Writers' Quotes-Writers on Writing

Ideas have to be wedded to action; if there is no sex, no vitality in them, there is no action. Ideas cannot exist alone in the vacuum of the mind. Ideas are related to living.
--Henry Miller
DORN: Hey--a bit excitable, aren't you? Tears in your eyes--.
Now, my point is this. You took your plot from the
realm of abstract ideas, and quite right too, because a
work of art simply must express some great idea. Nothing
can be beautiful unless it's also serious. I say, you
are pale.
TREPLEV: So you don't think I should give up?
DORN: No. But you must describe only the significant and the
--Anton Chekhov _The Seagull_, Act I
First of all, Southerners, I think, have a way of talking on
two levels at once. And novelists revel in this. In my new
book, _Father Melancholy's Daughter_, a little girl is shopping
with her mother. And the mother says, "Margaret, if you buy
this dress, it has buttons and you'll have to button them and
unbutton them, because I have enough buttons of my own to worry
about." And remembering this years later, after her mother has
absconded, the child says, "My mother talked on two levels.
She spoke in a very sweet, Southern drawl. But then,
underneath, you knew she was saying something else." And in
this case this woman was saying, "I'm the Rector's wife. I
have enough buttons to worry about." But it's that subtle
undertext that you can really play with.
--Gail Godwin
If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write
what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon
his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no
plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in
the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as
the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of
giglamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a
semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of
consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to
convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit,
whatever aberration of complexity it may display, with as
little mixture of the alien and external as possible?
--Virginia Woolf
All dialogue should come out of character. It should never
come from the author. If a character speaks in slang, then it
is perfectly proper to let him do so. It would obviously be
out of place to put slang in the mouth of a character to whom
such language would be alien. If you want dialogue to be strong
and vivid, make it _real_. . . . If you really know your
characters, you will know exactly how they should speak.
--Sidney Sheldon
Now the purpose of a book I suppose is to amuse, interest,
instruct, but its warmer purpose is to associate with the
reader. You use symbols he can understand so that the two of
you can be together. . . . Let's take the inner chapters of
_The Grapes of Wrath_. . . . You say the inner chapters were
counterpoint and so they were--that they were pace changers and
they were that, too, but the basic purpose was to hit the
reader below the belt. With the rhythms and symbols of poetry
one can get into a reader--open him up and while he is open
introduce things on an intellectual level which he would not or
could not receive unless he were opened up. It is a
psychological trick if you wish, but all techniques of writing
are psychological tricks. Perspective in painting is a trick,
word sounds are tricks, even arrangement and form are tricks.
And a trick is only good if it is effective. The writer never
knows whether his trick is going to work until he has a reader.
--John Steinbeck
I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few
sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my
knowledge of human activity, and to end by giving me a
sensation of completed statement.
--John Updike, upon serving
one year as guest editor
of the award anthology,
_The Best American Short
Be in love with yr life
Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
Blow as deep as you want to blow
Write what you want
bottomless from the bottom of the mind
Remove literary, grammatical and
syntactical inhibition
Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
--Jack Kerouac
The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A
story to be effective had to convey something from writer to
reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its
excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A
story could be about anything and could use any means and any
technique at all--so long as it was effective. As a subhead to
this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for
the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was
talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat
of a story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well
enough to enlarge it to three or six or ten thousand words.
--John Steinbeck,
in the preface to
_Story Writing_,
by Edith Ronald Mirrielees,
his writing teacher at
Discipline. Tightness. Firmness. Crispness. Sternness. And
sternness in our lives. Life is tons of discipline. Your
first discipline is your vocabulary; then your grammar and your
punctuation, you see. Then, in your exuberance and bounding
energy you say you're going to add to that. Then you add rhyme
and meter. And your delight in _that_ power.
--Robert Frost
In most good stories, it is the character's personality that
creates the action of the story. In most of these [lesser]
stories, I feel that the writer has thought of some action and
then scrounged up a character to perform it. You will usually
be more successful if you start the other way around. If you
start with a real personality, a real character, then something
is bound to happen.
--Flannery O'Connor
I often get my ideas not from characters, but from the ideas of
what my characters will be involved in. Many people who teach
writing teach it by saying you've got to get the character
first and then blah, blah, blah . . . that is quite true.
Ideas come from other places.
--Irving Wallace
If you want my real opinion, I think today an exaggerated
preponderance is given to form. . . . Basically, I suggest that
the method itself establishes the form; that a language is only
a logic, a natural and scientific construct. The best writer
will not be the one who gallops madly amid hypotheses, but
rather the one who marches squarely to the middle of the truth.
Actually we are rotten with lyricism; we think quite wrongly
that the grand style is composed of startling sublimity, ever
close to tumbling over into lunacy. The grand style is
composed of logic and clarity.
--Emile Zola
Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, rather
because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long
to be straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to
him. He discovers that in being simple, honest,
straightforward, nothing much happens.
--Donald Barthelme, rebutting
criticism of himself and
of other writers as being
too difficult
To live _in_ the world of creation--to get into it and stay in
it--to frequent it and haunt it-- to _think_ intensely and
fruitfully--to woo combinations and inspirations into being by
a depth and continuity of attention and meditation--this is the
only thing.
--Henry James
A poet's mission is to make others confound fiction and reality
in order to render them, for an hour, mysteriously happy.
--Isak Dinesen
This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish
extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects,
ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions . . . But the gift
is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.
--William Shakespeare,
_Love's Labor's Lost_,
Act IV
Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears Moist it again,
and frame some feeling line That may discover such integrity.
--William Shakespeare, _The
Two Gentlemen of Verona_,
Act III, Scene 2
I have to be alone. A bus is good. Or walking the dog.
Brushing my teeth is marvelous--it was especially so for
_Catch-22_. Often when I am very tired, just before going to
bed, while washing my face and brushing my teeth, my mind gets
very clear . . . and produces a line for the next day's work,
or some idea way ahead. I don't get my best ideas while
actually writing . . . which is the agony of putting down what
I think are good ideas and finding the words for them and the
paragraph forms for them . . . a laborious process. I don't
think of myself as a naturally gifted writer when it comes to
using language. I distrust myself. Consequently I try every
which way with a sentence, then a paragraph, and finally a
page, choosing words, selecting pace (I'm obsessed with that,
even the pace of a sentence). I say to myself what I hope to
put down on paper, but I hope not aloud. I think sometimes I
move my lips, not only when I'm writing, but when I'm thinking
of what I'm going to be having for dinner.
--Joseph Heller
It began as diary . . . little by little it began to turn
itself into a story, by that mysterious process which I cannot
explain, but which I recognize when it begins, and I go along
with it out of a kind of curiosity, as if my mind which knows
the facts is watching to see what my story- telling mind will
finally make of them.
--Katherine Anne Porter
Short stories should tell us what everybody knows but what
nobody is talking about. At least not publicly. Except the
short story writers.
--Raymond Carver
The legend that characters run away from their authors--taking
up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president--
implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery
of his craft. This is absurd. Of course, any estimable
exercise of the imagination draws upon such a complex richness
of memory that it truly enjoys the expansiveness--the
surprising turns, the response to light and darkness--of any
living thing. But the idea of authors running around
helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible.
--John Cheever
Chance is the world's greatest novelist. If you would be a
prolific writer, just study it closely.
--Honore de Balzac
It has something to do with a kind of readiness to record
impressions arising from a source of which we know little. I
suppose that all of us have a primitive prompter or
commentator within, who from earliest years has been advising
us, telling us what the real world is. There is such a
commentator in me. I have to prepare the ground for him.
From this source comes words, phrases, syllables; sometimes
only sounds, which I try to interpret, sometimes whole
paragraphs, fully punctuated. When E. M. Forster said, "How
do I know what I think until I see what I say?" he was perhaps
referring to his own prompter. There is that observing
instrument in us--at childhood at any rate. At the sight of a
man's face, his shoes, the color of light, a woman's mouth or
perhaps her ear, one receives a word, a phrase, at times
nothing but a nonsense syllable from the primitive
When I say the commentator is primitive, I don't mean he's
crude; God knows he's often fastidious. But he won't talk
until the situation's right. And if you prepare the ground for
him with too many difficulties underfoot, he won't say
--Saul Bellow
The task of a writer consists in being able to _make_
something out of an idea.
--Thomas Mann
E. M. Forster refers to "flat" and "round" characters. I try
to make all of mine round. It takes an extrovert like Dickens
to make flat characters come alive. But story as such has
been neglected by today's introverted writers. Story and
character should grow together; I think I'm lucky so far in
that in practically everything I've tried to write these two
elements have grown together. They must, to give an
impression of life lived, just because each man's life is a
story, if you'll pardon the cliche.
--William Styron
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which
you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word
if you can think of an everyday British equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything
outright barbaric.
--George Orwell
Words have to be crafted, not sprayed. They need to be fitted
together with infinite care. William Faulkner would isolate
himself in a small cell-like room and labor over his words
like a jeweler arranging tiny jewels in a watch. Thomas Mann
would consider himself lucky if, after a full day at his desk,
he was able to put down on paper 500 words that he was willing
to share with the world.
--Norman Cousins
I would imagine that most writers revise, one way or another.
Maybe they don't revise as extensively on paper, but the
process of writing is a process of inner expansion and
reduction. It's like an accordion: You open it and then you
bring it back, hoping that additional sound--a new
clarity--may come out. It's all for clarity.
--Jerzy Kosinski
To sum it all up, if you want to write, if you want
to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever
turned out and sent rambling.
You must write every single day of your life.
You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious
books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your
head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next.
You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like
ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats
upon your crazy heads.
I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative
Muse that will last a lifetime.
I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon
May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine
stories. . . .
Which finally means, may you be in love every day
for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a
--Ray Bradbury
The most important lesson in the writing trade is that any
manuscript is improved if you cut away the fat.
--Robert Heinlein
I am glad you think my style plain. I never, in any one page
or paragraph, aimed at making it anything else, or giving it
any other merit--and I wish people would leave off talking
about its beauty. If it has any, it is only pardonable at
being unintentional. The greatest possible merit of style is,
of course, to make the words absolutely disappear into the
--Nathaniel Hawthorne
Man lives and evolves by "eating" significance, as
a child eats food. The deeper his sense of wonder, the
wider his curiosity, the stronger his vitality becomes,
and the more powerful his grip on his own existence.
There are two ways in which he can expand: inward
and outward. If I am in a foreign country and I get a
powerful desire to explore it thoroughly, to visit its
remotest places, that is a typical example of outward
expansion. And it would not be untrue to say that the
love of books, of music, of art, is typical of the
desire for inward expansion. But that is only a half
of it. For what happens if I suddenly become
fascinated by a foreign country is that I feel like the
spider in the centre of a web; I am aware of all kinds
of "significances" vibrating along the web, and I want
to reach out and grab them all. But in moods of deep
inner serenity, the same thing happens. Suddenly I am
aware of vast inner spaces, of strange significances
_inside_ me. I am no longer a puny twentieth-century
human being trapped in his life-world and personality.
Once again, I am at the centre of a web, feeling
vibrations of meaning. And suddenly I realize that in
the deepest sense those Indians and Peruvians were
right. I am like a tree that suddenly becomes aware
that its roots go down deep, deep into the earth. And
at this present moment in evolution, my roots go far
deeper into the earth than my branches stretch above
it--a thousand times deeper.
--Colin Wilson

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