And I Quote

August 12, 2006
Category: Uncategorized

Writing is a solitary act. We all know that. But how many of us know that we can fill the emptiness with the voices of other writers.

That’s because, fortunately, writing, like all creative endeavors, is an attributive art. It has a long tradition of taking advantage of the way that great writers inspire, not only with their stories, but the lessons of art and craft learned along the way.

Attached is a a collection about 50 quotations from writers and thinkers of every stripe: journalists, novelists, poets, philosophers. There’s a life’s worth of inspiration, the beginning of a quote collection or new voices to add to your own.

I got a sunburn last spring. In Florida that’s a fate usually reserved for people from Ontario. I got mine by sitting at a table at a local festival trying to sell copies of “The Holly Wreath Man,” a serial novel my wife, Kathy Fair, and I wrote in 2003.

We sat under the broiling sun until we decided to leave with an unbroken record: no sales in 3.6 hours.

We were burned up and bummed out. We consoled ourselves that a Christmas novel, however timeless, would be a hard sell in March.

Driving away, I remembered that there was another one of these festivals coming up that we’d been invited to. No way, I told Kathy. Then I remembered a sentiment about failure expressed by two people you normally wouldn’t lump in the same sentence: Samuel Beckett, the existential playwright, and Michael Jordan.

Here’s what Jordan, “the greatest basketball player of all time,” according to the NBA Web site, had to say on the subject of what Kathy and I experienced:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life — and that is why I succeed.

Now listen to Beckett the writer. “Ever tried?” Beckett asked. “Ever failed. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Next time we have a similar opportunity, Kathy and I will be there. And we’ll bring sunblock.

Quotations like those are touchstones for writers.

Some are nuggets of observation, like novelist Bernard Malamud‘s attitude toward revision: “I love the flowers of afterthought.”

Some are unforgettable metaphors. About revision, comic novelist Peter DeVries said, “When I see a paragraph shrinking under my eyes like a strip of bacon in a skillet, I know I’m on the right track.”

Others represent painful truths, such as this comment from French poet Paul Valéry: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” That holds true when a writer doesn’t want to let go, whether it’s in reference to a sonnet or a city council story.

Then there’s Wall Street Journal publisher Barney Kilgore’s advice to a fledgling editor: “Remember: The easiest thing for the reader is to quit reading.”

In the same way that gemologists rub gold or silver against hard black stones like jasper to test the quality of precious metals, writers’ words give us standards, benchmarks, to gauge our mettle in the face of difficulty, rejection, impatience, failure, success and the many other ways a life with words challenges the human spirit.

Why haven’t I finished yet? Why does it always take me so long? What’s wrong with me? I must be stupid or lazy. Maybe I just don’t have any talent.

Sound familiar?

When a writer friend talked that way to me the other day, it was like looking into a mirror. How many times has the same hyper-critical loop played in my head as I looked at an unfinished piece of writing? If I could only change one thing about myself it would be my impatience. I need to be more like mystery writer Sue Grafton

“Writing is a craft that takes many years to develop,” she says. “The publishing world is full of talented, hardworking writers who’ve struggled for years to learn the necessary skills. I counsel any writer to focus on the job at hand — learning to write well — trusting that when the time comes, the Universe will step in and make the rest possible. Writing isn’t about the destination — writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.”

Ever had one of those days when all you can hear as you write is this loop: “You suck. You should have gone to law school”?

On those days, I prescribe tough love, first from Maxwell Perkins, legendary editor of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Marjorie Rawlings. “If you are not discouraged about your writing on a regular basis, you may not be trying hard enough. Any challenging pursuit will encounter frequent patches of frustration. Writing is nothing if not challenging.”

Of more recent vintage is a similar quote from New Yorker critic Anthony Lane:

There is a myth at large in the general population, easily quashable yet somehow allowed to persist, that writing comes smoothly, like gas from a pump, or at least unbidden, like tears. This is bull. No decent prose is ever dashed off, especially that which appears to be effortlessly dashing. Just as Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks had to rehearse their leaps and pratfalls, so grace on the page has to be earned with infinite sweat.

Call me a masochist, but I feel better about sucking when I consider what these outstanding literary minds have to say about the process. Maybe it’s their humility in the face of writing’s challenges.

For those days when the words come at all, this set of instructions from Pulitzer prize-winner Richard Rhodes is close by, in a picture frame on my desk. And I quote: 

If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing 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 the connection leads.

Okay, Mr. Rhodes, but what about the days when our cups runneth over, when we have too much information, a beer keg’s worth and my charge, as a Wall Street Journal editor was fond of advising reporters, is to distill it so it can fit in a perfume bottle.

Reporters always gather more information than they need. By the time we’ve finished a 15-inch story or a 60-second broadcast package, we may have interviewed a dozen people, read through sheaves of reports, press releases and statements, pored over a stack of clips. And then, of course, we agonize about it. “I don’t know what to cut. It’s all great stuff,” we moan when our editor says, “Keep it short,” or the desk sends word to “trim by a third.”

At times like this, another literary giant, Ernest Hemingway, comes to mind. And I quote:

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

I vividly remember my reaction the first time I read this famous quote by Ernest Hemingway.


I didn’t get it. You can leave things out and the reader will still get them? It made no sense.

Belatedly I found out there was a line missing from the quote: “The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Ohhh, I get it now, Ernie. 
That’s why when the lookouts on the Titanic sounded the alarm, “Iceberg right ahead,” on April 14, 1912, what they feared was not the jagged tops of ice that broke the surface of the North Atlantic but the mountain beneath. That’s because only about one-eighth of an iceberg floats above the water.

The same principle holds in writing. What makes a story powerful is all the work — the process of reporting and writing — that lies beneath. It isn’t wasted effort, as many of us fear, but instead constitutes the essential ingredient that gives writing its greatest strengths.

Too often, we sink our stories with information we can’t bear to part with, even if it’s not relevant. (“But I spent two hours interviewing the Assistant Under Secretary of State for Non-Essential Information,” we wail. “It took me six months to FOIA that report.” “I need twelve paragraphs to describe that room. Balzac took that many!”)

What the reader should see is the glistening tip of a mass of information that never breaks the surface, but which allows the writer to select the material that is most telling.

The power of a story comes from what’s not in it.

I’m often guided by such paradoxes. When I’m blocked, I keep in mind the late William Stafford, Oregon‘s (and the United States‘) former poet laureate:

I believe that the so-called “writing block” is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance… One should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It’s easy to write. You just shouldn’t have standards that inhibit you from writing… I can imagine a person beginning to feel he’s not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that’s surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I’m meeting right now… You should be more willing to forgive  yourself. It doesn’t make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you’ve done it.

In the last 10 years, Stafford’s “lower your standards” approach has transformed my writing life, making it possible for me to achieve more of my writing dreams. It’s the fastest and most reliable cure I know for this perennial disorder. Whenever I’m blocked, (like right now, when I’m convinced this answer has gone on for too long, isn’t responding to the question, is boring, unfocused — in short, that it sucks) I lower my standards.

Correction: I do my best to not have any standards at all. I abandon my standards. I take comfort from  Cynthia Gorney, who wrote for The Washington Post, and now juggles teaching journalism at the University of California, Berkeley with writing brilliant pieces for The New Yorker.

And I quote: “The way I start writing is always the same. I sit down at my typewriter and start typing. I start to babble, sometimes starting in the middle of the story and usually fairly quickly I see how it’s going to start. It just starts shaping itself.”

So emboldened, I urge myself to write badly and once I do that my fingers begin to fly, and the inner critic is powerless.

Call it freewriting, or stream of consciousness, or whatever name sounds best, but it’s the act of creating.

But creating is just half the process.

Critical thinking — asking tough questions of our stories — is the other.   

“Thinking,” as David Maraniss, best-selling author and Washington Post writer and editor, put it, “is the great unappreciated and understated part” of being a journalist.

His colleague, sportswriter Thomas Boswell, builds on that thought:

It’s one thing to be given a topic, but you have to find the idea or the concept within that topic. Once you find that idea or thread, all the other anecdotes, illustrations, and quotes are pearls that hang on this thread. The thread may seem very humble, the pearls may seem very flashy, but it’s still the thread that makes the necklace.   

And in a kind of literary Tinkers to Evers to Chance triple play, yet another Post writer, David Von Drehle, gives us four questions about any story we’re working on that help us detect that thread.

  1. And why does it matter?
  2. What’s the point?
  3. Why is this story being told?
  4. What does it say about life, about the world, about the times we live in?

“Newspaper writing, especially on deadline,” Von Drehle concluded, “is so hectic and complicated — the fact-gathering, the phrase-finding, the inconvenience, the pressure — that it’s easy to forget the basics of storytelling. Namely, what happened, and why does it matter?”

But why can’t we just sit and wait for the muse, to light on our shoulder and whisper words of genius in our ears so that writing is just a matter of dictation?

For years, decades perhaps, that mindset kept me deluded. That’s why I have a set of quotes that remind me of a quality of writing I’d rather ignore.

I need to hear that from several sources for it to stick. I summon sportswriter Sally Jenkins. And I quote:

I’m continually, constantly, everlastingly, refreshingly surprised by how hard writing is. It’s like a case of amnesia — between stories I forget how awful it was. But I remember again as soon as I sit down in front of the computer. I’m also surprised by how much writers fumble around in the dark, just hoping for a blast of fortunate inspiration. And I’m surprised by what a minor factor inspiration is in the overall process. It helps. But frankly it’s the glazed donut of thinking. Writing is breaking rocks with a shovel. It takes a certain kind of strength.

If I’m still not convinced, I call on Stephen King.

Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.

Words of wisdom are often called “pearls.” Think instead of them as acorns. Start collecting them. Plant them, water them, cultivate them. They can make your writing life a towering success.

Who helps you get the writing done? Help add to this collection of writing quotes that inspire, encourage, console, and provide companionship. 

Adapted from a speech delivered on March 19, 2006, at the National Writers Workshop in Portland, Ore.