Writers’ Brains Picked
So if you don't already know Maria Popova's “Brain Pickings” I'm not going to put you in the picture too much except to say • it's got 1.2 million readers; • it's really good; and • I never have time to read it. Okay, she's also really strong and focused on writing and the writing life (though I might suggest her main focus is on life, and what literature teaches us about how to live it).
And she recently published an anthology of virtually everything she's ever written and collected on writing (“Timeless Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers”), 116 entries, and I couldn't make myself not spend a little time on it; plus copy out the most priceless bits. As usual, I'm publishing this mainly as instruction/reminders to myself stuff I personally need most. But if you also get some value out of it and you know who you are then fantastic.
- Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
- Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
- Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
See friends. Read in cafés.
Cut the movies!
Annie DillardA schedule is a mock-up of reason and order willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.
Fitzgerald“Nothing any good isn’t hard.”
- There was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.
- To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play…
- I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.
- I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more.
- Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop… A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.
- Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative… To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.
- But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.
- The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled.
de BeauvoirI’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day.
HemingwayI write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.
- I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours.
- A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary.
MurakamiI get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.
GibsonAs I move through the book it becomes more demanding… At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day… What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.
AngelouThat’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.
- In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves.
- Work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home.
- I do pushups and sit-ups all the time.
- Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right.
Ann Patchett“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life.”
- Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be sitting there. I was that young fifteen minutes ago, I was that beautiful and lost.
- The journey from the head to hand is perilous and lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write — and many of the people who do write — get lost…
- Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?
- Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft.
- Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well, yes, but I got better by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art.
- I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
Gaiman“Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.)
BukowskiI try to stay in bed until twelve o’clock, that’s noon. Usually, if I have to get up earlier, I don’t feel good all day.
Faulkner“The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.”
- The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said.
- Ninety-nine percent talent… ninety-nine percent discipline… ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose 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.
- The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind
- I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
Wallace“You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness … has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me.”
Zadie Smith“Who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”
- Not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying.
- It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.
Mark StrandI think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. I mean, we are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. We’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness.
Cheryl Strayed“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”
- It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.
WoolfHe wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; now cried; now laughed; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.
Amanda PalmerThe happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums — but more isn’t always better. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community.
Grace Paley“Luckily for art, life is difficult, hard to understand, useless, and mysterious.”
Willa Cather“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase or the stock exchange.”
James Baldwin“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
- If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.
- The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.
- You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get.
Trollope“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
- Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done.
- The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.
- Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.