“The only thing you really need to know is where the library is.”
“The only thing you really need to know is where the library is.”
“A good book will turn your world sideways. It will also turn your own writing inside out. The prose writers should read the poets. The poets should read the novelists. The playwrights should read the philosophers. The journalists should read the short story writers. The philosophers should read through the entire crew. In fact, we all should read the entire crew. Nobody makes it alone.”
“Having your chief passion divorced from your means of making money is at once liberating and crushing.”
“Everything that needs to be said has already been said.
But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”
“Writers aren’t people exactly. Or, if they’re any good, they’re a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person. It’s like actors, who try so pathetically not to look in mirrors. Who lean backward trying—only to see their faces in the reflecting chandeliers.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
“The purpose of theater is not to fix the social fabric, not to incite the less perceptive to wake up and smell the coffee, not to preach to the converted about the delights or burdens of the middle class. The purpose of theater, like magic, like religion, is to inspire cleansing awe.”
“There is only one way to make money at writing, and that is to marry a publisher’s daughter.”
“Time and time again, the literary establishment seizes on the story of a writer who meets inordinate obstacles, including financial struggles, crippling self-doubt, and rejection across the board, only to finally achieve the recognition and success they deserve. The halls of the literary establishment echo with tales of now-revered writers who initially faced failure, from Stephen King (whose early novel Carrie was rejected 30 times before being published), to Alex Haley (whose epic Roots was rejected 200 times in eight years). This arc is the literary equivalent of the American Dream, but like the Dream itself, the romantic narrative hides a more sinister one. Focusing on how individual artists should persist in the face of rejection obscures how the system is set up to reward only a chosen few, often in a fundamentally unmeritocratic way.
“What are we meant to make of the fact that [Marlon} James’s manuscript was rejected 80 times? Sadly, this phenomenon isn’t that uncommon. In fact, there’s a website dedicated to bestsellers that were initially rejected. Was it lack of imagination on the part of those publishers? Was it unconscious bias against a new and unfamiliar narrative—one that they didn’t regard as “mainstream?” Or was it a complex business decision based on multiple factors? As an emerging writer of color, I’m no longer inspired by this narrative. I don’t see much cause to celebrate when writers of James’s profound talent are roundly rejected in the course of normal business.”
“You can edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
“…[T]he point of writing is connection, stimulation, the creation of a quiet country where writer and reader can stand together for a moment in amazement and awe…an attempt to drape words on thoughts and emotions mostly too vast for words…”
“When a good writer is having fun, the audience is almost always having fun too.”
“No one can write a bestseller by trying to. He must write with complete sincerity; the clichés that make you laugh, the hackneyed characters, the well-worn situations, the commonplace story that excites your derision, seem neither hackneyed, well worn nor commonplace to him. … The conclusion is obvious: you cannot write anything that will convince unless you are yourself convinced. The bestseller sells because he writes with his heart’s blood.”
“Certain writers have the ability to put one word with another or together as a sequence that causes it to bloom in the reader’s mind or to describe things so well that they become for the reader something close or equal to reality. It’s not simply that they are well observed; it’s also in the way of telling.
“So we come into the dining room of Maison Vauquer with its walls of a now unrecognizable color, its chipped and stained decanters, piles of plates on the sticky sideboards, and wine-spattered napkins of the boarders pigeoned in a box. The table is covered with a greasy oilcloth, the grass place mats unraveled almost to the point of disappearance, and the chairs are rickety and broken-backed.
In short, poverty without glamour reigns here, a narrow, concentrated, threadbare poverty. Although actual filth may be absent, everything is dirty and stained; there are no rags and tatters, but everything is falling to pieces with decay. This room is in all its glory at about seven in the morning when Madame Vauquet’s cat appears downstairs, a sign that his mistress is on the way. ”
“Estrangement creates writers. As a member of smalltime Protestant stock in de Valera’s Ireland, William Trevor wrote, ‘I was fortunate that my accident of birth actually placed me on the edge of things. I was born into a minority that all my life has seemed in danger of withering away.'”
Matthew Neil Null
“It has poured all day, if the word “poured” can be used to describe rain that is not vertical but horizontal, mixed with leaves, branches, power failures, and fear for the windows.… It was not the day to entertain Italy’s greatest novelist, the profound anatomist of passion, true heir of D’Annunzio, with a dash of Cellini and a dollop of Casanova. Not the day to entertain anybody. As we set to work to prepare his welcome we alternated between anxiety that we might not be able to do right by him and a wan hope that he wouldn’t come.
“We are fond of Cesare in spite of his books. His books are overrated, but that is because he is completely of his time, and his time overrates itself. He is neither the first nor the worst to make a career out of the verbal exploration of the various bodily orifices… Maybe if I were younger, and my hormones more active, I might appreciate his novels more. As it is, I have to think of them compulsive, theatrical, and decadent even while I find Cesare himself lively, amusing, and full of an attractive kind of Italian blarney.”
Wallace Stegner in his novel “The Spectator Bird”
“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
“I sent queries to every agent on my list. I got some full requests, but ultimately, I had to accept that that book wasn’t good enough. But that didn’t mean I’d failed. That meant that it was time to write the next book.
Failure is part of the system. There is a good chance your first book sucks. You are probably querying too early. You’re going to get rejected. And that’s how you learn. That’s how you level up. That’s how you become a better writer and a stronger person.
The only failure is when you give up.
It might take years. You might have to write several books. You might even get so far as to nab an agent and then fail to sell your book on submission. But that is not failing. Failing is when you stop writing. When you stop learning. When you do nothing. When you don’t show up in the first place.”
“Our lives had no firm boundary, no proper frame.It was as if something had washed away the boundaries. Everything just happened, unframed, without edges. Now, much later, I still don’t know where I am, where things started or ended in my life.”
Sandor Marai in “Portrait of a Marriage
“Few things are more painful than being a successful writer born in a small country with an impenetrable language. It’s one thing to be writing in South or Latin America, where, except for Brazil, every country, however small and hard to find on a map, speaks Spanish, but quite another to be writing in, say, Hungary, a landlocked nation of 10 million people, with a language that very few people outside Hungary can read or speak.”
Michael Korda [whose father was born in Hungary]
Case in point: have you ever heard of Sandor Marai?
“I am here to witness. I was sent to sing. I am here to catch and tell the story of the teacher who ran with a child on her shoulders out of the ash and fire of September 11. I am here to tell you that a man and a woman reached for each other at the high windows in the south tower, and they held hands as they leapt into the void. I am here to tell you that a man carried a colleague 80 floors to the street and then went back in. I am here to marvel at a pope praying with his almost-assassin, to marvel at victims forgiving the murderers of their children in South Africa, to be riveted by all the thin bony nuns who have carried the church on their shoulders for centuries and hardly anyone ever shouted my God without those women there would be no church whatever whatsoever absolutely! I am here to hear all the stories of all the women who have bent every ounce of their souls to love, which is pretty much all the women who ever lived. I am here to see illogical courage and faith. I am here to sing grace under duress.
“I am a storycatcher, charged with finding stories that matter, stories about who we are at our best, who we might be still, because without stories we are only mammals with weapons. I am here to point at shards of holiness. That’s all. That’s enough.”
“This was the writer’s paradox—ego fueled the belief that one was about to become the exception. This is what kept me writing, the humongous ego, a necessity of the trade.
“Didn’t Twain go bankrupt? Didn’t Melville bet his farm on his work and lose?” she asked. “Don’t forget Shelley, who made precisely forty pounds from his writing, and most of that was for a novel he wrote while still in school.” We enjoyed this game. “Joyce, Pound, Milton, they all died in miserable, impoverished circumstances.”
Martha McPhee in her novel, “Dear Money”
“The funny thing about writing is that whether you were doing it well or doing it poorly, it looks the exact same. That’s actually one of the main ways that writing is different from ballet dancing.”
“When I am stuck in the perfection cog —
as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft,
or I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how
everything is going to fit together —
I find it helpful to tell myself: You will fail.”
“Good writing comes from the ability to connect the interior richness of which all of us possess with the structure of language…the habit of observing in words.”
In John Irving’s novel “Avenue of Mysteries, a character named Juan Diego compares writing a novel to treading water and dog-paddling: “It feels like you’re going a long way, because it’s a lot of work, but you’re basically covering old ground—you’re hanging out in familiar territory.”
“At bottom, writing is simple. It’s fundamental, like a hammer and nails, or putting it another way, like singing a song. Or talking to yourself. It does have rules of order. It has grammar and syntax, the form and structure of sentences and the relationship and arrangement of words, most of which you learn even if incorrectly as a child by listening and imitating, repetition.”
“Failure may be a truth, or at any rate a negotiable fact, while success is a temporary illusion of some intoxicating sort, a bubble soon to be pricked, a flower whose petals will quickly drop . . . . From this pragmatic vantage point, ‘success’ is but a form of ‘failure,’ a compromise between what is desired and what is attained.”
-Joyce Carol Oates
“Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.”
George Bernard Shaw
“If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.”
“Difficult as it is to remember, it is our work that creates the market, not the market that creates our work.” Julia Cameron
“Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean, stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword.” George R. R. Martin
From Jenny Offill’s novel, “The Dept. of Speculation”:
“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”
“The truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn’t dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue.”
…The need to go big in art because Gabriel Garcia Marquez never wrote a novel called ‘Love in a Time of Cold and Flu Season.'”
T. Geronimo Johnson
“The music stopped. The circle broke. Sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation. In the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. In the middle of a song on a warm Sunday night. Then it comes, always – the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”
Colson Whitehead in “The Underground Railroad”
“Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”
Elizabeth Strout in “My Name Is Lucy Barton”
“Though the ability to write well is partly a gift – like the ability to play basketball well, or to outguess the stock market – writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.”
“Saigon time was fourteen hours off, although if one judged time by this clock, it was we who were fourteen hours off. Refugee, exile, immigrant— whatever species of displaced human we were, we did not simply live in two cultures, as celebrants of the great American melting pot imagined. Displaced people also lived in two time zones, the here and the there, the present and the past, being as we were reluctant time travelers. But while science fiction imagined time travelers as moving forward or backward in time, this timepiece demonstrated a different chronology. The open secret of the clock, naked for all to see, was that we were only going in circles.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen in “The Sympathizer”
“Two questions I can’t really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from, and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute. There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without.
But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself— forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true.”
“I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts.”
“Plot is not just a sequence of connected events (in this sense, every TV drama or novel equally has a plot). It is something rarer: the unfolding of a hidden design. Plot involves the laying of clues, the implicit promise to the reader or viewer that the true significance of what we read or see is not self-evident, but will eventually be revealed. A good plot exploits not just suspense, but also a kind of retrospective curiosity. When we know that a story has a plot we find ourselves asking not so much, “What will happen next?” as, “What has already happened?” The hidden design has, we trust, been contrived by an author, so when we enjoy a plot we are enjoying being manipulated by him or her. Perhaps this is why such enjoyment has often been thought suspect.”
“I don’t believe love is real love if it remains cloistered within the confines of an intimate relationship; it should transcend the private sphere. As an artist that means training an eye on the suffering in the world, then acting on behalf of others. Bearing witness is one of the most excruciating aspects of working in a long form… Sitting with suffering—others’ and one’s own—is the challenge of a lifetime. But this is our practice.”
Gino Frangello on why writing seems to be in conflict with parenting:
“Because the point of art is to unsettle, to question, to disturb what is comfortable and safe. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal as a parent.”
“I recalled an interview I read with one of my first writing teachers, Deborah Eisenberg, in which she says, ‘Art itself is inherently subversive. It’s destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think.’ Oscar Wilde said it is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known. Hippocrates tells us ‘Art is a revolt.’
People make art, in other words, for exactly the opposite reason they make families.”
source: Kim Brooks
“The stories and Toby [Wolff’s] reading of them convey a notion new to me, or one which, in the somber cathedral of academia, I’d forgotten: literature is a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.”
Two mentions of the same novel by Heidi Julavits:
“The Mineral Palace was published in 2000 to rave reviews.”
“Her first novel, The Mineral Palace, a depression-era story of sexual corruption and infanticide, was published in 2000 to mediocre reviews.”
“Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘listen to me.'”
“He usually wrote in this room from early afternoon into early morning, stopping only for dinner, and he was tireless, writing, rewriting, revising, and slowly producing perhaps’ a page a week or one in four days or thirteen in three months….[for Madame Bovary] there are some forty-five hundred pages of drafts for the three hundred in the book.”
James Salter on Flaubert
“The thing about a writer is that want is part of the job description. Without want, a writer is nothing. A writer must want to sit alone at a desk for days on end. A writer must close out the world and wait. The reward is the chuckle, the quiet laugh that only the writer hears alone at her desk. She is laughing at her own work, her own imagination nailing a particular phrase because she knows, as one just knows some things, that the phrase, the scene, the story will make others laugh. Who among us, no matter her trade, has not made something bigger, at some point, simply by virtue of sticking with it? She must want this even while knowing that few others will care.
“But want, as we say, has a problem with boundaries. It bleeds. What young writer, sitting at her desk, doesn’t also crave to be in the world? The blue day, the summer heat, they pull her outside, toward shops and cafés, toward the land where life is real and filled with temptation and expensive desire: the cappuccino, the magazine, the taxi, the pretty dress. Want proliferates with age: she wants a baby, then another, then a babysitter to go with them, a house, a car, a good school for the kids, lessons, camps, more of those nice dresses, perhaps a better neighborhood to settle in. She’ll become practical, money for retirement, stocks, perhaps some bonds. She’ll want theater tickets, to dine with her friends, an office, books, a vacation, a new wedding band, another bedroom. On it will go from one thing from the next.”
Martha McPhee in “Dear Money”
“After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light.”
“He was a solitary man. He knew everyone, but he had no close friends. His loneliness had made him intensely observant, as though this studious scrutiny were a remedy for being lonely. He knew the most obscure details of the paintings in the museums. He would lunge at the pictures, pointing out brush strokes. “It’s a tiny smear. Now step back. It’s a person – is it a child? Back farther. It’s a man. Look at the hat!”I could only think how many afternoons he had spent looking at these pictures on his own and discovering these secrets. I liked him, I was grateful for his friendship, and I admired his writing; but his isolation frightened me. I wanted my life to be different.”
Andy Parent on S. Prasad known as Raj, in Paul Theroux’s “My Secret History”
(For the full story, see “Sir Vidia” by Theroux)
“I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.” Cynthia Ozick