Quotations about   writing

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The importance to the writer of first writing must be out of all proportion of the actual value of what is written.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) Irish author
Encounters, Preface to the 1951 Edition (1923)
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Added on 27-Jul-20 | Last updated 27-Jul-20
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An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they chose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

William Faulkner (1897-1962) American novelist
“The Art of Fiction,” Interview by Jean Stein, Paris Review #12 (Spring 1956)
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In relation to his public, the artist of to-day […] walks at first with his companions, till one day he falls through a hole in the brambles, and from that moment is following the dark rapids of an underground river which may sometimes flow so near the surface that the laughing picnic parties are heard above, only to re-immerse itself in the solitude of the limestone and carry him along its winding tunnel, until it gushes out through the misty creeper-hung cave which he has always believed to exist, and sets him back in the sun.

Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) English intellectual, literary critic and writer.
“Writers and Society, 1940-3” (1943), The Condemned Playground (1946)
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But the point is that this is a political age. A writer inevitably writes — and less directly this applies to all the arts — about contemporary events, and his impulse is to tell what he believes to be the truth. But no government, no big organization, will pay for the truth. To take a crude example: can you imagine the British Government commissioning E. M. Forster to write A Passage to India? He could only write it because he was not dependent on State aid.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English writer [pseud. of Eric Arthur Blair]
“As I Please” column, Tribune (13 Oct 1944)
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If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) Irish author
“Truth and Fiction,” BBC Radio (Oct 1956)
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The influence exercised over the human mind by apt analogies is and has always been immense. Whether they translate an established truth into simple language or whether they adventurously aspire to reveal the unknown, they are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) British statesman and author
“The Scaffolding of Rhetoric” (Nov 1897)
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Commonly abridged, "Apt analogies are among the most formidable weapons of the rhetorician."
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To return to the matter of the persona, I repeat that one cannot wholly eliminate oneself for a second, and also sufficient, reason: any fiction (and surely poetry too?) is bound to be transposed autobiography. (True, it may be this at so many removes as to defeat recognition.) I can, and indeed if i would not I still must, relate any and every story I have written to something that happened to me in my own life. But here I am speaking of happenings in a broad sense — to behold and react, is where I am concerned a happening; speculations, unaccountable stirs of interest, longings, attractions, apprehensions without knowable cause — these are happenings, also.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) Irish author
Stories by Elizabeth Bowen, Preface (1959)
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All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.

As commentary on the above, we add, that when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is the other fellow’s doxy.

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) American writer, journalist, activist, politician
Mammonart, ch. 2 “Who Owns the Artists?” (1925)
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Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money.

Ferenc Molnár (1878-1952) Hungarian-American author, stage director, dramatist [a.k.a. Franz Molnar]
Quoted in George Jean Nathan, Intimate Notebooks (1932)
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Common form of a quote often misattributed to Molière. It original version actually appears to have originated with Molnar, who, when asked how he regarded his writing, answered, "Like a whore. First, I did it for my own pleasure. Then I did it for the pleasure of my friends. And now -- I do it for money."

More discussion here.
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If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) American writer
“Book Reviews,” Esquire (1 Nov 1959)
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Review of William Strunk Jr and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, revised edition.
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If the artist does not throw himself into his work as Curtius sprang into the gulf, as a soldier leads a forlorn hope without a moment’s thought, and if when he is in the crater he does not dig as a miner does when the earth has fallen in on him; if he contemplates the difficulties before him instead of conquering them one by one, like the lovers in fairy tales, who to win their princesses overcome ever-new enchantments, the work remains incomplete; it perishes in the studio where creativeness becomes impossible, and the artist looks on the suicide of his own talent.

[Si l’artiste ne se précipite pas dans son oeuvre, comme Curtius dans le gouffre, comme le soldat dans la redoute, sans réfléchir; et si, sans ce cratère, il ne travaille pas comme le mineur enfoui sous un éboulement: s’il contemple enfin les difficultés au lieu de las vaincre une à une, à l’example de ces amoureux des féeries, qui pour obtenir leurs princesses, combattaient des enchantements renaissants, l’oeuvre reste inachevée, elle périt au fond de l’atelier où la production devient impossible, et l’artiste assiste au suicide de son talent.]

Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) French novelist, playwright
Cousin Betty [La Cousine Bette] (1846) [tr. Waring (1899)]
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Curtius is the young Roman patrician, Marcus Curtius. In 362 BC, a chasm opened up in Rome's forum, and soothsayers proclaimed it could only be filled by Rome's greatest treasure. Curtius mounted his horse and leapt into the chasm, which then closed over him.

Alt. trans.:
  • "If the artist does not throw himself into his work, like Curtius into the gulf beneath the Forum, like a soldier against a fortress, without hesitation, and if, in that crater, he does not work like a miner under a fall of rock, if, in short, he envisages the difficulties instead of conquering them one-by-one, following the examples of lovers in fairy-tales who, to win their princesses, struggle against recurring enchantments, the work remains unfinished, it expires in the studio, wher production remains impossible and the artist looks on at the suicide of his own talent." [tr. Raphael (1992)]
  • "If the artist does not fling himself, without reflecting, into his work, as Curtius flung himself into the yawning gulf, as the soldier flings himself into the enemy's trenches, and if, once in this crater, he does not work like a miner on whom the walls of his gallery have fallen in; if he contemplates difficulties instead of overcoming them one by one ... he is simply looking on at the suicide of his own talent." [Source]
  • Original French.
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An artist’s job is to make order out of chaos. You collect details, look for a pattern, and organize. You make sense out of senseless facts. You puzzle together bits of everything. You shuffle and reorganize. Collage. Montage. Assemble.

Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) American novelist and freelance journalist
Diary (2003)
Added on 27-May-20 | Last updated 27-May-20
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Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal VA, p. 154 (Jul-Aug 1862)
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PHILINTE: A gentleman may be respected still,
Whether he writes a sonnet well or ill.
That I dislike his verse should not offend him;
In all that touches honor, I commend him;
He’s noble, brave, and virtuous — but I fear
He can’t in truth be called a sonneteer.”

On peut être honnête homme, et faire mal des vers,
Ce n’est point à l’honneur que touchent ces matières,
Je le tiens galant homme en toutes les manières,
Homme de qualité, de mérite et de cœur,
Tout ce qu’il vous plaira, mais fort méchant auteur.

Molière (1622-1673) French playwright, actor [stage name for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
Le Misanthrope, Act 4, sc. 1, ll. 1144-48 (1666) [tr. Wilbur (1954)]
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Alt. trans.:
  • "A man can be a gentleman and make bad verses. Such matters do not touch his honor, and I hold him to be a gallant man in every other way; a man of quality, of courage, deserving of anything you please, but -- a bad writer." [tr. Wormeley (1894)]
  • "A man may be / A perfect gentleman, and write poor verse. / These matters do not raise the point of honor. / I hold him a true man in all respects, / Brave, worthy, noble, anything you will, / But still, a wretched writer." [tr. Page (1913)]
  • "Anyone may be an honorable man, and yet write verse badly." [Bartlett]
Added on 15-May-20 | Last updated 15-May-20
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Good authors, too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes!

Cole Porter (1891-1964) American composer and songwriter
“Anything Goes” (1934)
Added on 30-Apr-20 | Last updated 30-Apr-20
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business business business
grind grind grind
what a life for a man
that might have been a poet

Don Marquis (1878-1937) American journalist and humorist
“pete the parrot and shakespeare,” archy and mehtabel (1927)
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As a carpenter can make a gibbet as well as an altar, a writer can describe the world as trivial or exquisite, as material or as idea, as senseless or as purposeful. Words are wood.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) American poet
“Sand Dabs, Six,” Winter Hours (1999)
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You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes. But to tell the truth the world
doesn’t need any more of that sound.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) American poet
“The Poet With His Face in His Hands,” New Yorker (4 Apr 2005)
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Collected in New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2 (2005), and The Best American Poetry, 2006.
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I always make the first Verse well, but I’m perplex’d about the rest.

[Je fais toujours bien le premier vers: mais j’ai peine à faire les autres.]

Molière (1622-1673) French playwright, actor [stage name for Jean-Baptiste Poquelin]
The Romantick Ladies [Les Précieuses Ridicules], Act 1, sc. 11 (1659)
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Alt. trans.: "I always make the first verse well, but I have trouble making the others."
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Every word is a messenger. Some have wings; some are filled with fire; some are filled with death.

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) American poet
“Sand Dabs, Six,” Winter Hours (1999)
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I hate writing. I love having written.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) American writer
(Attributed)
Added on 16-Mar-20 | Last updated 16-Mar-20
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In art as in lovemaking, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.

John Barth (b. 1930) American writer
Quoted in Charles B. Harris, Passionate Virtuosity: The Fiction of John Barth (1983)
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Quoted as such in the introductory materials, without specific citation. Barth used the phrase on multiple occasions, including:
  • "My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in love-making. That is to say, on the one hand, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and, on the other hand, so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity." [first used, in Alan Prince, "An Interview with John Barth," Prism (Spring 1968)]
  • "Heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal, Dunyazade; so does heartless skill. But what you want is passionate virtuosity." [Barth, Chimera (1972)]
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Home is in every sentence of your writing.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.

Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) French-Swiss film director, screenwriter, critic
(Attributed)
Added on 11-Mar-20 | Last updated 11-Mar-20
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It isn’t easy for an author to remain a pleasant human being: both success and failure are usually of a crippling kind.

Graham Greene (1904-1991) English novelist [Henry Graham Greene]
“The Poker-Face,” The Spectator (15 Oct 1943)
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Reprinted in The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (1951).
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I have found that a story leaves a deeper impression when it is impossible to tell which side the author is on.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) Russian novelist and moral philosopher
Letter

Writing to a friend about Anna Karenina, and how he had rewritten a conversation (Part 4, ch. 1) between Levin and the priest four times, to hide which one he favored.
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Art is an adventure. When it ceases to be an adventure, it ceases to be art.

Robert Ardrey (1908-1980) American playwright, screenwriter and science writer
The Hunting Hypothesis: A Personal Conclusion Concerning the Evolutionary Nature of Man (1976)
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In art as in politics we must deal with people as they are, not as we wish them to be. Only by working with the real can you get closer to the ideal.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
In Her Day, Preface, “A Note to the Feminist Reader” (1976)
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True art selects and paraphrases, but seldom gives a verbatim translation.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836-1907) American writer, poet, critic, editor
“Leaves From a Notebook,” Ponkapog Papers (1903)
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Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the number of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
The Consolations of Philosophy, ch. 4 “Consolation for Inadequacy” (2000)
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An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) French writer, novelist
Letter to Louise Colet (9 Dec 1852)
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A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual, Part 4 (1988)
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The art object is always passive in relation to its audience. It is alarmingly active, however, in relation to its creator. Far from being like a receptacle in which you, the artist, drop your ideas, and far from being like a lump of clay which you pummel until it fits your notion of an ashtray, the art object is more like an enthusiastic and ill-trained Labrador retriever which yanks you into traffic.

Annie Dillard (b. 1945) American author
Living by Fiction (1983)
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Often paraphrased, "Art is like an ill-trained Labrador retriever that drags you out into traffic."
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I think the author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children.

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) English politician and author
Speech, Banquet to Lord Rector, University of Glasgow (19 Nov 1870)
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The dramatic art is particularly satisfying for any writer with a polemical bent; and I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) American novelist, dramatist, critic
Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays, Preface (1956)
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I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) American novelist, playwright, screenwriter
“Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy,” interview with John Jurgensen, The Wall Street Journal (20 Nov 2009)
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H.G. Wells said that history was a race between education and catastrophe, and it may be that the writer will add just sufficient impetus to education to enable it to outrace catastrophe. And if education wins by even the narrowest of margins, how much more can we ask for?

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
“Your Future As A Writer,” Writer’s Digest (May 1986)
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See referenced quotation by Wells.
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Novels aren’t written, they’re rewritten. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.

Michael Crichton (1942-2008) American author, producer, director, and screenwriter
(Attributed)

Crichton was quoted a number of times on the adage, which he in turn claimed was in more general use. However, he seems to have been key in popularizing it. See here for more discussion and specific citations.
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An author is like a horse pulling a coal-cart down an icy hill; he ought to stop, but when he reflects that it would probably kill him to try, he goes right on, neighing and rolling his eyes.

Robertson Davies (1913-1995) Canadian author, editor, publisher
The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies (1990)
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If you only write when inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you’ll never be a novelist.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British fabulist
(Attributed)
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The author is like the host at a party. It is his party, but he must not enjoy himself so much that he neglects his guests. His enjoyment is not so much his own as it is theirs.

Charles P. Curtis (1891-1959) American attorney, legal scholar, author [Charles Pelham Curtis, Jr.]
A Commonplace Book (1957)
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To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement, this book would have been finished in half the time.

P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) Anglo-American humorist, playwright and lyricist [Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
A Gentleman of Leisure, Dedication (1910)
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I’ve learned to write in the first-person singular while remembering always that my writing must speak to the first-person plural.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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I really love language; it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies, of our existence. Most of all, it allows us to laugh. We need language.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 3 “The Work,” “The Passive Voice, or The Secret Agent” (1989)
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I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’’re telling the truth about the human being — what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) American poet, memoirist, activist [b. Marguerite Ann Johnson]
“The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, #116, Interview with George Plimpton (1990)
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Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
— By Order of the Author

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “Notice” (1884)
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Remember, too, that you have the right to make mistakes. Exercise it. Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 4 (1988)
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Colors fade, temples crumble, empires fall, but wise words endure.

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) American psychologist, educator
(Attributed)
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Man is a talking animal and he will always let himself be swayed by the power of the word.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) French author, existentialist philosopher, feminist theorist
Les Belles Images (1966)
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I’m convinced if I keep going one day I will write something decent. On very bad days I will observe that I must have written good things in the past, which means that I’ve lost it. But normally I just assume that I don’t have it. The gulf between the thing I set out to make in my head and the sad, lumpy thing that emerges into reality is huge and distant and I just wish that I could get them closer.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British fabulist
“This Much I Know,” The Guardian (5 Aug 2017)
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Added on 2-Oct-17 | Last updated 2-Oct-17
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There’s nothing like studying the bestseller lists of bygone years for teaching an author humility. You’ve heard of the ones that got filmed, normally. Mostly you realize that today’s bestsellers are tomorrow’s forgotten things.

Neil Gaiman (b. 1960) British fabulist
“This Much I Know,” The Guardian (5 Aug 2017)
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Added on 28-Aug-17 | Last updated 28-Aug-17
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My poems are naughty, but my life is pure.

[Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 1, poem 4, l. 8
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Alt. trans.: "Wanton is my page; my life is good." [tr. Ker (1919)]

Alt. trans.: "My page indulges in freedoms, but my life is pure." [tr. Bohn (1859)]
Added on 2-Aug-17 | Last updated 2-Aug-17
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All books are either dreams or swords,
You can cut, or you can drug, with words.

Amy Lowell (1874-1925) American poet
“Sword Blades and Poppy Seed,” l. 291 (1914)
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Added on 6-Jul-17 | Last updated 6-Jul-17
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Why do I write? I guess that’s been asked of every writer. I don’t know. It isn’t any massive compulsion. I don’t feel, you know, God dictated that I should write. You know, thunder rends the sky and a bony finger comes down from the clouds and says, “You. You write. You’re the anointed.” I never felt that. I suppose it’s part compulsion, part a channel for what your brain is churning up.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
“Rod Serling: The Facts of Life,” Interview with Linda Brevelle (4 Mar 1975)
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Added on 3-Jul-17 | Last updated 3-Jul-17
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