Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writers on writing

by Sandra Parshall

Writers were talking and writing about writers and writing for two millennia before internet blogs came along to add to the chatter. Like most writers, I’m always searching for a bit of condensed wisdom that will light my way to The End, but sometimes I get a laugh instead -- or my jaw drops in disbelief that any great writer could have said that. For your edification or your outrage, as the case may be, here’s a selection drawn from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and similar tomes.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626): “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. . . .Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.”

Novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873): “The pen is mightier than the sword.” (Bulwer-Lytton also produced the immortal line “It was a dark and stormy night.”)

The always Kafkaesque Franz Kafka (1883-1924): “Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward, but its price? During the night the answer was transparently clear to me: it is the reward for service to the devil . . . descent to the dark powers . . .”

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957): "Death in particular seems to provide the minds of the Anglo-Saxon race with a greater fund of innocent amusement than any other single subject."
George Orwell (1903-1950): “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

Agatha Christie (1890-1976): "It's no good starting out [to write a novel] by thinking one is a heaven-born genius–-some people are, but very few. No, one is a tradesman--a tradesman in a good honest trade. You must learn the technical skills, and then, within that trade, you can apply your own creative ideas, but you must submit to the discipline of form."

Raymond Chandler (1888-1959): [Asked if he would write his autobiography] "Who cares how a writer got his first bicycle?"

Norman Mailer (1923-2007): “America is a cruel soil for talent. It stunts it, blights it, uproots it, or overheats it with cheap fertilizer. And our literary gardeners, our publishers, editors, reviewers and general flunkeys, are drunks, cowards, respectables, prose couturiers, fashion-mongers, old maids, time servers and part-time pimps on the Avenue of President Madison. The audiences are not much better–they seem to consist in nine parts of the tense, tasteless victims of a mass-media culture, incapable of confronting a book unless it is successful.”

Sports columnist Red Smith (1905-1982): “[Writing is] easy. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986): “Writing is nothing more than a guided dream.”

The very French writer Andre Maurois (1885-1967), who was born with the name
Émile Salomon Wilhelm Herzog: “The need to express one’s self in writing springs from a maladjustment of life, or from an inner conflict which the adolescent (or the grown man) cannot resolve in action.”

Lord Byron (1788-1824): “I do think . . . the mighty stir made about scribbling and scribes, by themselves and others, a sign of effeminacy, degeneracy, and weakness. Who would write, who had any thing better to do?”

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881): “An author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children.”

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): “If he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.” (From the short story “Fathers and Sons”)

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940): “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

P. D. James (1920-): "Crime fiction today [2009] is more realistic in its treatment of murder, more aware of scientific advances in the detection of crime, more sensitive to the environment in which it is set, more sexually explicit and closer than it has ever been to mainstream fiction."
William Faulkner (1897-1962): “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.”

Literary critic Wilson Mizner: “When you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”

Voltaire (1694-1778), attributed: “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another. The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbors, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all. “

Philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662): “The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

Georges Simenon (1903-1989), Belgian author of almost 200 novels: “Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989): “Your business as a writer is not to illustrate virtue but to show how a fellow may move toward it or away from it.”

Literary critic Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946): “Fine writers should split hairs together, and sit side by side, like friendly apes, to pick the fleas from each other’s furs.”

Hollywood bombshell Mae West (1892-1980), in her autobiography: “Let Shakespeare do it his way, I’ll do it mine. We’ll see who comes out better.”

Lillian Hellman (1905-1984): “They’re fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

Do you have a favorite quote that I’ve overlooked?

1 comment:

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
Maybe you and some of the other readers of this blog have noticed the running quotes on my website's banner--I love to collect them. One favorite there is Hemingway's, but the one from my old prof Momaday is good advice for writers too.
Another favorite but one I refrained from putting on my website is what has become known as Sturgeon's Law (please google so we can keep a G-rating for this blog)--it's quite universal in that it applies to everything. (Theodore Sturgeon was a prolific sci-fi writer who described spread-spectrum communications--used now by all cell phones--years before it came into use.)
Thanks for the quotes given here. I'll add them to my list, if not already there.
All the best,