Monday, December 13, 2010

Three One-Liners to Write By

If I’m ever lucky enough to have an office, these three quotes will go on the wall.

1)  “If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.”
            -William Zinsser, On Writing Well

On Writing Well is a guide to writing non-fiction, but I think this statement applies to any kind of writing.  It's part of a story Zinsser tells in the first chapter, in which he and another writer, for whom writing is more of a hobby than a vocation, are speaking to a group of students.  One student asks what they do when their writing isn’t going well.  The other writer says he simply stops and returns to his work another day, when things are easier.  Zinsser replies that that’s a good way to go broke.

I’m not saying breaks aren’t important, but I find Zinsser's outlook remarkably freeing.  If you’re a writer, you write, even when it’s a struggle. 

2)  “Don’t spend it all at once.”
            Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love is one of my favorite movies.  If you haven’t seen it, here’s the quick summary:  Will Shakespeare is writing Romeo and Juliet.  Viola is a young noblewoman who wants to act.  She dresses up as a man (Thomas) and gets the part of Romeo in Shakespeare’s play.  Of course, Will finds out, and they fall in love, but before he knows who his bright young actor is, we get the following scene:  The actors are reading through the first act of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo (played by Thomas, played by Viola, played by Gwenyth Paltrow) is mooning over Rosalind.  She does a bit too good a job of it, and Will (played by Joseph Fiennes) steps in and says “Don’t spend it all at once…. Do you catch my meaning?”  She doesn’t.  He explains: “You’re speaking abut a baggage we never even meet…What will you do in Act Two, when he meets the love of his life?” 

I think this is the best advice I’ve ever heard about tension.  It doesn’t matter how high the drama is at the beginning; if it doesn’t escalate as the story progresses, the ride is going to be boring.  I’m all for high-impact opening incidents, but the stakes--emotional, sexual, physical, whatever—still have to go generally upward as the plot progresses.

3)  “If you’re lost in the woods, let the horse find the way home.”
            -Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Bird by Bird is part writing advice book, part memoir, and this sentence crops up in a chapter about intuition.  I like it because I had a horse as a kid (don’t hate me—we lived in the country), and it’s true: the horse always knows the way back to the barn.  In fact, the horse will try to show you the way back to the barn even when you’re trying to go farther down the trail. 

Sometimes the best way out of a plot hole isn’t something my rational mind can figure out.  When the words aren’t flowing, when I’m tempted to force my characters to go places they don’t want to go for the sake of the plot, I remind myself to let my intuition guide me. 

What’s your favorite inspirational one-liner?


  1. My mind is fuzz so I can't think of specific quotes. I like a ton of stuff from The War of Art. Right now, I've been internalizing one of his ideas about treating your writing like a job. And he didn't mean just "work hard at it," although he talked about that some. He meant to not sweat the small stuff. Not take it personally. You don't take your job personally, after all. It isn't you. You leave it. You go home.

  2. Hm... I don't have the specific quote in mind, but Stephen King had a passage in ON WRITING that has really stuck to my brain. He describes a table and a birdcage with a rabbit in it. Then he talks about how, even if he's seeing a different kind of table or rabbit or whatever, we're all imagining basically the same thing. That's what's amazing about writing--it's a kind of telepathy that people take for granted. The fact that you can use it to make up whole worlds is pretty crazy.

    I love that Anne Lamott quote. I've finally gotten to a point where I'm starting to see writer's block for what it is: my intuition telling me there's something wrong. Or, if we're going with the horse metaphor, it's the horse trying to get back to the barn while I'm desperately pulling the reins in the wrong direction.

  3. @Jaimie: I love that concept! Sometimes work is work. Also, I'd never heard of The War of Art, but it looks interesting. Thanks!

    @Feliza: I just started reading On Writing, but I'm still in the first part, with all the stories about King's early life. I love the telepathy metaphor!

  4. Ooooh, "Don't spend it all at once" is a good one for me to remember. And Shakespeare in Love is one of my all-time favorite movies. I cleaned out my VHS cabinet the other day and that was one of the only movies I couldn't part with...even though I no longer own a VHS player. Isn't love logical? ;)

  5. I had a VHS of it, too! It was lost in one of my many moves, or maybe I gave it away. It's time I bought it again.