Writing in Particular
“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. … Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.” — William Faulkner in The Paris Review
“I write many thousands of words a day and some of them go on paper. And of those written down, only a few are meant to be seen.” 13 Feb. “One is never drained by work but only by idleness. Lack of work is the most enervating thing in the world.” 28 June. John Steinbeck, “Journal of a Novel,” 1951.
“The first letter he [father James Wright] wrote to me [age 15] about this started with the phrase ‘I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.’ Then he made a suggestion: Try, no matter what — no matter what sort of maelstrom of distraction you find yourself in at any given time — try to write one single clear line in a notebook every day. If you manage to do that, over time, when a certain mood of inspiration does come to you, when you’re feeling happy and things are going well, and you want to write, you have this store of material, and it’s as if the lines start to bond together, or something starts to crystallize around a particular line.” — Franz Wright, New Yorker, 7/9/01
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” — T.S. Eliot
“We do not go beyond consulting our own judgment and tastes and what interests and pleases us. The word ‘reader’ does not come up.” — 1949-85 New Yorker Editor William Shawn, to NYT’s Murray Schumach in 1966, quoted in 3/3/04 WSJ.
“The Onion: ‘Why was staying on the comics page so important?’
“Berkeley Breathed: ‘Same reason it was for Garry Trudeau: Here, let me put it vulgarly and in caps: NOBODY THE F— READS THE OPINION PAGES.'”
“People seem to have trouble with the imagination. They can’t believe that you can just pull things out of your brain like that. It has to have started somewhere, in some book, in some real person’s life. And it just wasn’t so. … I don’t have any patience for people who take stuff from their own lives or their friends’ lives. … I like to make stuff up.” — Edward P. Jones, New Yorker online, 4/26/04, also saying he “writes” in his head first, including thinking up bios on the most minor characters and, “I like to know already what’s going to happen to her before I sit down to write.”
“In a certain sense, everything is historical. Two hours ago is historical. It’s all over and done with.” — Edward P. Jones, quoted in the 10/10/04 New York Times on being asked if he will continue to write about “the distant past.” And when the Times asked, “Where do you get your inspiration?” Jones defending his reclusiveness said, “I learn a lot from the people I make up in my head. God knows what kind of novel I would have written if I had been out there in the world. It might have been horrible.”
“While it’s true that my work is not generally about the place where I grew up, given that fiction is my thing I never really thought that had much relevance. It’s about making things up, isn’t it? Don’t all writers — regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, native tongue, national identity, social class — don’t we all attempt to write about people who are not ourselves? And how boring would it be if we didn’t?” — Daniel Alarcon, in Salon.com, May 2005
“What you don’t know when you’re 22 could fill a book. If you write that book when you’re 44, you haven’t learned a thing.” — James Lileks, online “Bleat” for June 7, 2004, lileks.com
“I don’t want to be too clear.” — Writer-editor William Maxwell to writer-editor Roger Angell, after Angell gives up trying to revise a sentence of Maxwell’s, in Angell’s book “Let Me Finish.”
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant –” — Emily Dickinson, Poem 1129
“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed ‘The Iliad,’ how much combat do you think he saw?” — P.J. O’Rourke, reviewing “Dog Days” by Ana Marie “Wonkette” Cox, for the Jan. 8, 2006, Washington Post
“‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” — writer Philip Pullman in a column quoted in the 12-26-05/1-02-06 New Yorker.
“Using a vanity press is akin to buying sex, but more shameful in a way. Visiting a prostitute is at least a private act, while paying to publish one’s book is a very public display of creative desperation.” — George Whitman, owner, Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, Paris, from “Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.” by Jeremy Mercer.
Once some guy gave me this whole long mystical rap about meditation and so on, and he said, “You know man, you should really meditate.” And I thought for a second and I said, “You know, I hate to tell you, but I do meditate about four or five hours every day. It’s called writing.” — T.C. Boyle, March 2003, in powells.com
The free-lance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps. — Robert Benchley
Misery breeds copy. — S.J. Perelman
Never sell out, except for a really good anecdote. — Columnist Stewart Alsop, quoted by columnist William Safire in The Washington Post 11/16/04.
“When you do satire you just grab one thing that happens, and you use that to weave your whole story.” — Art Buchwald to radio interviewer Leonard Lopate, 10-05-05 (on why he talked about FEMA’s Michael Brown liking margaritas instead of focusing on Brown’s previous job with a world horse association).
“Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. … [B]y satirist I mean those boys in other centuries. The people we call satirists now are those who make cracks at topical topics. … Lord knows, a writer should show his times, but not show them in wisecracks. … Successful satire has got to be pretty good the day after tomorrow. — Dorothy Parker, interviewed in The Paris Review, 1956
“I’m going back to the hotel. Unless I write every day, I don’t feel I deserve my dinner.” — Charlie Chaplin, to Millard Kaufman, The New Yorker, Sept. 17, 2007
“Here’s how it goes: I’m up at the stroke of 10 or 10:30. I have breakfast and read the papers, and then it’s lunchtime. Then maybe a little nap after lunch and out to the gym, and before I know it, it’s time to have a drink.” — novelist E.L. Doctorow, when The New York Times asked for his writing routine. Sept. 2, 2009
“It is the beginning of the end when you discover that you have a style.” — Dashiell Hammett, quoted in the June 14, 2004, New Yorker: “Blocked: Why Do Writers Stop Writing ” by Joan Acocella, on how he realized he was beginning to repeat himself
“The art of newspaper paragraphing is to stroke a platitude until it purrs like an epigram. … I get up in the morning with an idea for a three-volume novel and by nightfall it’s a paragraph in my column.” — Don Marquis
“The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed, should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.” — Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Chapter 102 “A Bower in the Arsacides”
“Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.”
Interviewer: Can you explain that analogy a little more?
“Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. … I never have done any carpentry, but it’s the job I admire most, especially because you can never find anyone to do it for you.” — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in The Paris Review, 1981.
“A moment’s imagination is worth a lifetime of experience.” — UK screenwriter Russell T. Davies, motto quoted in The New York Times, Feb. 7, 2021.
Art in General
“Art is not art if only 14 people know about it.” — Joni Mitchell, quoted by Jacquelyn Mitchard
“Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice all the odious qualities which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew his work until he has made something that gratifies his pride and envy and greed. And in doing so he enriches the world more than the generous and good, though he may lose his own soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement.” — Evelyn Waugh
“Art for art’s sake makes no more sense than gin for gin’s sake.” — W. Somerset Maugham
“Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.” — Barnett Newman, about art criticism
“Trust the mystery to rise from the commonplace.” — Ellen Gilchrist
“It’s like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics that anything that’s written or anything that’s created wants to be mediocre. … What it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such a f—ing act of will. … You just have to exert so much will into something for it to be good.” — Ira Glass, in The Onion A.V. Club
“After taking hundreds of slides, I decided seeing the world through a camera viewfinder was very limiting. You dash around too fast and don’t really SEE the scene. About 30 years ago I stopped just clicking, and started making quick sketches, trying to catch the essence of the view, and ignoring minor details. I think anyone who wishes, with a little instruction, can do the same, and be happier with the memories.” — Richard Kellogg, professor emeritus, UA School of Architecture, spring 2005.
“I’m never happy with what I did yesterday — not because I think I did a bad job, but because there’s more to do. … [I]nnovation is constantly the result of an attempt to solve a problem, to reach out beyond where you are. … I don’t write to a market, but I’m talking to somebody when I write. I guess you might say I’m like the Ancient Mariner: I’ve got a story and I want to tell it to somebody. … Anybody in the business of innovation is in pursuit of something that nobody else believes exists. … When you look at a person, you look for small details that reveal the character to you. … The background can be impressionistic, because we remember backgrounds impressionistically. You don’t come away remembering the number of rivets in the bridge; you just remember the feeling of the bridge.” — Graphic novelist Will Eisner, interviewed at www.avclub.com
“The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” — Albert Einstein (quoted by UA University Relations headlines service 01/06)
“Everything has been thought of before; the task is to think of it again.” — Goethe, as quoted by Igor Stravinsky, in 01/26/09 New Yorker article about George Balanchine by Arlene Croce
“Your blessing in life is when you find the torture you’re comfortable with. … That’s marriage, it’s kids, it’s work, it’s exercise, it’s not eating the food you want to eat. Find the torture you’re comfortable with, and you’ll do well.” — Jerry Seinfeld on “The Howard Stern Show,” 06-26-13. Begin about 32:30 on video.
“If you wait until you can play, you’ll be too old.” — Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) of the Ramones to Joe Strummer (John Mellor) of the Clash, during the 1976 U.K. tour by the Ramones after Strummer expressed worry, “We’re lousy, we can’t play.” Quoted in the April 21, 2016, Rolling Stone.
Explaining Me to Myself
“Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination” — Vladimir Nabokov, quoted by Bill Harrison at Blair Library dedication, 9 October 2004 (most Google entries say it’s “curiosity … is insubordination in its purest form.”)
“When you’re through changing, you’re through.” — William Safire, The New York Times, Jan. 24, 2005.
Briefs from Hunter S. Thompson:
“Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” “For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled.” “A word to the wise is infuriating.” “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” “Some may never live, but the crazy never die.” — from the London Guardian. “Given money for expenses, anything is possible.” — David McCumber, HST’s column editor at SF Examiner, in Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “If I can write like this and get away with it,” he recounted to Playboy, “why should I keep trying to write like the New York Times? It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.” HST to Playboy, in LA Times.
“Which is trivia — the diamond or the elephant? Any humorist must be interested in trivia, in every little thing that occurs in a household. It’s what Robert Benchley did so well — in fact so well that one of the greatest fears of the humorous writer is that he has spent three weeks writing something done faster and better by Benchley in 1919.” — James Thurber, interviewed in The Paris Review, 1955
“Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.” — Cyril Connolly, quoted in the June 14, 2004, New Yorker: “Blocked: Why Do Writers Stop Writing ” by Joan Acocella
“Tomorrow / Is a busy day / We got things to do / We got eggs to lay / We got ground to dig / And worms to scratch / It takes a lot of sittin’ / Gettin’ chicks to hatch / There ain’t nobody here but us chickens / There ain’t nobody here at all / So quiet yourself / And stop your fuss / There ain’t nobody here but us / Kindly point that gun / The other way / And hobble hobble hobble off and /Hit the hay.” — Louis Jordan
Groucho: Hello, I must be going. / I cannot stay, / I came to say / I must be going. / I’m glad I came / but just the same / I must be going.
M Dumont: For my sake you must stay, / for if you should go away, / you’ll spoil this party / I am throwing.
Groucho: I’ll stay a week or two, / I’ll stay the summer through, / but I am telling you, / I must be going.
Groucho: I’ll do anything you say / In fact I’ll even stay, / But I must be going.
— Groucho Marx/Ruby&Kalmar
“There is nothing so conducive to brevity like a caving in of the knees.” — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, citing his use of the stand-up desk willed to him by his late uncle, Judge Charles Jackson, in writing short opinions, in longhand. From the Web site of the Supreme Court Historical Society, an article by Mrs. Erwin N. Griswold.
You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from. — Uncle Ellis in “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy
The perfect is the enemy of the good. — Voltaire
“Careers are about nothing more than making peace with yourself.” — advice columnist Carolyn Hax, 2008
If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza? Almost certainly you are both. There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. — George Orwell, “The Art of Donald McGill,” 1941
Life in General
“Whenever life drops a catastrophe, I recall the axiom ‘Don’t burn your bridges,’ only to realize that it’s always the other fellow who struck the match. It never has been me.” — Ben S. Pollock, 2015
“I don’t get this stuff about sportsmanship. You play to win, don’t you? Say I’m playing short and Mother is on first and the batter singles to right. Mother comeqs fast around second with the winning run — Mother will have to go down. I’ll help her up, dust her off and say, ‘Mom, I’m sorry, but it was an accident’ but she won’t of scored. Nobody asks how you happened to lose. All they want to know is did you win. If I’m spitting at a crack in the wall for nickels I still want to win. Anybody can come in second. Nice guys finish last.” — utility infielder Leo Durocher, quoted in “Nonconformity” by Nelson Algren
“Being nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight.” — e.e. cummings, quoted by Anne Lamott
“When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“You can build a throne with bayonets, but you can’t sit on it for long.” — Boris Yeltsin
“Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” — Jonathan Kozol
“Forget about what you are escaping FROM. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping TO.” — illusionist Bernard Kornblum in Michael Chabon’s “Kavalier & Clay”
“One should always leave the dinner table a little hungry.” — book editor Max Perkins, in A. Scott Berg’s biography
“Chop wood, carry water.” — Buddhist maxim quoted by Ellen Gilchrist, 5/03
“Fail. Fail again. Fail better.” — Card on Samuel Beckett’s wall, quoted by Mary Gordon
“You have control over action alone, / never over its fruits. Live not for / the fruits of action, nor attach / yourself to inaction.” — Chapter 2, Verse 47 Bhagavad Gita, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, trans.
“Everyone’s selling something now. Even if they’re giving it away.” — James Lileks, online “Bleat” for June 21, 2006, lileks.com
“Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small” or “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter.” — commonly attributed to Wallace S. Sayre, Columbia political science professor
“I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.'” — Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.”
“We would hear that a lot of times from promoters, “Who’s in charge here,” we’d hear it from cops. … I’d say: The situation is the boss. There were times when I was in charge of everything. There were times when Jerry [Garcia] was in charge of everything. Then, at another time, it would be somebody else. It would be a truck. That had a blown carburetor. That carburetor was the boss at that moment.” — Steve Parish, crew manager for the Grateful Dead, quoted in the documentary Long Strange Trip – The Untold Story of The Grateful Dead