Wise Words: Quotes to Help the Writer

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

For me, one of the hardest parts of the writing life is the fact that one does it on one’s own. I can discuss plot with friends or family: I can meet fellow writers and share thoughts on characters or dialogue or structure. But neither lessens the fact that the actual writing of a book – the setting down of words – is a solitary act: just me, my computer and a pot of tea.

Mostly, I don’t mind it. I enjoy solitude – in fact, I need it to think clearly. Also, there are times (as with my most recent novel, The Night in Question) when a protagonist is so formed and alive that you feel they’re in the room with you, cheering you on. But there are, invariably, times when the writing life feels lonesome – and when finishing a novel feels, suddenly, like an impossible task. Self-doubt is never far away. The dreaded words writer’s block whisper themselves from dark corners. And, in those moments, the writer can feel foolish, unnerved – and alone.

However, over the past twenty years in which I’ve been writing, I’ve found a trick that helps: I collect quotes. In a little brown notebook, no larger than a playing card, I keep quotes from other writers which advise on certain writerly problems, rejuvenate my tired heart – and which remind me of all the beauty and magic of the written word. Writers? We’re all in it together: we all understand the long, quiet hours, the tangled brain, the despair that comes when the writing isn’t working. I read these quotes to remind myself that I am not, in fact, alone, that so many others have felt as I do; and, having read them, I will breathe deeply, refreshen my teapot – and try again.

Below are six of my favourite quotes. They have helped, in various ways, to improve my writing – and to reignite my wish to keep doing it. I hope they might help you, too, on your own difficult days.

‘Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell me about it.’ Mary Oliver. 

Oliver meant for these three commands to be instructions for living well. But I think they work beautifully as advice to writers: we must pay attention. It is the small, extraordinary, overlooked details that illuminate a scene or bring a character to life. This quote reminds me to avoid cliché, to be honest in my descriptions. And I love, too, the gentle instruction to ‘be astonished’: retaining one’s astonishment at life brings such energy to prose. (As a reader, I can feel who the astonished writers are.)

Write hard and clear about what hurts.’ Ernest Hemingway

I had this quote on a Post-It note by my computer for years. It’s the simplicity of it that I love; Hemingway’s stark command reminds me of what I both read and write for – which is to feel a deep human connection. (Hemingway is implying, I think, that we must say to the reader, Your pain? I’ve felt it, too.) Also, the tautness of those seven words reminds me of the need to edit, edit, edit …

Be kind: everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ Attributed to Plato

This is, for me, the lifeblood of characterisation: I ask myself, always, What does this person want? How are they hurting? What frightens them? If I sense a character isn’t working, or I can’t feel them, it is nearly always because I haven’t nailed down what their personal battle is. This quote reminds me to do that. Seeking out the weakness in a character is what, in essence, strengthens them on the page. 

‘We write to taste life twice – in the moment and in retrospect.’ Anais Nin

My writing life began when I was eleven: I tried to describe – in pink felt-tipped pen – the Welsh farmland that I’d just visited in the hope that, by doing so, I might carry it home with me. Nin’s quote reminds me of the alchemy of words: good writing can capture a moment, place or person so that we may keep them forever. (That Welsh farmland found its way into my first novel, Eve Green – and, by reading it, I can still feel like I am walking there.)

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books