The Appeal to Authority

Here’s some of my favorite advice from writers about writing:

“Somehow I had come up with the notion that one’s personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite…the fiction…that moved and pleased me then as now was precisely that which had been made luminous, undeniably authentic by having been found and taken up, always at a cost, from deeper, more shared levels of the life we all really live.”

-Thomas Pynchon

“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of the personality.”

-T.S. Eliot

“…the mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent, like Shakespeare’s mind…There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.  For though we say that we know nothing about Shakespeare’s state of mind, even as we say that, we are saying something about Shakespeare’s state of mind. The reason perhaps why we know so little of Shakespeare — compared with Donne or Ben Jonson or Milton — is that his grudges and spites and antipathies are hidden from us. We are not held up by some ‘revelation’ which reminds us of the writer. All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare. If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded…it was Shakespeare’s mind.”

-Virginia Woolf

“Put down exactly what you feel and mean!  Say it as briefly as possible and avoid all sham of ornament.  Learn what technical excellence you can from a direct study of the masters, and pay no attention to the suggestions of anyone who has not himself produced notable work in poetry.  Think occasionally…what such or such a master would think if he heard your verses.”

-Ezra Pound

“Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining the attention.  That book is good in vain which the reader throws away.  He only is master who keeps the mind in pleasing captivity; whose pages are perused with eagerness, and in hope of new pleasure are perused again; and whose conclusion is perceived with an eye of sorrow, such as the traveler casts upon departing day.”

-Samuel Johnson

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”

-Samuel Johnson

“The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest; but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.”

-Samuel Johnson

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,/As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

-Alexander Pope

“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have.  Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art.”

-Henry James

“A line will take us hours maybe/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

-W.B. Yeats

“I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

-Ernest Hemingway

“…a book is the product of a deeper self than the one we display in our habits, in society, in our vices.  If we want to understand that self, it is only in our innermost being and through the effort of recreating it that we can hope to do so.  Nothing can dispense us from this effort of our heart.”

-Marcel Proust

“Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear.  He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit.  He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength.  But Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities: no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately.  He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Is there at last in [the writer’s] breast a Delphi whereof to ask concerning any thought or thing, whether it be verily so, yea or nay? and to have answer, and to rely on that? All the debts which such a man could contract to other wit would never disturb his consciousness of originality; for the ministrations of books and of other minds are a whiff of smoke to that most private reality with which he has conversed.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

“My characters are galley slaves.”

-Vladimir Nabokov

“…we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

-Franz Kafka

“The less one feels a thing, the better one is able to express it.”

-Gustave Flaubert

Finally, the only guideline any writer should abide by:

“Love, and do what you will.”

-Saint Augustine

4 comments for “The Appeal to Authority

  1. DesertElf
    July 5, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    I agree with the sentiment of this post. All writers write, because they desire to. Some simply for the joy that the creation of those words bring, and some because it is a need that drives them to madness. Others may still write for money, or fame, or to have a piece of themselves for future generations. But at the end of the day, and into “silent hour of night,” we write for our own reasons.

    The process, the passion, and the overall achievements are varied. Allow yourself to be who you are. Whatever your inspiration, whatever your goal, write what you want, or think you want (as they are both really the same thing.) But in the end, write for yourself.

    P.S. A quote that I have always liked comes from the Steven Brust school of writing “And now I am going to tell you something really cool.”

    • Ian
      July 6, 2014 at 11:15 am

      Very well put. And I like that quote. Thank you for commenting.

  2. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    June 15, 2014 at 12:30 am

    I’ve always loved Ranier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

    “You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.

    This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

    Rilke was very insightful about his writing process, and it was something that worked well for him, but I think the writing process is unique enough to individuals as far as what works best that no one can say what works best for everyone, only for themselves. Testing out what other writers have found works for them can lead to finding things that work for you… or things that kill your creativity and passion.

    • Ian
      June 15, 2014 at 1:08 pm

      That’s beautiful. I hadn’t seen that before. Thanks for posting it.

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