Writers’ Quotations from The New York Times



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Writers’ Quotations from The New York Times
These quotations, gathered from The New York Times between 1972 and 1997, can serve as prompts for writing or classroom discussion, or as inspirational or thought-provoking statements on a wall or bulletin board. Most of the articles they appeared in are accessible at the New York Times’s Web site, www.nytimes.com. In the home page search box, insert — between quotation marks — some distinctive words from the quote (like “marvelous peace,” in the first quote below) and click the “search” tab. If you’re a Times subscriber, you can retrieve up to 100 articles a month without charge from The Times’s archive. Your public library may provide you with free access to The Times’s archives, either at the library or via the library’s Web site, if you’re a library member. — Robert Greenman

“All writing is therapy. To some extent all writers seek their craft to heal a wound in themselves, to make themselves whole.” (Graham Greene, quoted by J.Anthony Lukas, in an article on Oct. 12, 1997, by Doreen Carvahal, following Mr. Lewis’s suicide)


“There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” (J.D. Salinger, in an article by Lacey Fosburgh, Nov. 2, 1974)
“‘When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes/ …Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope.’ Shakepeare desired another’s art? Dear Lord, whose?” (Bonita Friedman, a Sunday Book Review section essay, November 26, 1989)
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” (Ernest Hemingway, in an article by Alden Whitman, Mar. 9, 1972)
“Time is very important to the South because it has dealt with us. We have suffered and learned and progressed through it, and there’s a continuity there that speaks to any writer. It gives a person a sense of dramatic narrative because you can watch things happen through generations or through a family.” ( Eudora Welty, interviewed by Michiko Kakutani, June 27, 1980)
It’s not that I don’t work hard. But it’s so marvelous to develop an idea, and while you’re in the midst of a story, so many things in your daily life seem to apply to it — you see something on the bus and think how you can use it. The story’s like a magnet and, without it, you’d never notice all these things.” (Eudora Welty, interviewed by Michiko Kakutani, June 27, 1980)
“It is important that we should all recognize what it is that we owe to each other. We must continually keep renegotiating the ‘internal debt’ which weighs upon writers everywhere. Each one of us owes much to his own intellectual heritage and much to that which we have drawn from the cultural treasury of all the world.” (Pablo Neruda, Op-Ed article from remarks made at a P.E.N. dinner, April 14, 1972)
“I don’t belong to the academic world at all. I never took a Ph.D. It’s what saved me, I think. If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled any writing capacity.”

(Barbara Tuchman, interviewed by Nan Robertson, Feb. 27, 1979)

“But woe to that nation whose literature is disturbed by the intervention of power. Because that is not just a violation against “freedom of print,” it is the closing down of the heart of the nation, a slashing to pieces of its memory. The nation ceases to be mindful of itself, it is deprived of its spiritual unity, and despite a supposedly common language, compatriots suddenly cease to understand one another.”



(Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, excerpt from Nobel lecture, in The Times, Aug. 25, 1972)
“I believe that world literature has it in its power to help mankind in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrination of prejudiced peoples and parties. And who, if not writers, are to pass judgment on their unsuccessful Governments (in some states this is the easiest way to earn one’s bread, the occupation of any man who is not lazy) — but also on the people themselves, in their cowardly humiliation or self-satisfied weakness.” (Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, excerpt from Nobel lecture, in The Times, Aug. 25, 1972)
“Writers and artists can conquer falsehood. In the struggle with falsehood, art always did win and it always does win! One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.”

(Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, excerpt from Nobel lecture, in The Times, Aug. 25, 1972)
“‘You must not be literary. Suppress all the literature and your stories will work.’”

(George Simenon, quoting Colette’s advice to him, in an interview with Herbert Mitgang, Dec. 13, 1976)
“I am a rather slow person, in that experience has to sink in for years before I can use it. I have to let impressions and experience age within me.”

(Jean Stafford, quoted by Thomas Lask in her obituary, March 28, 1979)
“Overediting is a mistake. They say Dickens needed an editor; if he had had one, he wouldn’t have existed.”

(Jean Stafford, quoted by Thomas Lask in her obituary, March 28, 1979)
“At the end of this diary I feel I have accomplished what I hoped to accomplish: to reveal how personal errors influence the whole of history and that our real objective is to create a human being who will not go to war.” (Anais Nin, quoted from her published diary, in an obituary by C. Gerald Fraser, Jan. 16, 1977)
“I’m delighted to say I’ve received the money for two pictures and the pictures were never made. It’s the perfect situation.”

(Saul Bellow, interviewed by Lacey Fosburgh, Nov. 21, 1976)
“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

(Joan Didion, Sunday Book Review, adapted from a lecture, Dec. 5, 1976)
“I do get a kick out of writing — about two minutes a day.”

(John McPhee, Book Review interview by Stephen Singular, Nov. 27, 1977)

“In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.”



(Joan Didion, Sunday Book Review, adapted from a lecture, Dec. 5, 1976)
“They’re not after making movies. They’re after making deals. Whenever a man calls, I listen to him and I wait for him to call my book a ‘property.’ Any man who calls my book a property is not going to make a movie, not from my novel. ‘Property?’ I say, “You want a real estate man,’ and I hang up.”

(Jerzy Kosinski, interviewed by Lacey Fosburgh, Nov. 21, 1976)
“Films are basically about plot and action and to transfer my novels into a film would strip them of the very specific power they have and that is to trigger in the reader his own psychological set-up, his own projecting. Film has the very opposite effect. It doesn’t trigger anything from within. It sets things from without and you, the viewer are there to be an observer, not a participant.”

(Jerzy Kosinski, interviewed by Lacey Fosburgh, Nov. 21, 1976)

“I am a very slow writer. Everyone tells me that. But a writer does not choose his subjects or his stories. He is compelled by them. I am compelled now to write this story, “The Fox in the Attic.” Of course, in an enterprise of this sort, it is always a race between the publisher and the undertaker.”



(Richard Hughes, April 30, 1976, as quoted in his obituary, April 30, 1976)
“In the 1960’s I always wrote in French. Now I write in Spanish. I must be getting more patriotic.” (Fernando Arrabal, interviewed by Richard Eder, May 26, 1976)
“Psychiatrists traditionally get a hard time from playwrights, novelists and movie directors, as if the artist’s monopoly on secrets of character were being threatened.”

(John Leonard, May 26, 1976)
“I think that I’m really writing novels, not mysteries, but I don’t want to sound pretentious. I do like to read that I write clean prose and that my stuff is considered economical. Maybe I’m economical because I don’t have that much to say. I’d love to have a real brilliant idea for my next book.”

(Elmore Leonard, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, Oct. 29. 1983)
“I try to get the right people assembled, give them right-sounding names, and then I’m off and running. The characters have to interact. Sometimes, when there’s a confrontation, I don’t know which way it’s going to turn out — which character is going to come out of the house alive. Eventually, the character has to tell me.

(Elmore Leonard, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, Oct. 29. 1983)
“It doesn’t require a great intellect to write poetry. Great sensory perception is more important.”

(Lawrence Ferlinghetti, interviewed by William H. Honan, July 29, 1993)
“I don’t have a method; I sit down and write.” (James T. Farrell, interviewed by Eric Pace, Aug. 23, 1979)
“The dialogue in my novels is mostly made up. It isn’t the words that are authentic but, rather, the rhythm of the way people talk. Only once in a while do I hear whole sentences spoken when I’m listening for material. My wife picks up lines in the ladies room, which she repeats, and they sometimes find their way into my stories.”

(Elmore Leonard, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, Oct. 29. 1983)
“My method of writing is trial and error. I have a feeling, an emotion, a crazy little idea, not a story or a plot. Who would say it? Whom would he say it to? I start working that out. But after 70 pages I feel I’m on the wrong track. Two other characters should have said it. So I start again. I do that five, seven, maybe eight times, until by brute force I get through to the end of the story. That makes up my first draft. Then I start reworking that first draft. If there are 2,000 words left from the first in the final draft, I’m lucky.”

(Harry Kemelman, interviewed by Thomas Lask, July 30, 1976)
“What you’ve taken directly from life helps to place and fix a book’s level of reality; it provides something against which to measure what you make up, so that in the end the invented experience and the real experience will have the same kind of life, be equally persuasive and affecting. Of course, for everything in my fiction that connects to something I’ve known personally, there are a hundred things that have no connection, or connections of only the roughest and vaguest sort. But along the way you are sticking these hooks of direct experience into the work, hooks to hang on to as you move forward over everything that’s as yet unknown to you.”

(Philip Roth, interview by Sara Davidson in the Sunday Book Review, Sept. 18, 1977)
“Often in the first few months after finishing one book, I find that whatever I begin is really only my old departed pal returned in a sheet from the grave. It’s awfully hard to cut loose from a way of perceiving things and a way of presenting things that has taken so much work to establish in the first place. But I find that if I just keep going, some six or eight months later, I will somehow have laid the ghost to rest and be ready to write something new.”

(Philip Roth, interview by Sara Davidson in the Sunday Book Review, Sept. 18, 1977)
“In the United States, it is either feast or famine: one is either totally ignored, which is damaging, or becomes the center of attention, which is almost always unreal. Here it is the media which confer praise; and I think it is fair to say that the media aren’t interested in literature but in publicity, in celebrity, in filling the space and killing the time alloted to them.”

(Saul Bellow, an interview by Joseph Epstein in the Sunday Book Review, Dec. 5, 1976)
“The worst fear I have as a writer is that of losing my feeling for the common life, which is, as every good writer knows, or should know, anything but common.”

(Saul Bellow, an interview by Joseph Epstein in the Sunday Book Review, Dec. 5, 1976)
“As I see it, a short story, if it is a good story, is like a child’s kite — a small wonder, a brief, bright moment.” (Sean O’Faolain, from obituary by Peter B. Flint, April 22, 1991)
“I want to be read on my own terms, which are small-public terms--to be, in my books, as odd, difficult, idiosyncratic as I need to be in order to get said what I feel needs to get said.”

(Saul Bellow, an interview by Joseph Epstein in the Sunday Book Review, Dec. 5, 1976)
“I think I nowadays get more response from unknown readers than I used to get. Many of these letters are very penetrating; not all are completely approving, but then I am not completely approving of myself. In recent years, I would say that I have learned more from these letters than I have from formal criticism of my work.”

(Saul Bellow, an interview by Joseph Epstein in the Sunday Book Review, Dec. 5, 1976)
“My view is that a writer should reach as many people as possible — not with a message but with a point of view arising from his freedom as a writer, the nonpartisanship of his heart, and the happy responsibilities of the imagination. When it is going well a novel affords the highest kind of truth; a good writer can lay claim to a disinterestedness that is as great as that of a pure scientist — when he is going well. In its complicated, possibly even mysterious, way, the novel is an instrument for delving into human truths.”

(Saul Bellow, an interview by Joseph Epstein in the Sunday Book Review, Dec. 5, 1976)
“As a novelist, it is a good part of my job to attempt to formulate, as dramatically and as precisely as I can, the pain and anguish that we all feel. Now more than ever, it seems to me, it becomes the writer’s job to remind people of their common stock of emotion, of their common humanity — of the fact, if you will, that they have souls.”

(Saul Bellow, an interview by Joseph Epstein in the Sunday Book Review, Dec. 5, 1976)
“I think of myself as a historian of society in that I cannot exceed what I see. I am bound, in other words, as the historian is bound by the period he writes about, by the situation I live in.”

(Saul Bellow, an interview by Joseph Epstein in the Sunday Book Review, Dec. 5, 1976)
“I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote ‘Love Story.’ At best people called it a novella. At worst, you know what. I had no pretensions about it. I did have something going for me — total innocence. I was sort of Grandma Moses then, except that she was a genius.” (Erich Segal, , interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, Mar. 21, 1977)
“My senior year I wrote a novel. When Knopf turned it down, I wrote Mr. Knopf, asking for copies of the readers’ reports. He wrote back saying, ‘No,’ adding, ‘In your case, this would be particularly bad, because they might discourage you completely.’“

(John McPhee, Book Review interview by Stephen Singular, Nov. 27, 1977)
“If anyone has an alternative to writing for a living, he should take it.”

(John McPhee, Book Review interview by Stephen Singular, Nov. 27, 1977)
“No writer likes writing. And it gets harder the older you get. The best part of my day is getting up and driving my daughters to school.”

(John McPhee, Book Review interview by Stephen Singular, Nov. 27, 1977)

“I dictate to a secretary — about 50 pages a day. Then I rewrite each page 12 to 15 times. My wife, Jorja Curtright, who is an actress, goes over what I write first. She begins by saying, ‘Darling, it’s wonderful,’ and then she tells me what’s wrong with it. I spend a year writing and another year rewriting. Then my editor, Hillel Black, says, ‘enough already,’ and I have to give up revising and the publisher takes the book away from me. I’m a perfectionist.”



(Sidney Sheldon, Sunday Book Review interview by Herbert Mitgang, Feb. 26, 1978)
“Novel writing has to be learned, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative-writing courses — writers make their decision to write in secret. The academics don’t know that. They don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is buy him a typewriter.”

(James M. Cain, quoted in his obituary, by John Leonard, Oct. 30, 1977)
“I just don’t like movies. People tell me, ‘Don’t you care, what they’ve done to your books?’ I tell them, ‘They haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.”

(James M. Cain, quoted in his obituary, by John Leonard, Oct. 30, 1977)
“In my stories, I also avoid anything that’s primarily historical, such as wars and depressions. In ‘The Wapshot Chronicle,’ which spanned 40 years, I managed to skip two wars.”

(John Cheever, Sunday Book Review interview by Herbert Mitgang, Jan 28, 1979)
“I seldom go looking for a story — I don’t research them. Journalism and literature are very different. I would rather be thought of as writing about men and women. The soul of man doesn’t need a locale.”

(John Cheever, Sunday Book Review interview by Herbert Mitgang, Jan 28, 1979)
“Explicit sexual scenes don’t particularly interest me. Everybody knows what’s going on. I can’t think, in the whole history of literature, of an explicit sex scene that was memorable, can you?”

(John Cheever, Sunday Book Review interview by Herbert Mitgang, Jan 28, 1979)
“A novelist should never take the movie business seriously.”

(Mario Puzo, Sunday Book Review interview by Herbert Mitgang, Feb. 18, 1979)
“I used to be a fairly consistent gambler in Vegas. I knew that I would use it in a book someday. I even had the rationalization for losing all that money — I told myself I was really researching.”

(Mario Puzo, Sunday Book Review interview by Herbert Mitgang, Feb. 18, 1979)
“When I wrote ‘The Godfather’ I took dead aim at the public. I was determined to write a book that would sell. But once I got started on the actual writing, I did the best I could. And I had a lot of fun writing it.”

(Mario Puzo, Sunday Book Review interview by Herbert Mitgang, Feb. 18, 1979)
“Mr. Farrar gave it [A Wrinkle in Time] to a librarian whose succinct comment was: ‘This is the worst book I have ever read. It reminds me of the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ Then, when Mr. Farrar decided to publish it anyway, he told me he was doing it as a self-indulgence and added, ‘Please don’t be upset if it doesn’t sell, because we don’t expect it to.’“

(Madeleine L’Engle, interviewed by Aljean Harmetz, Nov. 6, 1979)
“I am often asked what inspired its writing [The Miracle Worker], and the answer is $1,500.”

(William Gibson, essay in The Times, Oct. 14, 1979)
“All I need is a desk, an FM radio, a bed and five or six wastepaper baskets. One of the best apartments I ever had was a maid’s room on West 57th Street.”

(Joseph Heller, interviewed by Michaele Weissman, Jan. 22, 1981)
“Whatever I do is done out of sheer joy; I drop my fruits like a ripe tree. What the general reader or the critic makes of them is not my concern.”

(Henry Miller, quoted by Alden Whitman in his obituary, June 9, 1980)
“I am a writer who submits a manuscript and begs the editor to give it his full attention and to tear it apart, and I have had a series of unbroken good luck because I’ve had that attitude. When I submit a manuscript, I do not see it in print until about 14 or 16 months later, because some very good editors are working on it, checking what I’ve said, cleaning up bad sentences and raising questions about propriety and all the other work a good editor is supposed to do, traditionally.” James Michener, byline missing, Sept. 24, 1983)
Satire is a weapon of the powerless against the powerful. When satire is aimed at powerless people, it is not only cruel but profoundly vulgar.”

(Molly Ivins, in the Sunday Book Review, Oct. 11, 1992)
The whole beauty of journalism is that every day we get another crack at the story, to get more information, assuage cruelties, adjust our heads, correct mistakes.

(A.M. Rosenthal, Op-Ed Column, Jan 22, 1993)
“I don’t keep my books on my coffee table. I don’t want to see any reminder of them. There’s an unreality about it. My life with the last book ended when I made the final corrections.” (Amy Tan, interviewed by Mervyn Rothstein, 1991)
“Writing a novel is like reconstructing the Rocky Mountains out of Lego blocks. It’s comparable to a sculptor chiseling away. I see some clumsy heavy rock out there in the mountains, I drag it into my studio and chip away for the next two years. When it’s over, I put a magnifying glass to my eye and then, with small pincers, start removing the particles and smoothing it out.”

(Amos Oz, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, July 6, 1985)
“There is no word in Hebrew for fiction — I boycott that word. It means the opposite of truth. Prose, yes, but not fiction. I write prose. I aim at truth, not facts, and I am old enough to know the difference between facts and truth.”

(Amos Oz, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, July 6, 1985)
“Writing a poem is like a short love affair, writing a short story like a long love affair, writing a novel is like a marriage.”

(Amos Oz, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, July 6, 1985)
“In a novel you have to make a half-million decisions, from the choice of an adverb to where to place a comma. I can have a pang of self-indulgence over a single comma. I write my drafts in longhand — I need the sensual contact of paper, pen, ink and my fingers. Then I fight it out on the typewriter.”

(Amos Oz, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, July 6, 1985)
“The Latin American novelists have the courage to tell a story as if nobody had ever told a story before and never had a story before.”

(Amos Oz, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, July 6, 1985)
“ I had a Hungarian teacher at Kibbutz Hulda who never set foot in America but told me to read ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ after it was translated into Hebrew. She knew I was a secret poet and wanted me to write prose. I had thought the real world was outside — in Jerusalem or New York or Paris. ‘Winesburg’ showed me that the real world is everywhere, even in a small kibbutz. I discovered that all the secrets are the same —

love, hatred, fear, loneliness — all the great and simple things of life and literature.”



(Amos Oz, interviewed by Herbert Mitgang, July 6, 1985)
“There are things in one’s life that get pushed aside for pragmatic reasons. It’s a motivating force to write because writing enables one to examine one’s failed possibilities.”

(Francine du Plessix Gray, interviewed by Michiko Kakutani, Aug. 20, 1981)
“I sometimes think I’m in the business of playwriting in order to go through a process of educating myself. I mean, it’s the only demand for honesty in my life which is total and which I try to meet totally. There is no personal relationship in which I am as totally honest as I am with paper.” (Athol Fugard, roundtable discussion, Feb. 9, 1986)
“Sometimes there’s an individual writer who believes passionately that his message of poetic insight could absolutely save society, but he can’t get others to agree. I myself have felt at certain moments, my God, I have received this orphic, this profound, unconscious message that must be conveyed to the world immediately. But somehow the electoral process has very savagely returned the response, No, we don’t want to hear the message.”
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