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Quotes for Writers
arranged by last name: a-h I i-p I q-z

The statements quoted below have variously heartened and chastened me over the years. Some have served as epigraphs for books of mine; all have functioned as provocations. I apologize for my inability to source them all precisely; a number of them come from notebooks of mine kept in a period when I had forsworn scholarly concerns, while I found others in sources that themselves lacked footnotes. Any more exact citation of source or correction of inaccuracy will be appreciated.

-- A. D. C.

Writers don't give prescriptions. They give headaches.
-- Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (1987)
. . . any writer, looking back, . . . finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
-- James Baldwin, "Autobiographical Notes," Notes of A Native Son, in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 6.
One writes out of one thing only—one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder which is life that order which is art.
-- James Baldwin, "Autobiographical Notes," Notes of A Native Son, in James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 8.
Science and technology multiply around us. To an increasing extent they dictate the languages in which we speak and think. Either we use those languages, or we remain mute.
-- J. G. Ballard, quoted in Mark Dery, Escape Velocity (Grove Press, 1996)
When everyone dislikes something, it should be examined. When everyone likes something, it should be examined.
-- Confucius (Analects 15:28)
For he that dares hazard a pressing to death (thats to say, To be a man in print) must make account that he shall stand (like the old Wethercock over Powles Steeple) to be beaten with all stormes.
-- Thomas Dekker, "To the Reader," The Wonderfull yeare (1603)

The humor in Maine stories, like all insular humor, is understated, packed down by the tremendous compression exerted on people by the sea. In the mountains and on the plains, the tendency is for broad-gauged humor and tall tales; the land acts as a vacuum, and stories pour out of people to fill up the empty spaces. Which is why, when the Texas rancher tells the Maine farmer it takes five days to drive around his ranch, the Maine man says, "I got a car like that myself." These are the two great schools of ancient Greek humor -- the unbounded romantic and the tight, carefully formed classical. And the Greeks molded comedy on the human form: the comic hero falls and then rises, like a breath out and a breath in, like the contour of a smile. We have put all the old stories -- the music of them and the meaning -- too much out of our lives. We forget that instant gratification, a laugh every ten seconds, only breaks up a story. And once we have lost the thread of our own stories, then they spill out, under duress, on the couch. A story is what holds us together, and what is left when we leave. We've been broken up long enough.

-- Marshall Dodge, originator of the "Bert and I" records of Maine folk humor and author of The Proportions of Philosophy; quoted in The New Yorker, October 22, 1979, p. 33
To live outside the law you must be honest; I know you always say that you agree.
-- Bob Dylan, "Absolutely Sweet Marie"
The reward for a thing well done is to have done it.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson, "New England Reformers," Essays. First Series (1841)

. . . I'm used to writing for very different kinds of publications and I'm very aware that if I write for the Washington Post I'm going to write a certain way and if I write for Social Text: Journal of Marxism and Culture, I'm going to write another way and if I write for an art magazine, I have to write another way and I have to use certain kinds of language and I have to use a certain kind of approach, because if I don't, I will not find a place for the things I need to say in that space. It's very normal in a lot of Latin American countries -- probably because of constant economic crisis -- for people who teach in colleges and universities to also be journalists, and to also be cab drivers, frankly, and to be used to moving from one space to another. And this country is much more rigid about that. Academics live in university towns and talk to students and their colleagues and use a very specialized language, for the most part. That tends to distance them from the possibility of being public intellectuals. We don't have very many. . . . I'm saying maybe there are things that can be learned from other contexts, where people do have to move around and be ready to talk in a non-specialized language about complex ideas.

-- Artist/critic Coco Fusco, in dialogue with Eva Lopez, at EL ARCO IRIS Performing Arts School, St. Paul, MN, June 5, 1995. From a transcription published in Critical Angles, the newsletter of The Center for Arts Criticism, St. Paul, MN
I honor English majors. It's a dumb thing to major in. It leads nowhere. It's good to be dumb, it allows us to love something for no reason. That's the best kind of love.
-- Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life
(New York: Bantam Books, 1990), p. 140
Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.
-- Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs
(New York: St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1988), p. 320.

Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. . . .

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. . . .

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. . . . It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.

-- playwright, saxophonist, and former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel, from Disturbing the Peace (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).

Another instance of a flight from feeling surfaces in the tone of much professional criticism of films, plays, books, or music. Too often it seems to be a habit among such writers to appear to be above what they are considering -- as if letting themselves become involved in the work from within would somehow deprive them of the objectivity needed to criticize. They resist letting themselves become touched emotionally. Such a fear of feeling does a basic injustice to the work being considered because it prevents it from being experienced. The result is that the critic focuses on technique and tangential matters that are more manageable. Such critics suffer from spiritual anemia; they do not possess what every genuine critic must have -- largeness of soul.

-- Samuel Hazo, "Fear of Feeling," Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 1996
The competition is idiots. Keep it under your hat.
-- Ben Hecht, quoted by Jimmy Breslin in "A Hard Schooling," The Nation (July 5, 1999)
I've always believed you don't truly know something yourself until you can take it from your mind and put it in someone else's.
-- Milt Hinton, Bass Line (: Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988)
. . . I'm always given credit [by critics] for more than I know. I believe that when you hook into a certain idea you are going to pick up things in the air that adhere to that idea. I think if you're a good artist that happens, in all the arts you tune in to some main line that's moving through the air and some things branch off from it and attach on to it and you wind up with all kinds of references that will fit into systems that you know nothing of.

I value very much these ideas that can't be explained and that enter the individual, and I don't think that collectively we have made friends with our heads yet. I think we really need to. I think every writer needs something to keep him going. I mean, in my case, it's certainly not making me rich or getting me multimillion-dollar film deals. I keep going because I really feel that all the ideas and words and special effects that are in the air want us to be the organs of perception that perceive them. It wants to be done. It's my religion. I'm a religious writer.

-- Russell Hoban (Turtle Diary, Riddley Walker), from "Blighter's Rock: excerpts from a talk at San Diego State University," transcribed and edited by Alida Allison, published in Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 1992

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