Lit & wit
“Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?” – Dorothy L. Sayers
[a little] inspiration.
And we are in the midst of our one and only life.
— James Salter
It is never too late to be what you might have been.
— George Eliot
I chose and my world was shaken—
The choice may have been mistaken,
The choosing was not.
You have to move on.
— Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George
I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you.
— Ray Bradbury
Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Life is lonely; it is less so if one reads.
— Garrison Keillor
The world is hungry for amusement.
— Carol Shields
People read fiction for emotion—not information.
— Barnaby Conrad
Oh, the vexations endured by a man of poesy!
— Lorrie Moore
Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
— Samuel Beckett
Nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one single means. Go inside yourself. Discover the motive that bids you write; examine whether it sends its roots down to the deepest places of your heart, confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing were denied you. This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hours of your night: Must I write?
— Rainer Maria Rilke
When I was teaching I would always tell students...they would want to write these stories, these novels and give me these very skeletal type things. I would say, "Go back, go back. See what’s there. See what’s there as clearly as you possibly can." They’d say, "No, I’ll go back and fill that in later." I would always say. "It’s not a matter of filling it in. What you see is not just an object, the objects in your fiction have to take you beyond that in to some sort of other realm... in the realm of pure meaning. You can’t go back and fill it in later. It’s a door that you have to open and walk through. The physicality of the world is a door that you will open and you walk through it and if you are not seeing it you are not going to get there. There is just no way to get there without seeing these things. Right from The Risk Pool, one of the ways we trace Sam Hall in that novel, is through his car. He starts out driving a great big gas guzzling old car. By the end, of the novel he’s driving a tiny little Subaru, the headlights of which don’t work. That’s not my interest in cars there.
— Richard Russo
Our words must seem to be inevitable.
— William Butler Yeats
You expect far too much of a first sentence. Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast: what we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb and perhaps a wholesome, nonfattening adverb or two.
— Larry McMurtry
All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
— George Orwell
I write only because I cannot stop. Anyone who can be discouraged, should be.
— Harlan Ellison
Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.
— Natalie Goldberg
I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.
— Stanley Elkin
Read! Read! Read! And then read some more. When you find something that thrills you, take it apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word, to see what made it so wonderful. Then use those tricks the next time you write.
— W. P. Kinsella
When “whom” is correct, recast the sentence.
— William Safire
What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
— Samuel Johnson
Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
— Red Smith
A writer’s life is not designed to reassure your mother.
— Rita Mae Brown
As the Romans put it, Nulla dies sine linea—No day without a line.
— B. F. Skinner
William Safire told me something that really helped: “Never feel guilty about reading. It’s what you do.”
— Peggy Noonan
When you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader’s heart, try to be colder—it gives their grief, as it were, a background, against which it stands out in greater relief. As it is, your heroes weep and you sigh. Yes, you must be cold.
— Anton Chekhov
It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone, life itself is gone.
— Vita Sackville-West
Don’t say it was “delightful”; makes us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ”Please will you do my job for me?”
— C. S. Lewis
If you require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
— Arthur Quiller-Couch
But our first obligation is to create interesting, suggestive, realistic, possibly even challenging situations, set our character down in them and see where they go, which may not be the way you wish they could; rather it is the way, given who they are, they must go.
— Rosellen Brown
Writing a novel is like gathering smoke. There’s no time to waste.
— Walter Mosley
If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. Ifwriting a page is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads. A page a day is a book a year.
— Richard Rhodes
Would you not like to try all sorts of lives—one is so very small—but that is the satisfaction of writing—one can impersonate so many people.
— Katherine Mansfield
Keep your bones in good motion, kid, and quietly consume and digest what is necessary. I think it is not so much important to build a literary thing as it is not to hurt things. I think it is important to be quiet and in love with park benches; solve whole areas of pain by walking across a rug.
— Charles Bukowski
Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it is the answer to everything. To “Why am I here?” To uselessness. It’s the streaming reason for living.
— Enid Bagnold
After I got to know Knick a little, I asked him timidly how you become a writer…he said, “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.”
— Richard Rhodes on Conrad Knickerbocker
The methods, even the ideas, of successful writers contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.
— Sophy Burnham
Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be tired. Be confused. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.
— William Zinsser
Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative. Eliminate every superfluous word. Avoid the use of adjectives, especially such extravagant ones as splendid, gorgeous, grand, magnificent, etc.
— Kansas City Star
As a writer, you are free. You are about the freest person that ever was. Your freedom is what you have bought with your solitude.
— Ursula K. Le Guin
It is the doing that makes for continuance. It is not the knowing of how the doing is done.
The dancer may try to put into choreographic language, symbols and signs of his muscle and skill, so that others may dance that way again; but it doesn’t seem to work. Others do not dance that way. They study and study the choreographic treasure of instruction and storage, but it doesn’t work.
He who dances danced, he who saw him dance, she who saw her dance, he who danced with her, and watched with him, and studied and remembered what had been seen, he and she and they, dancing and dancing to the manuscript of instruction: they dance, but it isn’t the same. Perhaps it is better, even, or might become better; but it is not the same. There is always only one of each, always, and two may be desirable but it is impossible. There is a different breath in every breather.
— William Saroyan
The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.”
— Michael Ondaatje
It is no loss to mankind when one writer decides to call it a day.
— Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
The only advice I have to give a young novelist is to fuck a really good agent.
— John Cheever
on characters, voices, and arrogant bastards.
Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him, something he can pick up and throw, if necessary, or eat, or give to his girlfriend. Plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader) what he, the character, is really like: plot forces the character to choice and action, transforms him from a static construct to a lifelike human being making choices and paying for them or reaping the rewards. And theme exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the character’s main problem is.
— John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist
Years later I heard him give some advice: never be in awe of anyone. He was not in awe of Europe. He tossed his coat on her couch.
— James Salter on Irwin Shaw
The most famous family story is from Chicago, circa 1905. It seems that there was a salon that catered only to the best women. Mrs. William Pearce Fraser, Grandfather’s grandmother, had a standing appointment. When she arrived, she saw that her usual seat was occupied by Mrs. Armour. So Great-Great-Grandmother nodded to the attendant and very sweetly said: “Get the butcher’s wife out of my chair.”
— Marina Rust, Gatherings
He may have been a son of a bitch, but he was a colossal son of a bitch.
— George Reedy on Lyndon Johnson
I don’t do anything. I watch a lot of television. If it makes you feel better, I’m not, like, on welfare or anything—I’m totally rich.
— Melissa Bochco
Yes, Virginia thinks, that’s it, just that tone of stern, rueful charity—that is how one speaks to servants, and to sisters. There’s an art to it, as there’s an art to everything, and much of what Vanessa has to teach is contained in these seemingly effortless gestures. One arrives early or late, claiming airily that it could not be helped.
— Michael Cunningham, The Hours
Goddamn that, you can hear him saying from off all the walls. We decide when the earth moves.
— Charles P. Pierce on Lyndon Johnson
I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty…but I am too busy thinking about myself.
— Dame Edith Sitwell
He never mentioned women, but it was impossible that so grand, so errant a nature should not be drawn to them, and there was also the theme of that first, central story, “Summer Dresses.” The great engines of this world do not run on faithfulness. “Many?” I often wanted to ask. I doubt he would have been revealing.
One night a faded blonde was going on about the luster of it, their wonderful life. “Have you ever,” she asked him ingenuously, “I just wonder, have you ever really loved anyone besides Marian?”
He shifted his gaze to her, uncertain of her motive.
“Has he what?” someone said.
“I mean it,” she insisted. “Have you ever—I don’t mean while you were divorced—have you ever loved another woman?”
In the awkward silence, from across the table, Marian said, “I’ll give you the list.”
— James Salter on Irwin and Marian Shaw
Her father looked content, serenely absorbed in the book. He was a Zen master, she thought, not only because he’d only brought one bag, but because he lived in a kingdom of purely spiritual struggles and purely spiritual rewards. He didn’t care that he was sitting at a table in the smoking section, and that two nerdy guys next to him were chortling like goats. He didn’t care that his body was falling apart. He was somewhere far away, taking a walk with Henry James.
— Brian Morton, Starting Out in the Evening
perfect lines and passages.
Emotions, in my experience aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” … I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” ... I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.
— Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
It was worth everything, that moment, that song. It did the very thing that music can do when it is at its best: It elevated us and healed us and showed us how to be our better selves.
— Jeanne Ray, Eat Cake
I intended to get involved with Sara Gaskell from the moment I saw her, to get involved with her articulate fingers, with the severe engineering of combs and barrettes that prevented her russet hair from falling to her hips, with her conversation that flowed in unnavigable oxbows between opposing shores of tenderness and ironical invective, with the smoke of her interminable cigarettes.
— Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
I spent my year buckling down and improving my grades in the hope that I might transfer somewhere, anywhere, else. I eventually chose Kent State because people had been killed there.
— David Sedaris, Naked
The woman’s head quickly withdraws, the door to the trailer closes again, but she leaves behind her an unmistakable sense of watchful remonstrance, as if an angel had briefly touched the surface of the world with one sandaled foot, asked if there was any trouble and, being told all was well, had resumed her place in the ether with skeptical gravity, having reminded the children of the earth that they are just barely trusted to manage their own business, and that further carelessness will not go unremarked.
— Michael Cunningham, The Hours
In the summer they went to Amagansett. Wooden houses. Blue, blue days. Summer is the noontime of devoted families. It is the hour of silence when the only sound is sea birds. The shutters are closed, the voices quiet. Occasionally the ring of a fork. Pure, empty days.
— James Salter, Light Years
Federov had reached the beach in front of the Club by now. Two old ladies under the parasol stared coldly at him. A hundred times a summer they complained about the law, demagogically inspired, which permitted outsiders to spoil their view of the ocean merely by keeping below the high-tide line on the beach. Lonely sentries, old bones wrapped in scarves, windswept and discarded, unpleasant at a distance, unpleasant up close, menopaused, everlastingly dissatisfied, under a striped parasol on a bare white beach, they guarded the gates of the past.
— Irwin Shaw, Voices of a Summer Day
What religious people call fate, I call luck. And what they call God’s will, I call bad luck.
— David Sedaris
He believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music. True life was kept safe in the lines of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin while you went out into the world and met the obligations required of you. Certainly he knew (although did not completely understand) that opera wasn’t for everyone, but for everyone he hoped there was something.
— Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
I looked at the light in the kitchen ceiling and noticed there were a few dead bugs caught in the glass fixture. You never really know what’s going on with your ceiling until you just give up and lie down on the floor.
— Jeanne Ray, Eat Cake
… in the two years since my divorce I’ve sometimes walked out in these winding, bowery streets after dark on some ruminative errand or other and looked in at these same houses, windows lit with bronzy cheer, dark cars hove to the curbs, the sound of laughing and glasses tinkling and spirited chatter floating out, and thought to myself: what good rooms these are. What complete life is here, audible. And though I myself wasn’t part of it and wouldn’t much like it if I were, I was stirred to think all of us were living steadfast and accountable lives … but it is for just such uses that suburban streets are ideal, and the only way neighbors here can be neighborly.
— Richard Ford, The Sportswriter
Lavinia waved her large menu as if fanning us across the room and into our seats. I could tell Hadley was embarrassed; she walked quickly, with her head down, and glanced surreptitiously around the room to see if other tables were watching. Spencer, on the other hand, seemed delighted by all of it: Lavinia’s ridiculous hat with a spray of feathers sweeping off to one side, the dog panting over a place setting like a very old fat man, missing only the cigar, and the buzz of waiters, circling like dark birds, dipping in and over the table, white napkins flapping against the crisp black uniforms.
— Katherine Mosby, The Season of Lillian Dawes
With riotous laughter we quietly suffer
This season in town which is reason enough for
A weekend in the country…
— Stephen Sondheim, A Little Night Music
For a moment he had a vision of his wife and his son, unknown to him, unknown to each other, standing on opposite corners of the same avenue, waiting for the lights to change, crossing in the crowds, close enough to touch, never touching.
— Irwin Shaw, Lucy Crown
Here is Kitty’s pretty gold wristwatch; here is the quick unraveling of her life.
— Michael Cunningham, The Hours
“Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. Don’t you think? It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.”
— Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
On my way out of earth, I touched a girl named Ruth.
— Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
Sixteen years. And a war won and lost; Oliver dead; age accepted or nearly accepted; everything repaired, or almost repaired; revisions accomplished, pain and loss misted over by habit, dimmed with memory, incapable, one had thought, of causing further harm.
— Irwin Shaw, Lucy Crown
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere, waiting for you…
— Walt Whitman
One advantage of marriage, it seems to me, is that when you fall out of love with him, or he falls out of love with you, it keeps you together until you maybe fall in love again.
— Judith Viorst
Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar.
— Robert Frost
Elyot: It doesn’t suit women to be promiscuous.
Amanda: It doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous.
— Noel Coward, Private Lives
It’s a pleasant little kingdom,
full of pleasant little things,
full of scintillating dinners with neighboring kings.
There’s a castle in the country for weekends of rest
and we entertain at parties in the little time remaining,
and we’re entertained by others and it’s very entertaining…
An efficient little kingdom, the dominion of the queen,
where at any given moment the ashtrays are clean.
There are many little battles which never are fought,
and if, on occasion, I think about you, it’s a pleasant little thought.
So I write another book,
and I head another drive,
and we take a trip we took and the dinner guests arrive,
and unless you really look, you would think we were alive, and…God!
— Stephen Sondheim, Follies
Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, every marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate
— W. H. Auden
Were we positive, eager, real—alive? No, we were not. We were a nothingness shot with gleams of what might be.
— Katherine Mansfield
When first we met we did not guess that love would prove so hard a master.
— Robert Bridges
In mid-life the man wants to see how irresistible he still is to younger women. How they turn their hearts to stone and more or less commit a murder of their marriage I just don’t know, but they do.
— Patricia Neal
People change and forget to tell each other.
— Lillian Hellman
The married are those who have taken the terrible risk of intimacy and, having taken it, know life without intimacy to be impossible.
— Carolyn Heilbrun
If love has come at last, it’s picked the worst time.
— Stephen Schwartz
Eleanor: I’m so relieved. I didn’t want to lose you.
Henry: Out of curiosity, as intellectual to intellectual, how in the name of bleeding Jesus can you lose me? Do we ever see each other, am I ever near you, ever with you, am I ever anywhere but somewhere else? Do I write, do we send messages, do dinghies bearing gifts float up the Thames to you, are you remembered?
Eleanor: You are.
Henry: You’re no part of me, we do not touch at any point. How can you lose me?
Eleanor: Can’t you feel the chains?
— William Goldman, The Lion in Winter
“Oh, for God’s sake,” my mother said, tossing her wooden spoon into a cauldron of chipped-beef gravy. “Leave that goddamn cat alone before I claw you myself. It’s bad enough you’ve got her tarted up like some two-dollar whore. Take that costume off her and turn her loose before she runs away just like the last one.”
— David Sedaris, Naked