertly, slowly, and uncertainly. To think on the page, retrospectively or otherwise, is, in the last analysis, difficult.”

Barry Lopez: “Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair.”

Robert Lowell: “I don’t write poems, I rewrite them.”

Raymond Luczak: “I’d never really been alone while growing up. Books were my truest family . . . I’m blessed to have such a loving family reunion each time I browse my bookcases.”

Bernard Malamud: “You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time or place — you suit yourself, your nature . . . Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.”

Joseph Mallia: “The writer has to be haunted by his story before he can write it.”

Dacia Maraini: “Writing is a voyage. You are traveling through another world. The world is invention.”

Richard Marek: “Indeed, the manuscript I most fear is the one so beautifully written I must go on reading, yet in the end says nothing, reveals nothing, is without impact or astonishment.”

Cate Marvin: “The confessional project may be of particular interest to women because it allows them to misbehave on the page, to reconstruct their identities, to display the power of their intelligence through language, to speak their minds without being silenced or interrupted.”

Colum McCann: “This is the beauty of books. They arrive inside us in the most peculiar ways.”

Carson McCullers: “[Americans] tend to seek out things as individuals, alone. The European, secure in his family ties and rigid class loyalties, knows little of the moral loneliness that is native to us Americans. While the European artists tend to form groups or artistic schools, the American artist is the eternal maverick — not only from society in the way of all creative minds but within the orbit of his own art . . . we Americans are always seeking. We wander, question. But the answer waits in each separate heart — the answer of our own identity and the way by which we can master loneliness and feel that at last we belong.”

David McCullough: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

Juliet McKenna: “Reading speculative fiction isn’t arriving in Manchester. It’s finding yourself in Outer Mongolia with no help from Lonely Planet or a Rough Guide. Which is why, done well, speculative fiction can be considerably harder to write than literary fiction.”

John McPhee: “Writers develop slowly. . . . There is no path. If you go to dental school, you’re a dentist when you’re done. For the young writer, it’s like seeing islands in a river and there’s all this stuff you can get into — where do you go? … In steering around all those islands, and finding currents to go around them, they’re all relevant.”

Billy Mernit: “Writers are researchers by nature, tending to be naturally inquisitive.”

W. S. Merwin: “Prose is about something, but poetry is about what can’t be said.”

Henry Miller: “The adventure [of writing] is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself.”

Lev Mirov: “Not all writing is word count. In fact, for my process, the majority of writing is not word count. It is thinking. […] You should count all your thinking, because the thinking is what enables you to write anything at all.”

Ander Monson: “To me, nonfiction is always about the world first, whereas fiction is about characters first. They’re different, but sometimes they overlap a lot.”

John Montague: “You begin to find your own voice when you start to write not what you want to, but what you can, indeed must.”

Dinty W. Moore: “Be hard on your sentences, be hard on your paragraphs, be ceaseless and unrelenting in your revisions, but stop questioning your ability to be a writer.”

Honor Moore: “I came to know that to some great degree, the life of a writer is a romance of alone.”

Jim Moore: “Mistrust all transitions, especially ingenious ones.”

Lorrie Moore: “Most things good for writing are bad for life.”

Kathleen Dean Moore: “I have come to believe that all essays walk in rivers. Essays ask the philosophical question that flows through time — How shall I live my life? The answers drift together through countless converging streams, where they move softly below the reflective surface of the natural world and mix in the deep and quiet places of the mind. This is where an essayist must walk, stirring up the mud.”

Steven Moore: “I believe in nuance, but I also believe it is possible to hide in nuance, use your literary knack to ensure only the most elite, patient, indulgent readers will have any idea what you’re talking about, because it is scary to think of a truly desperate reader looking you in the eye, across time and space, asking what can you do for me? I try to act like it’s my job to have an adequate response . . . What do you give someone who doesn’t know what they need, but yet needs.”

Kristi Moos: “The printed page allows us to discover the invisible common threads.”

Toni Morrison: “Solitude, competitiveness and grief are the unavoidable lot of a writer only when there is no organization or network to which she can turn.”

Alice Munro: “Every final draft, every published story, is still only an attempt, an approach, to the story.”

Iris Murdoch: “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.”

Azar Nafisi: “Stories are not mere flights of fancy or instruments of political power and control. They link us to our past, provide us with critical insight into the present and enable us to envision our lives not just as they are but as they should be or might become. Imaginative knowledge is not something you have today and discard tomorrow. It is a way of perceiving the world and relating to it.”

Alex Naidus: “Sometimes, when writing is especially heartbreaking and magical, I think, ‘But there are only 26 letters’, and am dumbfounded and grateful.”

Howard Nemerov: “Writing means trying to find out what the nature of things has to say about what you think you have to say.”

Theo Pauline Nestor: “Following an impulse that you love in another writer takes you very quickly into the heart of you and your voice. What we love points us in the direction we yearn to go.”

Misha Nogha: “Science fiction is a rebellious art form, and it needs writers and readers and bad attitudes — an attitude of ‘Why?’ or ‘How come?’ or ‘Who says?’ Carrying the tribal heritage of Métis, ‘People Who Own Themselves’ or people who belong to no one, or feral, I am a rebel and a renegade shapeshifter, changing my skin every hour and walking between the red earth and the blue sky; a violet integration of two worlds, yet belonging to neither.”

Martha Nussbaum: “Read a lot of stories, listen to a lot of music, and think about what the stories you encounter mean for your own life and lives of those you love. In that way, you will not be alone with an empty self; you will have a newly rich life with yourself.”

Flannery O’Connor: “I read a lot of theology because it makes my writing bolder.”

Susan Orlean: “You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.”

Cynthia Ozick: “Stories are splinters of larger ideas about culture. I’m aware that there are writers who deny idea completely, who begin from what-happens, from pure experience. But for me ideas are emotions.”

Chuck Palahniuk: “A powerful story told poorly becomes funny [so] the last story you should write is the most important story.”

Jennifer Percy: “Writing was the first time I felt I could forge a connection that moved both ways, a two-way street between me and the rest of the world.”

S. J. Perelman: “I alternate between violence and despair when I consider what faces everybody who wants to really write as well as he can.”

Carl Phillips: “Good writers not only have read widely and deeply, but they continue to do so — not in order to be better writers, but because for them the act of reading is as inseparable from living as writing is.”

Caryl Phillips: “Part of the magic of writing is that you cannot be too judgmental about a character. You have to find some kind of trust, some form of engagement. You attempt to breathe life into these people and if you’re lucky they breathe life into you.”

Robert Pinsky: “For the poet, the dictionary is not an alphabetical bagful of equations, but a provisional account of meanings as live organisms.”

Harold Pinter: “I’ve been influenced personally by everyone I’ve ever read—and I read all the time. . . My world is still bound up by other writers—that’s one of the best things in it.”

Mary Pipher: “Good writing astonishes its writer first.”

Ruth Pitter: “There are interior rhythms in us: whether it’s our own physiological rhythms I don’t know. You can almost hear a silent music, you can almost beat time to it: and, if you have something to say, it’s well to wait until it seems to fit in with the silent music inside, which has its own way of doing things.”

Katherine Ann Porter: “This thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had.”

Ezra Pound: “Literature is news that stays news.”

Annie Proulx: “Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write. I read omnivorously—technical manuals, history, all sorts of things.”

Aleksandr Pushkin: “There are two kinds of obscurity; one arises from a lack of feelings and thoughts, which have been replaced by words; the other from an abundance of feelings and thoughts, and the inadequacy of words to express them.”

Zara Raab: “People read books for reasons relating in part to how the author experiences the world.”

George Rabasa: “The creative writer unwittingly manages to make a mess of the ordinary thinking process: memory, imagination, and something approximating objective reality are all mooshed together into a dark, rich stew. . . memory agitates, imagination warps, new stuff is learned and enters the mixture all the time.”

Jānis Rainis: “Poetry is the sun that animates quickly; prose is the moon that shapes slowly; aphorism is the thunderbolt that illuminates everything at once.”

Claudia Rankine: “I love language because when it succeeds, for me, it doesn’t just tell me something. It enacts something. It creates something. And it goes both ways. Sometimes it’s violent. Sometimes it hurts you. And sometimes it saves you.”

Santha Rama Rau: “Really, in the end, the only thing that can make you a writer is the person that you are, the intensity of your feeling, the honesty of your vision, the unsentimental acknowledgement of endless interest of the life around and within you. Virtually nobody can help you deliberately — many people will help you unintentionally.”

Moniro Ravanipour: “I wrote my first words on the sandy shores with my hands. Every day I made a castle and wrote new words, and the waves washed them away. But I would go back the next day and write again.”

Thomas Rayfiel: “I deal with sentences in the tens of thousands. I am made dizzy by them. By the end of a book, I know each one, its history, its transformations. My brain teems with their rhythms, their placement, their brothers and sisters, their opposites . . . But in poetry the unit is the line, which strikes me as fundamentally different. In a line, words are suspended like particles. Their individual properties are revealed, their chemistry. Some pulsate like stars. Others vibrate in a magical stillness, flaunting their crystalline structure. When they do interact, there is not the rush of a sentence but two creatures encountering each other, unsure if they are the same species, or if the other is even alive at all.”

Roger Reeves: “An impasse in my work normally means that I am not unconscious enough in the writing.”

Adrienne Rich: “Writing is renaming.”

Wendy Richmond: “Rather than seeing a blog as flat, I realized that it is a window to many dimensions, because it allows viewing, listening, categorizing and commenting on the pieces that each of us are creating and collecting. Our blog is seen primarily by us, plus a few colleagues. [In the future] our blog may be discarded, encyclopedic or something in-between. For now, it is serving my most important purpose: supporting the development of a body of work.”

Keith Ridgway: “I like writing out of confusion, panic, a sense of everything being perilously close to collapse. So I try to embrace the fiction of all things. And I mean that—everything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. . . what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos. ”

Roxana Robinson: “A writer is like a tuning fork: We respond when we’re struck by something. The thing is to pay attention, to be ready for radical empathy. If we empty ourselves of ourselves we’ll be able to vibrate in synchrony with something deep and powerful.”

Bruce Holland Rogers: “Writing, like all of life, follows made-up rules. Some rules are useful. Some are outmoded or meant for someone else.”

J. Allyn Rosser: “That charged-up, pulse-racing attention you can give to the literature you most love now will teach you more about how to write well than the texts you sigh listlessly over, checking your watch and seeing if the mail has come or the tea water is boiling yet.”

Philip Roth: “In most professions there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. With writing, it’s always beginning again. Temperamentally, we need that newness.”

Laura Ruby: “Revision is a ton of work. And it can be exhausting. . . I call this the 13th way. 12 people will identify 12 different problems [in your story], but it’s up to you to find the real problem underlying most of them. Then you have to find your own unique solution to that problem.”

Christian Rudder: “Variety is the preservation of an art, not a threat to it. From the high-flown language of literary fiction to the simple, even misspelled, status update, through all this writing runs a common purpose. Whether friend to friend, stranger to stranger, lover to lover, or author to reader, we used words to connect.”

Kay Ryan: “I think it’s good to admit what a wolfish thing art is; I trust writers who know they aren’t nice.”

Oliver Sacks: “I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive. I am haunted by the density of reality [which] creates problems of organization.”

Carl Sagan: “A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

Françoise Sagan: “I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.”

Tomaž Šalamun: “I like awkwardness, awkwardness is the crucial thing in my writing. Things should not be clear.”

Roger Sale: “Only the best critics are generous enough to find the right words for their authors.”

Matthew Salesses: “Myth is the only way I really have to self-identify . . . Myth became a way of rethinking who I could be, both in life and in writing.”

Sofia Samatar: “What I love is the feeling that reality is being challenged and so is the language we use to talk about it. So I wouldn’t say that I balance my interests in different types of literature, because I don’t need to. Everything I love is weird.”

George Sand: “Writing a journal means that facing your ocean, you are afraid to swim across it, as you attempt to drink it drop by drop.”

George Saunders: “The process of writing will always be trying to repair something that doesn’t exist with tools you have to invent on the spot.”

Michael Schmeltzer: “If a writer’s power begins in sound then an editor’s power begins in silence. What we say matters. What we omit matters. . . If writing is a political act then why not editing? If words can change the world so can their absence.”

Danniel Schoonebeek: “Experimental editing is something I urge upon myself, and more times than I can count it’s resulted in a radically different poem that I had to essentially destroy in order to make.”

Ellen Seligman: “Editors think for a living.”

Maurice Sendak: “A book is really like a lover. It arranges itself in your life in a way that is beautiful.”

Dani Shapiro: “The truth is that writers, if I may generalize, are sensitive, impatient, fearful people, sifting through the sands of the every days, panning for gold. We never know what’s next. The next book, the next sentence, the next word all reveal themselves to us in their own time, with their own peculiar alchemy.”

Irwin Shaw: “Almost every writer will tell you that events that happened to him before he started writing are the most valuable to him . . . When he starts observing things professionally and taking notes and trying to remember, he may collect a lot more but . . . he becomes too systematic.”

Charles Simic: “To translate is not only to experience what makes each language distinct, but to draw close to the mystery of the relationship between word and thing, letter and spirit, self and world.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Actually, the true story of a person’s life can never be written. It is beyond the power of literature.”

Floyd Skloot: “In a sense, my writing process embraces the gapped nature of my memory process, leaping across spaces that represent all I’ve lost and establishing fresh patterns within all that remains. . . Since I can’t assume I’ll remember anything, I must live fully in the present. Since I can’t assume my experience will cohere, I must prize its fragmentation. ”

Logan Pearsall Smith: “What I like in a good author isn’t what he says, but what he whispers.”

Patricia Smith: “When I revise, I am always trying to give voice to whoever in the story doesn’t have one.”

Paul Smith: “People with great stories don’t necessarily lead more colorful lives. They’re just in the habit of sharing their everyday challenges in an engaging way.”

Tracy K. Smith: “There was also something satisfying and heartbreakingly unresolvable about arriving at the realizations and connections that shaped my prose, because the only absolutes I could trust were themselves highly subjective. No matter how clear and present these scenes from my life might have felt, I wasn’t looking at film takes or photographs of another time, but rather glimpsing that time through the lens of memory. . . A lens, I decided to admit, that it is as much a character in the story as any of the real people talking and eating and moving their way through scenes—which is why memoir, for all its sincere interest in the truth, is something we read as literature and not history.”

Mary Sojourner: “That which doesn’t kill us makes some of us writers.”

Susan Sontag: “There is a great deal that either has to be given up or be taken away from you if you are going to succeed in writing a body of work.”

Kim Stafford: “A writer’s infinity is not time without end but a brief time — a minute, a day, a lifetime — with too great an abundance of vitality and story.”

William Stafford: “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”

Andrew Stanton: “[On first drafts] Write it wrong as fast as you can.”

Maureen Stanton: “A journal takes you places, like a captain’s log, even if those places are inside yourself.”

John Steinbeck: “A good writer always works at the impossible.”

Gerald Stern: “Writers are readers who occasionally write.”

Richard Stern: “I don’t think there are any writers who have not read, who have not been enchanted by books, by stories, by poems.”

Larry Sutin: “Never create a character for the sole purpose of justifying or vilifying yourself or anyone else.”

Graham Swift: “I am, it would seem, interested in inarticulate characters, characters who become silent, inert, vegetable. . . Are there situations where it is best not to tell, or not to know? Or not to remember?”

Marta Szabo: “I think that writing memoir is the most potent action I can take in this world. … I am not sure what I am building, but this is all I have. For some reason, it is my most precious thing, the one thing that feels purely my own.”

Michael Szczerban: “Writers are people who find ways to organize their lives to support their writing.”

Sonya Taaffe: “Memories are palimpsests, too, and sometimes all a parchment or papyrus says is: ‘I was here. I am.’ Sometimes that is all that matters.”

Jill Talbot: “A straight memoir relies on what happened. . . A memoir-in-essays relies on the gaps in the story. Instead of what happened, it’s about what’s unknown about what happened.”

Phyllis Hoge Thompson: “It’s far easier to criticize than to celebrate or to grieve sincerely, but human feelings, expressed truthfully in the art of language, can give power to our lives.”

Melanie Rae Thon: “When I read any writer, I think: Is the story honest? Are the images vivid? Are the people real to me?”

William Trevor: “Most writers benefit from exile.”

Anthony Trollope: “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.”

Friedebert Tuglas: “A good book reveals the soul of the author not only to the reader, but also to the writer himself. No writer remains the same after finishing a book . . . In bestowing gifts upon others, the writer above all bestows them on himself.”

David L. Ulin: “What happens when we come right up against our preconceptions, when what we are writing contradicts what we previously thought we understood about the world?”

United Press International Stylebook: “A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist you are expected to know the difference.”

John Updike: “It’s not enough for a story to flow. It has to kind of trickle and glint as it crosses over the stones of the bare facts.”

Luis Urrea: “Trust a place and it will bring you stories.”

Luisa Valenzuela: “You don’t know how much of an explorer a writer is when you’re young. Literature seemed so passive . . . so I went into journalism. In journalism, you move.”

Gore Vidal: “I don’t really care whether I find a form [of writing] that enchants others as much as I care about finding something that can delight me from day to day as I work it out.”

Dan Vining: “Surprise should always be your writing partner.”

Marina Warner: “No frontier can keep a good story from roaming. It will travel, and travel far, and travel back again in a different guise, a changed mood, and, above all, a new meaning.”

Alan Watt: “The desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve or resolve something in our lives that we don’t yet fully understand. We are naturally drawn to ideas and images that allow us to explore those unresolved questions for ourselves.”

H. G. Wells: “No passion on earth, neither love nor hate, is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.”

Chuck Wendig: “No editor can take a bad story and make it good — dross does not polish into gold. Oh no! But an editor can however take a good story and make it great, harnessing the potential that lives in a pile of unforged story. Dross will not become gold, but iron can become steel.”

Jessamyn West: “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”

Elie Wiesel: “Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”

Joy Williams: “Literature should alarm and elate. Cherish anything that wakes you up, if even for an instant.”

Michelle Wing: “Fact or fiction or in between – every word I write is a construct, a world created. And the silences are as important as the words.”

Jeanette Winterson: “Reading yourself as a fiction as well as a fact is the only way to keep the narrative open—the only way to stop the story running away under its own momentum, often toward an ending no one wants.”

Brian Wormser: “Don’t think at the outset that you know what you’re writing about.”

Marguerite Young: “If you are going to be a writer from the Midwest, you have to become highly sophisticated, highly educated, in order to interpret that land. You cannot just be a natural-born singer — I could not imagine anything less possible. I think the Middle West begets bizarre, beautiful writers who have been dipped and dyed in education.”

Marguerite Yourcenar: “Books are also a way of learning to feel more acutely. Writing is a way of going to the depth of Being.”

Lidia Yuknavitch: “Stories change, just like the lives we’ve lived and selves we’ve inhabited. Nobody’s been the same person twice . . . . Aren’t we all woven through with stories? Isn’t that how we think of our lives, how we survive them?”

+++

Last updated 4.29.2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s