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Writers' Thoughts on Writing

Are you inspired to write or looking for inspiration? Do you need ideas on how to be a writer? No doubt you will find that there are as many pieces of advice on writing as there are writers to give it.

Ohio Reading Road Trip contacted many Ohio authors for their best advice for would-be writers, and to find out what inspires them to write. ORRT also searched online to supplement this material. Read through their ideas and … write!

Arnold Adoff

"I began writing for kids because I wanted to effect a change in American society. I continue in that spirit. By the time we reach adulthood, we are closed and set in our attitudes. The chances of a poet reaching us are very slim. But I can open a child's imagination, develop his appetite for poetry, and more importantly, show him that poetry is a natural part of everyday life. We all need someone to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. That's the poet's job."

"Writing a poem is making music with words and space."

"A fine poem combines the elements of meaning, music, and a form like a living frame that holds it together."

Quotes from the Washington Library Association

Commenting on his poetry, he has said, "I will always try to turn sights and sounds into words. I will always try to shape words into my singing poems."

Quote courtesy of the Virginia Hamilton Conference, Kent State University

Sherwood Anderson

"You carry a little pad of paper in your pocket, don't you? I knew you did. Well, you set this down. I thought of it the other day. Let's take decay. Now what is decay? It's fire. It burns up wood and other things. You never thought of that? Of course not. This sidewalk here and this feed store, the trees down the street there--they're all on fire. They're burning up. Decay you see is always going on. It doesn't stop. Water and paint can't stop it. If a thing is iron, then what? It rusts, you see. That's fire, too. The world is on fire. Start your pieces in the paper that way. Just say in big letters 'The World Is On Fire.' That will make 'em look up."

From Winesburg, Ohio

Thomas Berger

"The one art to which I was at all exposed as a child was music; my mother played the piano some and did some amateur singing. And my home town, Cincinnati, is known as a provincial music center, with a symphony orchestra, two colleges of music, and a summer opera season. World-renowned soloists visited the city every year. It was therefore predictable that I should be utterly unmusical."

Compedit 30 Aug 1973 from OBSERVATIONS FROM A CORRESPONDENCE: FROM THOMAS BERGER'S LETTERS by Zulfikar Ghose
Studies in American Humor Volume 2 [New Series], Number 1: Spring 1983

Hart Crane wrote extensively to a number of different people on his art and craft. Passages from his writings are at webdesk.com

Rita Dove

"I never think of my audience when I write a poem. I try to write out of whatever is haunting me; in order for a poem to feel authentic, I have to feel I'm treading on very dangerous ground, which can mean that the resulting revelations may prove hurtful to other people. The time for thinking about that kind of guilt or any collective sense of responsibility, however, occurs much later in the creative process, after the poem is finished."

"The storytellers from my childhood basically told stories about other people - eccentrics in the family, neighborhood. What made these stories effective, and what qualified someone as a great storyteller, was the degree of intimacy the story conjured - which meant in another sense, how metaphoric and lyric the stories were. It wasn't about getting to the point: "What did Uncle Bob do with that broken-down car?" Rather, the journey of the narrative was interesting, and therefore the telling of that journey was paramount. So you could say that even before I began to read, I had discovered the delight of shaping life with words. I think I'll never want to be rid of this delicious tension between the telling and the tale - which, when translated into the lyric and the narrative, is part of the systolic and diastolic of poetry."

From The Swansea Review, Published by the Department of English, The University of Wales, Swansea as quoted on the Modern American Poetry web site

Sharon Draper

"The best way to become a writer is to write. Get yourself one of those blank journals, and just keep on writing until you fill it up! Then write some more. You don't have to show it to anyone--just write whenever you feel inspired. It's like an athlete. Much practice is done alone. At game time, you shine. Game time for a writing athlete is papers due for school, or short stories , or poetry. You keep on reading and writing and perfecting your craft, OK? Read everything you can get your hands on, then write until your fingers fall off! Continue to do well in school, and hang on to the good things of life."

FAQ at http://www.sharondraper.com

Allan Eckert, the Ohio author best known for his historical novels and naturalist books, says there are several things that would-be authors need to do. "I think I was most influenced by the writing of John Steinbeck, reading and closely studying everything he ever wrote and following the events of his noteworthy career with the greatest of interest. At the same time, however, I was voraciously reading the work of a great many other writers -- Dickens, Clemens, Kipling, London, Poe, Hemingway, Faulkner, and many more. I think it cannot be denied that for one to become a good writer, one must first become a good reader of a very wide scope of books."

From Amazon.com

Allan Eckert also would "advise young would-be authors or illustrators to have confidence in their own abilities (which they should always, unfailingly attempt to improve) and to have the tenacity to keep on trying, even in the face of repeated rejection."

The quote is taken from an interview conducted for the Upper Arlington City School District's web site Ohio Authors and Illustrators for Young People.

"If you would be a writer, first be a reader. Only through the assimilation of ideas, thoughts and philosophies can one begin to focus his own ideas, thoughts and philosophies."

Harlan Ellison

"It is not enough merely to love literature, if one wishes to spend one's life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possibility of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear."

"There is no nobler chore in the craft of writing than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the 'normal,' the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us. Failing that, you have failed totally."

Odyssey, the Fantasy Writing Workshop

Virginia Hamilton has writing tips she recommends for new or young writers. You can find them on the Scholastic web site.

She also has tips on handling writing challenges on the Scholastic web site.

Nikki Giovanni offers this advice for would-be authors: "A poem is a way of capturing a moment. I don't do a lot of revisions because I think if you have to do that then you've got problems with the poem. Rather than polish the words, I take the time to polish the poem. If that means I start at the top a dozen times, that's what I do. A poem's got to be a single stroke, and I make it the best I can because it's going to live."

"I'm glad I understand that while language is a gift, listening is a responsibility."

Nikki Giovanni, 1975, as quoted on the web site Writers on Writing, Books and Publishing

"Writing is a conversation with reading; a dialogue with thinking. All conversations with older people contain repetition. Some of the ideas mean a lot to me, just interesting, so I both embrace and attack the ideas because I found them, well, delightful."

Capitol Community College

"I like to tell the truth as I see it. That's why literature is so important. We cannot possibly leave it to history as a discipline nor to sociology nor science nor economics to tell the story of our people. It's not a ladder we are climbing, it's literature we're producing, and there will always be someone to read it."

African-American Expression

Herbert Gold

"I always ask young writers, 'Are you certain you want to be a writer? If you're absolutely sure, then do it.' If you really want to write, writing has to take precedence over everything else, except for taking care of your loved ones. It has to be more important than any possession, more important than fame. We hear about just a few writers who get famous, but most of them don't. It's got to mean more than that."

From "Herbert Gold's Golden State" an interview by Jeff Troiano

William Matthews

"My poems hope to speak for themselves. Much of their speech would be silence. Just as an architect uses walls to organize space, I use the words of a poem to organize silences. In those silences, the echoes, reverberations, assents, denials, and secrets of my poems occur. These mute events are closely linked to the silences and strange landscapes in the natural world. That natural world, to an American, is large, often melodramatic, and strange--even in the most settled regions, where I have spent most of my life. My poems aren't self-consciously or programmatically American, but it matters--for all my travels--that I have lived here so long, in certain places, with certain people."

From "William (Proctor) Matthews." Contemporary Poets, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1996. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2003. Document Number: K1660000443.

Ron McFarland

Last spring I ran a workshop for 6th-graders from Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington, on writing baseball poems. We talked baseball, and I reminded them they all knew at least one baseball poem: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," written in 1908 by Jack Norworth. I tried to explain how all good poems arise from specific things, from images that have substantial, sensuous qualities (taste, like "peanuts and Cracker Jax," the smell of an old leather glove, the colors of uniforms, and so on). I even brought in some props. I've written a poem that ends, "With an old glove like this and a new baseball, / you could start the whole world over." So of course I brought in an old glove and a new baseball along with other baseball items. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote, "No ideas but in things," and Wallace Stevens insisted, "The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real." We only had a few hours of one morning to work on their poems, and most of the students weren't all that crazy about writing poems anyway, but we had a good time.

My initial advice, then, is always to start with the language-let it come even before you concern yourself all that much about your theme, "what you have to say." Meaning will come to the language-get the words right first. Later, I try to talk about being subtle about sound-how to create rich sound via assonance (similar vowel sounds) and alliteration (similar initial consonants) in favor of that booby trap of over-obvious rhymes that so many young poets fall into. And about that time I try to talk about line-the feel, the pulse, the rhythm of the line: You don't "need" meter, especially in these free verse days (like the last century plus, I mean), but poems are built out of lines. I like to illustrate my point by showing samples of a very short-line version and a very long-line version of one of my poems, and then showing them the version as it was published and talking about why it went that way.

You didn't ask for three paragraphs, but because the others are related to matters of craft rather than larger concerns, I'll throw this in for what it's worth. Poets are like other people except that they are in obsessed with language-with not simply the right word, but the right taste or touch of that word. Poets, more than most writers, are opportunists. They don't need a story or even an idea to get going-an image will do; sometimes a good poem jumps out of a single word: loneliness, squiggling, blue herons, buzz. If you want to make money with language, become a lawyer or a novelist or a script writer, but don't become a poet! If you cannot have fun with language, do not try to write poems. Let's put that more positively: Poets love to play with language. Or, as poet Donald Hall wrote, "All poets start from loving words, and loving to play with them."

Email to Ohio Reading Road Trip from Ron McFarland

Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize winner and Ohio author, says: "There's a difference between writing for a living and writing for life. If you write for a living, you make enormous compromises, and you might not even be able to uncompromise yourself. If you write for life, you'll work hard; you'll do what's honest, not what pays."

Toni Morrison as quoted on the Cornerstone Café web site

Toni Morrison also offered these tips:

  • Writers should have the notion that if you don't write this story, no one else will.
  • Not what there is, but what there isn't: that's what excites the novelist. Your story goes into the nothing and becomes something.
  • Writers must find the word, words, or sentence that makes "not enough," enough. The moment that language arrives may be the beginning, middle, or end of the story.
  • Writers use their own language to enter uncolonized territory, unrecorded territory.
  • The structure is the story: we don't perceive the world chronologically. Rather, we work in layers, and those layers are the structure.

From Glenbrook Academy "Author's Advice"

Andre Norton, the Grand Dame of Fantasy and Science Fiction, believes young writers should follow in her path. "There is room today for young writers in the field, but it depends a great deal on luck. You have to hit the right editor with the right type of book at the right time. A good way to start these days, if you want to sell, is to write in the Young Adult field. It's not as crowded. I also think that the small press today provides a chance for writers to get started." She goes on to say that "no one should do a book unless they do their best. An author should not write down to their audience."

"There's no writer that doesn't make mistakes, or no writer who can say that they've reached the top, because you never do. No writer is ever entirely pleased with a finished product. It isn't the exact same thing that was in their mind."

An interview with Tangent Magazine in 1996,
"Days of Wonder - A Conversation with Andre Norton" is by John L. Coker III

Cynthia Rylant

"A lot of people think they can write poetry, and many do, because they can figure out how to line up the words or make certain sounds rhyme or just imitate the other poets they've read. But this boy, he's the real poet, because when he tries to put on paper what he's seen with his heart, he will believe deep down that there are no good words for it, no words can do it, and at that moment he will have begun to write poetry."

"Writing stories has given me the power to change things I could not change as a child. I can make boys into doctors. I can make fathers stop drinking. I can make mothers stay."

Write Design Online

R. L. Stine

"If you want to be a writer, don't worry so much about writing. Read as much as you can. Read as many different writers as you can. Soak up the styles. You can learn all kinds of ways to say things."

Scholastic Kids Fun Online

Actually, Stine thinks reading is critical for writers: "Read, read, read. Read as much as you can by as many different authors as you can. That way, without even realizing it, you build a good vocabulary--and you pick up different ways of saying things, of describing the world and the people in it. Nothing is as important for someone who wants to be a writer as reading books by MANY DIFFERENT authors."

Scholastic Online - Goosebumps

"My advice is to read, read, read. Don't just read one author. Read as many different kinds of things as you can. Later, when you start to write seriously, all the things you read before remain in your brain and will help you with your writing."

A Chat with R. L. Stine

"I think too often teachers present writing as something that is very serious. I hate it when people tell kids, 'Write what you know. Write from your heart.' That's terrifying; I've never written a word from my heart, never. I've been writing for 30 years, and I've never written a single word from my heart, and I never write about what I know. I think that makes writing sound too hard, it makes it sound like work."

When Stine was asked what he tells kids to write, he said: "I tell kids to write to entertain yourself, write to be entertained. Writing should be fun. I tell them about all the insane things I've written just because I love to write.

You don't have to write serious literature, you don't have to be an artist to be a writer. I've written GI Joe books, coloring books, even bubble gum cards."

Teenink.com

"My advice is: don't worry about getting published. Just write, write, and write. Write something every day. Keep a journal or a diary. Make sure you read all kinds of authors. You won't be published until you practice your skills for years and years. I started writing when I was 9, but I was 28 when my first book was published. Mainly, you have to write all the time!"

Online chat with R. L. Stine

Mildred Taylor

I do not know how old I was when the daydreams became more than that, and I decided to write them down, but by the time I entered high school, I was confident that I would one day be a writer.

Random House

I remember my father...and the adults talking about the past. As they talked I began to visualize all the people who had one lived in that house, all the family who had once known the land, and I felt as if I knew them, too. I met them all through the stories told, stories told with such gusto and acting skills that people long since dead lived again through the voices and movements of the storytellers.

Penguin Putnam

Mark Winegardner

"The famous writing advice that you should write what you know, makes a certain kind of sense, but I'm more of the mind that it's more interesting to write about what I'd like to know."

"I taught writing for a long time and I think one of the stumbling blocks people have when they first start to write is they are too polite. They underestimate how complicated human beings are…. One of the things I often tell students…is, 'Pay attention to your life for one day.' It's impossible to go through one day of life during which you don't do a dozen things that, if you were stopped and asked to explain yourself, would leave you stammering and seeming like a crazy person."

Harcourt Trade Publishers

Need more inspiration?

Willa Cather
"Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen."

The Writing Life

Stephen King
"Not writing would be like going the rest of your life without having dreams."

"The great thing about writing is that...you can do all these antisocial things and you get paid for them and nobody ever arrests you because they're all make-believe. Then that way if you were actually ever driven to do any of those things, the pressure's off because you'd have already written them down. It's therapy."

"Writers write. That's all it is. It is as simple, and as complex, as that."

Writing.com

Kurt Vonnegut
"Find a subject you care about and which in your heart you feel others should care about. It is the genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style."

Creative Quotations

Madeleine L'Engle
"I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children's books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone's universe."

Writing for Children Workshop

Albert Einstein
"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

Famous Writing Quotes

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"In the realm of ideas, everything depends on enthusiasm. In the real world, all rests on perseverance."

Goethe quotes

Mark Twain
"The difference between the right word and nearly right word is the same as that between lightning and the lightning bug."

The Twain That Most Americans Never Meet

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones that you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, dream, discover!"

The Quote Cache

Thomas Mann
"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."

Simpson's Contemporary Quotations, compiled by James B. Simpson. Copyright © 1988 by James B. Simpson. Published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

Henry Ward Beecher
"All words are pegs to hang ideas on."

The Word Spy

Robert Cromier
"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon."

The Wordsmith's Workplace

William Faulkner
"Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window."

Greatest Quotations

Kingsley Amis
"If you can't annoy somebody, there is little point in writing."

Creative Quotations

Maya Angelou
"I speak to the Black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition--about what we can endure, dream, fail at and survive."

Women's History

Morley Callaghan
"There is only one trait that marks the writer. He is always watching. It's a trick of the mind, and he is born with it."

The Writing Life

William Faulkner
"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."

Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Jean Jacques Rousseau
"However great a man's natural talent may be, the art of writing cannot be learned all at once."

Daily Celebrations

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."

Spicy Quotes

Walter Bagehot
"Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not."

Quote World

Linus Pauling
"The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away."

Wordspring

Lillian Hellman
"Nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hope."

"If I had to give young writers advice, I'd say don't listen to writers talking about writing."

Brainy Quote

Truman Capote
"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make."

"Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself."

Creative Quotations

Pam Hart
"Nothing you write is sacred; everything can be revised. Write passionately. Edit like the frozen tundra."

Writers on Writing, Books and Publishing

Samuel Johnson
"What is written without effort is in general, read without pleasure."

Daily Quotation

Ernest Hemingway
"My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way."

Quote DB

John Steinbeck
"When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's works is all I can permit myself to contemplate."

Geometry.com - The Online Learning Center

Leonard Bernstein
"Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long."

The Quotations Page

Barbara Kingsolver
There is no perfect time to write. There is only now.

Writing.com

Richard Harding Davis
The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way.

World of Quotes

Anne Lamott
"One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can't."

"Good writing is about telling the truth."

"Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong."

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something-anything-down on paper."

"You are going to love some of your characters because they are you or some facet of you, and you are going to hate some of your characters for the same reason."

"A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It's a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly."

Lamott, A. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
"Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar."

Spicy Quotes

Wallace Stevens
"The poet's function is to make his imagination . . . become the light in the mind of others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives."

Metaphor as Translation in Wallace Stevens

T.S. Eliot
"Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood."

Quote DB

Marianne Moore
"Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads."

Quote DB

E. B. White
"A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter.... A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down."

Writing.com

William Safire "Great Rules of Writing"
"Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague."

Famous Writing Quotes

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