Kurt Vonnegut – Writing Quote Wednesday


I took this Writing Quote Wednesday from Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007). I was part of his lost NYU lecture on what it takes to be a writer that was recently posted on Brain Pickings.

I once ran into Mr. Vonnegut at Penn State. He was eating at a table across from me. The way I remember it, he was by himself looking off into the distance almost as if he was thinking up the plot to some new story he was working on or thinking about what kind of drawing he might want to do next.

I wasn’t brave enough to approach him and say hello, but he certainly made an impression on me, sitting there by himself, thinking.

It is even more moving, thinking about that moment, when I read the full quote:

I’ve heard that a writer is lucky because he cures himself every day with his work. What everybody is well advised to do is to not write about your own life — this is, if you want to write fast. You will be writing about your own life anyway — but you won’t know it.

And, the thing is, in order to sit alone and work alone all day long, you must be a terrible overreacter. You’re sitting there doing what paranoids do — putting together clues, making them add up… Putting the fact that they put me in room 471… What does that mean and everything?

Well, nothing means anything — except the artist makes his living by pretending, by putting it in a meaningful hole, though no such holes exist.”

I’m doing some work right now to push through to the next level in my work and my life and one of the techniques I’m using involves drawing what I’m experiencing and then interpreting those drawings to gain insight into the situation. In my last session, which was a few weeks before I saw this quote, one of the drawings I did was of a man with several holes surrounding him. I had no idea what the holes were when I drew them and the man in the drawing had no idea what to do with them either.

Now I know that those holes I drew were meaningful holes to put my pretending in. Those holes do exist. Even though nothing means anything, putting our pretending in those holes is the way we, as artists, make our living.

Penn State English professor Kevin Boon had this to say back in 2007 about Mr. Vonnegut, “If I had to sum Vonnegut the man in one word, I would say he was, in all matters, gracious. If I had to sum his work, I would say that, in the end, the message threading his oeuvre is that people, as a whole, are cruel, but people, on an individual basis, are precious. Team players who are blindly loyal to ideologies are the primary reason the world has experienced so many atrocities (Dresden, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, slavery, racism, sexual intolerance, sexism, greed and the contemporary horrors of Iraq, Katrina, Darfur and so on), while the best results of our presence on Earth — a sonata by Mozart, a painting by Van Gogh, a poem by T.S. Eliot, a statue by Rodin, Gene Kelly dancing, Maria Callas singing — are the result of brilliant individuals producing single, epiphanous moments of beauty in a world that is largely inhumane.”

Lu Ji – Writing Quote Wednesday


(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny with Flickr photo by Trey Ratcliff)

This poem comes from Lu Ji’s famous work, The Art of Writing (Wen Fu, 文賦). According to Wikipedia, it has been called a “hymn of praise for the craft and art of writing and a specific, prescriptive handbook for the writer.” The essay reveals, as the Fu form is set up to do, the kinds of inner processes all writers have to go through to prepare for the creative act of writing.

This philosophical work consists of 21 verses of “rhyme-prose” poems that describe a writer’s mind as wandering through a kind of mini-universe within our own bodies in search of the elements which form the origins of our literary work.

I picked up The Art of Writing, Teachings of the Chinese Masters at a used bookstore in town, but you can get your copy on Amazon.com. This slim, 94 page volume of essays is worth adding to your library of writing books, especially if you are interested in the “whimsy, spontaneity and contradiction” of Taoism and the Taoist writers.

Harper Lee – Writing Quote Wednesday

Harper Lee Quote

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Flickr photo by crowbot)

The recent news that Harper Lee will be publishing a sequel to her 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel To Kill a Mockingbird has set the literary world a-twitter with gleeful anticipation and dire warnings. I’m fascinated that Lee waited 55 years to do this and is reported to be almost completely deaf and partially blind.
These circumstances leave us with many questions:

Why did she decide to publish Go Set a Watchman now?
What happened all those years ago that stopped her from writing anything else?

Was it perfectionism?
Fear of failure?
Not enough to say?
Not following her own advice to have real courage to begin anyway and see something through no matter what?

Or is it some other deep, dark reason that she’ll take with her to the grave?
We may never know.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts description of how the book was created, when Harper Lee was writing To Kill a Mockingbird she became so frustrated at one point that she threw the manuscript through a window and into the snow. Apparently her agent made her retrieve it.

Who hasn’t felt like doing that at some point in their writing process? (Paul raises hand timidly, then goes out into the bitter cold in his writing slippers to fetch his current work in progress from the foot-and-a-half of snow outside his apartment balcony.)
To Kill a Mockingbird has never been out of print since it was published and has been placed on numerous “best of” literary lists. Perhaps Lee put everything she needed to say into that one book and then thought about it for 55 years and decided she had just a bit more to contribute. She also proves that you’re never too old for a comeback!

Here are some questions for the rest of us:

What do you do when you find yourself unable to finish a manuscript?
How many unfinished manuscripts do you have lying around and do you think you’ll ever get back to them?
What will it take to finish them?

These are all fascinating questions and I hope everyone reading this finds the answers they are looking for. I’d also absolutely love it if you shared some of those answers with us by leaving a comment in the comments section!

Stories are the Wildest Things – even 55 years later.

Je Suis Charlie – Writing Quote Wednesday

“Today’s effort to silence criticism by murdering the artists and writers who voice it must be met with a far wider movement to defend the right to dissent, which forms the spine of free expression.”

PEN American Center

“Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”

Salman Rushdie

It was with a very heavy heart that I tried to explain to my middle son what happened in France at Charlie Hebdo. He doesn’t live with me and his other family keeps him very sheltered from what is going on in the world.

I told him some extremists wanted to silence the voices of writers who disagreed with what they believed in. He didn’t know what an extremist was, so I asked him to Google it. He couldn’t because his computer was off and it takes his old machine about 10 minutes to boot up.

I read the definition to him.

“Oh, it sounds like we are going to have another war again,” he said. “I haven’t known a time when we weren’t at war.”

He’s thirteen.

“I know. That’s why I want you to know about these things. Maybe you can help make a difference in the way people treat each other by knowing about this.”

As we started to have a conversation about it, his mother came into the room and shut down the conversation. She wanted him to rest. All of us are sick with flu but I think she was more concerned that I was teaching him what was happening. I stopped talking about it and let him get some rest.

But we can’t rest from defending the right to satire and dissent. All ideas must be open to be debated and expressed or only those ideas with the biggest weapons behind them will get heard.

If I draw an unflattering caricature of someone you respect, how does killing me honor that person? The caricature is a reflection of what I see and feel about that person, not what that person actually is. (I’ve always hated those caricature artists at fairs. They always draw everyone with giant heads and twisty bodies. It freaked me out. But it did make me realize that not everyone sees me as I see me. An important lesson to learn.)

No matter how hard you try, you can’t kill all of the feelings that people might feel that might be different from yours. That is inhuman.

I’m no psychologist, but I think killing like this comes from a fear that what the person who is targeted is saying is a truth buried deeply in the psyche of the person doing the killing.

They could be unconsciously thinking, “If I kill this outside source of these thoughts I shouldn’t be having, I won’t have to have them again.”

That’s why it’s so important to protect the rights of people to express themselves. When writers and artists and performers engage in satire it makes most of us poke at our own thoughts and say, “I never thought about it that way before.”

We can laugh at our own thinking or we can decide the artist is wrong, but only a person who lives in fear that their way of thinking might actually be questionable and cannot live with that uncertainty decides they have to kill the artist to silence those questions.

What I write and say is my opinion and as a human being I have the right to say it. The problem is that that right has never been “free” and many people often have to pay, in one way or another, to have their voices heard. The people in Paris paid with their lives.

I stand with Charlie Hebdo and agree with Mr. Rushdie that we must defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.

Our stories must be told and should never be silenced with weapons or frightened out of existence. If you don’t like my story, tell yours better, don’t just shoot me to make me stop talking.

T.S. Eliot – Writing Quote Wednesday

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using photo by kconnor)

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using photo by kconnor)

As I’m writing this post, my family is downstairs preparing to celebrate the New Year by watching the festivities in New York City. It’s bitter cold this year, with temperatures below freezing, so I’m glad we’re safe and warm inside.

Although I’ve asked my five-year-old and his cousin to play somewhere other than where I’m writing, they’ve insisted that where I am now is their house and that it is in desperate need of decoration with all the blankets and pillows in the house. Lots of loud yelling and the playing of random musical instruments directly in my ear accompanies their shenanigans.

Despite this, I keep typing, keep trying to focus in the midst of the jocularity and imaginative play swirling around me. I have to ask them several times to stop leaning on my arms and jumping on my head as I type because I need two hands and my brain to finish this before midnight.

This quote by T.S. Eliot about last year’s words belonging to last year’s language while next year’s words await another voice seems like a great one to explore on the last day of 2014.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’m struggling through a tough patch in my work in progress. In despair I gave up for a few weeks to get perspective on what I was writing. But in that ending was a new beginning. I stopped and re-read everything I had written and found that the story was holding together but definitely needs a good paring down and tightening up.

Last year’s words belong to last year’s language. Next year’s words await another voice.

This idea of a new year and making resolutions on the night before January 1st has always seemed kind of silly to me. Since it is always NOW, the best time to make a change is now. The past is already gone the moment we bring our awareness to it and the future is constantly being created in what we do now.

One of the beautiful things about Time is that it cannot be wasted in advance. The next year, the next hour, the next minute are waiting for you as if you had never procrastinated too much on Twitter or Facebook, drank one too many glasses of wine, made one too many trips to the fridge, or sighed and shut the computer down instead of finishing your next sentence, chapter or story. These unsullied moments are there waiting for you to turn over a new leaf, hourly, if you choose to do so. Endings can happen at any time, making way for new beginnings.

I urge you to use your other voices and next year’s words in a powerful way. With each moment that you don’t do something you say you want to do, remember you can also, in a moment, decide to do it as well. I’m looking forward to reading what you write in 2015. Stories are the Wildest Things!

Give it All, Give it Now

I missed Writing Quote Wednesday this week, so I wanted to make up for it with this quote from Annie Dillard:

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”
—Annie Dillard

I often find myself holding back as I’m working on a book because I’m afraid that I’m going to run out of ideas. This is a ridiculous thought. Ideas are infinite. Some people, like Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, even think our ideas don’t come from us, they pass us through us and, if we’re lucky, we’re able to grab them on the way past.

As I make progress on the novel based on my short story My Strength Will Ease Your Sorrow, from Beyond the Gate I’m going to try to keep Annie’s words in mind. “Give it, give it all, give it now.”

Here’s Annie (and friends) giving it her all as a karaoke singer in Key West.

I also like this quote because this is the season of giving.

I love giving and receiving gifts as much as the next person. But I know that around this time of year we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get the PERFECT gift.

We sweat and fume over what gift to give to those we love. We wander the aisles, in real life or online, running our fingers, real or cyber, over the merchandise on those overstocked and bulging shelves.

We might ask ourselves:

“What should I give to show how much I care?”

“What is the perfect gift for the person who has given me so much?”

“Why can’t I just buy something and be done with it?”

We seem to pursue that perfect gift to have a transcendent experience with the person the gift is intended for. As we pick up the object we look into the future and see the hoped-for response in the receiver of the gift. Maybe we want them to weep in happiness or jump up and down for joy or finally see how much we really, truly understand them by our choice of a gift.

But how often does this happen? (Hopefully it’s happened more often for you than it has for me.)

In the past, I’ve felt the painful disappointment of giving a gift that was received with less enthusiasm and joy than I had imagined. Excited for the holidays, I kept a joyous anticipation of the look on my children’s faces when they would open their gifts. Then when the big day came and the gifts were opened and almost immediately abandoned, I’d feel a sad lump in the pit of my stomach as I realized I hadn’t achieved gift-giving nirvana once again.

Now that I’m older, I realize that gifts during the holidays are just a token to stand in for something larger and more important – our time and attention. Time and attention is so scarce in these days of smart phones and binge-television and Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and whatever other social media apps are hot now. A gift is a small way to say, “I appreciate you for who you are and treasure your time and attention,” not “The value of this gift is how much I value you.”

Because we could just as easily paint rocks in pretty colors and give them to each other if that was our tradition of gift-giving. But even if that was our tradition, people would still be disappointed because the rock they gave wasn’t purple enough or red enough or orange enough or shiny enough or big enough or small enough or new enough or whatever enough quality they were looking for in the gift because it’s not about the gift.

This holiday season try not to project the perfect response on to the receiver of the gift. Allow what happens to happen and be there for it fully. Maybe their eyes will twinkle for a millisecond. Perhaps they’ll sigh because they have a hundred of the same thing at home. They might even drop the gift on the ground and jump gleefully into the box it came in, playing with the box for hours. By allowing their response to the gift to be what it is, you have a chance to remember that a gift is just a stand-in for the time and attention you want to spend with that person now. If you waste that time worrying about what they thought of your gift, you’re missing out on being with them fully as they are.

This slight change of thinking has made for much happier holidays for me and my family. I no longer put tremendous pressure on myself to come up with just the RIGHT gift for those I love. Now I try to give my time, my love, and my attention. The object wrapped in shiny paper can never equal that in value.


If you are looking for gifts for the writers in your life (including yourself), please stop by and order something from The Writer’s Retreat. There’s some great books on writing, writer t-shirts, writing supplies, Poe air fresheners and more. Check it out by clicking this link: THE WRITER’S RETREAT.

Amanda Palmer – Writing Quote Wednesday

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Morguefile.com photo by GaborfromHungary)

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Morguefile.com photo by GaborfromHungary)

Amanda Palmer’s new book The Art of Asking” is now available on Amazon. It seems she got caught up in the Amazon/Hachette brouhaha that’s been going around in publishing circles. For now, the publishers have declared themselves satisfied (according to this Times article).


The reason I chose this quote for Writing Quote Wednesday is that I recently watched Palmer’s TED talk (after finding out more about her from Ksenia Anske) and was thinking a lot about her ideas of “asking” people to support you as an artist. She says you can’t make people buy what you create. You have to ask them to.

You can watch the talk here:

If you don’t have the time to watch the video, she also mentions that when she was working as a “living statue” street performer people would sometimes drive by and yell, “Get a job!”

That “get a job” mentality that is heaped upon anyone who dares to make a living in the arts is so pervasive, so insidious in our culture, that we even say it to ourselves.

I find myself saying “get a job” as I sit down to create a world from nothing but my imagination and life experience. I’ll be working on my latest story and that little voice in my head keeps saying, “Get a job! What are you doing with your life?”

There is a guilt and shame that I feel sometimes when I am doing my own creative work. I think, “I’m not working for someone else, so it must not be of value. Get a job.” People don’t consider it a job, or they think that because I enjoy what I do that it is somehow less difficult than other forms of work. The amount of time it takes to create something new can be immense. You have to take the time to play and think and consider and fail and rebuild and learn and do. It might look like play to someone from the outside, but those of us who have done it know that it is a lot of hard work, too.

I find myself saying it when I’m in the middle of a performance and the audience is sitting on the edge of their seats and I can feel them listening to what I’m saying. I can feel the connection between us and then I start to worry if it will last. Suddenly, that voice again, “Who do you think you are? Get a job! This is too intimate. This is too risky. This is too…” fill in the BLANK. It takes me right out of the moment of creation and into the worry about survival. Where is the next job coming from? How will I survive?

I find myself saying it when the bills come due and the bank account is bleeding out. “Get a job,” that insistent voice says. Those people who love me most have said it over and over again. Not directly, but in hundreds of little ways they may not even be aware of. The strident tones of voice. The sideways glances. The looks on faces.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling brave, I answer the voice back. I say, “Quiet down, you. I have a job. I create for a living. I take nothing and make it into something. I am working for someone else – the people who want to hear my stories. My job is to be in collaboration with them. To ask, without shame, for people to share in this journey with me.”

That shuts him up for a little awhile.

It’s time to be brave again. I’m asking you now. Please support the Fiction Unboxed short story anthology “Beyond the Gate” by downloading it on Amazon. It’s FREE. (It’s also available on other major booksellers.) Then leave us a short review. We’d love to hear from you.

I’m also working on the novel length version of my story “My Strength Will Ease Your Sorrow” from that anthology. I ask that if you’d like to know when it’s available, please sign up for the email list.

If you feel inspired, please share your “get a job” and “asking for” stories in the comments section.

Thank you for all you do!

Here’s more Amanda Palmer to make your day brighter:

Also, please stop by Amanda’s Blog.

Anne Lamott – Writing Quote Wednesday

Anyone else having trouble just writing and not editing as you go?

I tend to go back and start fixing things right away, because I can’t seem to let the words just sit there on the page. I feel like I have to shape them as I go and it’s slowing me down. I have to remember that I’m trying to get a first draft done quickly so that I can go back and shape it later.

I have to keep telling myself, “It’s supposed to look like this.”

What do you do to keep writing when all you want to do is stop and put the pieces in the right place? Leave me a comment or send me a suggestion on Twitter. Have a great writing day and keep me posted on your NaNoWriMo progress.

Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny

Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny

Shakespeare and My Birthday – Writing Quote Wednesday

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Morguefile.com photo by rosevita)

(Credit: Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny using Morguefile.com photo by rosevita)

Writing Quote Wednesday just happens to fall on my birthday this year.

I also just happen to be rehearsing a Shakespeare play on my birthday, so I thought I’d grab a few words from his 884,647 or so (That’s almost 18 NaNoWriMos). I’m sitting just outside the rehearsal room door thinking how lucky I am to have the opportunity to be saying Shakespeare’s words as I add another year to my life on this Earth. We’re working on Macbeth, or The Scottish Play to those who are superstitious, and it’s a grand adventure to work with this company on this story.

My heart is often cooled with mortifying groans that I’m getting older. My left shoulder has a nagging pain that doesn’t go away. I need cheater glasses to read fine print. I have to watch my blood pressure and the weight I put on in winter doesn’t seem to come off as easily as it did in my youth.

I am also an oenophile, so my liver is often plenty hot from the drinking of wine. A good red wine, a good book and a bar of dark chocolate is something like bliss to me. (It also makes for a good workout according to this book.)

As I celebrate one more year, I hope, that like Gratiano from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, I can continue to play the fool into my old age. I have plenty of wrinkles, which have come from equal parts mirth and laughter and worry and concern, but the ones that have come from mirth and laughter are much more fun to remember.

I’m looking forward to many more years of laughter and many more wrinkles to come.