Dr. Mardy's Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations

“W” Quotations


(see also CREPES and PANCAKES and SYRUP)

  • Waffles are just pancakes with abs. Author Unknown



  • Waiting is one of the great arts. Margery Allingham, in The Tiger in the Smoke (1952)
  • As a kid, you await holidays with a wide-eyed, passionate, almost maniacal enthusiasm. Heavy breathing is involved. Regina Barreca, in Too Much of a Good Thing Is Wonderful (2000)
  • I live now on borrowed time, waiting in the anteroom for the summons that will inevitably come. And then—I go on to the next thing, whatever it is. One doesn’t luckily have to bother about that. Agatha Christie, in An Autobiography (1977)
  • We usually learn to wait only when we have no longer anything to wait for. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880)
  • Waiting, done at really high speeds, will frequently look like something else. Carrie Fisher, in Delusions of Grandma (1994)
  • I never heard of anybody who admired the character of sheep. Even the gentlest human personalities in contact with them are annoyed by their lack of brains, courage and initiative, by their extraordinary ability to get themselves into uncomfortable or dangerous situations and then wait in inert helplessness for someone to rescue them. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, in Vermont Tradition (1935)
  • Survival is an art. It requires the dulling of the mind and the senses, and a delicate attunement to waiting, without insisting on precision about just what it is you are waiting for. Marilyn French, in The Women’s Room (1977)
  • Waiting is far more difficult than doing. Elizabeth Gaskell, in Mary Barton (1848)
  • Waiting is a large part of living. Great, passive, negative chunks of our time are consumed by waiting, from birth to death. Waiting is a special kind of activity—if activity is the right word for it—because we are held in enforced suspension between people and places, removed from the normal rhythms of our days and lives. Ada Louise Huxtable, in Architecture, Anyone? (1986)
  • It is the nature of those books we call classics to wait patiently on the shelf for us to grow into them. Erica Jong, in Sappho’s Leap (2003)
  • Everything comes to the man who won’t wait. Ada Leverson, in The Twelfth Hour (1907)
  • Some women wait for something/to change and nothing/does change/so they change/themselves. Audre Lorde, “Stations,” in Our Dead Behind Us (1986)
  • On the wall of our life together hung a gun waiting to be fired in the final act. Mary McCarthy, in Intellectual Memoirs (1992)
  • The most potent and sacred command which can be laid upon any artist is the command: wait. Iris Murdoch, in The Black Prince (1973)
  • If you wait too long/You may forget what you have been waiting for. Louis Phillips, “The Borrowings We Have Made On Other Lives,” in Sunlight Falling to the Lake (2020)
  • Women have always been seen as waiting: waited to be asked, waiting for our menses, in fear lest they do or do not come, waiting for men to come home from wars, or from work, waiting for children to grow up, or for the birth of a new child, or for menopause. Adrienne Rich, in Of Woman Born (1976)
  • There is nothing more fatal than to give before asking has come from the deepest level of consciousness. Too many times I have rushed into this moment and killed it by my eagerness. Now I wait until I am sure. Margaret Lee Runbeck, in Answer Without Ceasing (1949)
  • The most trying moments in human experience were those in which there was nothing to be done except to wait. Patricia Wentworth, in The Girl in the Cellar (1961)
  • Like many unpunctual persons, Mrs. Gormer disliked to be kept waiting. Edith Wharton, the voice of the narrator, in The House of Mirth (1905)



  • The longest journey begins with a single step, not with the turn of an ignition key. Edward Abbey, “Walking,” in The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1991)
  • Walking is the only form of transportation in which a man proceeds erect—like a man—on his own legs, under his own power. There is immense satisfaction in that. Edward Abbey, in Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast (2006; David Petersen, ed.)
  • People seem to think there is something inherently noble and virtuous in the desire to go for a walk. Max Beerbohm, “Going Out for a Walk,” in And Even Now (1920)
  • The place to observe nature is where you are: the walk you take to-day is the walk you took yesterday. You will not find just the same things. John Burroughs, in Signs and Seasons (1886)

QUOTE NOTE: All over the internet, you will find a paraphrased version of this sentiment (“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”) as an actual quotation by Burroughs. It is not.

  • I’ve struggled to pull energetic stories out of a lethargic mind. It’s worth the time to take an hour’s walk before writing. You may write a bit less for the time spent, but you may find that you write better. Orson Scott Card, in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (1990)

Card introduced the thought by writing: “Writing is a sedentary business; it’s easy for many of us to get fat and sluggish. Your brain is attached to the rest of your body. You can’t do your best work when you’re weak or in ill health.”

  • I nauseate walking: ’Tis a country diversion; I loathe the country. William Congreve, the character Millamant speaking, in The Way of the World (1700)
  • If I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish. Charles Dickens, in letter to John Forster (Sep. 29, 1854)
  • Walking is also an ambulation of mind. Gretel Ehrlich, “River History,” in William Kittredge and John Smart, eds., Montana Spaces: Essays and Photographs in Celebration of Montana (1988)

I’ve always loved this observation, for it captures exactly my own experience when walking. Ehrlich continued: “The human armor of bones rattle, fat rolls, and inside this durable, fleshy prison of mine, I make a beeline toward otherness, lightness, or, maybe like a moth, toward flame.”

QUOTE NOTE: You may have also seen Ehrlich’s observation presented as: “Walking is almost an ambulation of mind.” Here’s what I know about this somewhat confusing situation. In “The Source of a River” essay, published three years later in Islands, The Universe, Home: Essays (1991) Ehrlich offered exactly the same thought as you see above, but this time the phrasing “almost an ambulation” was used. I’ll try to contact Ehrlich for clarification.

QUOTE NOTE II: I haven’t yet heard from Ehrlich on the matter, but I’ve recently discovered that she offered yet another version of the thought in Arctic Heart: A Poem Cycle (1992: “Walking is an ambulation of mind; to walk is/to unbalance oneself: I thrust one foot forward/until I almost fall, then the other foot catches me/as if I were two or none or maybe many.”

  • There are five steps to correctly performing a Walking Your Blues Away session. They are: Define the issue. Bring up the story. Walk with the issue. Notice how the issue changes. Anchor the new state. Thom Hartmann, in Walking Your Blues Away (2006)
  • If you are seeking creative ideas, go out walking. Angels whisper to a man when he goes for a walk. Raymond Inmon, quoted in Julia Cameron, The Vein of Gold: A Journey to Your Creative Heart (1997)
  • Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. Søren Kiekegaard, from an 1847 letter to his niece Henriette Lund; in The Essential Kierkegaard (1978; H. V. Hong & E. H. Hong, eds.)
  • Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. John Muir, “Yellowstone National Park,” in Our National Parks (1901)
  • In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. John Muir, in Travels in Alaska (1915)
  • I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. John Muir, in John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1979; L. M. Wolfe, ed.)
  • Walks. The body advances, while the mind flutters around it like a bird. Jules Renard, journal entry (Dec., 1907), in The Journals of Jules Renard (1964; Louise Bogan & Elizabeth Roget, eds.)
  • O Lord! I don’t know which is the worst of the country, the walking or the sitting at home with nothing to do. George Bernard Shaw, the title character speaking, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (written 1893; first performed 1902)
  • I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness. Rebecca Solnit, “Tracing a Headland: An Introduction,” in Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000)
  • Perhaps/The truth depends on a walk around a lake. Wallace Stevens, in “It Must Be Abstract,” a portion of the longer poem Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942)

Stevens continued: “A composing as the body tires, a stop/To see hepatica, a stop to watch/A definition growing certain and/a wait within that certainty, a rest/In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake.”

  • Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow, as if I had given vent to the stream at the lower end and consequently new fountains flowed into it at the upper. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry (Aug. 19, 1851); reprinted in The Portable Thoreau (2012; Jeffrey S. Cramer, ed.)

While engaged in the simple physical activity of walking, Thoreau went on to write, “the sources of thought burst forth and fertilize my brain.” He concluded his journal entry this way: “Only while we are in action is the circulation perfect. The writing which consists with habitual sitting is mechanical, wooden, dull to read.”



  • Had nature formed me of the other sex, I should certainly have been a Rover. Abigail Adams, in letter to Isaac Smith, Jr. (April 20, 1771); reprinted in The Adams Papers (1963; L. H. Butterfierld, ed.)
  • To follow a wandering mind means having to get lost. Can you stand being lost? Lynda Barry, in What It Is (2008)
  • It’s in our genes, we were built to wander. Helen E. Fisher, in Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery and Divorce (1992)
  • I have led a free, wandering life for so long now that I should find myself quite incapable of settling down. Margaret Fontaine, a 1904 entry, quoted in W. F. Cater, Love Among the Butterflies: The Travels and Adventures of a Victorian Lady (1980)

Fontaine went on to add: “Women like myself can neither bring happiness into a domestic life, nor (even under the most desirable circumstances) find it there.”

  • The laws all true wanderers obey are these: “Thou shalt not eat nor drink more than thy share,” “Thou shalt not lie about the places thou hast visited or the distances thou hast traversed.” Rosita Forbes, in The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara (1921)
  • I have learned since that sometimes the things we want most are impossible for us. You may long to come home, yet wander forever. Nadine Gordimer, in The Lying Days (1953)
  • The paradox: there can be no pilgrimage without a destination, but the destination is also not the real point of the endeavor. Not the destination, but the willingness to wander in pursuit characterizes pilgrimage. Patricia Hampl, in Spillville: A Collaboration (1987)

Hampl continued: “Willingness: to hear the tales along the way, to make the casual choices of travel, to acquiesce even to boredom. That’s pilgrimage—a mind full of journey.”

  • A solitary being is by instinct a wanderer. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, in The Last Man (1826)
  • Not all those who wander are lost. J. R. R. Tolkien, the character Bilbo speaking, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954)

QUOTE NOTE: This has become one of Tolkien’s most popular quotations. It first appeared in an aphorism-laden piece of verse that the character Bilbo used to describe Aragorn: “All that is gold does not glitter;/Not all those who wander are lost;The old that is strong does not wither,/Deep roots are not reached by frost,/From the ashes a fire shall be woken,/A light from the shadows shall spring; /Renewed shall be blade that was broken:/The Crownless again shall be king.”

  • When twilight drops her curtain down. And pins it with a star/Remember that you have a friend/Though she may wander far. L. M. Montgomery, in Anne of Green Gables (1908)



  • You can’t argue with a raging want. You can, but it is useless. Storm Jameson, in That Was Yesterday (1932)



  • After each war there is a little less democracy to save. Brooks Atkinson, in Once Around the Sun (1951)
  • We make war that we may live in peace. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics (4th c. B.C.). Also an example of oxymoronic phrasing.
  • A war is a huge fire; the ashes from it drift far, and settle slowly. Margaret Atwood, the narrator and protagonist Iris Chase speaking, in The Blind Assassin (2000)
  • The first casualty of war is truth. Author Unknown (but commonly attributed to Sen. Hiram Johnson)

QUOTE NOTE: This sentiment—which has achieved the status of a modern proverb—was long thought to have been authored by California Senator Hiram Johnson (1866-1945), supposedly in a U. S. Senate speech just prior to America’s involvement in WWI (in the form: “The first casualty when war comes is truth”). The remark has not been found in the Congressional Record, however, and quotation scholars believe an attribution to Sen. Johnson is incorrect.

In a 1758 essay in The Idler, English man of letters Samuel Johnson offered what looks like the earliest precursor of the sentiment: “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages.” The original author of the actual saying the first casualty of war is truth is unknown, but it was well established by the first decade of the twentieth century. For example, in the Introduction to E. D. Morel’s 1916 book Truth and the War, British politician Philip Snowden wrote: “‘Truth,’ it has been said, ‘is the first casualty of war.’” For more, see this 2011 post by quotation sleuth Barry Popik.

  • War doesn’t determine who’s right, only who’s left. Author Unknown

ERROR ALERT: This modern proverb is often attributed to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, but he is most definitely not the original author. The essential nature of the saying (who’s right/who’s left) appeared in the early 1930s, but somewhat similar antecedents began to circulate more than a century earlier (quotation researcher Suzanne Watkins alerted The Quote Investigator to an 1875 who’s right/who’s strongest version).

  • What this country needs—what every country needs occasionally—is a good hard bloody war to revive the vice of patriotism on which its existence as a nation depends. Ambrose Bierce, in a letter (Feb. 15, 1911)
  • In war there is no second prize for the runner-up. Omar Bradley, quoted in Military Review (Feb., 1950)
  • War is like love, it always finds a way. Bertolt Brecht, in Mother Courage and Her Children (1941)
  • War’s a brain-spattering, windpipe-slitting art. George Gordon, Lord Byron, in Don Juan (1819–24)

ERROR ALERT: Numerous quotation anthologies mistakenly say windpipe-splitting art.

  • We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves. Albert Camus, journal entry (Sep. 7, 1939), in Notebooks, Vol. 3 (1966)
  • War is a quarrel between two thieves too cowardly to fight their own battle; therefore they take boys from one village and another village, stick them into uniforms, equip them with guns, and let them loose like wild beasts against each other. Thomas Carlyle, quoted in Emma Goldman, “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty,” Anarchism: And Other Essays (1910)

ERROR ALERT: This observation, which has never been found in any of Carlyle’s works, is now regarded by scholars as Goldman’s paraphrase of Carlyle’s position on war, originally offered in Sartor Resartus (1833–34). I’ve searched that classic work by Carlyle, and could not find anything even close to Goldman’s summary.

  • In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers. Neville Chamberlain, in speech at Kettering (July 3, 1938)
  • One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one! Agatha Christie, in An Autobiography (1977)
  • In wartime, Truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies. Winston Churchill, a 1943 remark, quoted in Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (2008)

QUOTE NOTE: Churchill made this remark at a summit meeting in Teheran in 1943, just after The Big Three (Churchill, FDR, and Stalin) gave their formal approval to a fake invasion plan submitted by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. The genuine Normandy Beach invasion plan had already been given the code name “Operation Overlord” and, after Churchill’s remark, the fake plans were named “Operation Bodyguard.”

  • War is mainly a catalogue of blunders. Winston Churchill, in The Second World War: The Grand Alliance (1950)
  • The sinews of war, unlimited money. Marcus Tullius Cicero, in Fifth Philippic oration (44 B.C.)

QUOTE NOTE: The English playwright George Farguhar piggybacked on this famous observation when he gave the following words to a character in his 1698 play Love and a Bottle: “Money is the sinews of love, as of war.”

  • All great civilizations, in their early stages, are based on success in war. Kenneth Clark, in Civilization (1969)
  • In time of war all countries behave equally badly, because the power of action is handed over to stupid and obstinate men. Kenneth Clark, in The Other Half: A Self Portrait (1977)
  • War is the continuation of politics by other means. Karl von Clausewitz, in On War (1832–34)

QUOTE NOTE: This is one of history’s most famous quotations, and this is the way it is most commonly presented in such respected reference works as the Yale Book of Quotations. In The Quote Verifier (2006), however, Ralph Keyes suggests that Clausewitz meant continuation of policy, not politics). For more on the observation, and a sampling of spin-off sayings, go to This Day in Quotes. See also the Zhou Enlai quotation in DIPLOMACY & DIPLOMATS.

  • Pursue one great decisive aim with force and determination. Karl von Clausewitz, in On War (1832–34)

QUOTE NOTE: Clausewitz introduced this saying by describing it as “a maxim which should take first place among all causes of victory in the modern art of war.”

  • Wars of pen and ink often lead to wars of cannon and bayonets. Edward Counsel, in Maxims: Political, Philosophical, and Moral (2nd ed., 1892)
  • War is a severe doctor; but it sometimes heals grievances. Edward Counsel, in Maxims: Political, Philosophical, and Moral (2nd ed., 1892)
  • But war’s a game, which, were their subjects wise,/Kings would not play at. William Cowper, “The Winter Morning Walk,” in The Task (1785)
  • War has to be nourished by lies. Margaret Deland, in The Kays (1924)
  • War is the trade of kings. John Dryden, in King Arthur (1691)
  • America is addicted to wars of distraction. Barbara Ehrenreich, quoted in The Times (London; April 22, 1991)
  • War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business. Albert Einstein, in The World As I See It (1949)
  • Probably, no nation is rich enough to pay for both war and civilization. We must make our choice; we cannot have both. Abraham Flexner, in Universities (1930)

Flexner preceded the observation by writing: “Nations have recently been led to borrow billions for war; no nation has ever borrowed largely for education.”

  • War’s tragedy is that it uses man’s best to do man’s worst. Harry Emerson Fosdick, in On Being Fit to Live With: Sermons on Post-War Christianity (1946)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites and most published quotation anthologies mistakenly present the thought this way: “The tragedy of war is that it uses man’s best to do man’s worst.”

  • As soon as war is declared it will be impossible to hold the poets back. Rhyme is still the most effective drum. Jean Giraudoux, the character Hecuba speaking, in Tiger at the Gates (1935)
  • Everyone, when there’s war in the air, learns to live in a new element: falsehood. Everybody lies. Jean Giraudoux, the character Andromache speaking, in Tiger at the Gates (1935)
  • There is money in war. There is money in fear of war. John Gunther, in Inside Europe (1936)
  • I’d like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry. Joseph Heller, the character Milo Minderbinder speaking, in Catch-22 (1961)
  • Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651)
  • War is mankind’s favorite hell. Mark Holmboe, in letter to the editor, Rockford [Illinois] Register Star (Nov. 19, 2019)
  • Wars may be fought by decent men, but they’re not won by them. P. D. James, from a character in A Taste for Death (1986)
  • I look upon the whole world as my fatherland, and every war has to me the horror of a family feud. Helen Keller, “Menace of the Militarist Program,” speech to Labor Forum (New York City; Dec. 19, 1915)

In that same article, Keller offered these other thoughts:

“Every modern war has had its roots in exploitation.”

“The best preparation [for war] is the one that disarms the hostility of other nations and makes friends of them.”

  • War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today. John F. Kennedy, quoted in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1979)
  • The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows. Martin Luther King, Jr., in The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., Second Edition (1987)

QUOTE NOTE: I’ve tried without success to locate the original source for this observation, which has become one of Dr. King’s most popular quotations. The version above appears—without source information—in an anthology prepared by the Estate of Dr. King, but be aware that the quotation shows up in a number of slightly different ways (the 9/11 Commission report, for example, uses the phrase shaping peaceful tomorrows).

  • The most persistent sound which reverberates through man’s history is the beating of war drums. Arthur Koestler, in Prologue to Janus: A Summing Up (1978)
  • It is well that this is so terrible! We should grow too fond of it! Robert E. Lee, a remark to Gen. James Longstreet at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia (Dec. 13, 1862); quoted in John E. Cooke, A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee (1871)

ERROR ALERT: These are Lee’s actual words, according to his biographer, but they are almost always repeated in slightly altered forms, even in scholarly publications. A 1962 edition of The American Scholar, for example, had it this way: “If war were not so terrible, men would love it too much.” Today, you will almost always find it presented in this form: “It is well that war is so terrible; men would love it too much.”

  • The belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions. Robert Lynd, in Searchlights and Nightingales (1939)
  • I drink to the artists: those who make beauty, who unlock mysteries, who serve truth. Artists never make wars. They are too busy making life out of the matter of their visions. Marya Mannes, in They (1968)
  • All wars derive from lack of empathy: the incapacity of one to understand and accept the likeness or difference of another. Marya Mannes, in Out of My Time (1971)

Mannes continued: “Whether in nations or the encounters of race and sex, competition then replaces compassion.”

  • I dream/of/giving birth/to/a child/ who will ask,/“Mother,/what was war?” Eve Merriam, “Fantasia” (1976), in A Sky Full of Poems (1986)
  • War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America,” in Fraser’s magazine (Feb, 1862)

QUOTE NOTE: Mill, a strong supporter of the Abolitionist cause, introduced this thought by writing: “I am not blind to the possibility that it may require a long war to lower the arrogance and tame the aggressive ambition of the slave-owners.” The full essay may be seen at ”Contest in America”.

  • The souls of emperors and cobblers are cast in the same mold. The same reason that makes us wrangle with a neighbor creates a war between princes. Michel de Montaigne, in Essays (1580-88)
  • Against war it may be said that it makes the victor stupid and the vanquished revengeful. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Human, All Too Human (1878)
  • He who is the author of a war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death. Thomas Paine, in The American Crisis, 1776–83 (issued March 21, 1778)

QUOTE NOTE: In this pamphlet, one of sixteen Paine wrote during the Revolutionary War, he addressed his words directly to the British general Sir William Howe. He preceded the thought by writing: “If there is a sin superior to every other, it is that of willful and offensive war. Most other sins are circumscribed within narrow limits, that is, the power of one man cannot give them a very general extension, and many kinds of sins have only a mental existence from which no infection arises.”

  • Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him? Blaise Pascal, in Pensées (1670)
  • History is littered with the wars which everybody knew would never happen. Enoch Powell, in speech at Conservative Party Conference (Oct. 19, 1967)
  • You can no more win a war then you can win an earthquake. Jeanette Rankin, quoted in H. Josephson, Jeanette Rankin: First Lady in Congress (1974)
  • War is not an adventure. It is a disease. It is like typhus. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in Flight to Arras (1942)
  • To call war the soil of courage and virtue is like calling debauchery the soil of love. George Santayana, in The Life of Reason (1905–06)
  • To delight in war is a merit in the soldier, a dangerous quality in the captain, and a positive crime in the statesman. George Santayana, in The Life of Reason (1905–06)
  • Only the dead are safe; only the dead have seen the end of war. George Santayana, “Tipperary,” in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)

ERROR ALERT: A very similar version of this observation is commonly misattributed to Plato, even though the legendary Greek philosopher never said or wrote anything like it. In popular misattributions like this, it is usually difficult to identify the original source of the error, but in this case we can. This one can be traced to a 1935 reunion of “Rainbow Division” veterans of The Great War, when U.S. Army Chief of Staff Douglas Macarthur said, “Plato, the wisest of all men, once exclaimed, ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’” In 1962, Macarthur made the same claim in a farewell address to West Point cadets, and, as a result of these two speeches, almost all internet sites now mistakenly attribute the observation to Plato.

  • All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal. John Steinbeck, in Introduction to Once There Was a War (1958)
  • War is capitalism with the gloves off. Tom Stoppard, the character Tristan Tzara speaking, in Travesties (1974)

Tzara began by saying: “Wars are fought for oil wells and coaling stations; for control of the Dardanelles or the Suez Canal; for colonial pickings to buy cheap in and conquered markets to sell dear in.”

  • War doesn’t mature men; it merely pickles them in the brine of disgust and dread. Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe speaking, in Over My Dead Body (1940)
  • The guerrilla fights the war of the flea, and his military enemy suffers the dog’s disadvantage: too much to defend; too small, ubiquitous, and agile an enemy to come to grips with. Robert Taber, in The War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerilla Warfare (1965)
  • War is the unfolding of miscalculations. Barbara W. Tuchman, in The Guns of August (1962)
  • man’s oldest and least reputable occupation—war. Barbara Ward, in Spaceship Earth (1966)
  • All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavor to find out what you don’t know by what you do. Arthur Wellesley (Duke of Wellington), remark to Mr. & Mrs. John Crocker (Sep. 4, 1852), quoted in John Wilson Croker, The Croker Papers (1884; Louis J. Jennings, ed.)

Wellesley added: “That’s what I called 'guessing what was at the other side of the hill.'”

  • Before a war military science seems a real science, like astronomy; but after a war it seems more like astrology. Rebecca West, quoted in B. H. Liddell Hart, Europe in Arms (1937)
  • War is fear cloaked in courage. William C. Westmoreland, quoted in McCall’s magazine (Dec., 1966)
  • War makes strangers bedfellows. Kathleen Winsor, in Star Money (1950)



  • If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. The Bible—Mark 3:25
  • The Civil War. Now there is another phrase I dearly love. That is a true oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one—civil war. D’you think anybody in this country could ever really have a civil war? George Carlin, in What Am I Doing in New Jersey? (1988)
  • Every social war is a battle between the very few on both sides who care and who fire their shots across a crowd of spectators. Murray Kempton, in Part of Our Time: Some Ruins & Monuments of the Thirties (1955)
  • In a civil war the firing line is invisible, it passes through the hearts of men. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939)



  • Let us not be deceived—we are today in the midst of a cold war. Bernard Baruch, in speech to South Carolina legislature (April 16, 1947)

QUOTE NOTE: Baruch did not coin the term cold war, but his use of the term in this 1947 speech certainly helped to popularize the term. The English writer George Orwell first used the expression in “You and the Atomic Bomb,“ an October 19, 1945 essay in Tribune, a British newspaper . Referring to James Burnham’s predictions of a polarized world confronted with the threat of nuclear warfare, Orwell wrote:

“James Burnham’s theory has been much discussed, but few people have yet considered its ideological implications—that is, the kind of world-view, the kind of beliefs, and the social structure that would probably prevail in a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.”

Five months later, in March 10, 1946 article in The Observer, Orwell employed the expression a second time, writing: “After the Moscow conference last December, Russia began to make a ‘cold war’ on Britain and the British Empire.”

  • An iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Winston Churchill, in speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri (March 5, 1946)

QUOTE NOTE: Churchill did not coin the term iron curtain (Ethel Snowden, a British politician, used the expression as early as 1920), but his use of the term in this speech immortalized the term. Churchill was referring to the division in Europe that ensued right after WWII. Here’s a fuller passage: “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory…. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

  • The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision. Henry Kissinger, quoted in The Observer (London; Sep. 30, 1979)
  • The Cold War isn’t thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat. Communism isn’t sleeping; it is always plotting, scheming, working, fighting. Richard M. Nixon, “Cuba, Castro, and John F. Kennedy,” in The Reader’s Digest (November 1964)
  • We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life. J. Robert Oppenheimer, “Atomic Weapons and American Policy,” in Foreign Affairs magazine (July, 1953)



  • War is nothing but a cowardly escape from the problems of peace. Thomas Mann, in The Coming Victory of Democracy (1938)



  • The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb. Jorge Luis Borges, on the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, quoted in Time magazine (Feb. 14, 1983)
  • The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land, you may almost hear the beating of his wings. John Bright, appealing for an armistice during the Crimean War in a House of Commons speech (Feb. 23, 1855)




  • Washington is like a self-sealing tank on a military aircraft. When a bullet passes through, it closes up. Dean Acheson, quoted in Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas, The Wise Men (1986)
  • Washington—First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League. Charles Dryden, quoted in the Washington Post (June 27, 1904)
  • The whole of society in Washington is to some degree political. It is like no other capital city known to me, in that political thinking, the whole business, technical and personal, of politics, is not diluted by an equal interest in art, industry, amusement, anything you like. Storm Jameson, in Journey From the North, Vol. 2 (1970)

Jameson continued: “I don’t meant that these are non-existent in Washington—only that they are subdued to the ruling passion.”

  • Somebody once said that Washington was a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. John F. Kennedy, in remarks to the National Cultural Center Trustees and Advisory Committee (Nov. 14, 1961)

ERROR ALERT: In Portrait of a President (1962), William Manchester quoted JFK without the prefatory words “Somebody once said that,” giving the impression that Kennedy was the author of the saying.

  • Washington DC is to lying what Wisconsin is to cheese. Dennis Miller, quoted in a 2008 issue of Reader’s Digest (specific issue undetermined)
  • One has to live in Washington to know what a city of rumors it is. Eleanor Roosevelt, in My Day, Vol. 1 (1989)
  • If there is one thing that is bipartisan in Washington, it is brazen hypocrisy. Thomas Sowell, “Supreme Hypocrisy,” in Townhall.com (March 29, 2016)
  • A friend of mine says that every man who takes office in Washington either grows or swells, and when I give a man an office, I watch him carefully to see whether he is swelling or growing. Woodrow Wilson, in speech to the National Press Club, Washington, DC (May 15, 1916)



(see also [Bottled] WATER and DRINK and RAIN and RIVERS & STREAMS and THIRST and WELLS)

  • A crisis, for water, is when it reaches 211 degrees. Hart Pomerantz, in a personal communication to the compiler (AuG. 4, 2018)

QUOTE NOTE: The boiling point for water is 212 degrees Fahrenheit.



  • All the people like us are We,/And every one else is They. Rudyard Kipling, from the poem “We and They”, in Debits and Credits (1926)

The poem continues: “And They live over the sea,/While We live over the way,/But—would you believe it?—They look upon We/As only a sort of They!”

  • It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things. Terry Pratchett, a reflection of the character Samuel Vimes, in Jingo (1997)

Vimes began his thought process this way: “He wanted there to be conspirators. It was much better to imagine men in some smoky room somewhere, made mad and cynical by privilege and power, plotting over the brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told their children bedtime stories, were capable of going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people.”



  • It’s a great life, if you don’t weaken. John Buchan, the character Abel Gresson speaking, in Mr. Standfast (1919)
  • The concessions of the weak are the concessions of fear. Edmund Burke, “Conciliation with America,” a House of Commons speech (March 22, 1775)
  • The weakest living creature, by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something. The strongest, by dispensing his over many, may fail to accomplish anything. The drop, by continually falling, bores its passage through the hardest rock. The hasty torrent rushes over it with hideous uproar, and leaves no trace behind. Thomas Carlyle, in The Life of Friedrich Schiller (1825)

Carlyle continued: “Few men have applied more steadfastly to the business of their life, or been more resolutely diligent, than Schiller.”

  • There is nothing so absolute as the tyranny of weakness. Dinah Mulock Craik, in Sermons Out of Church (1875)
  • Weakness is a great bully without knowing it. Margaret Deland, in Philip and His Wife (1894)
  • Women are never stronger than when they arm themselves with their weaknesses. Marie du Deffand, from a letter to Voltaire (c. 1750), in Lettres à Voltaire (1922; Joseph Trabucco, ed.). Also an example of Oxymoronica.
  • Not to discover weakness is/The Artifice of strength. Emily Dickinson, in a c. 1865 poem; reprinted in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960; Thomas H. Johnson, ed.)
  • Strong people have strong weaknesses. Peter Drucker, in a 1980 issue of Manage magazine (specific issue undetermined)
  • Many think they have good hearts who have only weak nerves. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880)
  • You must know a man's weakness before you truly know his strength. Havelock Ellis, in Selected Essays (1936)
  • It is as easy for the strong man to be strong as it is for the weak to be weak. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” in Essays: First Series (1841)
  • Our strength grows out of our weakness. The indignation which arms itself with secret forces does not awaken until we are pricked and stung and sorely assailed. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Compensation,” in Essays: First Series (1841)

QUOTE NOTE: Reflecting on what makes for greatness in a man, Emerson went on to write: “When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill.”

  • The strength of weak people constantly appalls me. Have you ever seen a vine kill an oak tree? Deadly. Rae Foley, in Back Door to Death (1963)
  • People who have no weaknesses are terrible; there is no way of taking advantage of them. Anatole France, a reflection of the title character, in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881)
  • The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. Mohandas Gandhi, in March 23, 1931 “Interview to the Press;” published in Young India (April 2, 1931)
  • The difference between weakness and wickedness is much less than people suppose; and the consequences are nearly always the same. Marguerite Gardiner (Lady Blessington), the character Lady Delafield speaking, in The Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman (1836)
  • People with really weak characters cause an immense amount of suffering in the world. They destroy whole civilizations. Bessie Head, a 1968 remark, in A Gesture of Belonging: Letters from Bessie Head, 1965–1979 (1991; Randolph Vigne, ed.)
  • Strong men can always afford to be gentle. Only the weak are intent on “giving as good as they get.” Elbert Hubbard, in The Note Book (1927)
  • It is by its promise of a sense of power that evil often attracts the weak. Eric Hoffer, in The Passionate State of Mind (1955)
  • Every now and then, in the course of great events, the elements of tradition and innovation ally themselves and each one’s weakness supplements the other and together they achieve the perfect debacle. Murray Kempton, “The Genius of Mussolini,” in The New York Review of Books (Oct. 7, 1982); reprinted in Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (1994)
  • Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune, or the quirks of fate. Everyone has it within his power to say, this I am today, that I will be tomorrow. The wish, however, must be implemented by deeds. Louis L’Amour, a reflection of narrator and protagonist Mathurin Kerbouchard, in The Walking Drum (1984)

Kerbouchard introduced the thought by saying: “Up to a point a man’s life is shaped by environment, heredity, and movements and changes in the world about him; then there comes a time when it lies within his grasp to shape the clay of his life into the sort of thing he wishes to be.”

  • Weakness is the only fault which cannot be cured. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • Weakness, not vice, is virtue’s worst enemy. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • There are two kinds of weakness, that which breaks and that which bends. James Russell Lowell, “Shakespeare Once More,” in Among My Books (1870)
  • Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one’s mind. W. Somerset Maugham, the narrator describing the Vicar of Blackstable, in Of Human Bondage (1915)
  • So long as some are strong and some are weak, the weak will be driven to the wall. W. Somerset Maugham, in The Summing Up (1938)
  • Some people mistake weakness for tact. If they are silent when they ought to speak and so feign an argument they do not feel, they call it being truthful. Cowardice would be a much better name. Frank Medlicott, in Reader’s Digest magazine (July 1958)
  • Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be. Clementine Paddleford, quoting her mother, Jenny Paddleford, in A Flower for My Mother (1958)
  • Strength that goes wrong is even more dangerous than weakness that goes wrong. Eleanor Roosevelt, a 1959 remark, in My Day, Vol. 3 (1991)
  • All cruelty springs from weakness. Seneca the Younger, in De Vita Beata [On the Happy Life] (1st c. A.D.)
  • Our greatest weaknesses are always the flip side of our greatest strengths. Judith Sills, in Excess Baggage: Getting Out of Your Own Way (1993)
  • Men are much more unwilling to have their weaknesses and their imperfections known than their crimes. Philip Dormer Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield), in letter to his son (Sep. 5, 1748)

Lord Chesterfield continued: “And if you hint to a man that you think him silly, ignorant, or even ill-bred, or awkward, he will hate you more and longer, than if you tell him plainly, that you think him a rogue. Never yield to that temptation, which to most young people is very strong, of exposing other people’s weaknesses and infirmities.”

  • Although men are accused of not knowing their own weakness, yet perhaps as few know their own strength. It is in men as in soils, where sometimes there is a vein of gold, which the owner knows not of. Jonathan Swift, in Thoughts on Various Subjects from Miscellanies (1711-1726)
  • The weak can be terrible/because they try furiously to be strong. Rabindranath Tagore, in Fireflies (1928)
  • Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that makes them repugnant. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010)

In his book, Taleb also wrote: “The weak shows his strength and hides his weaknesses; the magnificent exhibits his weaknesses like ornaments.”

  • Weak people can be very stubborn. Josephine Tey, in A Shilling for Candles (1936)
  • Weakness on both sides is, as we know, the motto of all quarrels. Voltaire, in Philosophical Dictionary (1764)
  • There is nothing more startling in human relations that the strong emotion of weak people. Mrs. Humphrey Ward, the voice of the narrator, in The History of David Grieve (1891)
  • I discovered an important rule that I’m going to pass on to you. Never support two weaknesses at the same time. It’s your combination sinners—your lecherous liars and your miserly drunkards—who dishonor the vices and bring them into bad repute. Thornton Wilder, the character Malachi Stack speaking, in The Matchmaker (1954)

A moment earlier, Stack said: “Nurse one vice in your bosom. Give it the attention it deserves and let your virtues spring up modestly around it. Then you’ll have the miser who’s no liar; and the drunkard who’s the benefactor of the whole city.”



  • Being wealthy when no one else is is like being the only one at the party with a drink. Tim Allen, “What I’ve Learned,” in Esquire magazine (Nov. 2011)
  • If we command our wealth, we shall be rich and free: if our wealth commands us, we are poor indeed. Edmund Burke, in Letters on a Regicide Peace (1796)
  • Wealth, indeed, per se, I never too much valued, and my acquaintance with its possessors has by no means increased my veneration for it. Fanny Burney, a diary entry (Dec. 28, 1782); in The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney, Madame D'Arblay (1880; S. C. Woolspy, ed.)
  • The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth, so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship. Andrew Carnegie, the opening line of the essay “Wealth,” in North American Review (June, 1889)

QUOTE NOTE: Carnegie’s essay went on to feature what would ultimately become his most famous observation: “The man who dies…rich dies disgraced.”

  • Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community. Andrew Carnegie, “Wealth,” in North American Review (June, 1889)
  • Born to wealth that he believed would make him always independent, [Robert] Moses felt no compulsion to turn associates into friends; arrogance is, after all, one of the coefficients of money. Robert A. Caro, in The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (1974)
  • The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth—soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife. To utilize them for present needs while insuring their preservation for future generations requires a delicately balanced and continuing program, based on the most extensive research. Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics. Rachel Carson, in 1953 letter to the Washington Post; reprinted in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson (1999; Linda Lear, ed.)
  • It is only when the rich are sick that they fully feel the impotence of wealth. Charles Caleb Colton, in Lacon (1820)
  • Of all the sources of human pride, mere wealth is the basest and most vulgar-minded. Real gentlemen are almost invariably above this low feeling. James Fenimore Cooper, in The American Democrat (1838)
  • Without the rich heart, wealth is an ugly beggar. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Manners,” in Essays: Second Series (1844)
  • The first wealth is health. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Power,” in The Conduct of Life (1860)
  • Wealth is nothing more or less than a tool to do things with. It is like the fuel that runs the furnace or the belt that runs the wheel—only a means to an end. Henry Ford, in Theosophist Magazine (Feb., 1930)
  • He does not possess wealth; it possesses him. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (Oct., 1734)
  • Wealth is not without its advantages, and the case to the contrary, although it has often been made, has never proved widely persuasive. John Kenneth Galbraith, the opening line of The Affluent Society (1958)
  • What a ready passport wealth gives its possessor to the good opinions of this world! Sara Josepha Hale, the character Alexander Watson speaking, in Traits of American Life (1835)
  • No one has yet had the courage to memorialize his wealth on his tombstone. A dollar mark would not look well there. Corra Harris, in A Circuit Rider’s Wife (1910)
  • Wealth is a tool of freedom. But the pursuit of wealth is the way to slavery. Frank Herbert, the title character quoting an unnamed wise man, in God Emperor of Dune (1981)
  • It is neither wealth nor splendor, but tranquility and occupation, which give happiness. Thomas Jefferson, in 1788 letter to Mrs. A. S. Marks
  • The insolence of wealth will creep out. Samuel Johnson, an April 18, 1778 remark, quoted in James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
  • Great wealth is its own nationality. Velda Johnston, the voice of the narrator, in I Came to a Castle (1969)
  • Wherever there is excessive wealth, there is also in the train of it excessive poverty; as, where the sun is brightest, the shade is deepest. Walter Savage Landor, “Aristoteles and Callisthenes,” Aristoteles speaking, in Imaginary Conversations (1824)
  • Wealth has never the value to its possessor as it is supposed to have by an avaricious admirer. Anthony Lisle, “Adversity,” in The Westminster Review (Jan., 1914)

Lilsle preceded the thought by writing: “The greatest value of an object lies not in it’s possession, but anticipation.”

  • The wealth which breeds idleness…is only a sort of human oyster-bed, where heirs and heiresses are planted, to spend a contemptible life of slothfulness in growing plump and succulent for the grave-worm’s banquet. Horace Mann, in A Few Thoughts for a Young Man (1850)
  • The wealthy…live in marble mausoleums surrounded by the suspicions and neuroses that have replaced the medieval moats which once isolated so-called aristocrats from reality. Elsa Maxwell, in R. S. V. P.: Elsa Maxwell’s Own Story (1954)
  • Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think. Ayn Rand, the character Francisco d’Anconia speaking, in Atlas Shrugged (1957)
  • The only question with wealth is what to do with it. It can be used for evil purposes or it can be an instrumentality for constructive social living. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., quoted in R. B. Fosdick, John D. Rockefeller, Jr.: A Portrait (1956)
  • There is no wealth but life. John Ruskin, in Unto This Last (1862)
  • Wealth must justify itself in happiness. George Santayana, in The Life of Reason (1905–06)
  • I like to walk about amidst the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty. George Santayana, “The Irony of Liberalism,” in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)
  • Wealth is like sea-water; the more we drink, the thirstier we become, and the same is true of fame. Arthur Schopenhauer, in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851)
  • Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul. Henry David Thoreau, “Conclusion,” in Walden (1854)

ERROR ALERT: Numerous internet sites mistakenly have necessity of the soul.

  • There is no road to wealth so easy and respectable as that of matrimony. Anthony Trollope, the voice of the narrator, in Dr. Thorne (1858)

QUOTE NOTE: This quotation is frequently applied to women marrying wealthy men, but Trollope employed in a description of the 26-year-old Mr. Moffat, who is attempting to select a wife (he is deliberating between two women, the penniless Augusta Gresham, or Martha Dunstable, the heiress to an oil fortune. As a young man of ambition, he makes the latter choice (or, as the narrator of the novel puts it, he “brought himself to resolve that he would at any rate become a candidate for the great prize”).

  • How unfortunate and how narrowing a thing it is for a man to have wealth who makes a god of it instead of a servant. Mark Twain, “Open Letter to Com. Vanderbilt,” (March, 1869), in Life As I Find It: A Treasury of Mark Twain Rarities (1961; Charles Neider, ed.)
  • It isn’t what a man has that constitutes wealth. No—it is to be satisfied with what one has; that is wealth. Mark Twain, “Open Letter to Com. Vanderbult,” (March, 1869), in Life As I Find It: A Treasury of Mark Twain Rarities (1961; Charles Neider, ed.)

Twain continued: “As long as one sorely needs a certain additional amount, that man isn’t rich. Seventy times seventy millions can't make him rich as long as his poor heart is breaking for more.”

  • Wealth is now itself intrinsically honorable and confers honor on its possessor. Thorstein Veblen, in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
  • Many wealthy people are little more than janitors of their possessions. Frank Lloyd Wright, in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture: Selected Writings, 1894–1940 (1941)



  • Weapons are like money; no one knows the meaning of enough. Martin Amis, in Introduction to Einstein’s Monsters (1987)

QUOTE NOTE: “Einstein’s monster’s” was Amis’s metaphor for nuclear weapons. In the Introduction Amis also wrote: “Bullets cannot be recalled. They cannot be uninvented. But they can be taken out of the gun.”



  • What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance. Jane Austen, in a 1796 letter to her sister Cassandra; reprinted in Jane Austen’s Letters (1932; R.W. Chapman, ed.)
  • It is only in sorrow bad weather masters us; in joy we face the storm and defy it. Amelia E. Barr, the voice of the narrator, in Jan Vedder’s Wife (1895)
  • On the farm the weather was the great fact, and men’s affairs went on underneath it, as the streams creep under the ice. Willa Cather, the voice of the narrator, in My Antonia (1918)
  • Among famous traitors of history one might mention the weather. Ilka Chase, in The Varied Airs of Spring (1969)
  • I like weather better than climate. The dry season is a gold vacuum; but the rainy season has change, which is weather. And while climate may create a race, weather creates the temper and sensibility of the individual. Gertrude Diamant, in The Days of Ofelia (1942)
  • It is impossible, to me at least, to be poetical in cold weather. George Eliot, in an 1840 letter; reprinted in George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (1885; J.W. Cross, ed.)
  • Weather creates character. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, in Italian Days (1989)
  • Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. Robert A. Heinlein, an entry from “More From The Notebooks of Lazarus Long,” in Time Enough for Love (1973)
  • Weather is the indisputable ruler of the forest and every living thing in it. Ellen Sturgis Hooper, “King Weather,” in The Long-Shadowed Forest (1963)
  • We often hear of bad weather, but in reality, no weather is bad. It is all delightful, though in different ways. Some weather may be bad for farmers or crops, but for man all kinds are good. Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating. John Lubbock, in The Use of Life (1894)

QUOTE NOTE: Lubbock added: “As Ruskin says, ‘There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.’” This appears to be the first appearance of the John Ruskin saying, which went on to become proverbial (see his entry below)

  • In the country, weather is as important as food and sometimes means the difference between life and death. Betty MacDonald, in Onions in the Stew (1955)
  • No wonder, he thought, that panhandle people were a godly lot, for they lived in a sudden, violent atmosphere. Weather kept them humble. E. Annie Proulx, the voice of the narrator, in That Old Ace in the Hole (2002)
  • There is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. John Ruskin, quoted in John Lubbock, The Use of Life (1894)

ERROR ALERT: This saying, which appeared for the first time in Lubbock’s book, went on to become a modern proverb. Almost all internet sites present the following erroneous version of the thought: “Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, and snow is exhilarating; there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” The problem originated in Florence Hobart Perin’s Sunlit Days (1915), a book that conflated the words of Ruskin and Lubbock.



  • Weddings are glamorous and usually involve weight loss; marriage is dull and involves weight gain. Every bride and bridegroom is beautiful; every husband and wife is exhausted. At a wedding everything is new. And later, is anything new? Lois Smith Brady, “The Vows Column at 20,” in The New York Times (May 18, 2012)

In that same column, Brady wrote: “Love may be blind, but marriage can blindside you.”

  • A wedding in haste is worth two at leisure. Gelett Burgess, in The Maxims of Methuselah (1907)
  • Oh! How many torments lie in the small circle of a wedding ring. Colley Ciber, in The Double Gallant (1707)
  • A wedding is like a funeral except that you get to smell your own flowers. Grace Hansen, quoted in Robert Byrne, The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said (2012)
  • Music played at weddings always reminds me of the music played for soldiers before they go into battle. Heinrich Heine, quoted in Gerald Lieberman, The Greatest Laughs of All Time (1961)
  • I smile to think how like a lottery/These weddings are. Ben Jonson, the character Chanon Hugh speaking, in A Tale of a Tub (1704)
  • Weddings are not just weddings, but rather pressure-cooker moments that contain layer upon layer of psychologically fraught material. Casey Schwartz, “Dear Google, Is There a Shrink for That?,” The New York Times (Feb. 6, 2016)
  • Weddings are meant to be a celebration of love, but all too often this sentiment gets hijacked by the pressures of delivering a “perfect day.” Kate Watson, “Deerly beloved, Neptune’s Stag & Doe Delivers on Laughs”, in The Coast (Jan. 28, 2016)
  • A man looks pretty small at a wedding, George. All those good women standing shoulder to shoulder, making sure that the knot’s tied in a mighty public way. Thornton Wilder, the character Mr. Webb speaking, in Our Town (1938)



  • What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Fortune of the Republic,” speech at Old South Church, Boston, MA (March 30, 1878)
  • A weed is no more than a flower in disguise,/Which is seen through at once, if love give man eyes. James Russell Lowell, in A Fable for Critics (1848)
  • A weed is but an unloved flower! Ella Wheeler Wilcox, opening line of “The Weed,” in New Thought Pastels (1906)

QUOTE NOTE: Wilcox was likely inspired by James Russell Lowell’s earlier couplet (see above). Here’s the complete first stanza of the Wilcox poem: “A weed is but an unloved flower!/Go dig, and prune, and guide, and wait,/Until it learns its high estate,/And glorifies some bower./A weed is but an unloved flower!”



  • One cannot weep for the entire world. It is beyond human strength. One must choose. Jean Anouilh, the character Chevalier speaking, in Cecile, Or the School for Fathers (1954)
  • To weep over a folly is to double it. Minna Thomas Antrim, in Naked Truth and Veiled Illusions (1901)
  • Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. William Hazlitt, “On Wit and Humor,” in Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1818)

ERROR ALERT: This quotation is often mistakenly presented as if it ended with the words and what they might have been.

  • Weep not that the world changes—did it keep/A stable, changeless state, ’twere cause indeed to weep. William Cullen Bryant, in “Mutation” (1824)
  • If you weep only for Israeli children, or only for Palestinian children, you have a problem that goes beyond tear ducts. Nicholas Kristoff, “What We Get Wrong About Israel and Gaza,” in The New York Times (Nov. 15, 2023)
  • Laugh and the world laughs with you;/Weep, and you weep alone;/For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,/But has trouble enough of its own. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, in “Solitude,” first published in The New York Sun (Feb. 25, 1883); reprinted in Poems of Passion (1883)



  • “Six inches of snow on twenty feet of lava” has been said of me, and not without reason. Marie d’Agoult, quoted in Charlotte Haldane, The Galley Slaves of Love: The Story of Marie d’Agoult and Franz Liszt (1957)
  • Only a man who knows what it is to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even. Muhammad Ali, in The Greatest: My Own Story (1975; with Richard Durham)

QUOTE NOTE: The words come as Ali reflects on his attempt to take the heavyweight championship crown from George Foreman in their legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974. Describing the situation at the beginning of the eighth round, Ali continued: “I know George wants to keep The Champion’s crown. He wants the crown, but is he willing to pay the price? Would he lay out his life? It’s time to go all out.” Ali won the fight by a knockout in the closing seconds of round eight. In the moments after the victory, a reporter clawed his way through the crowd to ask the champ how he did it. Ali described the moment this way:

“I shake my head. I want to go to my dressing room. I don’t want to tell him what George has taught me. That too many victories weaken you. That the defeated can rise up stronger than the victor. But I take nothing away from George. He can still beat any man in the world. Except me.”

  • It’s like a tornado that cuts a very narrow path, destroying buildings in a strip 100 yards wide but leaving everything else standing. Dr. Antonio Damasio, quoted in Lawrence K. Altman, “Alzheimer’s Disease Linked to Damaged Areas of Brain,” in The New York Times (Sep. 7, 1984)
  • An ounce of peace is worth more than a pound of victory. St. Robert Bellarmine, quoted in Pope John XXIII, Journey to a Soul (1964)
  • When a person’s down in the world, I think an ounce of help is better than a pound of preaching. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the character Roger Morton, in letter to his sister Catherine, in Night and Morning (1841)
  • Gross ignorance—144 times worse than ordinary ignorance. Bennett Cerf, in The Laugh’s on Me (1961)
  • An insult is twice as deep as an apology. Charles William Day, in The Maxims, Experiences, and Observations of Agogos (1844)

Day continued: “An insult strikes to the heart, and rankles there; whilst an apology merely skins over the surface, but never heals the wound.”

  • A man can never do anything at variance with his own nature. He carries within him the germ of his most exceptional action; and if we wise people make eminent fools of ourselves on any particular occasion, we must endure the legitimate conclusion that we carry a few grains of folly to our ounce of wisdom. George Eliot, the character Adolphus Irwine speaking, in Adame Bede (1859)
  • An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory. Friedrich Engels, quoted in Reg Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (1975)

ERROR ALERT: There is no evidence Engels ever said such a thing, even though this quotation appears all over the internet and in several respected quotation anthologies. In most cases, no source is given, but when one is provided, the Groves book is cited. Groves was a member of the British Communist Party until he was expelled in 1932 for supporting Trotsky over Stalin. To be fair, Groves didn’t formally quote Engels, but simply asked rhetorically: “And did not wise old Frederick (sic) Engels once say: An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory?” For a discussion of the erroneous Engels attribution, as well as some similar English sayings that preceded it, go to: Ounce of Action

  • ’Tis an old saying: That an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Benjamin Franklin, in letter to Rev. Samuel Johnson (Sep. 13, 1750); reprinted in E. Edwards Beardsley, Life and Correspondence of Samuel Johnson, D.D. (1874)

ERROR ALERT: Many respected reference works date the origin of this American proverb as much later, some to 1795. Franklin’s letter to Johnson, however, suggests that it was already familiar by the middle of the century (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations traces a forerunner saying—prevention is better than cure—to the early seventeenth century). Some works have also mistakenly reported that Franklin offered the observation to the English man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson. In fact, he was writing to a similarly named Connecticut clergyman who went on to become president of King’s College, later Columbia College. Franklin’s full letter may be seen at: Ounce of Prevention.

  • A quart of doubt to an ounce of truth is the safest brew. John Oliver Hobbes (pen name of Pearl Craigie), the character Mrs. Arden speaking, in The Herb-Moon: A Fantasia (1896)
  • An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. Elbert Hubbard, in A Thousand and One Epigrams (1911)
  • An ounce of mother is worth a ton of clergy. Proverb (Spanish)
  • For the ordinary business of life, an ounce of habit is worth a pound of intellect. Thomas B. Reed, in speech at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine; July 25, 1902)
  • An ounce of application is worth a ton of abstraction. Booker T. Washington, quoted in Samuel R. Spencer, Booker T. Washington and the Negro’s Place in American Life (1955)
  • An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge. John Wesley, quoted in Robert Southey The Life of John Wesley (1820)

Wesley preceded the observation by warning: “Beware you be not swallowed up in books!”



  • Sometimes the thing that’s weird about you is the thing that’s cool about you. Maureen Dowd, “My Deathless Passion,” in The New York Times (July 3, 2010)

Dowd preceded the thought by writing: “When you’re young, and even at times when you’re older, it’s hard to fathom this: What needs to be nurtured is the stuff that’s different, that sets you apart from the pack, rather than the stuff that helps you blend in.”



(including WHIRLS and WHORLS; see also BREEZE and GALE and HURRICANE and TORNADO and TURBULENCE and WIND)

  • Big whorls have little whorls that feed on their velocity, and little whorls have lesser whorls and so on to viscosity. Lewis Fry Richardson, in Weather Prediction by Numerical Process (1922)

QUOTE NOTE: Richardson, a British meteorologist, was clearly inspired by Jonathan Swift’s famous ad finitum verse on FLEAS. When Richardson originally offered his spin-off construction, he used the spelling whorls, but later editions of his pioneering work used the modern spelling whirls.



  • The liquor sneaked up and grabbed her, got into her mind and talked to her, fooled her into thinking she was thinking for herself when really it was the whiskey thinking whiskey thoughts. Louise Erdrich, the voice of the narrator, in Four Souls (2004)



  • I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof. John Adams, in letter to Abigail Adams (Nov. 2, 1800) upon moving into the newly constructed White House
  • Don’t let it fool you. It’s the crown jewel of the federal prison system. Bill Clinton, on the White House, in remarks to advisers while touring the White House a few days after his inauguration on Jan. 20, 1993; quoted in Sidney Blumenthal, “The Education of a President,” The New Yorker (Jan. 24, 1994)

QUOTE NOTE: Clinton’s remark was almost certainly inspired by a famous observation from President Harry Truman: “The White House is the finest prison in the world.” Later in the year, Clinton offered a slightly altered version to Tim Russert in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press (Nov. 7, 1993): “I always say I don’t know whether it’s the finest public housing in America or the crown jewel of the prison system.”



  • What the devil to do with the sentence “Who the devil does he think he’s fooling?” You can’t write “Whom the devil—.” Paul Goodman, “September to December 1958,” in Five Years (1966)
  • As far as I’m concerned, “whom” is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler. Calvin Trillin, “Whom Says So?” in The Nation magazine (June 8, 1985)



  • The women who take husbands not out of love but out of greed, to get their bills paid, to get a fine house and jewels…are whores in everything name. Polly Adler, in A House Is Not a Home (1953)

QUOTE NOTE: Adler, perhaps the most famous brothel owner in American history, continued: “The only difference between them and my girls is that my girls gave a man his money's worth.”

  • Men will pay larges sums to whores/For telling them they are not bores. W. H. Auden, in the poem “New Year Letter” (1940)
  • This is virgin territory out here for whorehouses. Al Capone, on the suburbs of Chicago; quoted in Kenneth Allsop, The Bootleggers and Their Era (1961)
  • They teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master. Dr. Samuel Johnson, a 1750 observation on the Letters of Lord Chesterfield (Philip Stanhope); quoted in James Boswell, The Life os Samuel Johnson (1791)
  • Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us. P. J. O’Rourke, “At Home in the Parliament of Whores,” in Parliament of Whores (1991)

These are the concluding words of the book. O’ Rourke preceded the thought by writing: “Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power.”

  • Treat a whore like a lady and a lady like a whore. Wilson Mizner, quoted in Alva Johnston, The Legendary Mizners (1953)
  • You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think. Dorothy Parker, tweaking the proverbial saying about leading a horse to water; quoted in Robert E. Drennan, The Algonquin Wits (1968)

QUOTE NOTE: This is one of Mrs. Parker’s most famous quotations, inspired by a parlor game in which members of the legendary group of wits challenged each other to use “horticulture” in a sentence. In The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021), Fred Shapiro reported that the first report of the saying came in a March 1, 1935 edition of the Richmond Time-Dispatch, when Walter Winchell referred to Parker’s having made a clever remark using the word horticulture without providing any specific details. Shapiro also reported that a July 1962 article in Horizon magazine reported Parker as saying, “You may lead a whore to culture but you can't make her think.”



  • The wicked are always surprised to find ability in the good. Luc de Clapiers (Marquis de Vauvenargues), in Reflections and Maxims (1746)

This observation has also been translated as: “The wicked are always surprised to discover ability in the just.”

  • The difference between weakness and wickedness is much less than people suppose; and the consequences are nearly always the same. Marguerite Gardiner (Lady Blessington), the character Lady Delafield speaking, in The Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman (1836)
  • All things to be truly wicked must start from an innocence. Ernest Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast (pub. posthumously in 1964)

ERROR ALERT: Many internet sites mistakenly present the quotation: “All things truly wicked start from innocence.” The error appears to have originated with Carlos Baker, who offered the mistaken version in his Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story (1969)



  • The comfortable estate of widowhood is the only hope that keeps up a wife’s spirits. John Gay, the character Peachum speaking, in The Beggar’s Opera (1728)
  • There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it. Ernest Hemingway, in Death in the Afternoon (1932).

Hemingway preceded the thought by writing: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you. Especially do all stories of monogamy end in death, and your man who is monogamous while he often lives most happily, dies in the most lonely fashion.”

  • A widow is like a frigate of which the first captain has been shipwrecked. Alphonse Karr, quoted in Good Housekeeping magazine (April, 1898)
  • Anybody can become a widow. There aren’t any special qualifications. It happens in less time than it takes to draw a breath. Jacquelyn Mitchard, in The Rest of Us: Dispatches from the Mother Ship (1997)

Mitchard continued: “It doesn’t require the planning, for example, that it takes to become a wife or a mother or any of the other ritual roles of womanhood.”

  • Widows are divided into two classes—the bereaved and relieved. Victor Robinson, in Truth Seeker (a Free Thought periodical; Jan. 6, 1906)
  • Widow. The word consumes itself. Sylvia Plath, opening line of the poem “Widow,” in Crossing the Water (1971)

The full poem contains other memorable lines as well, including “Widow: that great, vacant estate!” To see the full poem, go to: Widow.

  • A widow is a fascinating being with the flavor of maturity, the spice of experience, the piquancy of novelty, the tang of practiced coquetry, and the halo of one man’s approval. Helen Rowland, in A Guide to Men (1922)


(see WIVES)



  • The will is never free—it is always attached to an object, a purpose. It is simply the engine in the car—it can’t steer. It is the mind, the reason, the imagination that steers. Joyce Cary, in Paris Review interview (Fall-Winter, 1954-1955)

* Be there a will, and wisdom finds a way. George Crabbe, in The Birth of Flattery (1823)

QUOTE NOTE: Crabbe was almost certainly inspired by a William Hazlitt observation that had appeared one year earlier (see his entry below)

* Where there’s a will there’s a way, and where there’s a child there's a will. Marcelene Cox, tweaking the familiar saying (see William Hazlitt below), in a 1950 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal

* Willpower is not some mythical force that we either have or don’t have. Willpower is our decision to use higher-mind thinking instead of lazing around in the clutches of our primal mind. A. B. Curtiss, in Depression is a Choice: Winning the Battle Without Drugs (2001)

  • An education which does not cultivate the will is an education that depraves the mind. Anatole France, the title character speaking, in The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (1881)

Bonnard continued: “It is a teacher’s duty to teach the pupil how to will.”

  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way. William Hazlitt, in New Monthly Magazine (February 1822)

QUOTE NOTE: According to the The Yale Dictionary of Quotations, this is the earliest appearance in print of an observation that quickly went on to become proverbial. Today, the saying has become one of the most commonly tweaked of all proverbs (you’ll see a number of examples in this section).

The underlying idea about wills and ways, however, preceded Hazlitt by well over a century. In the 1640 book Outlandish Proverbs, George Herbert provided this saying: “To him that will, ways are not wanting.“

  • No government can act in advance of the moral will of the people. P. D. James, the character Theo speaking, in The Children of Men (1992)
  • Purpose in the human being is a much more complex phenomenon than what used to be called will power. Rollo May, in The Courage to Create (1975)
  • For the decisions of our will are often so directly opposed to the decisions of our emotions, that, if we are in the habit of considering our emotions as the test, we shall be very apt to feel like hypocrites in declaring those things to be real which our will alone has decided. Hannah Whitall Smith, in The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1870)
  • “Where there is a will there is a way,” says the proverb. Not entirely true; but it is true that where there is no will, there is no way. Thomas Szasz, in The Second Sin (1973)
  • More and more I come to loathe any dominion of one over another; any leadership, any imposition of the will. Virginia Woolf, a 1919 diary entry, in A Writer’s Diary (1953; Leonard Woolf, ed.)



  • The will is never free—it is always attached to an object, a purpose. It is simply the engine in the car—it can’t steer. It is the mind, the reason, the imagination that steers. Joyce Cary, in Paris Review interview (Fall-Winter, 1954-1955)





  • The most dangerous men on earth are those who are afraid that they are wimps. James Gilligan, in Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (1997)
  • If the battle for civilization comes down to the wimps versus the barbarians, the barbarians are going to win. Thomas Sowell, “Wimps Versus Barbarians,” in Townhall.com (May 21, 2013)



  • If anything is endemic to Wyoming it is wind. This big room of space is swept out daily, leaving a bone yard of fossils, agates, and carcasses in every stage of decay. Gretel Ehrlich, in The Solace of Open Spaces (1985)

Erlich continued: “Though it was water that initially shaped the state, wind is the meticulous gardener, raising dust and pruning the sage.”

  • The wind is like a great bird tumbling over the sea with bright flashing wings. Katherine Mansfield, from a 1919 letter, in The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Vol. 1 (1928; J. M. Murray, ed.)
  • And wind moving through grass so that the grass quivers. This moves me with an emotion I don’t ever understand. Katherine Mansfield, a journal entry, in Journal of Katherine Mansfield (1927; J. M. Murray, ed.)
  • It is the north wind that lashes men into vikings; it is the soft, luscious south wind which lulls them into lotus dreams. Ouida, in Puck: His Vicissitudes, Adventures, Observations, Conclusions, Friendships (1870)
  • What mighty battles have I seen and heard waged between the trees and the west wind—an Iliad fought in the fields of air. Edith M. Thomas, in The Round Year (1886)



  • I may not here omit those two main plagues and common dotages of human kind, wine and women, which have infatuated and besotted myriads of people; they bo commonly together. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-51)
  • To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history. Clifton Fadiman, in Any Number Can Play (1957)
  • A bottle of wine begs to be shared; I have never met a miserly wine lover. Clifton Fadiman, quoted in Anne Fadiman, The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (2017)

QUOTE NOTE: In her memoir—which is also, in many ways, an affectionate biography of her father—Fadiman also included this other wine observation from her dad: “I know no other liquid that, placed in the mouth, forces one to think.”

  • Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy! Benjamin Franklin, in an undated letter—originally written in French—to the Abbé Morellet; reprinted in William Temple Franklin, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Published by His Grandson (1818)

QUOTE NOTE: Franklin wrote the letter while serving as Ambassador to France (1779-85). The observation is the source of a popular modern saying that is commonly, but mistakenly, attributed to Franklin: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

  • In France wine is thought of as food, so necessary to life that nobody is too poor to go without it. Katharine Butler Hathaway, journal entry, in The Journals and Letters of the Little Locksmith (1946)
  • It was a very Corsican wine and you could dilute it by half with water and still receive its message. Ernest Hemingway, in A Moveable Feast (1964)
  • Wine may well be considered the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.Louis Pasteur, in Études sur le vin (1873)
  • Wine is a turncoat; first a friend, then an enemy. Proverb (English)

ERROR ALERT: Most internet sites mistakenly attribute this observation to the English writer Henry Fielding (1707-54). In 1824, Thomas Fielding (no relation) included the saying in his Select Proverbs of All Nations. When subsequent reference works included the proverb, they followed the common practice of the time by attributing it simply to “Fielding.” Most readers naturally assumed that Henry Fielding was the author, and thus began his association with an observation he never authored. The error continues to the present day.

  • In wine, there is truth. Proverb (Latin)

QUOTE NOTE: In vino veritas (literally, “In wine, truth”) may be history’s most famous Latin saying, already an established proverb when Plato identified it as such in his Symposium, written in the early decades of the 4th century B.C.

  • Wine is bottled poetry. Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Silverado Squatters (1883)
  • A bottle of good wine, like a good act, shines ever in the retrospect. Robert Louis Stevenson, in The Silverado Squatters (1883)



  • My philosophy is: Forget winning, cultivate delight. Diane Ackerman, in Cultivating Delight; A Natural History of My Garden (2001)
  • Only a man who knows what it is to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even. Muhammad Ali, in The Greatest: My Own Story (1975; with Richard Durham) x

QUOTE NOTE: The words come as Ali reflects on his attempt to take the heavyweight championship crown from George Foreman in their legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974. Describing the situation at the beginning of the eighth round, Ali continued: “I know George wants to keep The Champion’s crown. He wants the crown, but is he willing to pay the price? Would he lay out his life? It’s time to go all out.” Ali won the fight by a knockout in the closing seconds of round eight. In the moments after the victory, a reporter clawed his way through the crowd to ask the champ how he did it. Ali described the moment this way:

“I shake my head. I want to go to my dressing room. I don’t want to tell him what George has taught me. That too many victories weaken you. That the defeated can rise up stronger than the victor. But I take nothing away from George. He can still beat any man in the world. Except me.”

  • In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically. Anita Brookner, the character Edith Hope speaking, in Hotel du Lac (1984)

Hope added: “Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.”

  • I wish that we gave more gold stars for trying instead of for winning. Elisa Fortise Christensen, in Dear Neeko and Cruze: Love Letters on Life to My Sons (2018)

Christensen continued: “Because what happens is that we learn over the years that sometimes it’s easier not to try, than to risk failing.”

  • In the long run, if it isn’t a win for both of us, we both lose. That’s why win/win is the only alternative in interdependent realities. Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989)
  • Of course the danger in winning is winning. It’s easy to give up worldly things when you don’t have them, when you’re a loser. Gillian B. Farrell, from a character in Murder and a Muse (1994)
  • In sports, you simply aren’t considered a real champion until you have defended your title successfully. Winning it once can be a fluke; winning it twice proves that you are the best. Althea Gibson, quoted in Ed Fitzgerald, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody (1958)
  • The surest way of winning love is to look as if you didn’t need it. Ellen Glasgow, a reflection of the character Dorinda, in Barren Ground (1925)

Dorinda was thinking about another character in the book, Geneva Ellgood. Just prior to this thought, she said to a friend about Geneva: “She needed love way too much ever to find it.”

  • The successful conciliation of a dispute is marked by the feeling of each side that it has “won.” (If each side feels the other has got the better of it in the settlement, the dispute has only been postponed, not resolved. Sydney J. Harris, in his “Strictly Personal” syndicated column (October 1979)
  • Victory is not won in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later win a little more. Louis L’Amour, originally in The Walking Drum (1984); reprinted in A Trail of Memories: The Quotations of Louis L’Amour (1988; Angelique L’Amour, ed.)
  • I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you play or not. Fran Lebowitz, quoted in a 1993 issue of Forbes magazine (specific issue undetermined)
  • Ours is a very practical age, and no matter how skillfully a man play the game of life, there is but one test of his ability—did he win? Charles Lever, the voice of the narrator, in The Martins of Cro’ Martin (1856)
  • Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to win is! Vince Lombardi, quoted in Esquire magazine (Nov., 1962)

ERROR ALERT: Lombardi is often quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” but he denied ever making the remark. The saying was first offered by “Red” Sanders, the UCLA football coach who was quoted in a 1955 Sports Illustrated article this way: “Sure, winning isn’t everything,” he once declared. “It’s the only thing.”),

  • The boy who is going to make a great man, or is going to count in any way in the after life, must make up his mind not merely to overcome a thousand obstacles, but to win in spite of a thousand repulses and defeats. Theodore Roosevelt, “Character and Success,” in Outlook magazine (March 31, 1900); reprinted in The Strenuous Life: Essays and Addresses (1900)

Roosevelt preceded the thought by writing: “Perhaps there is no more important component of character than steadfast resolution.” The full article, still worth reading more than a century later, may be found at: Character and Success.

  • Winning is neither everything nor the only thing. It is one of many things. Joan Benoit Samuelson, quoted in Bill Littlefield, Champions (1998)



  • If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out. George Brett, quoted in Sports Illustrated (June 23, 1986)

QUOTE NOTE: Brett was piggybacking on an observation commonly attributed to Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty, but originally offered by the U. S. Naval Academy football coach Eddie Erdelatz (see his entry in TIE)

  • Winning may not be everything, but losing has little to recommend it. Dianne Feinstein, quoted in a 1991 issue of Outloook, a publication of the American Association of University Women (specific issue undetermined)
  • A loser smolders with unexpressed resentment at bad treatment, and revenges himself by doing worse; a winner freely expresses resentment at bad treatment, discharges his feelings, and then forgets it. Sydney J. Harris, in Leaving the Surface (1973)
  • A wise man fights to win, but he is twice a fool who has no plan for possible defeat. Louis L’Amour, the character Mathurin Kerbouchard speaking, in The Walking Drum (1984)
  • Reforms always create winners and losers, and the losers will always fight harder than the winners. Danny Kahneman, quoted in Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project (2016)
  • Success is a habit. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing. Vince Lombardi, in Vince Lombardi on Football (1973; with George L. Flynn)
  • Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life,” speech at The Hamilton Club, Chicago, Illinois (April 10, 1899); later reprinted, with other writings and speeches in The Strenuous Life (1900)

ERROR ALERT: Numerous internet sites mistakenly present the final words as “knows neither victory nor defeat.”

  • Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday. Wilma Rudolph, in Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph (1977)



  • Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. Richard Adams, the voice, in Watership Down (1972)

QUOTE NOTE: Feeling proof is a British idiom that means “armed against,” and the quotation in Adams’ classic children’s novel reminds of of an inescapable truth about human life—when people and animals are fully prepared and adequately protected, they can not only survive the coldest days of winter, they can come close to thriving in them. In the book, the narrator continued: “For them there is no food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security.”

And then, after some additional words on the subject, the narrator concluded: “For rabbits, winter remains what it was for men in the Middle Ages—hard, but bearable by the resourceful and not altogether without compensations.”

  • If we had no winter the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome. Anne Bradstreet, in Meditations Divine and Moral (1664)
  • The English winter—ending in July/,To recommence in August. Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron)
  • Winter is nature’s way of saying, “Up yours.” Robert Byrne, in The Other 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (1985)
  • It seems like everything sleeps in winter, but it’s really a time of renewal and reflection. Elizabeth Camden, the character Sophie speaking, in Until the Dawn (2015)
  • A quantity of snow in itself is not so wonderful; it is the combinations which snow makes with forms in the winter scene. Bertha Damon, in A Sense of Humus (1943)
  • In our part of the world winter is the normal state of affairs and seems to last about five years. This is fine for the skiers, but by the end of March all gardeners and mothers of small children have begun to go mad. Janet Gillespie, in The Joy of a Small Garden (1963)
  • The record-breaking winter had frozen everyone's spirits. Joseph F. Girzone, the opening line of The Shepherd (1990)
  • A cardinal in a slant of winter sunlight goes straight to the bloodstream like brandy, and the heart leaps up like a startled stag. Barbara Holland, in Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences (1995)
  • Do not hurry too fast in these early winter days—a quiet hour is worth more to you than anything you can do in it. Sarah Orne Jewett, in a letter to Willa Cather, in Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett (1911; Annie Fields, ed.)
  • The summer lasted a long long time, like verse after verse of a ballad, but when it ended, it ended like a man falling dead in the street of heart trouble. One night, all in one night, severe winter came, a white horse of snow rolling over Bountiful, snorting and rolling in its meadows, its fields. Ardyth Kennelly, in The Peaceable Kingdom (1949)
  • No one thinks of winter when the grass is green. Rudyard Kipling, in “A St. Helena Lullaby,” in Rewards and Fairies (1910)
  • Generally speaking, the poorer person summers where he winters. Fran Lebowitz, in Social Studies (1981)
  • Perhaps I am a bear, or some hibernating animal, underneath, for the instinct to be half asleep all winter is so strong in me. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in Bring Me a Unicorn (1971)
  • Lord have mercy on us/In time of Pestilence/From winter, plague, and pestilence, good lord, deliver us. Thomas Nashe, in Songs From Summer's Last Will and Testament (1600)
  • There seems to be so much more winter than we need this year. Kathleen Thompson Norris, in Bread Into Roses (1936)
  • In a way winter is the real spring, the time when the inner thing happens, the resurge of nature. Edna O’Brien, the voice of the narrator, in the short story “Clara,” in Mrs. Reinhardt and Other Stories (1978)
  • It’s Christmas. An ancient pagan winter festival hijacked by the Christians and currently an annual celebration of the power of creative retailing. Annette Roome, the character Mr. Heslop speaking, in A Second Shot in the Dark (1990)
  • There is a wilder solitude in winter/When every sense is pricked alive and keen. May Sarton, “The House in Winter,” in A Private Mythology (1966)
  • O, wind/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Ode to the West Wind (1819)
  • Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for talk beside the fire; it is the time for home. Edith Sitwell, in Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell (1965)
  • What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness? You only truly, deeply appreciate and are grateful for something when you compare and contrast it to something worse. John Steinbeck, in Travels with Charlie: In Search of America (1962)
  • There is a privacy about it [winter] which no other season gives you. If you belong to yourself in the sense in which I think Montaigne meant it when he said the greatest thing in the world is to learn to belong to yourself, no one can take that gift away from you. Ruth Stout, in How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back (1955)

Stout continued: “And yet in spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.”

  • Sometimes winter days come in autumn, just as hours of old age and middle age seem to start out of their places in the due rotation of life. Miss Thackeray, the voice of the narrator, in Old Kensington, Vol. 1 (1873)
  • Winter likes to pretend it’s gone, tricking the daffodils into poking their little heads out of the soil, then wam! Winter comes back again like a giant, felt-wrapped hammer, whapping anything green back into submission. It’s nature’s version of whack-a-mole. Mike Todd, “Just Humor Me: The Winter is Our Discontent,” in The Times Herald [Exton, PA] (April 14, 2017)
  • Many of the phenomena of Winter are suggestive of an inexpressible tenderness and fragile delicacy. Henry David Thoreau, “Spring,” in Walden (1850)

Thoreau continued: “We are accustomed to hear this king described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a lover he adorns the tresses of Summer.”

  • Such a winter eve. Now for a mellow fire, some old poet's page, or else serene philosophy. Henry David Thoreau, an undated journal entry
  • Winter is begun here, now, I suppose. It blew part of the hair off the dog yesterday & got the rest this morning. Mark Twain, in a letter to his British publisher Chatto and Windus (October 21, 1892)
  • Winter could drop down out of a clear sky, sharp as an icicle, and, without a sound, pierce your heart. Jessamyn West, the voice of the narrator, in The Massacre at Fall Creek (1975)
  • One can follow the sun, of course, but I have always thought that it is best to know some winter, too, so that the summer, when it arrives, is the more gratefully received. Beatriz Williams, the character Stefan Speaking, in Along the Infinite Sea
  • Winter in Vermont is like a great white cat, apparently asleep, with only its twitching tail tip warning that tense muscles are flexed under the white fur. Marguerite Hurrey Wolf, in I’ll Take the Back Road (1975)
  • It is a pleasure to a real lover of Nature to give winter all the glory he can, for summer will make its own way, and speak its own praises. Dorothy Wordsworth, an 1802 journal entry, in Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 1 (1897; William Knight, ed.)
  • I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it—the whole story doesn’t show. Andrew Wyeth, quoted in Richard Meryman, The Art of andrew Wyeth (1973)


  • In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. Albert Camus, “Return to Tipasa,” originally published in the French literary magazine Combat (August 28, 1952); reprinted in Lyrical and Critical Essays (1968)
  • One wastes so much time, one is so prodigal of life, at twenty! Our days of winter count for double. That is the compensation of the old. George Sand, in an 1868 letter, in Correspondence. Vol. 5 (1884)
  • Sometimes winter days come in autumn, just as hours of old age and middle age seem to start out of their places in the due rotation of life. Miss Thackeray, the voice of the narrator, in Old Kensington, Vol. 1 (1873)




  • Wisdom comes alone through suffering. Aeschylus, in Agamemnon (5th c. B.C.)
  • There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain. Aeschylus, in The Eumenides (5th c. B.C.)
  • Memory is the mother of all wisdom. Aeschylus, in Prometheus Bound (5th c. B.C.)
  • Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? Mitch Albom, in Tuesdays With Morrie (1997)

Albom continued: “If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only in your head. Sometimes it is right alongside their beds.”

  • Calmness of mind is one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom. James Allen, in As a Man Thinketh (1903)

Allen continued: “It is the result of long and patient effort in self-control. Its presence is an indication of ripened experience, and of a more than ordinary knowledge of the laws and operations of thought.”

  • To know how to grow old is the masterwork of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. Henri-Frédéric Amiel, an 1874 entry in his Journal Intime
  • Wisdom that don't make us happier ain’t worth plowing for. Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), in On Ice: And Other Things (1868)
  • A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees. William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790–93)
  • Mixing one’s wines may be a mistake, but old and new wisdom mix admirably. Bertolt Brecht, The Singer speaking to The Old Man, in The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1944)
  • Of all things, wisdom is the most terrified of epidemical fanaticism, because of all enemies it is that against which she is the least able to furnish any kind of resource. Edmund Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
  • A true leader is constantly providing tools that enable independence. The timing and the selection of the presented tools is the exercise of leadership or wisdom. Sylvia Bushell, in Paths to Leadership: Power Through Feminine Dignity (1987)
  • Youth is harmed by having wisdom thrust upon it. Youth must gather wisdom slowly, in laughter and tears. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, in My Life and Some Letters (1921)
  • Wisdom is the sad smile with which we recognize our own motives in a fool. John Ciardi, in his regular Saturday Review column (May 21, 1966)
  • Great wisdom is generous; petty wisdom is contentious. Chuang-tzu, in On Leveling All Things (4th c. B.C.)
  • Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Notes in Hackett,” in The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1838: Henry N. Coleridge, ed.)
  • Moderation is the inseparable companion of wisdom, but with it genius has not even a nodding acquaintance. Charles Caleb Colton, quoted in Maturin Murray Ballou, Treasury of Thought (1884)

QUOTATION CAUTION: This quotation has enjoyed popular currency since it appeared in Ballou’s impressive quotation anthology, but it does not appear in Lacon’s classic 1820 work Lacon: Or, Many Things in Few Words.

  • They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom. Confucius, in Analects (6th c. B.C.)
  • Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences—and I remind you that consequences can be both good and bad. Norman Cousins, “Consequentialism,” in Saturday Review (April 15, 1978); reprinted in The Celebration of Life (1991)

A bit earlier, Cousins had written: “A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks, or does is without consequences. In The Celebration of Life, published posthumously in 1991: this thought was presented this way: “Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences. A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences.”

  • Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much;/Wisdom is humble that he knows no more. William Cowper, “Winter Walk at Noon,” in The Task: A Poem in Six Books (1785)

A bit earlier in the same work, Cowper offered this other comparison of knowledge and wisdom: “Knowledge dwells/in heads replete with thoughts of other men,/Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.”

  • Wisdom is a variable possession. Every man is wise when attacked by a mad dog; fewer when pursued by a mad woman; only the wisest survive when attacked by a mad notion. Robertson Davies, in Marchbanks’ Almanack (1968)
  • I am on the side of those who believe that vice comes from stupidity and consequently that the nearer one draws to wisdom the farther one gets from vice. Marie de Gournay, in Preface to Essais by Michel de Montaigne (Book III; 1595)

QUOTE NOTE: Marie de Gournay was an aspiring young intellectual—and an early feminist—when, at age 23, she first met Montaigne in 1588 (he was 55 and already famous for his Essais, the first volume of which appeared in 1580). Women were denied formal education at the time, but de Gournay was fluent in both Latin and Greek, and already well acquainted with the classical writers of antiquity. Montaigne greatly admired her, clearly viewed her as a protégé, and even described “a fatherly love” for her in one of his essays (although he rendered her name as Marie Gournay le Jars). After Montaigne’s death in 1592, his widow made the young woman a literary executor. In 1595, she put together the first posthumous edition of Montaigne’s essays, introduced by a lengthy Preface in praise of the man and his works.

  • Some persons hold…that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart. Charles Dickens, the character Thomas Gradgrind speaking, in Hard Times (1854)
  • All human wisdom is summed up in these two words—Wait and Hope. Alexandre Dumas, père, the title character in a letter to his friend Maximilian, in The Count of Monte Cristo (1845)

QUOTE NOTE: The full passage is: “Never forget that until the day when God shall deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is summed up in these two words—Wait and Hope.”

  • Science is organized knowledge, wisdom is organized life. Will Durant, “Immanuel Kant and German Idealism,” in The Story of Philosophy (1926)
  • We can be wise from goodness and good from wisdom. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, in Aphorisms (1880)
  • I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom. Umberto Eco, the voice of the narrator and protagonist, a man named only as Casaubon, in Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)
  • The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful, and then only for a short while. Albert Einstein, in Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday (1954); reported in The Einstein Encyclopedia (2015; Alice Calaprice, et. al, eds.)
  • No man is wise at all times, or is without his blind side. Desiderius Erasmus, in Colloquies of Erasmus (1518)
  • The most exquisite folly is made of wisdom spun too fine. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (Sep., 1746)
  • Wisdom makes but a slow defense against trouble, though at last a sure one. Oliver Goldsmith, the title character (the Rev. Dr. Charles Primrose) speaking, in The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
  • The Words of the Wisest and Wittiest Men/Like Thunder are echoed again and again. Arthur Guiterman, in A Poet’s Proverbs (1924)
  • Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it. Hermann Hesse, the title character speaking, in Siddhartha (1922)
  • The road to wisdom?—Well, it’s plain/and simple to express:/Err/and err/and err again/but less/and less/and less. Piet Hein, “The Road to Wisdom?” in Grooks (1966)
  • The wisdom of others remains dull till it is writ over with our blood. Eric Hoffer, in The Passionate State of Mind (1955)

Hoffer continued: “We are essentially apart from the world; it bursts into our consciousness only when it sinks its teeth and nails into us.”

  • It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in The Poet of the Breakfast Table (1872)
  • Learning without wisdom is a load of books on a donkey’s back. Zora Neale Hurston, in Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)
  • A wise man’s question contains half the answer. Solomon Ibn Gabriol, in The Choice of Pearls (c. 1050)
  • People get wisdom from thinking, not from learning. Laura Riding Jackson, in Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (1993)
  • It's easy to get a reputation for wisdom. It's only necessary to live long, speak little and do less. P. D. James, the character Gabriel Dauntsey speaking, in Original Sin (1994)
  • The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. William James, in Principles of Psychology (1890)
  • Whether the succeeding generation is to be more virtuous than their predecessors, I cannot say; but I am sure they will have more worldly wisdom, and enough, I hope, to know that honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom. Thomas Jefferson, in letter to Nathaniel Macon (Jan. 12, 1819)

QUOTE NOTE: Most internet sites and quotation anthologies present only the concluding phrase: “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.”

  • The wise man who is not heeded is counted a fool, and the fool who proclaims the general folly first and loudest passes for a prophet. Carl Jung, in Mysterium Coniunctionis (1955)
  • It is incredible what a quantity of wisdom one has for others, and how clearly one sees into their affairs and their interests. Alphonse Karr, quoted in J. Raymond Solly, Selected Thoughts from the French (1913)
  • There is wisdom in every man, in every father, in your father. And that’s true whether you love him or despise him. Joseph Kita, in Wisdom of Our Fathers (1999)
  • I wish there were shortcuts to wisdom and self-knowledge: cuter abysses or three-day spa wilderness experiences. Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. I so resent this. Anne Lamott, in Stiches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair (2013)
  • Wisdom is to the soul what health is to the body. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • It is easier to be wise for others than for one’s self. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • The steadfastness of the wise is but the art of keeping their agitation locked in their hearts. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk. Doug Larson, in the Green Bay Press-Gazette (Feb. 28, 1985)
  • We have no words for speaking of wisdom to the stupid. He who understands the wise is wise already. G. C. Lichtenberg, “Notebook E” (written 1765-99 in Aphorisms (1990; R. J. Hollingdale, ed.)
  • It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf. “The Moralist in an Unbelieving World,” in A Preface to Morals (1929)
  • Humanity has to travel a hard road to wisdom, and it has to travel it with bleeding feet. Nellie McClung, in In Times Like These (1915)
  • People are never so near playing the fool as when they think themselves wise. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in letter to her daughter, Lady Mary Stuart Bute (March 1, 1755)
  • Wisdom is a solid and entire building, of which every piece keeps its place and bears its mark. Michel de Montaigne, “Of Experience,” in Essays (1580-88)
  • Wisdom hath her excesses, and no less need of moderation than folly. Michel de Montaigne, “Upon Some Verses of Virgil,” in Essays (1580-88)
  • The most manifest sign of wisdom is continued cheerfulness. Michel de Montaigne, in Essays (1580-88)
  • The growth of wisdom may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill temper. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Human, All Too Human (1878)
  • We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. Marcel Proust, the voice of the narrator, in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (1919; also often translated as 
Within a Budding Grove; volume II of In Search of Lost Time, formerly titled Remembrance of Things Past)

Proust continued: “The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you, have not been shaped by a father or a schoolmaster, they have sprung from very different beginnings, having been influenced by everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.”

  • Wisdom can boast no higher attainment than happiness. Ann Radcliffe, in The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)
  • Wisdom never comes to the ideologue. He is shackled to his false beliefs. Richard Raymond III, in a personal communication to the compiler (March 10, 2022)
  • Nine-tenths of wisdom consists in being wise in time. Theodore Roosevelt, in a Lincoln, Nebraska speech (June 14, 1917)
  • Wisdom consists of the capacity to confront disturbing ideas, even intolerable ideas, with equanimity. Leo Rosten, “The Myths by Which We Live,” opening words of article in The Rotarian (Sep., 1965)
  • Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom. Theodore Isaac Rubin, in One to One: Understanding Personal Relationships (1983)
  • To understand the actual world as it is, not as we should wish it to be, is the beginning of wisdom. Bertrand Russell, “Censorship by Progressives,” (an Oct. 11, 1934 essay), reprinted in Mortals and Others: American Essays, 1931-1935 (1975)
  • Curiosity is the beginning of wisdom. Françoise Sagan, the voice of the narrator, in Those Without Shadows (1957)
  • Back of every mistaken venture and defeat is the laughter of wisdom, if you listen. Every blunder behind us is giving a cheer for us. Carl Sandburg, in Incidentals (1904)
  • Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know. William Saroyan, quoted in New York Journal-American (Aug. 23, 1961)
  • Wisdom never kicks at the iron walls it can’t bring down. Olive Schreiner, the character Lyndall speaking, in The Story of an African Farm (1883; written under the pen name Ralph Iron)
  • Wisdom is experience employed effectively. Jamie Seagle, in a personal communication to the compiler (Jan. 27, 2016)
  • We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success; we often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery. Samuel Smiles, in Self-Help (1859)
  • Understanding the limitations of human beings is the beginning of wisdom. Thomas Sowell, in Compassion Versus Guilt: And Other Essays (1987)
  • The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance. C. H. Spurgeon, in Gleanings Among the Sheaves (1869)
  • I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge. Igor Stravinsky, “Contingencies,” in Themes and Episodes (1966; with Robert Craft)
  • Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in “Locksley Hall” (1842)
  • It is not possible to love and be wise. Josephine Tey, and To Love and Be Wise (1950)
  • Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom. Phyllis Theroux, in Night Lights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark (1987)
  • It is characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. Henry David Thoreau, “Economy,” in Walden (1854)
  • It may almost be a question whether such wisdom as many of us have in our mature years has not come from the dying out of the power of temptation, rather than as the results of thought and resolution. Anthony Trollope, a reflection of the narrator, in The Small House at Allington (1864)
  • Wisdom—meaning judgment acting on experience, common sense, available knowledge, and a decent appreciation of probability. Barbara W. Tuchman, in “An Inquiry Into the Persistence of Unwisdom in Government,” in Esquire magazine (May, 1980)
  • Misfortunes leave wounds which bleed drop by drop even in sleep; thus little by little they train man by force and dispose him to wisdom in spite of himself. Simone Weil, in The Greek Source (1953)
  • Knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows. Alfred North Whitehead, “The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline,” in The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929)
  • It seems to me that, in every culture, I come across a chapter headed Wisdom.” And then I know exactly what is voing to follow“ Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 1934 remark, quoted in Personal Recollections (1981; Rush Rhees, ed.)
  • Wisdom is ofttimes nearer when we stoop/Than when we soar. William Wordsworth, in The Excursion (1814)
  • The perfection of wisdom, and the end of true philosophy, is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities. Frances Wright, the sage speaking, in A Few Days in Athens: Being the Translation of a Greek Manuscript (1822)
  • We are so accustomed to viewing wisdom as a result of passion spent that it is difficult for us to recognize it as the hardest and most condensed form of ardor, the bit of gold born of the fire, and not of ashes. Marguerite Yourcenar, in Critical Introduction to Constantin Cavity (1978)
  • There is no wisdom without courtesy. Marguerite Yourcenar, quoted by Richard Locke, in a review of Yourcenar's That Mighty Sculptor. Time, in The Wall Street Journal (Aug, 11, 1992)



  • What we wish, we are very apt to believe. Abigail Adams, in an 1818 letter; in The Quotable Abigail Adams (2009; John P. Kaminski, ed.)
  • We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified. Aesop, “The Old Man and Death,” in Fables (6th c. B.C.)

QUOTE NOTE: The moral of this Aesop fable is one of the earliest expressions of one of history’s grand oxymoronic themes. The essential idea has been echoed countess times over the centuries, including the modern proverb: “Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.” A century after Aesop. the Greek writer Heraclitus expressed the sentiment this way: “It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish.” You’ll also see several more examples later in this section.

  • Destiny has two ways of crushing us—by refusing our wishes and by fulfilling them. Henri-Frédéric Amiel, entry in his Journal Intime (April 10, 1881)
  • A wish is fantastic; it knows what is the case but refuses to accept it. All wishes, whatever their apparent content, have the same and unvarying meaning: “I refuse to be what I am.” W. H. Auden, in The Dyer’s Hand (1962)

Auden continued: “A wish, therefore, is either innocent and frivolous, a kind of play, or a serious expression of guilt and despair.”

  • “Be careful what you set your heart upon,” someone once said to me, “for it will surely be yours.” James Baldwin, in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites mistakenly present the observation as if it were phrased “Be careful what you set your heart upon—for it will surely be yours,” with the suggestion that it’s a direct Baldwin observation rather than a sentiment he heard from someone else.

  • When you love someone all your saved-up wishes start coming out. Elizabeth Bowen, portion of a passage from the character Portia’s diary, in The Death of the Heart (1938)

QUOTE NOTE: This has become one of Bowen’s most popular quotations, and this is the way it is almost always presented on internet sites and in quotation anthologies. In the book, however, the sixteen-year-old Portia was actually reporting something said by a young man she was infatuated with: “He says that when you love someone all your saved-up wishes start coming out.” For the fuller portion of Portia’s diary that led up to this observation, see Janet Hu’s article on Bowen in a 2010 issue of the online magazine This Recording.

  • Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck. H. Jackson Browne, in Life’s Little Instruction Book (1991)

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, thIs observation is mistakenly attributed to the Dalai Lama.

  • Every wish/Is like a prayer—with God. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Aurora Leigh (1857)
  • I’ve alwayd believed that our inventions mirror our secret wishes. Lawrence Durrell, the character Clea speaking, in Mountolive (1959)
  • It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them. George Eliot, the character Philip Wakem speaking, in The Mill on the Floss (1860)
  • If man could have half his wishes, he would double his troubles. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (Oct., 1752)
  • We are never further from our wishes than when we imagine that we possess what we have desired. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an entry in Ottilie’s diary, in Elective Affinities (1809)
  • Always leave something to wish for; otherwise you will be miserable from your very happiness. Baltasar Gracián, in The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647)
  • It would not be better if things happened to men just as they wish. Heraclitus, a 6th c. fragment

QUOTE NOTE: in Greek Thinkers: A History of Ancient Philosophy (1906), Theodor Gompers translated the fragment this way: “It would not be better for mankind if they were given their desires.”

  • Granting our wish one of Fates saddest jokes is! James Russell Lowell, “Two Scenes from the Life of Blondel, Autumn, 1863,” in Under the Willows and Other Poems (1868)
  • In real life wishing, divorced from willing, is sterile and begets nothing. Cynthia Ozick, “Morgan and Maurice: A Fairy Tale,” in Art and Ardor (1983)
  • If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Proverb (English)
  • Wishes are the memories coming from our future! Rainer Maria Rilke, in The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke (2005; Ulrich Baer, ed.)
  • It seems to me that the most universal revolutionary wish now or ever is a wish for heaven, a wish by a human being to be honored by angels for something other than beauty or usefulness. Kurt Vonnegut, “The Sexual Revolution,” in Palm Sunday (1981)
  • I mistrust the judgment of every man in a case in which his own wishes are concerned. Arthur Wellesley (First Duke of Wellington), in letter to Major Shawe (Feb 3, 1805); reprinted in The Dispatches of Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington, Vol II (1835)
  • In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst; the last is a real tragedy! Oscar Wilde, Lord Dumby speaking, in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)

QUOTE NOTE: George Bernard Shaw was clearly inspired by Wilde’s oxymoronic creation when he gave a very similar remark to the character Mendoza in Man and Superman (1903): “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”

  • Like our shadows,/Our wishes lengthen as our sun declines. Edward Young, in Night Thoughts (1742–45)



  • So pernicious a thing is wit, when it is not tempered with virtue and humanity. Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (March 27, 1711)

ERROR ALERT: A number of respected anthologies mistakenly present this quotation as: Wit is a pernicious thing when it is not tempered with virtue and humanity.

  • Wit is educated insolence. Aristotle, in Rhetoric (4th c. B.C.)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the way the quotation typically appears, but I have always preferred an earlier translation: “Wit is well-bred insolence.”

  • Wit. n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out. Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • Wit is a treacherous dart. It is perhaps the only weapon with which it is possible to stab oneself in one’s own back. Geoffrey Bocca, in The Woman Who Would Be Queen: A Biography of the Duchess of Windsor (1954)
  • He who has provoked the lash of wit, cannot complain that he smarts from it. James Boswell, a 1769 observation, in Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
  • Wit is a sword; it is meant to make people feel the point as well as see it. G. K. Chesterton, “Mark Twain,” in T. P.’s Weekly (April 29, 1910)

Chesterton continued: “All honest people saw the point of Mark Twain’s wit. Not a few dishonest people felt it.”

  • Wit is like caviar; it should be savored in small elegant proportions, and not spread about like marmalade. Noël Coward, quoted in a 1970 issue of Performing Arts magazine (specific date not determined)

QUOTE NOTE: This looks like the earliest version of a popular Coward observation, which you will find presented in a variety of slightly different ways in books and internet sites. Graham Payn, for example, in his My Life with Noël Coward (1994) presents this interesting version: “Wit is like caviar. It should be served in small, elegant portions and not splodged around like marmalade!”

  • Staircase wit. Denis Diderot, in Paradoxe sur le Comédien (published posthumously in 1830; written in the 1770s)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the English rendition of Diderot’s famous coinage—l’esprit de l’escalier in the original—for the witty retorts that spring to mind when one is no longer in the room where an offense occurred, and often as one is exiting down the staircase.

  • Wit is often its own worst enemy. Maria Edgeworth, in Thoughts on Bores (1826)
  • Wit is a form of force that leaves the limbs at rest. George Eliot, the title character thinking to himself, in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)

QUOTE NOTE: Holt, who was prone to responding in anger to insults and injuries, was planning his next move against Mr. Johnson, who had tricked him. He knew a physical altercation would be inappropriate and unsatisfying, thinking, “Blows are sarcasms turned stupid.” Some kind of wit, he concludes, would be required to defeat his foe.

  • Wit makes its own welcome and levels all distinctions. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Comic,” in Letters and Social Aims (1876)

QUOTE NOTE: Emerson was writing when wit was used to mean intelligence, and it is clear from his writing that he viewed intelligence as always welcome and a trait that superseded class and social status.

  • Wit is the lightning of the mind. Marguerite Gardiner (Lady Blessington), in Desultory Thoughts and Reflections (1839)

QUOTE NOTE: This is a beautiful metaphor in its own right, but it was originally the first portion of the following tricolon: “Wit is the lightning of the mind, reason the sunshine, and reflection the moonlight.”

  • The Words of the Wisest and Wittiest Men/Like Thunder are echoed again and again. Arthur Guiterman, in A Poet’s Proverbs (1924)
  • Wit is the salt of conversation, not the food. William Hazlitt, “On Wit and Humour,” in Lectures on the English Comic Writers (1819)
  • Wit’s an unruly engine, wildly striking/Sometimes a friend, sometimes the engineer. George Herbert, a couplet from “The Church Porch,” in The Temple (1633)

Herbert went on to write: “Many affecting wit beyond their power,/Have got to be a dear fool for an hour.”

  • Wit destroys eroticism and eroticism destroys wit, so women must choose between taking lovers and taking no prisoners. Florence King, in Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye (1989)
  • The greatest fault of a penetrating wit is to go beyond the mark. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • A man does not please long when he has only one species of wit. François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, in Maximes (1665)
  • In the midst of the fountain of wit there arises something bitter, which stings in the very flowers. Lucretius, in On the Nature of Things (1st c. B.C.)
  • Wit has a deadly aim and it is possible to prick a large pretense with a small pin. Marya Mannes, “Controverse,” in But Will It Sell? (1964)
  • Impropriety is the soul of wit. W. Somerset Maugham, the narrator playing off the classic line from Polonius in Hamlet, in The Moon and Sixpence (1919)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the quotation is almost always presented, but it originally appeared in a larger description about a London luncheon attended by a number of artists and writers. About one of guests, the narrator wrote: “Mrs. Jay, aware that impropriety is the soul of wit, made observations in tones hardly above a whisper that might well have tinged the snowy tablecloth with as rosy hue.” The meaning of the final portion of the passage is that tasteless remarks delivered with flair might even embarrass a white tablecloth. The full original Shakespeare quotation may be seen in BREVITY. See also the Dorothy Parker entry in LINGERIE.

  • Wit must have a butt and is ill-constituted to paddle in the milk of human kindness. W. Somerset Maugham, “On A Theme: Dorothy Parker,” in A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings 1901–1964 (1984, Anthony Blond, ed.)
  • Repartee is precisely the touchstone of the man of wit. Molière, in The Affected Ladies (1659)
  • Wit is a dangerous weapon, even to the possessor, if he knows not how to use it discreetly. Michel de Montaigne, in Essays (1580)
  • There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. Dorothy Parker, in Paris Review interview (Summer, 1956)
  • Wit is a happy and striking way of expressing a thought. William Penn, in Fruits of Solitude (1682)
  • Wit in conversation is only a readiness of thought and a facility of expression, or (in the midwives’ phrase) a quick conception, and an easy delivery. Alexander Pope, in Thoughts on Various Subjects (1727)
  • There is no possibility of being witty without a little ill-nature; the malice in a good thing is the barb that makes it stick. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the character Lady Sneerwell speaking, in The School for Scandal (1777)
  • The pleasure arising from wit proceeds from our surprise at suddenly discovering two things to be similar, in which we suspected no similarity. Sydney Smith, “Edgeworth on Bulls,” in Edinburgh Review (July, 1803)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation was the likely inspiration for a popular Mark Twain thought about wit being the marriage of ideas (see below)

  • Wit is the only wall/Between us and the dark. Mark Van Doren, “Wit,” in A Winter Diary and Other Poems (1935)

ERROR ALERT: On almost all internet sites, this is presented as a prose observation, not as a piece of verse.

  • Somebody has said, “Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which, before their union, were not perceived to have any relation.” Mark Twain, a notebook entry (Aug. 6, 1885); in Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935; Albert Bigelow Paine, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: Twain wasn’t quoting a specific person so much as he was trying to recall a saying he admired; in doing so, he created one of his most popular quotations. The thought he was trying to bring to memory was almost certainly an 1803 observation from Sydney Smith, seen above.

  • At full strength, wit is rage made bearable, and useful. Gore Vidal, “The Satiric World of Evelyn Waugh,” in The New York Times (Jan. 7, 1962)

QUOTE NOTE: Vidal was talking about the wit of the satirist, as exemplified in the work of Evelyn Waugh. He began his review by writing: “A satirist is a man profoundly revolted by the society in which he lives. His rage takes the form of wit, ridicule, mockery.”

  • I think a better idea would be survival of the wittiest. At least, that way, the creatures that didn’t survive could’ve died laughing. Jane Wagner, in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1985; line delivered by Lily Tomlin in the Broadway play)

Wagner preceded the line by writing: “If evolution was worth its salt, by now it should’ve evolved something better than survival of the fittest.”



  • Great wits are sure to madness near allied;/And thin partitions do their bonds divide. John Dryden, in Absalom and Achitophel (1681)
  • The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots. George Eliot, a reflection of the narrator, in Middlemarch (1871-72)
  • It is with wits as with razors, which are never so apt to cut those they are employed on as when they have lost their edge. Jonathan Swift, in Preface (written in 1697) to A Tale of a Tub (written between 1694-97; published 1704)

QUOTE NOTE: This is one of Swift's most quotable observations, appearing in his first major work, a brilliant satire in which three brothers adrift in a tub represent three branches of European Christianity. What is less well known is how Swift continued the thought: “Besides, those whose teeth are too rotten to bite are best of all others qualified to revenge that defect with their breath.”



  • There is this difference between wit and humor: wit makes you think, humor makes you laugh. Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), quoted in Donald Day, Uncle Sam’s Uncle Josh (1953)

QUOTE NOTE: When Billings first presented the thought in Everybody’s Friend (1874), he expressed it in his distinctive phonetic dialect: “Wit makes yu think, humor makes yu laff.”

  • Humor comes from self-confidence. There’s an aggressive element to wit. Rita Mae Brown, in Starting from Scratch (1988)
  • Humor inspires sympathetic, good-natured laughter and is favored by the “healing power” gang. Wit goes for the jugular, not the jocular, and it’s the opposite of football; instead of building character, it tears it down. Florence King, in Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye (1989)
  • Humor is of the heart, and has its tears; but wit is of the head, and has only smiles—and the majority of those are bitter. L. E. Landon, in Francesca Carrara (1834)

The remark was introduced by this thought: “It is a curious fact, but a fact it is, that your witty people are the most hard-hearted in the world. The truth is, fancy destroys feeling. The quick eye to the ridiculous turns every thing to the absurd side; and the neat sentence, the lively allusion, and the odd simile, invest what they touch with something of their own buoyant nature.”

  • Don’t try for wit. Settle for humor. You’ll last longer. Elsa Maxwell, in How to Do It, or the Lively Art of Entertaining (1957)
  • Wit penetrates; humor envelops. Wit is a function of verbal intelligence; humor is imagination operating on good nature. Peggy Noonan, in What I Saw at the Revolution (1990)

Noonan continued: “John Kennedy had wit, and so did Lincoln, who also had abundant humor; Reagan was mostly humor.”

  • Humor wades across a brook, wit jumps over it. Austin O’Malley, in Keystones of Thought (1914)
  • Wit is artificial; humor is natural. Wit is accidental; humor is inevitable. Wit is born of conscious effort; humor, of the allotted ironies of fate. Agnes Repplier, “Wit and Humor,” in Essays in Idleness (1893)

Repplier continued: “Wit can be expressed only in language; humor can be developed sufficiently in situation.”

  • Humor does not include sarcasm, invalid irony, sardonicism, or any other form of cruelty. When these things are raised to a high point they can become wit. James Thurber, in letter to Walter Landau (June 25, 1954); later reprinted in Horn Book Magazine (April, 1962)
  • Wit and Humor—if any difference it is in duration—lightning and electric light. Same material, apparently; but one is vivid, brief, and can do damage—the other fools along and enjoys the elaboration. Mark Twain, an 1885 notebook entry, in Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935; Albert Bigelow Paine, ed.)



  • Of all failures, to fail in a witticism is the worst; and the mishap is the more calamitous in a drawn-out and detailed one. Walter Savage Landor, the character Lord Chatham speaking, in “Lord Chesterfield and Lord Chatham,” Imaginary Conversations, Second Series (1824)
  • Witticisms please as long as we keep them within bounds, but pushed to excess they cause offense. Phaedrus (Gaius Julius Phaedrus), in Fables (1st. c. A.D.)



  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Jane Austen, the opening words of Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  • Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses. Francis Bacon, “Of Marriage and Single Life,” in Essays (1625)
  • I hate being called a housewife. I prefer being called a domestic goddess. Roseanne Barr, a 1985 remark, quoted in Geraldine Barr My Sister Roseanne (1994; with Ted Schwarz)
  • To be a housewife is to be a member of a very peculiar occupation, one with characteristics like no other. The nature of the duties to be performed, the method of payment, the form of supervision, the tenure system, the “market” in which the “workers” find “jobs,” and the physical hazards are all very different from the way things are in other occupations. Barbara Bergmann, in The Economic Emergence of Women (1986)
  • Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing. The Bible—Book of Proverbs 18:22
  • I have been happy in many things, but all my other good fortune has been as dust in the balance compared with the blessing of an incomparable wife. John Buchan, in Memory Hold-The-Door (1940)
  • As Thoreau nearly said, “Most wives lead lives of quiet disapprobation. Lawrence Durrell, the character Toby speaking, in Monsieur: Or, The Prince of Darkness (1974)
  • A man’s wife has more power over him than the State has. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an 1836 journal entry; reprinted in Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1820-1872 (1876; Waldo Emerson Forbes, ed.)
  • A rare spoil for a man/Is the winning of a good wife; very/Plentiful are the worthless women. Euripides, in Iphigenia in Aulis (5th c. B.C.)
  • Man’s best possession is a sympathetic wife. Euripides, in Antigone (5th c. B.C.)
  • You can bear your own faults, and why not a fault in your wife. Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanack (October, 1750)
  • Choose a wife rather by your ear than your eye. Thomas Fuller, M.D., in Gnomologia (1732)
  • I’m having trouble managing the mansion. What I need is a wife. Ella T. Grasso, remark while serving as governor of Connecticut, in a 1975 issue of Reader’s Digest (specific issue undetermined)
  • I do not refer to myself as a “housewife” for the reason that I did not marry a house. Wilma Scott Heide, in New Woman (1974)
  • It is but the name of wife I hate. Lady Caroline Lamb, the character Calantha speaking, in Glenarvon (1816)
  • A woman fit to be a man’s wife is too good to be his servant. Dorothy Leigh, in The Mother’s Blessing (1616)
  • As a group, housewives to-day suffer more from social isolation and loss of purpose than any other social group, except, perhaps, the old. Alva Myrdal, in Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein’s Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work (1956)
  • You remember the man who said he had a little contrivance that shut the window and turned on the heat before he got up? It was called a wife. Henrietta Sperry Ripperger, in A Home of Your Own and How to Run It (1940)
  • I have often thought that less is expected of the president of a great corporation than of an American wife. Eleanor Roosevelt, in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Book of Common Sense Etiquette (1962)
  • Don’t ever say wife to me/it’s too cold/if someone asks who I am / tell them I am the one you love. Susan Polis Schutz, in I Want to Laugh, I Want to Cry: Poems on Women’s Feelings (1973)
  • A successful woman preacher was once asked “What special obstacles have you met as a woman in the ministry?” “Not one,” she answered, “Except the lack of a minister’s wife.” Anna Garlin Spencer, in Woman’s Share in Social Culture (1912)
  • No one in the whole world knows all a man’s bignesses and all his littlenesses as his wife does. Gene Stratton-Porter, in Freckles (1904)
  • My God, who wouldn’t want a wife? Judy Syfers, “Why I Want a Wife?” in Notes From the Third Year (1971); reprinted in a 1972 issue of Ms. magazine

QUOTE NOTE: This was the concluding line of an essay that began with Syfer thinking, “While I was ironing one evening, it suddenly occurred to me that I, too, would like to have a wife.” And then, after ticking off dozens of services that wives routinely perform, she arrives at the concluding line.



  • Old-fashioned ways which no longer apply to changed conditions are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled. Jane Addams, in Newer Ideals of Peace (1907)
  • For women the best aphrodisiacs are words. The G-spot is in the ears. He who looks for it below there is wasting his time. Isabel Allende, in Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses (1998)
  • I have always wanted to be a man, if only for the reason that I would like to have gauged the value of my intellect. Margot Asquith, in More Memories (1933)
  • All women want to be understood until they understand themselves. Gertrude Atherton, in The Adventures of a Novelist (1932)
  • One is not born a woman: one becomes a woman. Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex (1950)
  • Women are never stronger than when they arm themselves with their weaknesses. Marie du Deffand, from a letter to Voltaire (c. 1750), in Lettres à Voltaire (1922; Joseph Trabucco, ed.). Also an example of Oxymoronica.
  • What woman hasn’t felt that her life’s journey is part meat market, part catwalk? Barbara Ellen, “Why Barbie Can Never be a Little Girl’s Best Friend,” in The Guardian (London; May 5, 2002)
  • Because society would rather we always wore a pretty face, women have been trained to cut off anger. Nancy Friday, in My Mother/My Self (1977)
  • It’s odd, really, more women aren’t used for private investigation work. They could go anywhere and no one would notice them. Anthony Gilbert (pen name of Lucy Malleson), in Murder’s a Waiting Game (1972)
  • Rule number one for all American women: You are to be seen and felt, but not heard. Listen and do as you are told and everything will be all right. Elizabeth Hawes, in Anything But Love (1948)
  • Not one woman over seventeen has any faith in her skin tone, and no woman over thirty can ever regard her upper arms with equanimity. Cynthia Heimel, in Sex Tips for Girls (1983)
  • We have no faith in ourselves. I have never met a woman who, deep down in her core, really believes she has great legs. And if she suspects that she might have great legs, then she’s convinced that she has a shrill voice and no neck. Cynthia Heimel, in Sex Tips for Girls (1983)
  • The witty woman is a tragic figure in American life. Wit destroys eroticism and eroticism destroys wit, so women must choose between taking lovers and taking no prisoners. Florence King, in Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye (1989)
  • Women who buy perfume and flowers for themselves because men don’t do it are called “self-basting.” Adair Lara, in The San Francisco Chronicle (Dec. 19, 1990)
  • Women are like geography:/From 16 to 22, like Africa—part virgin, part explored./From 25 to 35, like Asia—hot and mysterious./From 35 to 45, like the USA—high-toned and technical./From 46 to 55, like Europe— quite devastated but interesting in places./From 60 upwards, like Australia— everybody knows about it, but nobody wants to go there. Gertrude Lawrence, in a 1949 postcard to Daphne du Maurier
  • All one’s life as a young woman one is on show, a focus of attention, people notice you. You set yourself up to be noticed and admired. And then, not expecting it, you become middle-aged and anonymous. No one notices you. You achieve a wonderful freedom. It is a positive thing. You can move about, unnoticed and invisible. Doris Lessing, quoted in Robert Andrews, The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (1989)
  • Women often get dropped from memory, and then history. Doris Lessing, in Under My Skin: My Autobiography to 1949 (1994)
  • Long before Playboy, Woman was not the sum of her parts: her parts were her sum. Marya Mannes, in Out of My Time (1971)
  • If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts. Camille Paglia, in Sexual Personae (1990
  • Any woman’s death diminishes me. Adrienne Rich, “From an Old House in America” (1974), in The Fact of a Doorframe (1984)

QUOTE NOTE: Here, Rich tweaks a famous line from John Donne's “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (to be seen in MANKIND}



  • I consider woman as a beautiful romantic animal, that may be adorned with furs and feathers, pearls and diamonds, ores and silks. Joseph Addison, in The Tatler (Jan. 5, 1709)
  • With women, the heart argues, not the mind. Matthew Arnold, the character Polyphontes speaking, in Merope (1858)
  • The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin. Honoré de Balzac, in The Physiology of Marriage (1829)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the way that Balzac's famous observation is usually presented, and it is one of the most popular observations about male clumsiness in their intimate relations with women. The popular version of the sentiment appears to be an abridgment of Balzac's original words. Here's his fuller thought: “Woman is a delicious instrument of pleasure, but it is necessary to know its quivering strings, study the pose of it, its timid keyboard, the changing and capricious fingering. How many orangs—men, I mean, marry without knowing what a woman is!”

  • Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d,/Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorn’d. William Congreve, the character Zara speaking, in The Mourning Bride: A Tragedy (1697)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the original phrasing of the sentiment that evolved into the modern proverb, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” (some versions of the proverb replace hath with has, and still others replace scorned with spurned). The saying has been tweaked and parodied many times (see the Connolly entry below as well as the entries by Friedman in BUREAUCRACY & BUREAUCRATS and Bristol in FANATICISM & FANATICS)

  • There is no fury like a woman searching for a new lover. Cyril Connolly, tweaking the famous William Congreve saying (see above), in The Unquiet Grave (1945)
  • A woman’s desire for revenge outlasts all her other emotions. Cyril Connolly, in The Unquiet Grave (1945)
  • Being a woman is a terribly difficult trade since it consists principally of dealings with men. Joseph Conrad, a reflection of narrator Charles Marlow, in Chance: A Tale in Two Parts (1913)
  • The true man wants two things: danger and play. For that reason he wants woman, as the most dangerous plaything. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Of Old and Young Women,” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883)
  • There is no sincerity like a woman telling a lie. Cecil Parker, in the role of Alfred Munson, as he observes Ingrid Bergman (as Ann Kalman) talking to someone on the phone, in the 1958 film Indiscreet (screenplay by Norman Krasna)
  • A woman is a foreign land,/Of which, though there he settle young,/A man will ne’er quite understand,/The customs, politics, and tongue. Coventry Patmore, “The Foreign Land,” in The Angel in the House, Vol. 1 (1854)
  • Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only life and reality: the female human being. Rainer Maria Rilke, in letter to Franz Xaver Kappus (May 14, 1904); published posthumously in Letters to a Young Poet (1929)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation, made over a half century before the modern Women’s Movement, is so amazingly prescient that only one conclusion is warranted: if ever a man deserved to be called am “early feminist,” it would have to be Rilke.



  • Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table. Even a tiny fleck of it stops time. Diane Ackerman, in Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds (1995)

QUOTE NOTE: This thought came to Ackerman when she witnessed a rare sight while snorkeling in a sea cave near the island of Niihau in Hawaii. Here’s how she described the experience: “I am watching monk seals mate, I tell myself twice, as a complete sentence, because it is an astoundingly rare event to behold. The two other recorded sightings were vague and incomplete, and I feel lucky indeed.”

  • Wonder is a bulky emotion. When you let it fill your heart and mind, there isn’t room for anxiety, distress or anything else. Diane Ackerman, “Come to the Window and Look,” in Parade magazine (Jan. 13, 2002); reprinted in An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain (2004)
  • Overcome fear, behold wonder. Richard Bach, recalling a lesson learned when, as a child, he faced his fear of heights by climbing a water tower, in Running from Safety: An Adventure of the Spirit (1994)
  • For all knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure in itself. Francis Bacon (1561–1626), in The Advancement of Learning (1625)
  • There may be wonder in money, but, dear God, there is money in wonder. Enid Bagnold, the voice of the narrator, in National Velvet (1935). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • We carry within us the wonders we seek without us. Sir Thomas Browne, in Religio Medici (1643)

About the great world of wonder that lies within, Browne added: “There is all Africa and her prodigies in us.”

  • Wonder…is the basis of Worship: the reign of wonder is perennial, indestructible in Man. Thomas Carlyle, the narrator quoting Professor Teufelsdröckh, in Sartor Resartus (serialized in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34; pub. as a novel 1836)
  • If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in. Rachel Carson, in The Sense of Wonder (1965)
  • The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder. G. K. Chesterton, “Tremendous Trifles,” in Tremendous Trifles (1909)
  • The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. Richard Dawkins, in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (1998)

Dawkins continued: “It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

  • He who…can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. Albert Einstein, “What I Believe,” in Forum and Century 84 (1930); reprinted in Ideas and Opinions (1954)

QUOTE NOTE: This thought was preceded by one of Einstein’s most popular quotations: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Both passages have been translated in varying ways over the years, but these are the versions presented in The New Quotable Einstein (2005), edited by Alice Calaprice.

  • Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of our science. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Works and Days,” in Society and Solitude (1860)

QUOTE NOTE: Emerson, who was intimately familiar with the works of Francis Bacon, might have been inspired by his notion that wonder is the seed of knowledge, seen in the Bacon entry above,

  • I am perpetually awaiting/a rebirth of wonder. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “I am Waiting,” in A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)
  • The artist’s work, it is sometimes said, is to celebrate. But really that is not so; it is to express wonder. Patricia Hampl, in Spillville: A Collaboration (1978; engravings by Steven Sorman)

Hampl added: “And something terrible resides at the heart of wonder. Celebration is social, amenable. Wonder has a chaotic splendor. It moves into experience rather than into judgement. It zooms headlong into the act of perception.”

  • Live on, survive, for the earth gives forth wonders. It may swallow your heart, but the wonders keep on coming. You stand before them bareheaded, shriven. What is expected of you is attention. Salman Rushdie, the voice of the narrator, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet: A Novel (1999)
  • Philosophy is the product of wonder. Alfred North Whitehead, in Nature and Life (1934)
  • For wonder is involuntary praise. Edward Young, the character Zanga speaking, in The Revenge (1721)



  • Words used carelessly, as if they did not matter in any serious way, often allowed otherwise well-guarded truths to seep through. Douglas Adams, in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)
  • Words are slippery and thought is viscous. Henry Brooks Adams, in The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

For this reason, Adams concluded chiastically: “No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean.” For more on the literary device of chiasmus and the structure of chiastic quotations, go to: What is Chiasmus?

  • Words are the physicians of a mind diseased. Aeschylus, in Prometheus Bound (5th c. B.C.)
  • Words may be deeds. Aesop, “The Trumpeter Taken Prisoner,” in Fables (6th c. B.C.)
  • Humans mop up words like sponges. Jean Aitchison, in The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words (1997)

Aitchison added: “By the age of five, most English-speaking children can actively use around 3,000 words, and more are added fast…20,000 around the age of thirteen, and to 50,000 or more by the age of twenty.”

  • Most new words simply disappear, like raindrops falling and soaking into the ground. Only a few get caught in the bucket of public attention, and make their way into dictionaries. Jean Aitchison, in The Language Web: The Power and Problem of Words (1997)
  • I like good, strong words, that mean something. Louisa May Alcott, the character Jo speaking, in Little Women (1868)
  • With women the best aphrodisiac is words. Isabel Allende, in Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses (1998)

ERROR ALERT: This is the way the quotation originally appears, the conclusion to a passage about contrasting sexual triggers in men and women. In a number of popular quotation anthologies, and on hundreds of internet sites, the quotation is mistakenly presented this way: “For women, the best aphrodisiacs are words. The G-spot is in the ears. He who looks for it below there is wasting his time.”

QHOTE NOTE: I grew suspicious when I first encountered the erroneous quotation, believing Allende would have more likely written best aphrodisiac is words rather than best aphrodisiacs are words. When I tracked down the original quotation, I discovered the widely-quoted version is also wrong in several other ways, appearing to be a paraphrase of Allende’s original thought rather than a direct quotation. I present her full original thought below. In contrast to men, who primarily respond to a visual stimulus, Allende writes:

“We women have a better developed sense of the ridiculous, and besides, our sensuality is tied to our imagination and our auditory nerves. It may be that the only way we will listen is if someone whispers in our ear. The G spot is in the ears, and anyone who goofs around looking for it farther down is wasting his time and ours. Professional lovers, and I am referring not just to lotharios like Casanova, Valentino, and Julio Iglesias, but to the quantities of men who collect amorous conquests to prove their virility with quantity—since quality—is a question of luck—know that with women the best aphrodisiac is words.”

  • By words the mind is winged. Aristophanes, in The Birds (414 B.C.)
  • A word after a word after a word is power. Margaret Atwood, “Spelling,” in True Stories (1981)
  • A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. Gaston Bachelard, in The Politics of Reverie (1960, tr, 1969)

Later in the book, Bachelard expanded on the thought, writing: “The words of the world want to make sentences.”

  • You can taste a word. That’s food for thought. Pearl Bailey, quoted in Newsweek magazine (Dec. 4, 1967)
  • A flow of words is a sure sign of duplicity. Honoré de Balzac, in letter from the character Don Felipe Hénarez, in Letters of Two Brides (serialized 1841; published 1842)
  • Man is a talking animal and he will always let himself be swayed by the power of the word. Simone de Beauvoir, in Les Belles Images (1966)
  • All words are pegs to hang ideas on. Henry Ward Beecher, in Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887)
  • For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Ingrid Bengis, in Combat in the Erogenous Zone (1972)
  • Thought itself needs words. It runs on them like a long wire. Ugo Betti, in Crime on Goat Island (1946)
  • A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. The Bible—Book of Proverbs: 25:11 (RSV)

This is the Revised Standard Version of the passage; the King James Version has it this way: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”

  • What is that we human beings ultimately depend on? We depend on our words. We are suspended in language. Our task is to communicate experience and ideas to others. Niels Bohr, quoted in Aage Petersen, “The Philosophy of Niels Bohr,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Sep., 1963)

Bohr continued: “We must strive continually to extend the scope of our description, but in such a way that our messages do not thereby lose their objective or unambiguous character.”

  • Words, I think, are the one great, exhaustless charm and resource of life; and to think how people fling them about, and strike, and sting and stab and poison, and go their way and forget. Gamaliel Bradford, in The Letters of Gamaliel Bradford, 1918–1931 (1934, Van Wyck Brooks, ed.)
  • Words are as recalcitrant as circus animals, and the unskilled trainer can crack his whip at them in vain. Gerald Brenan, in Thoughts in a Dry Season (1978)

QUOTE NOTE: In a Time magazine review of the book (“Word Tamer,” Feb. 5, 1979), Gerald Clarke picked up on Brenan’s circus trainer metaphor and ended his piece by writing: “The words may jump and snarl, snap and bite when Brenan sits down at his own desk. But when they march onto his page, they almost always perform marvelous and original tricks.”

  • Words make love with one another. Andre Breton, quoted in David Grambs, Just Ask Mr. Wordwizard (1995)
  • It is extremely natural for us to see…our Thoughts put into the Dress of Words, without which indeed we can scarce have a clear and distinct Idea of them our selves. Eustace Budgell, in The Spectator (May 15, 1712)
  • Words spoken in deep love or deep hate set things in motion within the human heart that can never be reversed. Frederick Buechner, in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (2006)
  • Words easy to be understood do often hit the mark, when high and learned ones do only pierce the air. John Bunyan, in The Holy City; Or, The New Jerusalem (1665)

QUOTE NOTE: In a section addressed “To the Learned Reader,” Bunyan was defending his simple and direct writing style. Even though his writing was “empty of the language of the learned,” he argued that it would be a mistake to regard it as the work of an unintelligent person.

  • Fumbling for a word is everybody’s birthright. Anthony Burgess, in A Mouthful of Air (1992)
  • A word in a dictionary is very much like a car in a mammoth motorshow—full of potential, but temporarily inactive. Anthony Burgess, in A Mouthful of Air (1992)
  • It is an old saying, “A blow with a word strikes deeper than a blow with a sword. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)
  • A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words. Samuel Butler, in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)
  • Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use. Samuel Butler, “Thought and Word,” in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)
  • But words are things, and a small drop of ink,/Falling, like dew, upon a thought, produces/That which makes thousands, perhaps millions think. George Gordon, Lord Byron, in Don Juan (Canto III, 1821)
  • I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels. John Calvin, in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (1543)
  • Be not the slave of Words. Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus (serialized in Fraser’s Magazine 1833-34; published as novel 1836)
  • Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality. Joseph Conrad, in Under Western Eyes (1911)
  • One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment. Hart Crane, on himself, quoted in Malcolm Cowley, A Second Flowering (1973)
  • One’s words must glide across the page like a swan moving across the waters. One must be conscious of the movement without a thought of what is causing it to move. Robert Crichton, in The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1966)
  • A word is dead/When it is said,/Some say./I say it just/Begins to live/That day. Emily Dickinson, poem no. 1212 (c. 1872)
  • How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes. Theodore Dreiser, in Sister Carrie (1900)
  • The words we use are symbolic of the values we hold. Angela Duckworth, in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016)
  • Words are the legs of the mind; they bear it about, carry it from point to point, bed it down at night, and keep it off the ground and out of the marsh and mists. Richard Eder, in review of Arthur Kopit’s 1978 stage play Wings (adapted from his 1976 radio play), The New York Times (March 8, 1978)
  • An inaccurate use of words produces such a strange confusion in all reasoning that in the heat of debate, the combatants, unable to distinguish their friends from their foes, fall promiscuously on both. Maria Edgeworth, in letter from Caroline to Julia, in Letters of Julia and Caroline (1795)

Caroline continued: “A skillful disputant knows well how to take advantage of this confusion, and sometimes endeavors to create it.”

  • Our words have wings, but fly not where we would. George Eliot, in The Spanish Gypsy (1868)
  • Words strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,/Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,/Will not stay still. T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” in Four Quartets (1936)
  • It’s strange that words are so inadequate./Yet, like the asthmatic struggling for breath,/So the lover must struggle for words. T. S. Eliot, the character Charles speaking to Monica, in the verse play The Elder Statesman (1958)
  • Words are like children. The more care you lavish on them, the more they demand. Joseph Fiennes, in the 2003 film Luther (screenplay by Camille Thomasson & Bart Gavigan)

QUOTE NOTE: Playing the role of Martin Luther, Fiennes was describing his difficulty in translating the Latin version of the New Testament into the German language.

  • You can stroke people with words. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Notebook O,” in The Crack-Up (1945; Edmund Wilson, ed.)
  • If there is on earth a house with many mansions, it is the house of words. E. M. Forster, in Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)
  • With words, as with bricks, tearing down is easier than building up. Leonard Roy Frank, a Tweet (Dec. 16, 2012)
  • My definition of literature would be just this, words that have become deeds. Robert Frost, in letter to Louis Untermeyer (July 8, 1915)
  • Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the word words is an anagram of sword. Well-used words cut through ambiguity and confusion like a sharp sword in the hands of an expert swordsman. Anu Garg, in A Word a Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English (2003; with Stuti Garg)

Garg, the man behind the immensely popular A.Word.A.Day daily e-blast, added: “Like a fencer with a whole supply of moves, feints, and parries, a person with a large and varied vocabulary at her command can find just the right word for the occasion.”

  • Each word comes with a biography. These words have fascinating stories to tell, if only we take the time to listen. Anu Garg, quoted in Suneetha Balakrishnan, “Word Hungry,” The Hindu (March 23, 2013)
  • The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words. William H. Gass, in A Temple of Texts: Essays (2006)
  • All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind. Kahlil Gibran, in Sand and Foam (1926)
  • Words may, through the devotion, the skill, the passion, and the luck of writers prove to be the most powerful thing in the world. They may move men to speak to each other because some of those words somewhere express not just what the writer is thinking but what a huge segment of the world is thinking. William Golding, in Nobel Lecture (Dec. 7, 1983)
  • Words themselves are the intimate attire of thoughts and feelings. Karen Elizabeth Gordon, in Intimate Apparel (1989)
  • The Words of the Wisest and Wittiest Men/Like Thunder are echoed again and again. Arthur Guiterman, in A Poet’s Proverbs (1924)
  • That words are like Sunbeams all Speakers should Learn:/The more you Condense them the Deeper they Burn. Arthur Guiterman, in A Poet’s Proverbs (1924)
  • A word is no light matter. Words have with truth been called fossil poetry, each, that is, a symbol of a creative thought. Edith Hamilton, in The Greek Way (1930)

QUOTE NOTE: It was not words but language that was called “fossil poetry.” See the Ralph Waldo Emerson entry in LANGUAGE

  • Words are chameleons, which reflect the color of their environment. Learned Hand, in Commissioner of Internal Revenue v. National Carbide Co., Second Circuit Court of Appeals (March 31, 1948)
  • Words are the bugles of social change. Charles Handy, in The Age of Unreason (1991)
  • Words—so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them. Nathaniel Hawthorne, an 1848 entry, in Passages from The American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1868; Sophia Hawthorne, ed.)
  • A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in Supreme Court decision: Towne v. Eisner (1918)
  • A moment’s thinking is an hour in words. Thomas Hood, in “Hero and Leander” (1827)
  • Once a word has been allowed to escape, it cannot be recalled. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), in Epistles (1st c. B.C.)
  • Words form the thread on which we string our experiences. Aldous Huxley, in The Olive Tree (1937)
  • Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes; and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons. Aldous Huxley, in Adonis and the Alphabet (1956; pub. in U.S. as Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow)
  • Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking. John Maynard Keynes, in New Statesman and Nation (July 15, 1933)
  • Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. Rudyard Kipling, in Feb. 14, 1923 speech, reprinted in A Book of Words (1928)

ERROR ALERT: In 1977, The Forbes Book of Business Quotations attributed a similar remark to Leo Rosten: “Words must surely be counted among the most powerful drugs man ever invented.” Kipling is clearly the original author of the sentiment.

  • Words matter. Words can destroy. What we call each other ultimately becomes what we think of each other, and it matters.

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Israel as Scapegoat,” in address to Anti-Defamation League, Palm Beach, Florida (Feb. 11, 1982)

  • What happens if the cultivated language is made up of poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons? Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all. Victor Klemperer, in The Language of the Third Reich (2000)

QUOTE NOTE: Klemperer’s work was originally published in 1946 with a half-German, half Latin title: LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen (translated as The Language of the Third Reich: A Philologist’s Notebook). He prefaced the thought above with this intriguing observation about how the Nazis came to exert such control over German citizens:

“The most powerful influence was exerted neither by individual speeches nor by articles or flyers, posters or flags; it was not achieved by things which one had to absorb by conscious thought or conscious emotions. Instead Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously.”

For more on the man and his work, go to: Victor Klemperer.

  • We are all so clumsy…and words are all we have, poor signals like bonfires and flags trying to express what shipwreck is. Rose Wilder Lane, in a 1927 letter to Dorothy Thompson; quoted in William Holtz, Dorothy Thompson and Rose Wilder Lane: Forty Years of Friendship (1991)
  • Words are such an integral part of our consciousness that we believe they have always existed, like stones and grass and bushes. But this is not true. Richard Lederer, in The Miracle of Language (1991)

Lederer continued: “Like flint tools and weaving, each new word is a human invention, spoken or written for the very first time by a particular human being at a particular moment. We human beings are the word makers, and it is we who decide what words mean and when their meanings change.”

  • Like people, words are born, grow up, get married, have children, and even die. They may be very old, like man and wife and home. They may be very young, like Sudoku and ginormous. Richard Lederer, “Words and People Are Inextricably Bound Together,” in U-T San Diego (April 25, 2015)

Lederer continued: “They may be newly born and just taking their place in the world, like selfie, vape, and binge watching. Or they may repose in the tomb of history, as leechcraft, the Anglo-Saxon word for the practice of medicine, and murfles, a long defunct word for freckles or pimples.” The full column may be seen at U-T San Diego.

  • We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse: we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. Penelope Lively, a reflection of the protagonist Claudia Hampton, in Moon Tiger (1987)
  • A torn jacket is soon mended; but hard words bruise the heart of a child. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Table-Talk,” in Driftwood (1857)
  • All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words. Amy Lowell, title poem, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914)

ERROR ALERT: The final word of the title of the poem and the book is often mistakenly rendered as Seeds, even in such respected reference works as The Yale Book of Quotations (2006). See the book at Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (Scroll down to page three to see the poem)

  • My words are little jars/For you to take and put upon a shelf. Amy Lowell, in “Gift” (1914)
  • Words are restless bundles of energy ever ready to explode in our minds like bombs, to blossom in our minds like flowers. Michael Lydon, “The Energy of Writing,” in Visual Thesaurus (Nov. 10, 2011)

QUOTE NOTE: In offering the thought, Lydon used an intriguing ocean metaphor he learned from his high school science teacher. Just as the energy of an ocean wave is not in the water, but something that flows through it, Lydon argued that “the energy of writing is not in the words; the energy of writing flows through the words.” His entire essay may be seen at Visual Thesaurus.

  • The beautiful word begets the beautiful deed. Thomas Mann, the voice of the protagonist, Hans Castorp, in The Magic Mountain (1924)
  • To reason with poorly chosen words is like using a pair of scales with inaccurate weights. André Maurois, in The Art of Living (1939)

QUOTE NOTE: I’ve also seen the quotation translated this way: “To reason with a poor language is like using a pair of scales with inaccurate weights.” Maurois began by writing that there are no disputes in algebra because all terms are precisely defined. In most human discourse, by contrast, language is imprecise. He wrote: “The words used in speaking about emotions, about the conduct of government, are vague words which may be employed in the same argument with several different meanings.”

  • Apt words have pow'r to swage /The tumors of a troubled mind, /And are as balm to fester'd wounds. John Milton, in Paradise Regained (1671)
  • Words, he concluded, are a commodity in which there is never any slump. Christopher Morley, the narrator describing the character Lawrence Hubbard, in Human Being: A Story (1932)

ERROR ALERT: The observation is commonly presented as if it read: words are a commodity in which there is never any slump. In the book, Morley went on to write: “Talk is the greatest industry, and all human beings move in clouds of it—not merely their own, but in the rumors and representations of others, to which they are sometimes painfully sensitive.”

  • A trite word is an overused word which has lost its identity like an old coat in a second-hand shop. The familiar grows dull and we no longer see, hear, or taste it. Anaïs Nin, a 1950 diary entry, in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5 (1974)
  • A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket. Charles Peguy, “The Honest People,” in Basic Verities (1943)
  • If words are to enter men’s minds and bear fruit, they must be the right words, shaped cunningly to pass men’s defenses and explode silently and effectually within their minds. J. B. Phillips, in Letters to Young Churches (1947)
  • Words are like leaves; and where they most abound,/Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found. Alexander Pope, in An Essay on Criticism (1711)
  • Words were a lens to focus one’s mind. Ayn Rand, a thought from the character Henry Reardon, in Atlas Shrugged (1957)

ERROR ALERT: In numerous quotation anthologies and internet sites—including many Ayn Rand tribute sites—this quotation is wrongly presented as: Words are a lens to focus one’s mind.

  • He that useth many Words for the explaining any Subject, doth, like the Cuttle-Fish, hide himself; for the most part, in his own Ink. John Ray, in The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691)

Two and one-half centuries later, in his famous “Politics and the English Language” essay (Horizon magazine, April, 1946), George Orwell offered another memorable analogy regarding the use of language and the ink-squirting fish: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

  • Words are the small change of thought. Jules Renard, journal entry (Nov. 15, 1895)
  • A word has its use,/Or, like a man, it will soon have a grave. Edwin Arlington Robinson, “Tasker Norcross,” in The Three Taverns: A Book of Poems (1920)
  • Words in the mind are like colors on the palette of the artist. The more colors we have access to, the easier it is to create a captivating picture on the canvas, and the more practice we give to using those many colors appropriately and uniquely, the more likely we will be to create a masterpiece of self expression. Jim Rohn, in Introduction to The Treasury of Quotes (1996)

Rohn introduced the thought by writing: “Words enable us to transfer our thoughts from inside our own mind into the mind of another. They have the power to alter history, to describe the past, and to bring meaning and substance to the present.”

  • Words are weapons, and it is dangerous in speculation, as in politics, to borrow them from our enemies. George Santayana, in Obiter Scripta (1936)
  • The word…is not only a key; it may also be a fetter. Edward Sapir, in Language (1921)
  • It takes a long time for words to become thought. May Sarton, “Poet in Residence,” in The Lion and the Rose (1948)
  • Words are more powerful than perhaps anyone suspects, and, once deeply engraved in a child’s mind, they are not easily eradicated. May Sarton, in I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959)
  • The more articulate one is, the more dangerous words become. May Sarton, in Journal of a Solitude (1973)
  • O! Many a shaft at random sent/Finds mark the archer little meant!/And many a word, at random spoken,/May soothe or wound a heart that’s broken. Sir Walter Scott, in The Lord of the Isles (1815)
  • How long a time lies in one little word! William Shakespeare, the character Bolingbroke speaking to the king, in Richard II (1595)

QUOTE NOTE: The king has just reduced the the term of Bolingbroke’s banishment. He continued: “Four lagging winters and four wanton springs/End in a word; such is the breath of kings.”

  • My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go. William Shakespeare, the character King Claudius speaking, in Hamlet (1601)
  • These are but wild and whirling words. William Shakespeare, the character Horatio speaking to Hamlet, in Hamlet (1601)
  • Words pay no debts. William Shakespeare, the character Pandarus speaking, in Troilus and Cressida (1602)
  • A word is the carving and coloring of a thought, and gives it permanence. Osbert Sitwell, in Laughter in the Next Room (1949) )
  • If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. Robert Southey, quoted in Henry Southgate, Many Thoughts of Many Minds (1862)

QUOTATION CAUTION: So far, this is the earliest appearance I’ve been able to find of this popular observation on the importance of brevity in writing and speaking. Despite years of sleuthing by quotation researchers, the passage has not been found in Southey’s works (I've also recently searched all four volumes of Southey’s Common-Place books without success). The quotation has also been occasionally attributed to John Dryden, but never with any supporting evidence.

  • How often misused words generate misleading thoughts. Herbert Spencer, in The Principles of Ethics (1879)
  • A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator. John Steinbeck, “In Awe of Words,” in The Exonian (75th anniversary edition, Exeter University, 1930); reprinted in The Paris Review (Fall, 1975)
  • I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead. Tom Stoppard, the character Henry speaking, in The Real Thing: A Play (1982)
  • When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders. Rabindranath Tagore, in Gitanjali (1912)
  • For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in “In Memoriam A. H. H.” (1850)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the quotation is typically presented, but it was originally part of a larger thought about grieving—in this case, Tennyson’s grief over the loss of his great and dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly and unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1833. Here’s the complete quatrain: “I sometimes hold it half a sin/To put in words the grief I feel;/For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within.

  • I fell in love—that is the only expression I can think of—at once, and am still at the mercy of words, though sometimes now, knowing a little of their behavior very well, I think I can influence them slightly and have even learned to beat them now and then, which they appear to enjoy. Dylan Thomas, “Poetic Manifesto,” in Texas Quarterly (Winter, 1961)

QUOTE NOTE: In that same manifesto, Thomas described a number of other things he attempted to do to words in addition to beating them into submission (see his entry in the WRITERS—ON THEMSELVES section).

  • The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. Mark Twain, in letter to George Bainton (Oct. 15, 1888); reprinted in Bainton’s, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners (1890)

QUOTE NOTE: Twain offered this observation in a number of different ways over the years, and this is the version that has stood the test of time. Twain candidly admitted that the lightning/lightning bug sentiment was not his own creation, however, but one he borrowed from the humorist Josh Billings. In Mark Twain Speaking (1976), editor Paul Fatout wrote that Twain credited Billings in a Nov. 30, 1901 speech at the annual dinner of the St. Andrew’s Society in Manhattan, saying: “Josh Billings defined the difference between humor and wit as that between the lightning bug and the lightning.” However, Billings originally phrased it somewhat differently. In a 1871 Old Farmers Aliminax entry, he was contrasting vivacity, and not humor, with wit, and he originally presented the observation in his characteristic dialect style: “Don't mistake vivacity for wit, thare iz about az mutch difference az thare iz between lightning and a lightning bug.”

  • There is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam. John Updike, in Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (1989)
  • Words should be an intense pleasure just as leather should be to a shoemaker. Evelyn Waugh, quoted in The New York Times (Nov. 19, 1950)
  • A broken bone can heal, but the wound a word opens can fester forever. Jessamyn West, the narrator and protagonist Orpha Chase speaking, in The Life I Really Lived (1979)
  • Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. Elie Wiesel, widely attributed

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites, including Wikiquote, mistakenly present the quotation this way. What Wiesel actually wrote in Legends of Our Time (1968) was: “Some writings could sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.

  • You may choose your word like a connoisseur,/And polish it up with art,/But the word that sways, and stirs, and stays,/Is the word that comes from the heart. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “The Word,” in New Thought Pastels (1906)
  • We are all so clumsy, my dear, and words are all we have, poor signals like bonfires and flags trying to express what shipwreck is. Rose Wilder Lane, in a letter to Dorothy Thompson (January 1927); quoted in William Holtz, Dorothy Thompson and Rose Wilder Lane: Forty Years of Friendship (1991)
  • A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion. Ludwig Wittgenstein, written in 1929, in Culture and Value (1980)
  • Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations (1953)
  • When I cannot see words curling like rings of smoke round me I am in darkness—I am nothing. Virginia Woolf, in The Waves (1931)
  • Words are always getting conventionalized to some secondary meaning. It is one of the works of poetry to take the truants in custody and bring them back to their right senses. William Butler Yeats, in letter to Ellen O’Leary (Feb. 3, 1889)

Yeats continued: “Poets are the policeman of language, they are always arresting those old reprobates the words.”



  • Words may be deeds. Aesop, “The Trumpeter Taken Prisoner,” in Fables (6th c. B.C.)
  • For me, words are a form of action, capable of influencing change. Ingrid Bengis, in Combat in the Erogenous Zone (1972)
  • My definition of literature would be just this, words that have become deeds. Robert Frost, in letter to Louis Untermeyer (July 8, 1915)
  • Oh, words are action, good enough, if they’re the right words. D. H. Lawrence, in a letter to Rolf Gardiner (Aug. 9, 1924); reprinted in The Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence (1997; James T. Boulton, ed.)
  • The beautiful word begets the beautiful deed. Thomas Mann, the voice of the protagonist, Hans Castorp, in The Magic Mountain (1924)
  • Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. Elie Wiesel, widely attributed

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites, including Wikiquote, mistakenly present the quotation this way. What Wiesel actually wrote in Legends of Our Time (1968) was: “Some writings could sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.



  • Work that is pure toil, done solely for the sake of the money it earns, is also sheer drudgery because it is stultifying rather than self improving. Mortimer J. Adler, in A Vision of the Future (1984)
  • Work is wholesome. And there is plenty for every one; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion. Louisa May Alcott, Mrs. March speaking to her daughters, in Little Women (1868)

QUOTE NOTE: For the backstory of this quotation, see the Alcott entry in WORK & PLAY.

  • I am so full of my work, I can’t stop to eat or sleep, or for anything but a daily run. Louisa May Alcott, journal entry (1868)
  • Work is and always has been my salvation and I thank the Lord for it. Louisa May Alcott, quoted in Martha Saxton, Louisa May (1977)
  • For workaholics, all the eggs of self-esteem are in the basket of work. Judith M. Bardwick, in The Plateauing Trap (1986)
  • Work is not the curse, but drudgery is. Henry Ward Beecher, in Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887)
  • Although we may not realize it, or want to admit it, many of us bring our emotional lives, with childhood’s emotional baggage, to work every day. Paula Bernstein, in Family Ties, Corporate Bonds (1985)

And we do this, Bernstein added, “With far greater intensity than we bring work home at night.”

  • You just said work did not do you any good! What’s the need of working if it doesn’t get you anywhere? What’s the use of boring around in the same hole like a worm? Making the hole bigger to stay in? Marita Bonner, in “The Purple Flower” (1928); reprinted in Frye Street and Environs: The Collected Works of Marita Bonner (1987)
  • Work to me is a sacred thing. Margaret Bourke-White, in Portrait of Myself (1963)
  • Work is a religion to me, the only religion I have. Work is something you can count on, a trusted, life-long friend who never deserts you. Margaret Bourke-White, quoted in Vicki Goldberg, Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography (1986)
  • Men have two basic needs. Neither of them, no matter what they say, is sex. They need love and they need work. And work takes priority over love. If a woman could know only one fact about men and work, it should be that work is the most seductive mistress most men ever have. Joyce Brothers, in What Every Woman Should Know About Men (1981)
  • To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth. Pearl S. Buck, in The Joy of Children (1964)
  • If you lose yourself in your work, you find who you are. Frederick Buechner, in Whistling in the Dark (1988)

Buechner continued: “If you express the best you have in you in your work, it is more than just the best you have in you that you are expressing.”

  • Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself. Samuel Butler, in The Way of All Flesh (1903)
  • Work with some men is as besetting a sin as idleness. Samuel Butler, in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)
  • Without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies. Albert Camus, quoted in E. F. Shumacher, Good Work (1979)
  • He that can work is a born king of something. Thomas Carlyle, in Chartism (1839)
  • Work is the grand cure of all the maladies and miseries that ever beset mankind. Thomas Carlyle, in speech at Edinburgh University (April 2, 1886)
  • The man who works and is not bored is never old. Pablo Casals, quoted in Julian Lloyd Webber, Song of the Birds: Sayings, Stories, and Impressions of Pablo Casals (1985)
  • It may also be said that rational, industrious, useful human beings are divided into two classes: first, those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly, those whose work and pleasure are one. Winston Churchill, in Painting as a Pastime (1948)

People in the first class “are in the majority,” said Churchill, “But Fortune’s favored children belong to the second class. Their life is a natural harmony. For them the working hours are never long enough. Each day is a holiday, and ordinary holidays when they come are grudged as enforced interruptions in an absorbing vocation.”

  • I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work—the chance to find yourself. Joseph Conrad, Marlow speaking, in Heart of Darkness (1902)

Marlow added: “Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

  • Work is much more fun than fun. Noël Coward, quoted in The Observer (London,; June 21, 1963)

QUOTE NOTE: This was a signature saying for Coward, offered in slightly varying ways on different occasions. Sheridan Morley’s The Quotable Noël Coward (1999) has: “Work is always so much more fun than fun.”

  • To crush, to annihilate a man utterly, to inflict on him the most terrible of punishments so that the most ferocious murderer would shudder at it and dread it beforehand, one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character. Fyodor Dostoevsky, the narrator, in The House of the Dead (1862)
  • Every man’s work, pursued steadily, tends . . . to become an end in itself, and so to bridge over the loveless chasms of his life. George Eliot, the narrator describing Silas, in Silas Marner (1861)
  • I look on that man as happy, who, when there is a question of success, looks into his work for a reply. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Worship,” in The Conduct of Life (1860)

In that same essay, Emerson wrote: “Every man’s task is his life-preserver.”

  • The high prize of life, the crowning fortune of a man, is to be born with a bias to some pursuit which finds him in employment and happiness—whether it be to make baskets, or broadswords, or canals, or songs. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Considerations by the Way,” in The Conduct of Life (1860)
  • It is the privilege of any human work which is well done to invest the doer with a certain haughtiness. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Wealth,” in The Conduct of Life (1860)
  • At the workingman’s house hunger looks in but dares not enter. Benjamin Franklin, in The Way to Wealth (1758)
  • Work is love made visible. Kahlil Gibran, “On Work,” in The Prophet (1923)

Gibran continued: “And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”

  • All work is empty save where there is love. Kahlil Gibran, “On Work,” in The Prophet (1923)
  • When work is a pleasure, life is a joy! When work is a duty, life is slavery. Maxim Gorky, in The Lower Depths (1903)
  • Human happiness is the true odor of growth, the sweet exaltation of work. David Grayson, in Adventures in Contentment (1907)
  • It is not hard work which is dreary; it is superficial work. Edith Hamilton, a 1959 remark, quoted in Doris Fielding Reid, Edith Hamilton (1967)
  • If you rest, you rust. Helen Hayes, in My Life in Three Acts (1990; with Katherine Hatch)
  • While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it. Joseph Heller, the character General Peckem speaking, in Catch-22 (1961)
  • Every child should be taught that useful work is worship and that intelligent labor is the highest form of prayer. Robert G. Ingersoll, in How to Reform Mankind (1896)
  • It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. Jerome K. Jerome, “On Being Idle,” in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886)

Jerome continued: “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do. Wasting time is merely an occupation then. and a most exhausting one. Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.”

  • I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart. Jerome K. Jerome, in Three Men in a Boat (1889)
  • The sweat of hard work is not to be displayed. It is much more graceful to appear favored by the gods. Maxine Hong Kingston, in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976)
  • The best work is done with the heart breaking, or overflowing. Mignon McLaughlin, in The Neurotic’s Notebook (1963)
  • Why do men delight in work? Fundamentally, I suppose, because there is a sense of relief and pleasure in getting something done—a kind of satisfaction not unlike that which a hen enjoys on laying an egg. H. L. Mencken, in Minority Report (1956)
  • It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. C. Northcote Parkinson, the opening sentence of “Parkinson’s Law,” an essay in The Economist (Nov. 19, 1955)

QUOTE NOTE: In 1958, the essay was reprinted along with other essays in Parkinson’s Law, or The Pursuit of Progress. When the book became a surprise bestseller, the saying was immortalized in popular culture as Parkinson’s Law. The metaphorical conceit of expressing a bureaucratic phenomenon in a scientific-like formula (we typically think of a gas expanding, for example) was so well received that Parkinson capitalized on his success by propounding corollaries in a number of sequels (his Second Law was: “Expenditure rises to meet income”). Parkinson’s work fit in nicely with the era’s developing interest in Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will”), and both formulations inspired countless corollaries, tweaks, and spin-offs. For more, go to Parkinson’s Law.

  • The virtuous heart, like the body, grows sound and strong more by work than by good food. Jean Paul (pen name of Johann Paul Richter), in Hesperus (1795)

QUOTE NOTE: This observation has also been translated this way: “The virtuous heart, like the body, becomes strong and healthy more by labor than by nourishment.”

  • One’s work is a way of keeping a diary. Pablo Picasso, in interview with Estafos Tériade, in L’Intransigeant (June 15, 1932); reported in John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (2007)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites—and a number of popular quotation anthologies—mistakenly present this observations as if it were phrased: “Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”

  • The passions that motivate you may change, but it is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction. Pablo Picasso, in interview with Charlotte Chandler, quoted in her book of celebrity interviews, The Ultimate Seduction (1984)
  • Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. Theodore Roosevelt, from Labor Day speech in Syracuse, New York (Sep. 7, 1903)

QUOTE NOTE: Roosevelt, who was familiar with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, might have been inspired by an observation from Emerson’s “Considerations by the Way” essay in The Conduct of Life (1860), which appears above.

  • Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished? Yes, work never begun. Christina G. Rossetti, in Time Flies: A Reading Diary (1886)

QUOTE NOTE: This was the way Rossetti began her entry for January 5th. A bit later, she added: “A bad beginning may be retrieved and a good ending achieved. No beginning, no ending.”

  • I believe in hard work. It keeps the wrinkles out of the mind and the spirit. Helena Rubinstein, in My Life for Beauty (1966)
  • Work is man’s most natural form of relaxation. Dagobert D. Runes, in Treasury of Thought: Observations Over Half a Century (1967)
  • In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have sense of success in it. John Ruskin, in On the Old Road (1882)
  • Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties. Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” an example of chiasmus, in Creed or Chaos? (1949)
  • Work was like a stick. It had two ends. When you worked for the knowing you gave them quality; when you worked for a fool you simply gave him eyewash. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
  • If a man love the labor of any trade, apart from any question of success or fame, the gods have called him. Robert Louis Stevenson, “Letter to a Young Gentleman who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art,” in Scribner’s Magazine (Sep., 1888)

ERROR ALERT: This is an enormously popular sentiment, but only rarely presented accurately. Almost all quotation anthologies—and scores of books and magazine articles that I’ve checked—mistakenly have loves instead of love, and his trade instead of any trade. Stevenson wrote labour in the original article, a usage retained in British anthologies, but changed to labor in American ones.

  • Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning. Igor Stravinsky, in An Autobiography (1936)
  • The greatest analgesic, soporific, stimulant, tranquilizer, narcotic, and to some extent even antibiotic—in short, the closest thing to a genuine panacea—known to medical science is work. Thomas Szasz, in The Second Sin (1973)
  • Intellectual “work” is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
  • Work keeps away those three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty. Voltaire, in Candide (1759)

The passage is also commonly translated: “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”

  • Work is often the father of pleasure; I pity the man overwhelmed with the weight of his own leisure. Voltaire, quoted in James Parton, Life of Voltaire, Vol. 1 (1881)
  • Work is a way of shutting out ambiguous sentiment. Wendy Wasserstein, “Jean Harlow’s Wedding Night,” in Bachelor Girls (1990)
  • The loveliest of all four-letter words—Work! Tennessee Williams, in Memoirs (1975)

QUOTE NOTE: The underlying sentiment is not original to Williams; since the late 1960s, Work is a Four-Letter Word was a popular bumper sticker in America (inspired, according to some sources, by a comment from Abbie Hoffman, a founder of the so-called Yippie counter-cultural movement)

  • The challenge we must overcome is that humans need work more than work needs us. Andrew Yang, an example of chiasmus, in The War on Normal People (2018)

Yang, a successful American entrepreneur and unsuccessful candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, introduced the thought by writing: “Whether work is good for humans depends on your point of view. We don’t like it and we’re almost certainly getting too much of it. But we don’t know what to do with ourselves without it.”

  • The best form of prayer is work. Israel Zangwill in The East Africa Offer (1905)

[Hard] WORK


  • Scientific research was much like prospecting: you went out and you hunted, armed with your maps and your instruments, but in the end your preparations did not matter, or even your intuition. You needed your luck, and whatever benefits accrued to the diligent, through sheer, grinding hard work. Michael Crichton, the narrator quoting a favorite saying of the character Dr. Jeremy Stone, in The Andromeda Strain (1969)
  • Ninety eight per cent of genius is hard work. As for genius being inspired, inspiration is in most cases another word for perspiration. Thomas Edison, quoted in The Delphos (Ohio) Daily Herald (May 18, 1898).

QUOTE NOTE: This is a variation on an observation that has become something a signature line for Edison, to be found in Genius.

  • Retirement kills more people than hard work ever did. Malcolm Forbes, in The Further Sayings of Chairman Malcolm (1986)
  • Hard work and a proper frame of mind prepare you for the lucky breaks that come along—or don’t. Harrison Ford, quoted in Glenn Plaskin, “The Real Harrison Ford,” San Francisco Chronicle (Aug. 13, 1990)
  • Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Gabriel García Márquez, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1981)

Marquez added: “Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques.”

  • Talent is a dreadfully cheap commodity, cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work and study; a constant process of honing. Talent is a dull knife that will cut nothing unless it is wielded with great force. Stephen King, in Danse Macabre (1981)
  • It is not hard work which is dreary; it is superficial work. Edith Hamilton, a 1959 remark, quoted in Doris Fielding Reid, Edith Hamilton (1967)
  • The sweat of hard work is not to be displayed. It is much more graceful to appear favored by the gods. Maxine Hong Kingston, in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976)
  • To create a work of art, great or small, is work, hard work, and work requires discipline and order. Madeleine L’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (1980)

L’Engle preceded the thought by writing: “A life lived in chaos is an impossibility for the artist. No matter how unstructured may seem the painter’s garret in Paris or the poet’s pad in Greenwich Village, the artist must have some kind of order or he will produce a very small body of work.”

  • When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him “Whose?“ Don Marquis, quoted in Edward Anthony, O Rare Don Marquis (1962)
  • There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure. Colin Powell, quoted in Oren Harari, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell (2003)
  • He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them. James Reston, on President Richard M. Nixon, in Deadline: A Memoir (1991)
  • Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. Theodore Roosevelt, from Labor Day speech in Syracuse, New York (Sep. 7, 1903)

QUOTE NOTE: Roosevelt, who was familiar with the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, might have been inspired by an observation from Emerson’s “Considerations by the Way” essay in The Conduct of Life (1860), which appears above.

  • Work has indeed been my best beauty treatment. I believe in hard work. It keeps the wrinkles out of the mind and the spirit. Helena Rubinstein, in My Life for Beauty (1966)
  • It’s hard work, writing, you know. Honestly, a fight every day against your own limitations. You have to squeeze books out of your brain. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, “Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Love Letter to Literature,” in New Zealand Listener (Mar. 14, 2013)

Zafon added: “I think most writers enjoy the feeling of having written something, rather than the process of writing it.”



  • Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success, in spite of poverty. Louisa May Alcott, Mrs. March speaking to her daughters, in Little Women (1868)

QUOTE NOTE: This piece of advice—from the “Experiment” chapter—comes a week after Mrs. March permitted her girls to play all week, with no chores at all. At the beginning of the experiment, she predicted: “I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.” The girls reject this notion, of course, thinking (in Meg’s words) “It will be delicious, I’m sure.” By week’s end, Mrs. March’s prediction is confirmed and the girls have learned a valuable life lesson. As the all-play-and-no-work week comes to an end, Mrs. March offers yet another observation that has gone on to achieve a kind of quotation immortality:

“Let me advise you to take up your little burdens again; for though they seem heavy sometimes, they are good for us, and lighten as we learn to carry them. Work is wholesome. And there is plenty for every one; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.”

  • There is work that is work, and there is play that is play; and there is play that is work, and there is work that is play, and in only one of these is happiness. Gelett Burgess, the title character speaking, in “The Master Mason: Fable for the Proletariat,” in The Lark (Jan., 1897)
  • It may also be said that rational, industrious, useful human beings are divided into two classes: first, those whose work is work and whose pleasure is pleasure; and secondly, those whose work and pleasure are one. Of these the former are the majority. Winston Churchill, in Thoughts and Adventures (1932)

QUOTE NOTE: The book was published in America under the title: Amid These Storms: Thoughts and Adventures.

  • Work is much more fun than fun. Noël Coward, quoted in The Observer (London,; June 21, 1963)

QUOTE NOTE: This was a signature saying for Coward, offered in slightly varying ways on different occasions. Sheridan Morley’s The Quotable Noël Coward (1999) has: “Work is always so much more fun than fun.”

  • Play needs direction as well as work. Elbert Hubbard, in Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Scientists: Copernicus (1905)
  • Work, love, and play are the great balance wheels of man’s being. Orison Swett Marden, in Love’s Way (1918)
  • Our minds need relaxation, and give way/Unless we mix with work a little play. Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), in The School for Husbands (1661)
  • To the art of working well a civilized race would add the art of playing well. George Santayana, “The Supreme Poet,” in Little Essays: Drawn from the Writings of George Santayana (1921; Logan Pearsall Smith, ed.)

Santayana continued: “To play with nature and make it decorative, to play with the overtones of life and make them delightful, is a sort of art. It is the ultimate, the most artistic sort of art.”

  • Each day, and the living of it, has to be a conscious creation in which discipline and order are relieved with some play and some pure foolishness. May Sarton, in Journal of a Solitude (1973)
  • If all the year were playing holidays,/To sport would be as tedious as to work. William Shakespeare, Prince Henry speaking, in King Henry IV, Part I (1596–97)
  • The maxim is often quoted: “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” But all play and no work makes him something worse. Samuel Smiles, playing of the popular English proverb, in Self-Help (1859)
  • The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play. Arnold J. Toynbee, “Is America Neglecting Her Creative Minority?” in C. W. Taylor, Widening Horizons of Creativity (1964)
  • Intellectual “work” is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. Mark Twain, the protagonist Hank Morgan speaking, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
  • Piloting on the Mississippi River was not work to me; it was play—delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play—and I loved it. Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events (1922; Bernard De Voto, ed.)
  • Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions. Mark Twain, in More Maxims of Mark (1927; Merle Johnson, ed.)
  • This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize that it is play. Alan Watts, in The Essence of Alan Watts (1977)

[Good] WORKS


  • To me, good works are more important than theology. Freeman Dyson, “Progress in Religion: A Talk by Freeman Dyson,” acceptance speechfor the Templeton Prize (Washington DC; May 9, 2000)


(see also UNIVERSE)

  • The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place. Chinua Achebe, the character Ezeulu offering words of wisdom to son Oduche, in The Arrow of God (1988)
  • The verdict of the world is conclusive. St. Augustine, in Contra Epistolam Parmeniani (“Against the Letter of Parmenianus,” 5th c. A.D.)
  • The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page. Author Unknown

ERROR ALERT: This quotation is commonly attributed to St. Augustine, but nothing like it has ever been found in his writings.

  • The whole world is a scab. The point is to pick it constructively. Peter Beard, quoted in L. Botts, Loose Talk: The Book of Quotes from the Pages of Rolling Stones Magazine (1980)
  • The world is . . . like dust. You go about and never notice, you breathe it in, you eat and drink it. It is sifted so fine, it doesn’t even grit on your teeth. But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands. Georges Bernanos, in Diary of a Country Priest (1936)
  • For the world, I count it not an inn, but a hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in. Sir Thomas Browne, in Religio Medici (1643)
  • Weep not that the world changes—did it keep/A stable, changeless state, ’twere cause indeed to weep. William Cullen Bryant, in “Mutation” (1824)
  • The world is a gambling-table so arranged that all who enter the casino must play and all must lose more or less heavily in the long run, though they win occasionally by the way. Samuel Butler, in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912)
  • This world is but a thoroughfare full of woes. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Knight’s Tale,” in The Canterbury Tales (14th c.)
  • The world is a library of strange and wonderful books, and sometimes we just need to go prowling through the stacks. Michael Dirda, in Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life (2005)

Dirda added: “Those journeys, with their serendipitous discoveries and misguided side trips, allow us to probe our characters, indulge our passions and prejudices, and finally choose books for which we possess a real affinity.”

  • The world is a beautiful book, but of little use to him who cannot read it. Carlo Goldoni, Lord Arthur speaking, in Pamela (1746)
  • The world is not black and white. More like black and grey. Graham Greene, quoted in The Observer (London, Jan. 2, 1983)
  • The world, that gray-bearded and wrinkled profligate, decrepit, without being venerable. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in The House of Seven Gables (1851)
  • There are two worlds; the world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imaginations. Leigh Hunt, in Men, Women, and Books (1847)

Hunt continued: “To be sensible of the truth of only one of these, is to know the truth but by halves.”

  • Call the world if you please “The Vale of Soul-Making.” John Keats, in letter to George and Georgiana Keats (April 21,1819)

A moment later, Keats posed a rhetorical question that went on to become one of his most frequently quoted lines: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?”

  • One may not regard the world as a sort of metaphysical brothel for emotions. Arthur Koestler, in Darkness at Noon (1941)
  • The world is but a school of inquiry. Michel de Montaigne, “Of the Art of Discoursing,” in Essays (1580)
  • What was once called the objective world is a sort of Rorschach ink blot, into which each culture, each system of science and religion, each type of personality, reads a meaning only remotely derived from the shape and color of the blot itself. Lewis Mumford, in The Conduct of Life (1951)
  • The world comes to us in an endless stream of puzzle pieces that we would like to think all fit together somehow, but that in fact never do. Robert M. Pirsig, in Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (1991)

QUOTE NOTE: On the same subject, Pirsig the following thought in his 1974 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.”

  • The World’s a mazy Labyrinth;/Man’s lost without a Guide;/For if he vainly trust his Strength,/To Ruin he’s decoy’d. Francis Quarles, “The World a Labyrinth,” in Emblems and Hieroglyphics of the Life of Man (1638)

In an age when the great masses were illiterate, Emblem books provided illustrations (Quarles even provided a memorable definition of the term: “An emblem is but a silent parable”). In the next verse, Quarles wrote: “But if a Ray of Light divine/His wand’ring Step directs,/The Way unerringly he’ll find,/And the Abode he seeks.” To see how Quarles visually rendered the theme, go to Quarles’s Labyrinth

  • The world is . . . a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks. Edwin Arlington Robinson, in letter to the editor, The Bookman (March, 1897)
  • There are books in which the footnotes, or the comments scrawled by some reader’s hand in the margin, are more interesting that the text. The world is one of these books. George Santayana, in Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies (1922)
  • All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players./They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts. William Shakespeare, the character Jaques speaking, in As You Like It (1599)

QUOTE NOTE: This is one of literary history’s most famous passages. Shakespeare might have expressed the thought in a formal analogy (people are to the world as actors are to a stage), but he went with a metaphor instead. After describing the world as a stage he stays true to the root sense of the word metaphor by carrying the metaphor further, characterizing people as actors and referring to exits, entrances, and the many parts played in a lifetime. In the original passage, Jaques went on to describe the “seven ages” of man, but he could have pursued the metaphor in many other ways. He might have talked about people being well suited—or miscast—for their roles. He might have contrasted lead actors with those in supporting roles. He might have compared award-winning performances with forgettable ones. Once world is metaphorically transformed into stage, then all of the attributes of the target domain (stage) can be applied back to the original source domain (world).

  • The world is so full of a number of things,/I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings. Robert Louis Stevenson, “Happy Thought,” in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)
  • The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion. William Makepeace Thackeray, the voice of the narrator, in Vanity Fair (1847-48)
  • This world is but canvas to our imaginations. Henry David Thoreau, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, this observation is mistakenly presented as “a canvas to our imaginations.”

  • This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel! This is the quintessence of all I have learnt in fifty years! Horace Walpole, in letter to Horace Mann (March 5, 1772)

QUOTE NOTE: The first portion was one of Walpole’s favorite sayings, and he sometimes expressed it with a slightly different wording. For example, in an Aug. 16, 1776 letter to the Countess of Ossory, he wrote: “This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.”

  • The world is divided into two classes: invalids and nurses. James McNeill Whistler, quoted by Brendan Behan in “Meet the Quare Fella,” an RTE-TV interview with Eamonn Andrews (Nov. 29, 1960)

QUOTATION CAUTION: The quotation has not been found in any of Whistler’s works. It’s possible that, in an impromptu interview moment, Behan was simply citing another well-known person as the author of one of his own observations. After citing the quotation, Behan quickly added: “I’m a nurse.”

  • The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast. Oscar Wilde, in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1891)

The narrator of the tale, playing off the famous line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It (see above), introduced the thought by writing: “Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or in comedy, whether they will suffer or make merry, laugh or shed tears. But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications.”

  • The world is a funny paper read backwards. And that way it isn’t so funny. Tennessee Williams, “Self-Interview,” in The Observer (London; April 7, 1957)
  • The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own (1929)




  • Worries are the most stubborn habits in the world. Even after a poor man has won a huge lottery prize, he will still for months wake up in the night with a start, worrying about food and rent. Vicki Baum, in And Life Goes On (1932)
  • A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Robert Frost, in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” in Collected Poems (1939)
  • Fine worries, like fine wines, are at their best, only after they have been properly mellowed. Dan Greenburg, in How to Make Yourself Miserable (1966; with Marcia Jacobs)
  • Worry is interest paid on trouble before it falls due. W. R. Inge, quoted in The Observer (London; Feb. 14, 1932)
  • How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened. Thomas Jefferson, in letter to Thomas Jefferson Smith (Feb. 21, 1825)
  • We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies. Etty Hillesum, in An Interrupted Life (1983)
  • Worrying is like praying for something you don’t want to happen. Alan Mynall, in personal communication to the compiler (Dec., 2006)
  • We are, perhaps uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. Lewis Thomas, “The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around,” in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979)

Thomas added: “We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.”

  • Don’t meet troubles half-way. Proverb (English)
  • Worries go down better with soup than without. Proverb (Yiddish)
  • To be concerned is so much more constructive than to be worried. Theodore Isaac Rubin, in Love Me, Love My Fool (1976)
  • Worry is a form of fear, and all forms of fear produce fatigue. Bertrand Russell, in The Conquest of Happiness (1930)

Russell continued: “A man who has learnt not to feel fear will find the fatigue of daily life enormously diminished.”

  • Worry is like a rocking chair—it keeps you moving but doesn’t get you anywhere. Corrie ten Boom, in Prison Letters (1975)

Ten Boom offered a number of memorable thoughts on the subject. In her 1978 book Don’t Wrestle, Just Nestle, she returned to the theme by writing: “Worry is like racing the engine of an automobile without letting in the clutch.” In Clippings From My Notebook (1982), she wrote: “Worry doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrows, it empties today of its strength.” And in Jesus is Victor (1985, she wrote: “Worry is a cycle of inefficient thoughts whirling around a center of fear.”



  • The ‘almighty dollar’ is the true divinity, and its worship is universal. Isabella L. Bird, in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1880)
  • Worship is transcendent wonder. Thomas Carlyle, “The Hero as Divinity,” in On Heroes and Hero-Worship (1841)
  • Creation lives alone in a small temple. Only one may worship at a time. Nancy Hale, the narrator and protagonist Leda March, in The Prodigal Women (1942)
  • Americans worship creativity the way they worship physical beauty—as a way of enjoying elitism without guilt: God did it. Florence King, “Democracy,” in Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye (1989)
  • Where it is a duty to worship the sun, it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat. John Morley, in A Biographical Critique of Voltaire (1872)
  • False values begin with the worship of things. Susan Sontag, the character Frau Anders, in a letter to her daughter, in The Benefactor (1963)
  • The worship of God is not a rule of safety—it is an adventure of the spirit, a flight after the unattainable. Alfred North Whitehead, in Science and the Modern World (1925)
  • Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils. Roger Williams, in a letter to Major Mason (June 22, 1670), quoted in James D. Knowles, Memoir of Roger Williams (1834)
  • The impulse to worship is impossible to eradicate. Even the most prosaic have to worship something. Jeanette Winterson, in Boating for Beginners (1985)



  • All men have a yearning curiosity to behold a man of heroic worth. Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (March 31, 1712)
  • You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies, and the importance of a work of art by the harm that is spoken of it. Gustave Flaubert, in letter to Louise Colet (June 14, 1853)
  • We have to prove our worth and justify our existence anew each day. Eric Hoffer, in The Passionate State Of Mind (1955)
  • Morality is not properly the doctrine of how we may make ourselves happy, but how we may make ourselves worthy of happiness. Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
  • Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dorothy Day; quoted in Stephen Hand, Catholic Voices in a World on Fire (2005)

Merton continued: “That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.”

  • So much is a man worth as he esteems himself. François Rabelais, in Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532)



  • If you have no wounds, how can you know you’re alive? How can you know who you are? Edward Albee, the character known simply as Man speaking, in The Play About the Baby (1996)
  • Next to the wound, what women make best is the bandage. Barbey d’Aurevilly, quoted in a 1962 issue of The New York Times Book Review (specific issue undetermined)
  • That’s the worst of family troubles. You can’t keep it all from the children, and a wound in a child’s heart is like a wound in a young tree. It grows with the tree, not out, but in. Nellie L. McClung, offering an observation from her Aunt Ellen,, in Clearing in the West: My Own Story (1935)

ERROR ALERT: Many internet sites mistakenly present the quotation in the following way (mistaken portion in italics): “A wound in a young heart is like a wound in a young tree. It does not grow out. It grows in.”

  • Apt words have pow'r to swage /The tumors of a troubled mind, /And are as balm to fester'd wounds. John Milton, in Paradise Regained (1671)

[Self-Inflicted] WOUNDS


  • We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction. Aesop, “The Eagle and the Arrow,” in Fables (6th c. B.C.)
  • Yet is every man his own greatest enemy, and as if were his own executioner. Sir Thomas Browne, in Religio Medici (1643)

QUOTE NOTE: The first portion of this observation is also commonly translated: “Every man is his own greatest enemy.”

  • All men that are ruined are ruined on the side of their natural propensities. Edmund Burke, in Two Letters on the Proposals for Peace with the Regicide Directory (9th ed.; 1796)
  • All honor's wounds are self-inflicted. Andrew Carnegie, in address at the University of St. Andrews (Oct. 17, 1905)
  • Our greatest foes, and whom we must chiefly combat, are within. Miguel de Cervantes, the title character speaking, in Don Quixote (1605)
  • When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand. John Cheever, a 1952 diary entry, in John Cheever: The Journals (1991; Robert Gottlieb, ed.)
  • Golf is like life in a lot of ways: The most important competition is the one against yourself. All the biggest wounds are self-inflicted. Bill Clinton, in an interview with Thomas L. Friedman, Golf Digest (June 2, 2008)

Clinton continued: “And you get a lot of breaks you don’t deserve—both ways. So it’s important not to get too upset when you're having a bad day.”

  • Among the many paradoxes of human life, this is perhaps the most peculiar and consequential: We often behave in ways that are guaranteed to make us unhappy. Many of us spend our lives marching with open eyes toward remorse, guilt, and disappointment. Sam Harris, in Lying (2013)

Harris continued: “And nowhere do our injuries seem more casually self-inflicted, or the suffering we create more disproportionate to the needs of the moment, than in the lies we tell to other human beings. Lying is the royal road to chaos.”

  • Much of the disapproval we think is directed against us is, in fact, self-inflicted. Helen Hayes, in Loving Life (1987; with Marion Glasserow Gladney)
  • The worst of our evils we blindly inflict upon ourselves. Herman Melville, the voice of the narrator, in White-Jacket (1850)
  • Self-destructive patterns cause as much suffering as outer catastrophes. Anaïs Nin, a 1961 diary entry, in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 6 (1976)
  • Troubles hurt the most when they prove self-inflicted. Sophocles, in Oedipus the King (c. 430 B.C.)
  • Misfortunes one can endure—they come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one’s own faults—ah! There is the sting of life. Oscar Wilde, the character Lord Windermere speaking, in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)



  • There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not sport, it is a spectacle. Roland Barthes, in Mythologies (1957; English ed., 1972)

Barthes added: “And it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.”

  • The art of living is more like that of wrestling than of dancing. The main thing is to stand firm and be ready for an unforeseen attack. Marcus Aurelius, in Meditations (2nd c. A.D.)
  • Wrestling and boxing is like Ping-Pong and rugby. There’s no connection. Mickey Rourke, in MTV News interview (Sep. 11, 2008)

QUOTE NOTE: In discussing his preparation for the role of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in the film The Wrestler (2008) Rourke said: “I knew 10 days into making this movie that this would be the best movie I ever made, and I knew after three days that it would be the hardest movie I ever made.” He went on to explain about wrestlers: “These guys get really hurt. You’ve got guys who are 265 [pounds] throwing you across the ring. They take several years to learn how to land. I landed like a lump of shit. Every bone in my body vibrated.” For the entire interview, go to: Rourke MTV News Interview.

  • Wrestling is ballet with violence. Jesse Ventura, quoted in Keith Elliot Greenburg, Jesse Ventura (2000)


(see also AGE & AGING and [Old] AGE

  • If God had to give a woman wrinkles, he might at least have put them on the soles of her feet. Ninon de Lenclos, a 1665 observation, quoted in Lillian Day, Ninon: A Courtesan of Quality (1957)
  • The heart has no wrinkles. Madame de Sévigné, quoted in J. De Finod, ed., A Thousand Flashes of French Wit, Wisdom, and Wickedness (1886)
  • I was so wrinkled I could screw my hats on. Phyllis Diller, in Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy (2005; with Richard Ruskin)
  • I have too many wrinkles to have have this little money!! Cathy Guisewite, in Why Do the Right Words Always Come Out of the Wrong Mouth? A Cathy Collection (1988)
  • Women are not forgiven for aging. Robert Redford’s lines of distinction are my old-age wrinkles. Jane Fonda, quoted in Michael Perry. “Jane’s Wrinkled but Fonda of Herself Now,” Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald (Dec. 22, 1985)
  • One never loses one’s youth. It is always just hiding under the wrinkles, excited for a chance to be out in the open air again. Doris Haddock, in Granny D: Walking Across America in My 90th Year (2001; with Dennis Burke)

Haddock preceded the thought by writing: “I suspect that in old age we naturally turn to the issues left unfinished in youth and to old grooves of behavior we cut deep in those energetic years.”

  • When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age. Victor Hugo, the narrator describing the character Marius Pontmercy, in Les Misérables (1862)
  • “It’s impossible to register any emotion without using some muscle which, in time, will produce a wrinkle. Even to look a tiny bit puzzled causes twin lines over the bridge of the nose. Jean Kerr, the title character speaking, in Mary, Mary (1963)

Mary continued: “By the time she is thirty, a starlet has been carefully taught to smile like a dead halibut. The eyes widen, the mouth drops open, but the eye muscles are never involved.”

  • Age imprints more wrinkles in the mind than it does on the face. Michel de Montaigne, in Essays (1580–88)
  • I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. Joyce Carol Oates, quoted in a 1989 issue of The Guardian (specific issue undetermined)
  • If you really didn’t ever want to get wrinkles, then you should have stopped smiling years ago! Anita Roddick, in Business As Unusual (2000)
  • Work has indeed been my best beauty treatment. I believe in hard work. It keeps the wrinkles out of the mind and the spirit. Helena Rubinstein, in My Life for Beauty (1966)
  • Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been. Mark Twain, an epigraph, in Following the Equator (1897)
  • Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Samuel Ullman, from the poem “Youth” (c. 1900), in From the Summit of Years, Four Score (1922)

Ullman preceded the thought by writing: “Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years; people grow old by deserting their ideals.”

ERROR ALERT: On his 75th birthday in 1955, Gen. Douglas MacArthur quoted, without attribution, this and other lines from Ullman’s poem. As a result, the saying is often mistakenly attributed to him.

  • Wisdom does not automatically come with old age. Nothing does—except wrinkles. Abigail Van Buren, in her “Dear Abby” syndicated column (April 6, 1978)

Van Buren continued: “It’s true, some wine improves with age. But only if the grapes were good in the first place.”

  • Someone has said that signs of aging in the body start as wrinkles in the mind—the wrinkles of worry, regrets, remembered sorrows and frustrations. Winifred Wilkinson, in Focus on Living (1967)



  • Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it. A good writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer will, more often than not, accomplish the opposite. Edward F. Albee, “Creativity and Commitment,” in Saturday Review (May 4, 1966); reprinted in Stretching My Mind (2005)
  • The Writers must fortify themselves with pride and egotism as best they can. The process is analogous to using sandbags and loose timbers to protect a house against flood. Brian Aldiss, in Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s (1990)
  • The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man. Nelson Algren, in Preface to Chicago: City on the Make (1961)
  • The writer of good will carries a lamp to illuminate the dark corners. Isabel Allende, “Writing as an Act of Hope,” in William K. Zinsser, Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel (1989)

Allende described writing is “an act of hope, a sort of communion with our fellow men.” And about the illuminating lamp, she added: “Only that, nothing more—a tiny beam of light to show some hidden aspect of reality, to help decipher and understand it and thus to initiate, if possible, a change in the conscience of some readers.”

  • The writer has to take the most used, most familiar objects—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs—ball them together and make them bounce, turn them a certain way and make people get into a romantic mood; and another way, into a bellicose mood. Maya Angelou, in Lucinda Moore, “A Conversation with Maya Angelou at 75,” in Smithsonian magazine (April, 2003)
  • It is the writer who might catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition. Isaac Asimov, in Past, Present, and Future (1987)
  • Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. Walter Bagehot, “The First Edinburgh Reviewers,” in Estimates of Some Englishmen and Scotchmen (1858)
  • Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. To “Why am I here?” To uselessness. Enid Bagnold, in Autobiography (1969)

Bagnold added: “It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”

  • The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him. James Baldwin, in A Dialogue (1973, with Nikki Giovanni)
  • A writer’s life is solitary, often bitter. How pleasant it is to come out of one’s room, to fly about the world, make speeches, and cut a swath. Saul Bellow, “A World Too Much With Us,” in Critical Enquiry (August, 1975)
  • A writer is a reader moved to emulation. Saul Bellow, quoted in Daniel Brown & Bill Burnette, Connections: A Rhetoric/Short Prose Reader (1984)
  • Every writer, without exception, is a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an injustice collector, and a depressed person constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity. Edmund Bergler

QUOTE NOTE: Dr. Bergler, a noted 20th-century psychoanalyst, coined the term “writer’s block.” This is how his quotation is commonly presented, but we may never know for certain how he originally phrased it. The observation was first referenced in Malcolm Cowley’s 1954 book The Literary Situation this way: “Elsewhere Dr. Bergler, speaking less politely, accuses every writer without exception of being a masochist, a sadist, a peeping Tom, an exhibitionist, a narcissist, an ‘injustice collector,’ and ‘a depressed person…constantly haunted by fears of unproductivity.’” See also the Leo Rosten entry below.

  • The real writer is haunted by a plot which he must write out of inner necessity. He is impervious to suggestions. Edmund Bergler, in The Writer and Psychoanalysis (1950)
  • A witty writer is like a porcupine; his quill makes no distinction between friend and foe. Josh Billings (Henry Wheeler Shaw), in The Complete Works of Josh Billings (1873)
  • For your born writer, nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word. Catherine Drinker Bowen, in Adventures of a Biographer (1946)
  • The writer, like a swimmer caught by an undertow, is borne in an unexpected direction. He is carried to a subject which has awaited him—a subject sometimes no part of his conscious plan. Reality, the reality of sensation, has accumulated where it was least sought. To write is to be captured—captured by some experience to which one may have given hardly a thought. Elizabeth Bowen, in Preface to The Last September (1929)
  • Great writers are the saints for the godless. Anita Brookner, quoted in John Haffendem, Novelists in Interview (1985)
  • Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities, and have them relate to other characters living within him. Mel Brooks, in Playboy interview (February, 1975)

QUOTE NOTE: It’s possible that Gore Vidal was inspired by Brooks’s metaphor when, three years later, he was quoted in Time magazine (April 17, 1978) as saying: “Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head. Shakespeare had perhaps 20 players, and Tennessee Williams has about five and Samuel Beckett one—and perhaps a clone of that one. I have ten or so, and that’s a lot. As you get older, you become more skillful at casting them.”

  • Show me a writer, any writer, who hasn’t suffered and I’ll show you someone who writes in pastels as opposed to primary colors. Rita Mae Brown, in Starting From Scratch (1988)
  • When we look back upon human records, how the eye settles upon writers as the main landmarks of the past. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in My Novel, or Varieties in English Life (1853)

ERROR ALERT: Many anthologies and web sites mistakenly present the quotation this way: “Writers are the main landmarks of the past.”

  • A writer should not so much write as embroider on paper. Anton Chekhov, letter to Lydia Avilova (Feb. 15, 1895), in Lydia Avilova, Chekhov in My Life: A Love Story (1950)
  • The rate at which one recognizes his own badness is the rate at which he grows as a writer. John Ciardi, “See All Evil,” in The Writer (June, 1980)
  • A great writer creates a world of his own and his readers are proud to live in it. A lesser writer may entice them in for a moment, but soon he will watch them filing out. Cyril Connolly, in Enemies of Promise (1948)
  • One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family. Pat Conroy, quoted in Michael Carlson, “Pat Conroy obituary,” The Guardian (March 7, 2016)
  • Writers are always selling somebody out. Joan Didion, in Preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
  • If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works, with all the misconceptions, the omissions, the failures that any finished work of art implies. John Dos Passos, “Looking Back on U.S.A.,” in The New York Times (Oct. 25, 1959)
  • A writer is a foreign country. Marguerite Duras, in Practicalities (1987)
  • Personality is a skin that no writer can slip, whatever he may write about…it is a shadow which walks inexorably by his side. Elizabeth Drew, “The Novel and the Age,” in The Modern Novel (1926)
  • The writer is an explorer. Every step is an advance into a new land. Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry (Oct. 2, 1870)
  • I was recently asked what it takes to become a writer. Three things, I answered: first, one must cultivate incompetence at almost every other form of profitable work. This must be accompanied, second, by a haughty contempt for all the forms of work that one has established one cannot do. To these two must be joined, third, the nuttiness to believe that other people can be made to care about your opinions and views and be charmed by the way you state them. Incompetence, contempt, lunacy—once you have these in place, you are set to go. Joseph Epstein, “Writing on the Brain,” in Commentary magazine (April, 2004)

QUOTE NOTE: This in the opening paragraph of Epstein’s review of neurologist Alice W. Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, a book about writing from the perspective of neuroscience. Epstein was not impressed with the book or the writer (he dismissed the book as “an assemblage of profoundly muddled notions” and put her into “the category of the cheerful amateur”). And about the author’s writing skills, Epstein wrote: “As a writer, not only does Dr. Flaherty use language in a loose and often dopey way, not only does she split infinitives with the easy exuberance of young Abe Lincoln splitting logs, but she provides no striking phrases or arresting metaphors, she over-dramatizes her own experience, lapses into cuteness and unconscious self-gratulation, and everywhere betrays many other marks of the amateur scribbler.”

  • The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. William Faulkner, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1956)

Faulkner preceded the observation by saying: “An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they chose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” For a strikingly similar thought, see Emerson's “Art is a jealous mistress” observation in ART.

  • A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others. William Faulkner, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1956)
  • Life really can’t utterly defeat a writer who is in love with writing, for life itself is a writer’s lover until death; fascinating, cruel, lavish, warm, cold, treacherous, constant. Edna Ferber, in A Peculiar Treasure (1939)
  • A good man therefore is a standing lesson to all his acquaintance, and of far greater use in that narrow circle than a good book. But, as it often happens, that the best men are but little known, and consequently cannot extend the usefulness of their examples a great way; the writer may be called in aid to spread their history farther, and to present the amiable pictures to those who have not the happiness of knowing the originals; and so, by communicating such valuable patterns to the world, he may, perhaps, do a more extensive service to mankind than the person whose life originally afforded the pattern. Henry Fielding, the voice of the narrator, in Joseph Andrews (1742)
  • It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your words and make them pop like chestnuts. Gustave Flaubert, in letter to Louise Colet (Nov. 3, 1851), in F. Steegmuller, Letters of Gustave Flaubert (1980)
  • Actors yearn for the perfect director, athletes for the perfect coach, priests for the perfect pope, presidents for the perfect historian. Writers hunger for the perfect reviewer. Thomas Fleming, “The War Between Writers and Reviewers,” in The New York Times (Jan. 6, 1985)
  • A writer lives half his life inside his own head. In this tiny space, entire worlds are created or erased and probably both. Frederick Forsyth, in Preface to The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (2015)

Forsyth continued: “People come into being, work, love, fight, die, and are replaced. Plots are devised, developed, amended, and come to fruition or are frustrated. It is a completely different world from the one outside the window. In children, daydreaming is rebuked; in a writer, it is indispensable.”

  • All writers know that on some golden mornings they are touched by the wand; they are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth. John Kenneth Galbraith, in Annals of an Abiding Liberal (1979)

Galbraith added: “I have experienced these moments myself. Their lesson is simple: It’s a total illusion. And the danger in the illusion is that you will wait for those moments.”

  • Writers write from empathy. Nikki Giovanni, quoted in Claudia Tate, “Conversations with Nikki Giovanni,” Black Women Writers at Work (1983)

Giovanni preceded the thought by saying: “Writers don’t write from experience, though many are hesitant to admit that they don't. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems.”

  • Rage is to writers what water is to fish. Nikki Giovanni, “In Sympathy With Another Motherless Child,” in Sacred Cows…And Other Edibles (1988)
  • The tension between standing apart and being fully involved; that is what makes a writer. Nadine Gordimer, in the Introduction to Selected Stories (1975)
  • When it comes to their essential faculty as writers, all writers are androgynous beings. Nadine Gordimer, in the Introduction to Selected Stories (1975)
  • The writer’s imagination is the looter among other people’s lives. Nadine Gordimer, “Adam’s Rib: Fictions and Realities,” in Writing and Being (1995)
  • One of my pet theories is that the writer is a kind of evangelist, more subtle than Billy Graham, of course, but of the same stuff. Shirley Ann Grau, quoted in Louis Gallo, “Profile…Shirley Ann Grau,” New Orleans magazine (Feb., 1974)
  • Thought flies and words go on foot. Therein lies all the drama of the writer. Julien Green, journal entry (May 4, 1943), in Journal II, 1940–45 (1954)
  • Isn’t disloyalty as much the writer’s virtue as loyalty is the soldier’s. Graham Greene, in a 1948 letter to V. S. Pritchett, quoted in Richard Greene, Graham Greene: A Life in Letters (2011)
  • Bees are sometimes drowned (or suffocated) in the honey which they collect. So some writers are lost in their collected learning. Nathaniel Hawthorne, notebook entry (1842), quoted in Sophia Hawthorne, Passages From the American Note-Books of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1868)
  • The writer is a definite human phenomenon. He is almost a type-–as pugilists are a type. He may be a bad writer–an insipid one or a clumsy one-–but there is a bug in him that keeps spinning yarns. Ben Hecht, “Elegy for Wonderland,” Esquire (March, 1959)

Hecht added: “Nobody but a writer can write. People who hang around writers for years–-as producers did-–who are much smarter and have much better taste, never learn to write.”

  • There is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized. Or even cured. In a household with more than one person, of which one is a writer, the only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute stages in private, and where food can be poked in to him with a stick. Because, if you disturb the patient at such times, he may break into tears or become violent. Or he may not hear you at all…and, if you shake him at this stage, he bites. Robert A. Heinlein, the character Richard Ames (pen name of Colin Campbell) speaking, in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985)

ERROR ALERT: Erroneous phrasings of this observation—some slight, some major—appear on almost all internet sites.

QUOTE NOTE: Speaking to his companion, Gwen Novak, Richard preceded the aforementioned observation by saying: “Writing is antisocial. It’s as solitary as masturbation. Disturb a writer when he is in the throes of creation and he is likely to turn and bit right to the bone…and not even know that he’s doing it. As writers’ wives and husbands often learn to their horror.”

  • The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it. Ernest Hemingway, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1958)
  • A writer is so like a lover! And a talk with the right listener is so like an arm-in-arm walk in the moonlight with the soft heartbeat just felt through the folds of muslin and broadcloth. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in The Poet at the Breakfast-Table (1872)

QUOTE NOTE: Holmes was describing something many writers have dreamed about: the perfect reader for his material (he used the phrase “my One Reader”). He went on to add: “I have no doubt that we have each one of us, somewhere, our exact facsimile, so like us in all things except the accidents of condition, that we should love each other like a pair of twins, if our natures could once fairly meet.”

  • A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the planet. Pico Iyer, in The Man Within My Head (2012)
  • A writer is someone who takes the universal whore of language and turns her into a virgin again. Erica Jong, in Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life (2006)

A little later, in a reference to the title of her book, Jong wrote: “The job of the writer is to seduce the demons of creativity and make up stories.”

  • We never know how much has been missing from our lives until a true writer comes along. Alfred Kazin, “Theodore Dreiser and His Critics,” in The Stature of Theodore Dreiser (1955)
  • When a writer talks about his work, he’s talking about a love affair. Alfred Kazin, quoted in Sunday Examiner & Chronicle (July 16, 1978)
  • Writers are vacuum cleaners who suck up other people’s lives and weave them into stories like a sparrow builds a nest from scraps. Garrison Keillor, “Clearing Up a Few Things,” Time (April 5, 2004)

QUOTE NOTE: After mentioning that his own family members were cautious about sharing details of their lives with him, Keillor went on to write: “People meet writers and are bowled over when the writer is friendly to them and invites them to his house for a glass of wine or to shoot up heroin or whatever they do, and they talk their heads off, and a year later it comes out in a book, and there follow years of bitter and fruitless litigation, and that is why you should always keep a writer at arm’s length.” At a 1998 Authors Guild symposium in Manhattan, Cynthia Ozick used a different metaphor to make a similar point: “We are cannibals. I think it’s a terrible thing to be a friend of, an acquaintance of, a relative of, a writer.”

  • In the guise of “seeking feedback,” many writers are trolling for compliments. When they ask for your opinion of their work, too often they mean your praise. Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write (1995)
  • Writers, not psychiatrists, are the true interpreters of the human mind and heart, and we have been at it for a very long time. Florence King, “The Writer Is In” column, The American Spectator (Aug. 17, 2013)
  • A writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper. Stephen King, in the Afterword to The Colorado Kid (2005)
  • While others who have something to say or who want to be effectual, like musicians or baseball players or politicians, have to get out there in front of people, writers, who tend to be shy, get to stay home and still be public. There are many obvious advantages to this. You don’t have to dress up, for instance, and you can’t hear them boo you right away. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

Lamott preceded the thought by writing: “Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere.”

  • Asking a writer to account for the genesis of his or her ideas is as futile as asking a spider to explain the source of its web and the method of its construction. Richard Lederer, in A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language (2003)

Lederer created this analogy after struggling for years to answer the question, “Where do you get the ideas for your books?” Happy to have finally arrived at a satisfactory answer, he was eager to try it out. He got his chance a few days later while speaking to a sixth-grade class in Concord, New Hampshire. After a young lad asked the familiar question, Lederer simply posed a rhetorical question that he thought would make the point of his analogy: “Where does the spider get its web?” Of all the answers that might have come from the mind of a sixth-grade boy, Lederer could have never predicted the actual reply. He instantly shot back: “From its butt!”

  • A real writer learns from earlier writers the way a boy learns from an apple orchard–by stealing what he has a taste for and can carry off. Archibald MacLeish, quoted in Charles Poore, “Mr. MacLeish and the Disenchantmentarians,” The New York Times (Jan. 25, 1968)
  • The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. Bernard Malamud, in interview with Joseph Wershba, “Literary Conversations: Not Horror but Sadness,” The New York Post (Sep. 14, 1958); reprinted in Conversations with Bernard Malamud (1991; L. M. Lasher, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE/ERROR ALERT: In offering this thought, Malamud was almost certainly inspired by a Dec. 10, 1957 remark made by Albert Camus in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature: “Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.” Camus was talking about the responsibilities of an entire new generation, while Malamud restricted it to writers–and that is how the observation is remembered today. The Malamud version is frequently misattributed to Camus. Many thanks to Garson O’Toole, aka The Quote Investigator, for his research on this quotation.

  • A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Thomas Mann, the voice of the narrator, in the novella Tristan (1903)
  • A writer is not someone who thinks obsessively about writing, or talks about it, or plans it, or dissects it, or even reveres it: a writer is the one who puts his arse in the chair when the last thing he wants to do is have his arse in the chair. Colum McCann, “So You Want to be a Writer? Essential Tips for Aspiring Novelists,” in The Guardian (May 13, 2017)
  • Don’t ask a writer what he’s working on. It’s like asking someone with cancer about the progress of his disease. Jay McInerney, in Brightness Falls (1985)
  • Why writers write I do not know. As well ask why a hen lays an egg or why a cow stands patiently while an underprivileged farmer burglarizes her. H. L. Mencken, quoted in Sara Mayfield, The Constant Circle: H. L. Menken and His Friends (1968)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all current books and anthologies omit the word underprivileged when featuring this observation. In Bird by Bird (1994), Anne Lamott picked up on the cow-milking metaphor when she was describing the experience of writers who know when they are writing really well: “It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out. Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.”

  • When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished. Czeslaw Milosz, quoted by Philip Roth in “Arena: Philip Roth.” a BBC2 documentary (March 19, 1993)

QUOTATION CAUTION: The observation, which may be seen at 15' 15'' into the documentary, came in a Q & A session after a 1991 address to members of the New Jersey Historical Society. So far, the observation has not been found in any of Milosz’s works.

  • The shelf life of the modern hardback writer is somewhere between the milk and the yogurt. John Mortimer, quoted in The Sunday Times (London; Dec. 27, 1987)

QUOTE NOTE: This is the way the quotation typically appears, but the Times originally used the British spelling of yoghurt.

  • The good writer is first of all an enchanter. Vladimir Nabokov, in letter to Edmund Wilson (Nov. 17, 1946), in The Nabokov-Wilson Letters: 1940–1971 (1979, Simon Karlinsky, ed.)
  • Writers do not live one life, they live two. There is the living and then there is the writing. There is the second tasting, the delayed reaction. Anaïs Nin, diary entry (April, 1932), in The Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1931–1934 (Vol. 1, 1966)
  • If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence. Joyce Carol Oates, in Lucinda Franks, “The Emergence of Joyce Carol Oates,” The New York Times Magazine (July 27, 1980)

Oates added: “No matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework…you can still be writing because you have that space.”

  • Writers really live in the mind and in hotels of the soul. Edna O’Brien, in interview, Vogue magazine (April, 1985)
  • A writer is someone born with a gift. An athlete can run. A painter can paint. A writer has a facility with words. A good writer can also think. Cynthia Ozick, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1987)
  • If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. Dorothy Parker, from her review of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, in Esquire magazine (Nov., 1959).
  • The writer is the Faust of modern society, the only surviving individualist in a mass age. To his orthodox contemporaries, he seems a semi-madman. Boris Pasternak, quoted in The Observer (London; Dec. 20, 1959)
  • A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket. Charles Peguy, “The Honest People,” in Basic Verities (1943)
  • A writer didn’t need “an” idea for a book; she needed at least forty. And “get” was the wrong word, implying that you received an idea as you would a gift. Elizabeth Peters, in Naked Once More (1989)

Peters added: “You didn’t get ideas. You smelled them out, tracked them down, wrestled them into submission; you pursued them with forks and hope, and if you were lucky enough to catch one you impaled it, with the forks, before the sneaky little devil could get away.”

  • Great writers arrive among us like new diseases—threatening, powerful, impatient for patients to pick up their virus, irresistible. Craig Raine, quoted in the Independent on Sunday (Nov. 18, 1990)
  • There are three certainties in a writer’s life: death, taxes, and rejection letters. T. L. Rese, in a personal communication to the compiler (Feb. 6, 2018)
  • Is it true that writers are pillagers of privacy? Yes. And it is also true that others get hurt along the way. But what are a few hurt feelings along the fiction trail? Annie Roiphe, quoted in Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear (1995)
  • All writers wind up metaphorically in the servants’ quarters. When you write, you’re taking orders from somewhere—a higher (or at least a lower) power—and the work isn’t always pretty. Jonathan Rosen, “A Retreat From the World Can Be a Perilous Journey,” in The New York Times (May 7, 2001)

In that same essay, Rosen wrote: “Anna Freud called play the work of children. And perhaps of writers, too.”

  • Every writer is a narcissist. This does not mean that he is vain; it only means that he is hopelessly self-absorbed. Leo Rosten, in The Return of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n (1959)

See also the related thought by Edmund Bergler above.

  • I do not know what makes a writer, but it probably isn’t happiness. William Saroyan, in The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills (1952)
  • Writers may be classified as meteors, planets, and fixed stars. A meteor makes a striking effect for a moment. You look up and cry “There!” and it is gone forever. Planets and wandering stars last a much longer time. They often outshine the fixed stars . . . only because they are near. It is not long before they must yield their place. Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Art of Literature,” in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851)

And then, about the third type of writer—the true giants of world literature—Schopenhauer wrote: “Fixed stars are the only ones that are constant; their position in the firmament is secure; they shine with a light of their own; their effect today is the same as it was yesterday, because . . . their appearance does not alter with a difference in our standpoint. They belong not to one system, one nation only, but to the universe. And just because they are so very far away, it is usually many years before their light is visible to the inhabitants of this earth.”

  • Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull. Rod Serling, in Vogue (April 1, 1957)
  • Writers trap furtive truths. They pull them from the dim corners where they would prefer to hide. They bring them into the light, catch them in midflight. Susan Shaughnessy, in Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers (1993)
  • For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the character Innokenty speaking, in The First Circle (1968)

QUOTE NOTE: This has become one of Solzhenitsyn’s most famous quotations, a portion of it even showing up in the title of a June 23, 1972 Life magazine profile of the great Russian writer.

  • The writer is either a practicing recluse or a delinquent, guilt-ridden one; or both. Usually both. Susan Sontag, “When Writers Talk About Themselves,” in The New York Times (Jan. 5, 1986)
  • A writer is someone who pays attention to the world. Susan Sontag, in Paris Review interview (Winter 1995)
  • The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth…and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Susan Sontag, “The Conscience of Words,” in At the Same Time (2007)

Sontag continued: “Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers.”

  • A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing. John Steinbeck, “In Awe of Words,” in The Exonian (75th anniversary edition, Exeter University, 1930); reprinted in The Paris Review (Fall, 1975)

Steinbeck continued: “We are lonesome animals. We spend all life [sic] trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought’.”

  • The life of a writer, whatever he might fancy to the contrary, was not so much a state of composition, as a state of warfare. Laurence Sterne, in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67)
  • I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead. Tom Stoppard, the character Henry speaking, in The Real Thing: A Play (1982)
  • The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself, and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. William Strunk & E. B. White, in The Elements of Style (1959 ed.)
  • Every writer since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what [a] friend of mine called “the fleas of life”—you know, colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another. William Styron, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1954)
  • The devoted writer of humor must continue to try to come as close to the truth as he can, even if he gets burned in the process. James Thurber, in Lanterns & Lances (1961)

Thurber added:“But I don’t think he will get too badly burned. His faith in the good will, the soundness, and the sense of humor of his countrymen will always serve as his asbestos curtain.”

  • I have from the first felt sure that the writer, when he sits down to commence his novel, should do so, not because he has to tell a story, but because he has a story to tell. Anthony Trollope, in An Autobiography (1883). Also an example of chiasmus.
  • A writer’s mind seems to be situated partly in the solar plexus and partly in the head. Ethel Wilson, “A Cat Among the Falcons,” in Canadian Literature (Autumn, 1959); reprinted in David Stouck, Ethel Wilson: Stories, Essays and Letters (1988)
  • Of course the writer cannot always burn with a hard gemlike flame or a white heat, but it should be possible to be a chubby hot-water bottle, rendering maximum attentiveness in the most enterprising sentences. Paul West, “Planting the Seeds of a Contemplative Life,” in The New York Times (Oct. 25, 1999)
  • My scepticism long ago led me to the belief that writers write for themselves and not for their readers and that art has nothing to do with communication between person and person, only with communication between different parts of a person's mind. Rebecca West, “The Art of Scepticism,” in Vogue magazine (Nov. 1, 1952)
  • Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. E. B. White, in Paris Review interview (Fall, 1969)
  • In a sense the world dies every time a writer dies, because, if he is any good, he has been a wet nurse to humanity during his entire existence. E. B. White, “Doomsday,” in The New Yorker (Nov. 17, 1945)
  • Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works. Virginia Woolf, in Orlando (1928)
  • The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth. William Butler Yeats, in letter to Dublin’s Daily Express (Feb 27, 1895)
  • The writer must soak up the subject completely, as a plant soaks up water, until the ideas are ready to sprout. Marguerite Yourcenar, in With Open Eyes: Conversations with Matthieu Galey (1984)
  • A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, in The Angel’s Game (2008)

QUOTE NOTE: These are the opening words of the novel, from protagonist and narrator David Martin. He continues: “He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

  • Telling a writer to relax is like telling a man to relax while being prodded for a possible hernia. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)



  • If you want to be a writer, you should go into the largest library you can find and stand there contemplating the books that have been written. Then you should ask yourself, “Do I really have anything to add?” If you have the arrogance or the humility to say yes, you will know you have the vocation. Margaret Atwood, “An End to Audience?” in Second Words: Selected Critical Prose (1982)
  • You are working in clay, not marble, on paper, not eternal bronze; let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. Jacques Barzun, “A Writer's Discipline,” in On Writing, Editing, and Publishing (1971)
  • Write as the wind blows and command all words like an army! See them how they stand in rank ready for assault, the jolly, swaggering fellows! Hilaire Belloc, in The Path to Rome (1902)
  • If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. Ray Bradbury, quoted in Writer’s Digest, The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing (2010)

Bradbury added: “I have never had a dry spell in my life because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.”

  • Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down. Ray Bradbury, in Introduction to Bradbury Stories (2003)
  • The first step to being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm. Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer (1934)
  • Don’t trust a brilliant idea unless it survives the hangover. Jimmy Breslin, in The Good Rat: A True Story (2008); originally in Nation's Restaurant News (Feb. 4, 2002)
  • If it doesn’t come bursting out of you/in spite of everything,/don’t do it./unless it comes unasked out of your/heart and your mind and your mouth/and your gut,/don’t do it. Charles Bukowski, the opening lines of the poem “so you want to be a writer?” in Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way: New Poems (2003; John Martin, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: The poem continues with some of the best writing advice ever delivered in verse, ending this way: “when it is truly time,/and if you have been chosen,/it will do it by/itself and it will keep on doing it/until you die or it dies in you./there is no other way./and there never was.” To see the full poem, go to so you want to be a writer?. And if you really want to treat yourself, listen to the masterful Tom O’Bedlam read the entire poem on YouTube.

  • Dear authors! Suit your topics to your strength,/And ponder well your subject, and its length;/Nor lift your load, before you’re quite aware/What weight your shoulders will, or will not, bear. George Gordon, Lord Byron, in Hints from Horace (1811, posthumously pub. in 1831)
  • 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. Truman Capote, in Paris Review interview (Spring-Summer 1957)
  • Tell all the Truth but tell it slant. Emily Dickinson, opening line of Poem Number 1129 (1872)

QUOTE NOTE: The notion here is to assist people in absorbing or incorporating the truth by expressing it to them indirectly, circuitously, or even allegorically. The eight-line poem ends with the couplet: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” In The Life of Emily Dickinson (1994), biographer Richard B. Sewall wrote that the poem is a key to understanding Dickinson's life and work. “It is as if she lived out the advice she gave in her famous lines.” He added: “She avoided specifics, dodged direct confrontations, reserved commitments. She told the truth, or an approximation of it, so metaphorically that nearly a hundred years after her death and after much painstaking research, scholars still grope for certainties.”

  • If you aim for the wood, you will have nothing. Aim past the wood, aim through the wood; aim for the chopping block. Annie Dillard, writing advice, in The Writing Life (1989)
  • One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life (1989)

Dillard added: “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…. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

  • Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life (1989)
  • 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 is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window. William Faulkner, quoted in James B. Meriwether & Michael Millgate, Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962 (1968)
  • Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid. H. W. Fowler and F. G. Fowler, in The King’s English (1906)
  • Write as if you were a movie camera. Get exactly what is there. John Gardner, in On Becoming a Novelist (1983)
  • Rule 1. You must write. Robert A. Heinlein, “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” in Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (ed.), Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing (1947)

QUOTE NOTE: As Heinlein neared the end of his article, he questioned the value of the advice he had offered, even writing: “I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.”

In a final section—titled “Business Habits”—he then offered five rules that have become known as “Heinlein’s Rules of Writing.” They are: (1) You must write; (2) You must finish what you start; (3) You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order; (4) You must put it on the market; (5) You must keep it on the market until sold. In discussing Heinlein's first rule, writer Harvey Stanbrough wrote in a 2105 blog post:

“If you want to be a writer, you must write. Now, Thinking About writing is not writing. Talking About writing is not writing. Getting Ready to write is not writing. Buying a new writer’s chair is not writing. And you know what? Attending meetings of writer’s groups or critique groups is not writing. While we’re at it, Researching is not writing. And Rewriting is most definitely not writing. Writing is putting new words on the page. Period. All that other stuff (and more) is your conscious mind talking you into thinking you’re writing.”

  • Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen. Ernest Hemingway, on invention in writing, in letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (May 10, 1934)
  • Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. Ernest Hemingway, in letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (May 10, 1934)

Hemingway continued: “But when you get the damned hurt use it—don’t cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don’t think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.”

  • Almost all American writers tend to overwrite, to tell too much. I get the disillusioned feeling that novels, today, are sold by the pound, like groceries. It actually takes a great deal more discipline to be able to leave out rather than to throw in everything. This means that you have to say in one sentence precisely what you mean, instead of saying sort of what you kind of mean in hundreds of sentences and hoping the sum total will add up. Rona Jaffe, quoted in Roy Newquist, Conversations (1967)
  • An old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: “Read over your compositions and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” Samuel Johnson, an April 30, 1773 remark, quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

QUOTE NOTE: Even though Johnson clearly indicated that he was passing along advice from an unnamed educator in his past, this observation is often mistakenly attributed directly to him. See the Quiller-Couch entry below for an observation that was almost certainly inspired by this 1773 remark.

  • Journalism is a good place for any writer to start—the retailing of fact is always a useful trade and can it help you learn to appreciate the declarative sentence. Garrison Keillor, in “Post to the Host,” a A Prairie Home Companion website page (July, 2005)

Keillor continued: “A young writer is easily tempted by the allusive and ethereal and ironic and reflective, but the declarative is at the bottom of most good writing.”

  • Note to writers: “Amazing” is very tired. “Amazing” needs a long vacation. Therefore, please don’t write about your amazing party, your amazing girlfriend’s amazing dress, or your amazing vacation. Something more pungent & specific, please. Stephen King, in a Tweet (Oct. 29, 2018)
  • Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Anne Lamott, in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (1993)

Lamott continued: “Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraduluent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”

  • We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must. Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

Lamott added: “Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.”

  • Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot. D. H. Lawrence, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)
  • Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary. Elmore Leonard, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle,“ in The New York Times (July 16, 2001)
  • Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it. Frank McCourt, recalling advice from his high school headmaster, in Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir (1996)

McCourt added: “If you won the Irish Sweepstakes and bought a house that needed furniture would you fill it with bits and pieces of rubbish? Your mind is your house and if you fill it with rubbish from the cinemas, it will rot in your head. You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.”

  • You expect far too much of a first sentence. Think of it as analogous to a good country breakfast: What we want is something simple, but nourishing to the imagination. Hold the philosophy, hold the adjectives, just give us a plain subject and verb, and perhaps a wholesome, nonfattening adverb or two. Larry McMurtry, the character Godwin speaking, in Some Can Whistle (1989)
  • If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—wholeheartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Arthur Quiller-Couch, in On the Art of Writing (1916)

QUOTE NOTE: See the Samuel Johnson entry above for a 1773 remark that likely inspired this observation.

  • There is a similarity between juggling and composing on the typewriter. The trick is, when you spill something, make it look like a part of the act. Tom Robbins, in Still Life with Woodpecker (1980)
  • If you want to “get in touch with your feelings,” fine—talk to yourself, we all do. But if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts. Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce. William Safire, in commencement address at Syracuse University (May 13, 1978); reprinted in his book On Language (1980)

Safire added: “The secret way to do this is to write it down, and then cut out out the confusing parts.”

  • Give your main clause a little space. Prose is not like boxing; the skilled writer deliberately telegraphs his punch, knowing that the reader wants to take the message directly on the chin. William Safire, on placing a comma after the dependent clause, in How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar (1990)
  • Write relentlessly, until you find your voice. Then, use it. David Sedaris, in interview with Jessica Strawser, Writer’s Digest (Aug. 8, 2013)
  • Write till your ink be dry, and with your tears/Moist it again; and frame some feeling line;/That may discover such integrity. William Shakespeare, the character Proteus, speaking to the Duke, in The Two Gentleman of Verona (1590)
  • If you want to be a professional writer, treat it like a job. Write every day, and preferably at the same time every day. If you wait until you’re in the mood, you’re toast. Laurence Shames, in “Q & A With Laurence Shames” (2022)

Shames added: “Also, unless you’re a flat-out genius, you’re going to do a fair amount of sloppy, self-indulgent crap before you get down to anything good. Write that garbage out of your system. Then get over yourself, stop showing off your vocabulary, and think about the reader for a change. Give the reader someone to root for and a reason to turn the page. Don’t ask the reader to do the work you should have done yourself.”

  • If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams—the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn. Robert Southey, quoted in Henry Southgate, Many Thoughts of Many Minds (1863)

QUOTATION CAUTION: So far, this is the earliest appearance I’ve been able to find of this popular observation on the importance of brevity in writing and speaking. Despite years of sleuthing by quotation researchers, the passage has not been found in Southey’s works (I've also recently searched all four volumes of Southey’s Common-Place books without success). The quotation has also been occasionally attributed to John Dryden, but never with any supporting evidence.

  • Thou shalt infect thy reader with anxiety, stress,and tension, for these conditions that he deplores in life he relishes in fiction. Sol Stein, the sixth of his “Ten Commandments for Writers,” in Stein on Writing (1995)

Stein’s seventh commandment was also expressed metaphorically: “Thy language shall be precise, clear and bear the wings of angels, for anything less is the province of businessmen and academics and not of writers.”

  • Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style (1918, revised and expanded by E. B. White in 1958)

Strunk added: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

  • Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating. William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style (1918, revised and expanded by E. B. White in 1958)
  • A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end. Henry David Thoreau, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849)
  • Write while the heat is in you. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry (Feb. 10, 1852)
  • Do not fire too much over the heads of your readers. Anthony Trollope, in letter to George Eliot (June 28, 1862)
  • The writer’s object should be to hold the reader’s attention. I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning until the end. This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research. Barbara W. Tuchman, quoted in Seymour “Sy” Brody, Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America (2004)
  • Use the right word, not its second cousin. Mark Twain, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” (1895), reprinted in How To Tell a Story: And Other Essays (1897)
  • You have to hold your audience in writing to the very end—much more than in talking, when people have to be polite and listen to you. Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write (1938)

QUOTE NOTE: A moment earlier, Ueland introduced the thought by writing: “It helps often to have an imaginary listener when you are writing, telling a story, so that you will be interesting and convincing throughout.”

  • Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. Kurt Vonnegut, one of his rules for writing a short story, in Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (1999)
  • First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. Kurt Vonnegut, “Here Is a Lesson in Creative Writing,” in A Man Without a Country (2007)
  • Make your characters want something right away, even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. Kurt Vonnegut, in Paris Review interview (Spring 1977)
  • Pick adjectives as you would pick a diamond or a mistress. Too many are dangerous. Stanley Walker, advice to journalists, in City Editor (1934)

Walker, the city editor at the New York Herald Tribune, was one of the best known “newspaper men” of his time. He continued: “Because one adjective is as revealing as a lightning flash, don’t think that ten will make the story ten times as good. There is a law of diminishing returns.”

  • If you are in difficulties with a book, try the element of surprise…. Attack it at an hour when it isn’t expecting it. H. G. Wells, quoted in Osbert Sitwell, The Scarlet Tree (1949)

QUOTE NOTE: In Sitwell’s book, his autobiography, he said that Wells made the remark directly to him. In 1950, the popular advertising trade publication Printer’s Ink reprinted the quotation, saying about it: “To a writer friend H. G. Wells once gave this bit of sage advice.” The magazine piece added: “Goes great for advertising copy, too.”

  • Only write when your pillow is on fire. Elie Wiesel, quoted in Tina A. Brown, “For Wiesel, Writing An Exercise in Passion,” Hartford Courant (April 20, 1998)

Wiesel’s metaphor about having a burning desire to write was offered to writers and teachers attending the 1988 National Writers’ Workshop in Hartford, Connecticut. Wiesel, who suggested that writers have a “moral obligation” to chronicle war crimes and other horrors so that they will not be forgotten by future generations, introduced the thought by saying: “Whatever happens to one community affects us all. When one person is humiliated, humanity is guilty of shame. The valuable lesson is to inspire with your words.”

  • Make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work. Thornton Wilder, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1956)
  • Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start. P. G. Wodehouse, advice to writers of humorous fiction, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1975)

QUOTE NOTE: Wodehouse continued: “I think the success of every novel—if it’s a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, ‘Which are my big scenes? and then get every drop of juice out of them.”

  • To survive, each sentence must have, at its heart, a little spark of fire, and this, whatever the risk, the novelist must pluck with his own hands from the blaze. Virginia Woolf, “Life and the Novelist,” in The Common Reader, 1st series (1925)
  • Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. William Wordsworth, in letter to wife Mary (April 29, 1812)

QUOTE NOTE: This is commonly presented as a piece of writing advice, but that was not Wordsworth’s intention. He simply used the phrase in the closing words of his letter. Here’s the full passage: “Write to me frequently & the longest letters possible; never mind whether you have facts or no to communicate; fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

  • Think like a wise man but express yourself like the common people. William Butler Yeats, in letter to Dorothy Wellesley (Dec. 21, 1935); reprinted in Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (1940)
  • Too short is always better than too long. William Zinsser, in Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past (2004)
  • You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into entertainment. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)
  • Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and they will jump overboard to get away. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Writing is visual—it catches the eye before it has a chance to catch the brain. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

Zinsser added: “Short paragraphs put air around what you write and make it look inviting, whereas a long chunk of type can discourage a reader from even starting to read.” He went on to caution: “But don’t go berserk. A succession of tiny paragraphs is as annoying as a paragraph that’s too long.”

  • Avoid the ecstatic adjectives that occupy such disproportionate space in every critic’s quiver—words like “enthralling” and “luminous.” William Zinsser, on writing criticism, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

Zinsser continued: “Good criticism needs a lean and vivid style to express what you observed and what you think. Florid adjectives smack of the panting prose with which Vogue likes to disclose its latest chichi discovery: ‘We’ve just heard about the most utterly enchanting little beach at Cozumel.’”

  • All your clear and pleasing sentences will fall apart if you don’t keep remembering that writing is linear and sequential, that logic is the glue that holds it together, that tension must be maintained from one sentence to the next and from one paragraph to the next and from one section to the next, and that narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)



  • Why write? How justify this mad itch for scribbling? Speaking for myself, I write to entertain my friends and to exasperate our enemies. I write to record the truth of our times as best I can see it. To investigate the comedy and tragedy of human relationships. To oppose, resist, and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a global technocratic police state, whatever its ideological coloration. I write to oppose injustice, to defy power, and to speak for the voiceless. Edward Abbey, “A Writer’s Credo,” in One Life at a Time, Please (1988)

Abbey continued, and ended the essay, with this: “I write to make a difference. ‘It is always a writer’s duty,’ said Samuel Johnson, ‘to make the world better.’ I write to give pleasure and promote aesthetic bliss. To honor life and to praise the divine beauty of the natural world. I write for the joy and exultation of writing itself. To tell my story.”

  • [In primary school] I was introduced to the danger of not having your own story. There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Chinua Achebe, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1994)

QUOTE NOTE: Achebe, often described as the father of modern African literature, was reflecting on his early school experiences in 1930s Nigeria. Reading history books that celebrated the exploits of European explorers of the African continent, he found himself naturally siding with the heroic white people. It was only when he realized the bitter truth contained in the proverbial saying about lions and hunters that he found his calling. He continued: “Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions. “

  • I live in the world rather as a spectator of mankind, than as one of the species. Joseph Addison, in inaugural issue of The Spectator (March 1, 1711)
  • I write to find out what I’m thinking about. Edward Albee, quoted in Donald M. Murray, Write to Learn (1987)

QUOTE NOTE: For other quotations on the theme of writing to find out what one thinks, see the entries in this section by Joan Didion, Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, V. S. Pritchett, and James Reston.

  • You write a book and it's like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it in the ocean. You don’t know if it will ever reach any shore. And there, you see, sometimes it falls in the hands of the right person. Isabel Allende, “Isabel Allende,” in Naomi Epel (ed.), Writers Dreaming (1993)
  • I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Isabel Allende, quoted in Meredith Maran, Why We Write (2013)
  • If I wanted to write, I had to be willing to develop a kind of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. Maya Angelou, in The Heart of a Woman (1981)
  • I cannot understand the competitive spirit among writers. We are all so inadequate in the face of the thing to be done; life among us is so brief and so hurried that to pause and snarl at each other is unspeakably dull. Sherwood Anderson, in letter to Waldo Frank (Nov. 18, 1917); Letters of Sherwood Anderson (1953; Howard Mumford Jones, ed.)
  • I certainly do not adore the writer’s discipline. I have lost lovers, endangered friendships, and blundered into eccentricity, impelled by a concentration which usually is to be found only in the minds of people about to be executed in the next half hour. Maya Angelou, quoted in Mari Evans, Black Women Writers [1950-1980] (1984)
  • Language. I loved it. And for a long time I would think of myself, of my whole body, as an ear. Maya Angelou, quoted in The New York Times (Jan. 20, 1993)
  • The only thing about myself that I consider to be severe enough to warrant psychoanalytic treatment is my compulsion to write. Perhaps if I vacuumed my mentality and got rid of the compulsion, I could spend more time sleeping in the sun and playing golf, or whatever it is that people do who have nothing better to do. Isaac Asimov, in Afterword to the 1953 short story “What If—,” in Nightfall and Other Stories (1969)

Asimov continued: “But I don’t want to, thank you. I know all about my compulsion and I like it and intend to keep it. Someone else can have my ticket for sleeping in the sun and playing golf.”

  • My answer to the question “Why do you write?” is that I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die. Isaac Asimov, in a 1985 letter, in Yours, Isaac Asimov (1995)
  • I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—well, they can do whatever they wish. Isaac Asimov, “Author’s Note,” in Nemesis (1989)
  • It has always been my ambition to die in harness with my head face down on a keyboard and my nose caught between two of the keys, but that’s not the way it worked out. Isaac Asimov, in “Farewell—Farewell,” Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August, 1992)

QUOTE NOTE: This appeared in Asimov’s final article, written just before his death at age 72 on April 6, 1992. He preceded the thought by writing in his opening paragraph:

“I have written three hundred ninety-nine essays for Fantasy & Science Fiction. The essays were written with enormous pleasure, for I have always been allowed to say what I wanted to say. It was with horror that I discovered I could not manage a four hundredth essay.”

After writing more than 500 books and thousands of essays and articles, Asimov had no desire to ever retire—and there is no way he could have ever foreseen the circumstances surrounding his own death. While the official cause of death was listed as heart and kidney failure, it wasn't until a decade later that his widow and other family members revealed that his heart and liver problems were the result of an HIV infection contracted from a blood transfusion during a 1988 triple bypass surgery.

  • Writing was my real life and I was more at home with the people of my imagination than with the best I met in the objective world. Gertrude Atherton, in The Adventures of a Novelist (1932)
  • The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough? Margaret Atwood, in Joyce Carol Oates (ed.), First Person Singular: Writers on Their Craft (1983)
  • It’s probably a form of childish curiosity that keeps me going as a fiction writer. I…want to open everybody’s bureau drawers and see what they keep in there. I’m nosy. Margaret Atwood, quoted in Earl G. Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations (1990)
  • You never step twice into the same paragraph. Margaret Atwood, piggybacking on the familiar Heraclitus saying about never stepping twice into the same river, in Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002)
  • A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason. Think of it as the altar of the Muse Oblivion, to whom you sacrifice your botched first drafts, the tokens of your human imperfection. Margaret Atwood, in Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose, 1983-2005 (2006)

Atwood continued: “She is the tenth Muse, the one without whom none of the others can function. The gift she offers you is the freedom of the second chance. Or as many chances as you’ll take.”

  • I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and uninformed female who ever dared to be an authoress. Jane Austen, in letter to James Clarke (Dec. 11, 1815)
  • At the age of five I had become a skeptic and began to sense that any happiness that came my way might be the prelude to some grim cosmic joke. Russell Baker, in Growing Up (1982)

QUOTE NOTE: Baker was five years old when his father died (of complications related to diabetes).

  • I had decided the only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any. Russell Baker, on his decision—at age eleven—to become a writer, in Growing Up (1982)
  • One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes” (1952), in Notes of a Native Son (1955)
  • I am a galley slave to pen and ink. Honoré de Balzac, in letter to Zulma Carraud (July 2, 1832)
  • Between you and me, I am not deep, but I am very wide, and it takes time to walk round me. Honoré de Balzac, in letter to Countess Clara Maffei (October, 1837)
  • A writer should always have some profession which brings him into close contact with the realities of life. Vicki Baum, quoted in Stanley Kunitz, et. al., Authors Today and Yesterday: A Companion Volume to Living Authors (1938)
  • To me, writing is not a profession. You might as well call living a profession. Or having children. Anything you can’t help doing. Vicki Baum, in I Know What I’m Worth (1964)
  • It just came to me. The great pleasure of the book was that it came so easily. All I had to do was be there with buckets to catch it. Saul Bellow, on his 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March; in Harvey Breit, “Talk with Saul Bellow,” The New York Times (Sep. 20, 1953)
  • It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous. Robert Benchley, quoted in Nathaniel Benchley, Robert Benchley (1955). Also an example of oxymoronica.
  • I masquerade as a writer. Actually I am a scholar. John Berryman, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1972)
  • If you were a member of Jesse James’s band and people asked you what you were, you wouldn’t say, “Well, I’m a desperado.” You’d say, “I work in banks,” or “I’ve done some railroad work.” It took me a long time just to say “I’m a writer.” It’s really embarrassing. Roy Blount, Jr., quoted in Allison Silver, The New York Times Book Review (Feb. 28, 1982)
  • My characters live inside my head for a long time before I actually start a book. They become so real to me, I talk about them at the dinner table as if they are real. Some people consider this weird. But my family understands. Judy Blume, quoted in Rachel Chandler, The Most Important Lessons in Life (1998)
  • I have preferred to teach my students not English literature but my love for certain authors, or, even better, certain pages, or even better than that, certain lines. One falls in love with a line, then with a page, then with an author. Well, why not? It is a beautiful process. Jorge Luis Borges, in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (2013)
  • We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. Ray Bradbury, in interview with William J. Grabowski, “Whales, Libraries, and Dreams: Ray Bradbury,” Fantasy Review (July/Aug.,1986)
  • My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go. Ray Bradbury, in Introduction to The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980)
  • I’m interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them. Ray Bradbury, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 2010)
  • I have what I call “the theater of morning” inside my head. And all these voices talk and when they come up with a good metaphor, then I jump out of bed and run and trap them before they’re gone. Ray Bradbury, from interview with Sam Weller, in Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews (2010)
  • The best description of my career as a writer is, “At play in the fields of the Lord.” It’s been wonderful fun, and I’ll be damned where any of it came from. Ray Bradbury, from interview with Sam Weller, in Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews (2010)

Bradbury began by saying: “Every so often, late at night, I come downstairs, open one of my books, read a paragraph and say, “My God.” I sit there and cry because I haven’t done any of this. It’s a God-given thing, and I’m so grateful, so, so grateful.”

  • Being a writer in a library is rather like being a eunuch in a harem. John Braine, quoted in The New York Times (Oct. 7, 1962)
  • I am a comic writer, which means I get to slay the dragons, and shoot the bull. Rita Mae Brown, in speech in San Jose,
  • As a woman, I find it very embarrassing to be in a meeting and realize I’m the only one in the room with balls. Rita Mae Brown, in Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual (1988)
  • A ream of fresh paper lies on my desk waiting for the next book, I am a writer and I take up my pen to write. Pearl S. Buck, the concluding line of My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1954)
  • I go to books and to nature as the bee goes to a flower, for a nectar that I can make my own honey. John Burroughs, in The Summit of the Years (1913)
  • In my writing I am acting as a map maker, an explorer of psychic areas…a cosmonaut of inner space. William Burroughs, a 1964 remark, quoted in Eric Mottram, William Burroughs: The Algebra of Need (1977)

Burroughs added: “I see no point in exploring areas that have already been thoroughly surveyed.”

  • First and foremost I write for myself. Writing has been for a long time my major tool for self-instruction and self-development. Toni Cade Bambara, quoted in Claudia Tate, “Toni Cade Bambara,” Black Women Writers at Work (1993)
  • We call what we write “brainchildren,” and just as a pregnancy must not be overstressed and artificially hurried for fear of damaging or aborting the child, so, too, a piece of work asks that we not try to force it in unnatural directions. Julie Cameron, in The Right to Write (1998)
  • Well, I’m about as tall as a shotgun—and just as noisy. Truman Capote, on his five-feet-four height, quoted in Harvey Breit, “Talk with Truman Capote,” New York Times Book Review (Feb. 24, 1952)
  • For the last decade or so I prefer writers I’ve already read. Proven wine. Truman Capote, in The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (1973)
  • I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil. Truman Capote, on editing his work, quoted in Lawrence Grobel, Conversations with Capote (1985)
  • The sincerity of feeling that is possible between a writer and a reader is one of the finest things I know. Willa Cather, from a 1931 interview; in L. Brent Bohlke, Willa Cather in Person (1986)
  • The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them. Raymond Chandler, interview with Irving Wallace (Aug. 24, 1945), in Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962)
  • I have made three rules of writing for myself that are absolutes: Never take advice. Never show or discuss work in progress. Never answer a critic. Raymond Chandler, quoted in D. Gardiner & K. S. Walker, Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962)]
  • I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone. John Cheever, on his writing, quoted in The Christian Science Monitor (Oct. 24, 1979)
  • Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other. Anton Chekhov, in undated 1888 letter to A. S. Suvorin, in Letters of Anton Chekhov (1920)

QUOTE NOTE: Chekhov is best remembered as a writer, but he was also a practicing physician until his premature death at age forty-four (from complications related to tuberculosis). He began writing in his spare time while in medical school, and he juggled both careers until his premature death. Chekhov returned to the wife-mistress metaphor the following year in a letter to A. N. Pleshcheev (Jan. 15, 1889), but this time in a slightly different context: “Narrative prose is a legal wife, while drama is a posturing, boisterous, cheeky and wearisome mistress.”

  • I have in my head a whole army of people pleading to be let out and awaiting my commands. Anton Chekhov, in letter to A.S. Suvorin (October 27, 1888)
  • To be a writer is to accept failure as a profession—which of us is Dante or Shakespeare?—and could they return, wouldn’t they fall at once to revising, knowing they could make the work better? In our own dwarfed way, we are trying for something like perfection, knowing it is unachievable (except of course that trying and failing is a better way of living than not trying). John Ciardi, in Vince Clemente, “‘A Man Is What He Does With His Attention’: A Conversation with John Ciardi,” Poesis (1986; Vol. 7, No. 2)
  • I write as an alcoholic drinks, compulsively and for its own sake. John Ciardi, in Ciardi Himself (1989)
  • I’m a sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine. Agatha Christie, on her ability to produce bestselling mystery novels, in G. C. Ramsey, Agatha Christie: Mistress of Mystery (1967)
  • The completely selfish pleasure of composition…for me surpasses the trumped-up pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex. Since I do not write to teach anybody anything, it’s a completely selfish act, but it gives me a sense of equilibrium and a reason for existence. Nothing gives me as much pleasure, when I’m doing it well, as writing. Henri Cole, answering the question “Why Write?” in Paris Review interview (Summer 2014)
  • It’s terrible to think, as I do every time I begin a book, that I no longer have, and never have had, any talent. Colette, in a letter to Francis Carco, reprinted in Belles Saisons: A Colette Scrapbook (1978; Robert Phelps, ed.)

In that same letter, Colette wrote: “The only virtue on which I pride myself is my self-doubt. If every day I find myself more circumspect toward my work, and more uncertain as to whether I should continue, my only self-assurance comes from my fear itself. For when a writer loses his self-doubt, the time has come to lay aside his pen.”

  • So writing, for me, was this stubborn regaining of the past, and of the ability to engrave time somewhere. Bernard Comment, in “Bernard Comment: I Write Fiction to Engrave Time,” in The Guardian (June 14, 2012)
  • My soul found ease and rest in the companionship of books. Pat Conroy, recalling his college years, in My Losing Season: A Memoir (2002)

Conroy continued: “The library staff knew me on a first-name basis; I felt as comfortable entering the Citadel library as a shell entering its shell.”

  • One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family. Pat Conroy, quoted in Michael Carlson, “Pat Conroy obituary,” The Guardian (March 7, 2016)
  • Except when I am traveling or when extraordinary events are occurring, a day when I do not write tastes of ashes. Simone de Beauvoir, in Force of Circumstance (1963)
  • I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning. Peter De Vries, quoted in The Observer (London; Sep. 28, 1980)
  • My ideas are my trollops. Denis Diderot, in Rameau’s Nephew (written 1762; first pub. posthumously in German in 1805)

The words come from the narrator, but they capture the beliefs of the author. The line comes from the story’s opening paragraph, which begins with the narrator saying that, rain or shine, he takes a walk around the Palais-Royal every day at five o’clock. He continues:

“I discuss with myself questions of politics, love, taste, or philosophy. I let my mind rove wantonly, give it free rein to follow any idea, wise or mad, that may come uppermost; I chase it as do our young libertines along Foy’s Walk, when they are on the track of a courtesan whose mien is giddy and face smiling, whose nose turns up. The youth drops one and picks up another, pursuing all and clinging to none: my ideas are my trollops.” [Jacques Barzun’s 1956 translation]. Some earlier translations rendered the final line as My ideas are my harlots.

  • My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. Joan Didion, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
  • Grammar is a piano I play by ear. Joan Didion, “Why I Write,” in The New York Times (Dec. 5, 1976)

QUOTE NOTE: Didion may have been influenced by a similar observation from Mark Twain’s Autobiography: “I know grammar by ear only, not by note, not by the rules.” See the complete Twain passage in the GRAMMAR section.

  • 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, “Why I Write,” in The New York Times (Dec. 5, 1976)

QUOTE NOTE: For other quotations on the theme of writing to find out what one thinks, see the entries in this section by Edward Albee, Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, V. S. Pritchett, and James Reston.

  • Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life (1989)

Dillard continued: “Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

  • Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life (1989)
  • A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!’” Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life (1989)

Later in the book, Dillard returned to the taming-the-wild-beast metaphor: “This is your life. You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over.”

  • I make books for people to live in, as architects make houses. I lived in it by writing it. Now it’s the reader’s turn. E. L. Doctorow, quoted in Bruce Weber, “The Myth Maker,” The New York Times, (Oct. 20, 1985)
  • When you’re all alone out there, on the end of the typewriter, with each new story a new appraisal by the world of whether you can still get it up or not, arrogance and self-esteem and deep breathing are all you have. Harlan Ellison, in the Introduction to his 1968 short story “Django,” in Shatterday (1980)

Ellison continued: “It often looks like egomania. I assure you it’s the bold coverup of the absolutely terrified.”

QUOTE NOTE: As much as any other writer, Ellison has written about the “mortal dread” he has experienced when sitting down at his writing desk and attempting to bring words to a blank page. In the case of “Django,” those fears were heightened because he wrote the entire story while sitting in the front window of a bookstore in Boston. It was all part of a publicity stunt dreamed up by the owners of the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, who were trying to draw more foot traffic into the store. Ellison found the whole experience “unnerving,” and it even left him with serious doubts about the quality of the story he was writing, Those doubts ultimately vanished, however, when it was selected as Galileo magazine's Best Short Story of the Year.

  • As a young would-be writer, I harbored no elevated notions of bringing truth or beauty into the world. Instead I wanted, ardently, to bring me into the world: to call me to its attention. Joseph Epstein, “Writing on the Brain,” in Commentary magazine (April, 2004)
  • Once one has achieved a relative mastery over one’s craft, the pleasures of composition are like few others: certainly none that I have known. Constructing well-made sentences, in which words and thought appear to make a seamless fit, causing the small but intense light of insight to click on, can only be compared, I should imagine, to the delight of dancing faultlessly to one’s own choreography.

Joseph Epstein, “Writing on the Brain,” in Commentary magazine (April, 2004)

  • My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey. William Faulkner, in Paris Review interview (Fall 1956)
  • I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it. William Faulkner, in Paris Review interview (Fall 1956)

This was Faulkner’s famous answer to the question: “You mentioned experience, observation, and imagination as being important for a writer. Would you include inspiration?”

  • When my horse is running good, I don’t stop to give him sugar. William Faulkner, quoted in Thomas Bruce Morgan, Self-Creations: 13 Impersonalities (1965)

QUOTATION CAUTION: This quotation is commonly misinterpreted to mean that Faulkner abstained from drinking while in the middle of a writing groove (an interpretation fostered by George Plimpton, when he included the quote in the “On Performance” section of his 1989 Writer’s Chapbook). The truth, though, is that the observation reflects a problem Faulkner had in giving compliments and praise to people (in this case Albert Erskine, his longstanding Random House editor). The full passage from Morgan’s book makes it clear: “Once he said he liked his editor, Albert Erskine, but he wouldn't tell him. He said, ‘When my horse is running, I don’t stop to give him sugar.’”

  • Your idea of bliss is to wake up on a Monday morning knowing you haven’t a single engagement for the entire week. You are cradled in a white paper cocoon tied up with typewriter ribbon. Edna Ferber, writing about her life as a writer, in A Peculiar Treasure: An Autobiography (1939)
  • In order to write really well and convincingly one must be somewhat poisoned by emotion. Edna Ferber, in A Kind of Magic (1963)

Ferber added: “Dislike, displeasure, resentment, fault-finding, indignation, passionate remonstrance, a sense of injustice, are perhaps corrosive to the container, but they make fine fuel.”

  • I sat staring up at a shelf in my workroom from which thirty-one books identically dressed in neat dark green leather stared back at me with a sort of cold hostility like children who resent their parents. Don’t stare at us like that! they said. Don’t blame us if we didn’t turn out to be the perfection you expected. We didn’t ask to be brought into the world. Edna Ferber, in A Kind of Magic (1963)
  • I like having written, the same way I like having gone to the gym. Carrie Fisher, “What I’ve Learned,” in Fortune magazine (Jan. 29, 2007; originally appeared June, 2002)

Fisher continued: “I’m a conversationalist more than a writer. I take dictation from myself. I talk about myself behind my back.”

  • I act as a sponge. I soak it up and squeeze it out in ink every two weeks. Janet Flanner, quoted in her obituary in The New York Times (Nov. 8, 1978)

This was how Flanner described her approach to writing her “Letter from Paris” feature, which first appeared in The New Yorker in September, 1925 and continued on a bi-weekly basis until her retirement fifty years later. The feature was written under the pen name “Genêt,” a name given her by editor Harold Ross (according to New Yorker legend, Ross believed it was the French name for “Janet”).

  • I keep going over a sentence. I nag it, gnaw it, pat it and flatter it. Janet Flanner, in Lost General Journal (1979)
  • I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within. Gustave Flaubert, in 1845 letter to Louise Colet

Flaubert often described writing as a grueling, even painful process. In an 1852 letter to Colet, his mistress for many years, he provided this additional glimpse into his feelings about his career as a writer: “I love my work with a frenetic and perverse love, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt which scratches his belly.”

  • Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles. Gustave Flaubert, on his difficulties with Madame Bovary, in letter to Louise Colet (July 26, 1856)

QUOTE NOTE: Flaubert struggled for years with Madame Bovary, which ultimately became his most celebrated work. In a letter to Colet five years earlier (Oct. 23, 1851), he wrote: “I am finding it very hard to get my novel started. I suffer from stylistic abscesses; and sentences keep itching without coming to a head.”

  • I don’t want some passive thing: to be sold, to be read. Writing is active, and the kind of writing I have always admired, and shall always want to achieve, makes reading active too—the book reads the reader, as radar reads the unknown. And the unknown ones, the readers, feel this. John Fowles, “I Write Therefore I Am” (1964), in Wormholes: Essays and Occasional Writings (1998)

This comes from the very first essay in the compilation, which may be read in full here. The essay also contains these additional reflections:

“A day when I write nothing is a desert.“

“Writing has always been with me a semireligious occupation, by which I certainly don't mean that I regard it with pious awe, but rather that I can't regard it simply as a craft, a job.”

  • I love hearing details of writers’ craft, as cannibals eat the brains of clever men to get cleverer. Antonia Fraser, in Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (2011)
  • And were an epitaph to be my story,/I’d have a short one ready for my own./I would have written of me on my stone:/I had a lover’s quarrel with the world. Robert Frost, “The Lesson for Today,” in reading before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Harvard University (June 20, 1941); later published in A Witness Tree (1942)
  • Most of my writing consists of an attempt to translate aphorisms into continuous prose. Northrop Frye, quoted In Richard Kostelanetz, “The Literature Professors’ Literature Professor,” Michigan Quarterly Review (Fall, 1978)
  • If I didn’t have writing, I’d be running down the street hurling grenades in people’s faces. Paul Fussell, quoted in People magazine (Feb. 7, 1983)

To see the full article, in which writer D. Keith Mano described writing as “an emotional laxative” for Fussell, go to People magazine.

  • Writing is the perfect medium for shy extroverts, getting out whatever’s in there, and that suited me. If I could have acted, I probably wouldn’t have written at all. Larry Gelbart, quoted in Barbara Isenberg, State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work (2000)
  • It has always been my practice to cast a long paragraph in a single mold, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work. Edward Gibbon, in Memoirs of My Life and Writings (1796)
  • Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking. William Gibson, on the role naps play in his writing efforts, in Paris Review interview (Summer, 2011)
  • I’m not a professional of poetry, I’m a farmer of poetry. Jack Gilbert, in an NPR interview with Debbie Elliott (April 30, 2006)

QUOTE NOTE: The 82-year-old Gilbert offered this thought just after winning the poetry award at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in 2006. It was the first major prize he had been awarded since receiving the Yale [University] Younger Poets Prize in 1962.

  • I work continuously within the shadow of failure. For every novel that makes it to my publisher’s desk, there are at least five or six that died on the way. Gail Godwin, quoted in Janet Sternburg, The Writer on Her Work, Vol. 1 (1980)

Godwin added: “And even with the ones I do finish, I think of all the ways they might have been better.”

  • I am not a theologian or a philosopher. I am a story teller. William Golding, quoted in his New York Times obituary (June 20, 1993)
  • Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you've made sense of one small area. Nadine Gordimer, in Paris Review interview (Summer 1983)
  • Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat. Robert Graves, on writing novels to support his books of poetry, in “Mostly It’s Money That Makes a Writer Go, Go, Go,” in The New York Times Book Review (July 13, 1958)
  • I shall be but a shrimp of an author. Thomas Gray, in letter to Horace Walpole (Feb. 25, 1768)
  • My world and my people leap out of the soup of my preconscious, the ever-flowing, ever-changing reservoir of bits and pieces of memory that my consciousness is always scanning. Andrew Greeley, in “They Leap From Your Brain Then Take Over Your Heart,” in Writers on Writing: More Collected Essays From the New York Times (Vol. II, 2003)

Greeley preceded the observation by writing: “Fantasy is not merely a distinct genre. All fiction is fantasy, a narrative of a world and people created by the storyteller’s imagination.”

  • Despite a lifetime of service to the cause of sexual liberation, I have never caught a venereal disease, which makes me feel rather like an arctic explorer who has never had frostbite. Germaine Greer, quoted in Observer (London, March 4, 1973)
  • I look at my books the way parents look at their children. The fact that one becomes more successful than the other doesn’t make them love the less successful one any less. Alex Haley, in Hans J. Massaquoi, “Alex Haley’s Hideaway,” Ebony (September, 1987)
  • I knew I wanted to write. I had dreamed about it for years. I wasn’t going to be one of those people who die wondering, “What if?” I would keep putting my dream to the test—even though it meant living with uncertainty and fear of failure. This is the Shadowland of hope, and anyone with a dream must learn to live there. Alex Haley, “The Shadowland of Dreams,” in Reader’s Digest (Aug., 1991)
  • As I write I create myself again and again. Joy Harjo, “Bio-Poetics Sketch,” in The Greenfield Review (1981, Vol. 9; specific issue undetermined)
  • I lived in the midst of an affectionate charming family, and I am sure that there is no greater obstacle to a person who is just beginning to write. Katharine Butler Hathaway, in The Little Locksmith (1942)
  • I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon. Joseph Heller, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1974)

Heller continued: “The ideas come to me; I don’t produce them at will. They come to me in the course of a sort of controlled daydream, a directed reverie.”

  • When I read something saying I've not done anything as good as Catch-22, I'm tempted to reply, “Who has?” Joseph Heller, quoted in the Times (London; June 9, 1993)
  • Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts—and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society? Joseph Heller, quoted in “Heller’s Legacy Will be ‘Catch-22’ Ideas,” CNN.com “Book News” (Dec. 13, 1999)
  • I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. Ernest Hemingway, in letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald (May 10, 1934)
  • I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I’ve fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had an edge in the last one. Ernest Hemingway, in Lillian Ross, “How Do You Like It Now, Gentleman?” The New Yorker (May 13, 1950)

QUOTE NOTE: Hemingway, who was almost affectedly fond of using boxing metaphors, concluded: “But nobody’s going to get me in any ring with Mr. Tolstoy unless I’m crazy or I keep getting better.

  • I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know, you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. Ernest Hemingway, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1958)

This is a well-known example of what has become known as Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of Writing. He first introduced the metaphor in Death in the Afternoon (1932), where he wrote: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

  • We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in the New York Journal-American (July 11, 1961)
  • 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, in A Moveable Feast (1964)
  • When I have an idea, I turn down the flame, as if it were a little alcohol stove, as low as it will go. Then it explodes and that is my idea. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company (1974)
  • There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in A. E. Hotchner, The Good Life According to Hemingway (2008)
  • I don’t write for The 400; I write for the Four Million. O. Henry, in the Introduction to The Four Million (1906)

QUOTE NOTE: The Four Million was a collection of short stories that reflected O. Henry’s commitment to writing for a broad and diverse readership, and not just for the social or economic elite. During America's “Gilded Age,” the phrase “The 400” became associated with Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, commonly known as Mrs. Astor. The doyenne of New York City’s high society, her annual ball was a prestigious social event, and it was said that her ballroom could accommodate a maximum of 400 guests.

  • Writing and the hope of writing pulls me back from the edges of despair. I believe insanity and despair are at times one and the same. Bell Hooks, “Writing From the Darkness,” Triquarterly magazine (Spring-Summer, 1989); reprinted in Wendy Martin, The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women (1996)
  • There is no agony like bearing an untold story within you. Zora Neale Hurston, in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)
  • I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands. Zora Neale Hurston, in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942)

QUOTE NOTE: Two metaphors in this well known self-description have become so intimately associated with Hurston that they’ve been used to title biographies about her: Sorrow’s Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston (1993) and Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003) by Valerie Boyd.

  • I write—though perhaps it sounds pretentious to say so—to make a clearing in the wilderness, to find out what I care about and what exactly to make of it. Pico Iyer, the opening line of “Why I Write,” in Publishers Weekly (Feb. 24, 2012)

Iyer continued: “Every day so many experiences, feelings, incidents, encounters crash in on us, and every morning I retire to my desk to make a kind of sense of them, to put them into a larger frame, to find out what my priorities should be. It’s like sifting through the shells you’ve collected after a walk along the beach, and it makes for a stillness that lends peace and direction to the day that follows.”

  • A writer is a vehicle. I feel the story I am writing existed before I existed; I’m just the slob who finds it, and rather clumsily tries to do it, and the characters, justice. John Irving, in Paris Review interview (Summer-Fall, 1986)

Irving added: “I think of writing fiction as doing justice to the people in the story, and doing justice to their story—it’s not my story. It’s entirely ghostly work; I’m just the medium. As a writer, I do more listening than talking.”

In that interview, Irving also wrote: “I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex; I can go without it for a while, but then I need it.”

  • I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Christopher Isherwood, in Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

QUOTE NOTE: The words, which appear on the first page of the book, come from the narrator, but they are believed to reflect the real-world views of the author as well. Goodbye to Berlin was a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Isherwood’s time in Berlin in the early 1930s. When the book was adapted by John Van Druten into a Broadway play in 1951, the title was changed to I Am a Camera. While the play earned Julie Harris a Tony Award, it was famously panned by Walter Kerr with the words: “Me no Leica.” Fifteen years later, I Am a Camera was further adapted for Broadway, this time into the hit musical Cabaret (1966).

  • A writing career is like having homework your whole life. Lawrence Kasdan, in Aljean Harmetz, “How He Became Hollywood’s Hot Writer,” in The New York Times (Nov. 1, 1981)
  • I feel as if I were the site of many storms. Everything keeps thundering through me. Alfred Kazin, a 1970 journal entry, in Alfred Kazin’s Journals (2011; Richard M.Cook, ed.)

Kazin preceded the thought by writing: “All this lifetime feeling, all this long passion of the heart, all this longing—all this anger—all this bitterness, all this love, all this seeking.”

  • One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper. Alfred Kazin, “The Self as History: Reflections on Autobiography,” in Marc Pachter, ed., Telling Lives: The Biographer’s Art (1979)
  • My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk. John Keats, in letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley (Aug. 16, 1820)
  • I’d rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph. Ken Kesey, quoted in Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

QUOTE NOTE: In his Spring, 1991 Paris Review interview, Tom Wolfe recalled this Kesey observation and applied it to his own life: “I can sympathize with Ken Kesey who once said that he stopped writing because he was tired of being a seismograph—an instrument that measures rumblings from a great distance. He said he wanted to be a lightning rod—where it all happens at once, quick, and decisive. Perhaps this applies to painters, though I don’t know.”

  • One of the most fundamental of human fears is that our existence will go unnoticed. We’d all like to have it recorded somewhere. What better way to achieve this goal than by writing? Long after maggots have had their way with my corpse, my name will still be on the spines of books in the Library of Congress. I’m on the record. Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write (1995)

QUOTE NOTE: In his 1956 Paris Review interview, William Faulkner made a similar observation about artists when he cleverly suggested that the creation of a work of art was like scribbling “Kilroy was here” on a wall. For the full quotation, see the Faulkner entry in ARTISTS.

  • I like to use as few commas as possible so that sentences will go down in one swallow without touching the sides. Florence King, in Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye (1989)
  • Most of them are plain fiction for plain folks, the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large fries from McDonalds. Stephen King, on his novels, in Darrell Schweitzer, Discovering Stephen King (1985)
  • Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work. Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
  • Mornings belong to whatever is new; the current composition. Afternoons are for naps and letters. Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (2000)
  • I write to find out what I think. Stephen King, in the Afterword to The Colorado Kid (2005)

QUOTE NOTE: For other quotations on the theme of writing to find out what one thinks, see the entries in this section by Edward Albee, Joan Didion, Flannery O’Connor, V. S. Pritchett, and James Reston.

  • I write for love, but love doesn’t pay the bills. Stephen King, in an Author’s Note for the novella “Ur” (2009), in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams (2015)
  • When I started to write these plays, I wanted to attempt something of ambition and size even if that meant I might be accused of straying too close to ambition’s ugly twin, pretentiousness. Tony Kushner, “Afterword,” in Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (1992)
  • Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

Lamott continued: “While others who have something to say or who want to be effectual, like musicians or baseball players or politicians, have to get out there in front of people, writers, who tend to be shy, get to stay home and still be public. There are many obvious advantages to this. You don’t have to dress up, for instance, and you can’t hear them boo you right away.”

  • I’m like a big old hen. I can’t cluck too much about the egg I’ve just laid because five more are pushing to come out. Louis L’Amour, quoted in Time magazine (1988; specific date undetermined)
  • One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter—who was a child at the time—asked me, “Daddy, why are you writing so fast?” And I replied, “Because I want to see how the story turns out! Louis L’Amour, quoted in Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures, Vol. 1 (2017; with Beau L’Amour)
  • I like to write when I feel spiteful; it’s like having a good sneeze. D. H. Lawrence, in letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith (Nov. 25, 1913), H. T. Moore, Collected Letters of D. H. Lawrence (1962)
  • When I was very little, say five or six, I became aware of the fact that people wrote books. Before that, I thought that God wrote books. I thought a book was a manifestation of nature, like a tree. When my mother explained it, I kept after her: What are you saying? vWhat do you mean? I couldn’t believe it. It was astonishing. It was like—here’s the man who makes all the trees. Then I wanted to be a writer, because, I suppose, it seemed the closest thing to being God. Fran Lebowitz, in Paris Review interview (Summer 1993)

Lebowitz continued: “I never wanted to be anything else. Well, if there had been a job of being a reader, I would have taken that, because I love to read and I don’t love to write. That would be blissful.”

  • I’m such a slow writer I have no need for anything as fast as a word processor. I don’t need anything so snappy. I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself. Fran Lebowitz, in Paris Review interview (Summer 1993)
  • I’m an incredibly promiscuous reader, a slut of literature. Fran Lebowitz, quoted in The Advocate (May 28, 1996)

Lebowitz continued: “I read two to four mysteries a week. I don’t care who did it. I read them for the soothing prose.”

  • My whole life I have feasted on words—ogled their appetizing shapes, colors, and textures; swished them around in my mouth; lingered over their many tastes; let their juices run down my chin. Richard Lederer, in A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language (2003)

Lederer introduced the thought by writing: “Carnivores eat flesh and meat; piscivores eat fish; herbivores consume plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. I am such a creature.”

  • To create a work of art, great or small, is work, hard work, and work requires discipline and order. Madeleine L’Engle, in Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (1980)

L’Engle preceded the thought by writing: “A life lived in chaos is an impossibility for the artist. No matter how unstructured may seem the painter’s garret in Paris or the poet’s pad in Greenwich Village, the artist must have some kind of order or he will produce a very small body of work.”

  • You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children. Madeleine L’Engle, quoted by Karuna Riazi, in Q & A with Karuna Riazi (August 21, 2019)

QUOTE NOTE: This was Riazi’s reply when interviewer Erin F. Wasinger asked, “Do you have a Madeleine story/quote/moment that has inspired you?” Riazi went on to say about the observation: “This quote has carried me through a lot of moments in which my love of writing for children has been demeaned, dismissed, or otherwise brushed aside as ‘not serious craft.’” Riazi, a L’Engle fan since she read A Wrinkle in Time at age eight, is the author of The Gauntlet (2017) and other books.

I have been unable to find the foregoing quotation in any of L’Engle’s works, and now believe she was paraphrasing rather than directly quoting popular observation from A Circle of Quiet (1972): “If I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children.”

  • There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line. Oscar Levant, quoted by Cleveland Amory in Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables (1959).
  • It’s not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character. Oscar Levant, on himself

QUOTE NOTE: The line first appeared in the 1951 film An American In Paris, and was officially credited to screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner. However, Levant apparently suggested the line to Lerner, so deserves credit as the author. In a 1960s appearance on The Tonight Show, Levant reprised the sentiment by saying to Jack Paar: “Underneath this flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.”

  • What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left. Oscar Levant, quoted in Gene Perret, On the 8th Day—God Laughed (1995)
  • When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (1952), in C. S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (1967)

Lewis preceded the thought by writing: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly.”

  • Like every writer, I am clearly tempted to use succulent terms: I have at my command magnificent adjectives, robust nouns, and verbs so agile that they glide through the atmosphere as they move into action. For surely words are actions? Clarice Lispector, a reflection of the narrator, a writer named Rodrigo S. M., in The Hour of the Star (1977)
  • For years it was a constant source of shock to me to find my writings amongst “juveniles.” It does not bother me any more now, but I still feel there should be a category of “seniles” to offset the epithet. Hugh Lofting, the author of the Doctor Doolittle books; quoted in G. D. Schmidt, Hugh Lofting (1992)
  • In writing I had to say what had happened to me, yet present it as though it had been magically revealed. Bernard Malamud, in a talk at Bennington College (Oct. 30, 1984); reprinted in “Reflections of a Writer: Long Work, Short Life,” The New York Times (March 20, 1988)
  • I hammer it out sentence by sentence and it takes a long time. That’s what the work is, right? To make the reader think it is not hard to do. Janet Malcolm, quoted in Emma Brockes, “A Life in Writing: Janet Malcolm,” the Guardian (June 5, 2011)
  • I’m basically nuts. I sit by myself every day, most days, eight hours in this little room. It feels like either a torment or an adventure. The only way I can still the torment or appreciate the adventure is to write it down. David Mamet, in interview with Sarah Weinman, Vulture.com (Feb. 20, 2018); originally published in New York Magazine (Feb. 19, 2018)
  • I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect. George R. R. Martin, in “Getting More from George R. R. Martin,” The Guardian (April 14, 2011)
  • Fact and fiction are so intermingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other. W. Somerset Maugham in The Summing Up (1938)
  • I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen. Carson McCullers, in The Square Root of Wonderful (1958)
  • I write about what breaks my heart. What I don’t understand. And what I wish I could change. Terry McMillan, quoted in Hope Wabuke, “Terry McMillan Writes What Breaks Her Heart,” in The Root magazine (June 7, 2016)

QUOTE NOTE: The quotation now appears on the homepage of McMillan’s website: www.terrymcmillan.com

  • The tradition I was born into was essentially nomadic, a herdsmen tradition, following animals across the earth. The bookshops are a form of ranching; instead of herding cattle, I herd books. Writing is a form of herding, too; I herd words into little paragraphlike clusters. Larry McMurtry, on his antiquarian bookselling and writing efforts, in The New York Times magazine (Nov. 30, 1997)

QUOTE NOTE: In the early 70s, following the success of Horseman, Pass By (made into the 1962 film Hud) and The Last Picture Show, McMurtry and two partners opened up an antiquarian bookstore near Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Named Booked Up, the entire operation was moved in 1988 to McMurtry’s home town of Archer City, Texas (population under 2,000). It ultimately became the country’s largest antiquarian bookstore, with nearly a half-million titles. The rise of internet bookselling ultimately took its toll, however, and in 2012 the enterprise was drastically downsized in an epic auction called “The Last Book Sale” (playing off the title The Last Picture Show). It continues to exist on a more limited scale (www.bookedupac.com).

  • To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies—the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said—there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident. H. L. Mencken, “Theodore Dreiser,” in The Book of Prefaces (1917)
  • My writings, such as they are, have had only one purpose: to attain for H.L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk. H. L. Mencken, “Self-Portrait, in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy (1994)
  • I’m not a good writer, I’m a masterly rewriter. James Michener, in James A. Michener’s Writer’s Handbook: Explorations in Writing and Publishing (1992)

QUOTE NOTE: Michener expressed this thought in different ways on different occasions. Here are two other common versions:

“I am not a good writer. But I am one hell of a rewriter.”

“I am not a good writer, but I am an excellent rewriter.”

  • For one year more it may be said of me by Harper & Brothers, that although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances. Edna St. Vincent Millay, in letter to Cass Canfield (May 10, 1948); reprinted in Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1952; Allan Ross Macdougall, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: Millay’s letter came after seven years of steady pressure from her publisher, Harper & Brothers, to come out with a new book. She was America’s favorite female poet at the time, and her publisher had been advancing her $250 a month in anticipation of a forthcoming work. With no new work on the horizon, the publisher hoped to capitalize on Millay’s fame by publishing an anthology of her previous verse. Millay had rejected a number of these proposals over the years and, just prior to this 1948 letter, she received yet another proposal (for a project called The Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay). In a letter to Cass Canfield, her editor at Harper & Brothers, she also rejected this latest proposal, and she expressed herself in a most memorable way.

  • It is true I swim in a perpetual sea of sex but the actual excursions are fairly limited. Henry Miller, in letter to Anaïs Nin (Feb. 1, 1932); reprinted in Letters to Anaïs Nin (1965)
  • Whatever I do is done out of sheer joy: I drop my fruits like a ripe tree. Henry Miller, in The Wisdom of the Heart (1941)
  • I have a passionate desire for personal privacy. I want to stand before the world, for good or bad, on the book I wrote, not on what I say in letters to friends, not on my husband and my home life, the way I dress, my likes and dislikes, et cetera. My book belongs to anyone who has the price, but nothing of me belongs to the public. Margaret Mitchell, in a 1938 letter, quoted in Richard Harwell, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind Letters, 1936-1949 (1976)
  • When a thing has been said so well that it could not be said better, why paraphrase it? Hence my writing is, if not a cabinet of fossils, a kind of collection of flies in amber. Marianne Moore, on the many quotations in her works, in the Introduction to A Marianne Moore Reader (1961)
  • I write the way women have babies. You don’t know it’s going to be like that. If you did, there’s no way you would go through with it. Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation,” in Mari Evans, Black Women Writers (1984)
  • I can get a kind of tension when I’m writing a short story, like I’m pulling on a rope and know where the rope is attached. Alice Munro, from interview with Lori Miller, in New York Times Book Review (Sep. 14, 1986)
  • In twenty years I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have to think about someone else’s needs. And this means the writing has to be fitted around it. Alice Munro, quoted in Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Alice Munro: A Double Life (1992)
  • That trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand…is as old as the quills…. My characters are galley slaves. Vladimir Nabokov, in Paris Review interview (Summer-Fall, 1967)
  • It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a whole book—what everyone else does not say in a whole book. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Things the Germans Lack,” in Twilight of the Idols (1888)
  • I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live…. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and re-create myself when destroyed by living. Anaïs Nin, diary entry (Feb. 1954), in Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5, 1947-55 (1974)

Nin was quoting from a letter she'd written to a writer who had asked, “Why does one write?” She went on to add: “We also write…to lure and enchant and console others, we write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

  • A writer who has published as many books as I have has developed, of necessity, a hide like a rhino's, while inside there dwells a frail, hopeful butterfly of a spirit. Joyce Carol Oates, on critical reviews, in Paris Review interview (Fall-Winter 1978)
  • My reputation for writing quickly and effortlessly notwithstanding, I am strongly in favor of intelligent, even fastidious revision, which is, or certainly should be, an art in itself. Joyce Carol Oates, in Paris Review interview (Fall-Winter 1978)
  • Getting the first draft finished is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a very dirty floor. Joyce Carol Oates, in Robert Compton, “Joyce Carol Oates Keeps Punching,” The Dallas Morning News (Nov. 17, 1987)
  • I work very slowly. It’s like building a ladder, where you’re building your own ladder rung by rung, and you’re climbing the ladder. Joyce Carol Oates, in “Wired for Books” interview with Don Swaim (May 13, 1990)

Oates added: “It’s not the best way to build a ladder, but I don’t know any other way.” To listen to the entire interview, go to: Oates “Wired for Books”.

  • Success means being heard and don’t stand there and tell me you are indifferent to being heard. Everything about you screams to be heard. Flannery O’Connor, in letter to “A” (Dec. 9, 1961); reprinted in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (1979; Sally Fitzgerald. ed.)

O’Connor continued: “You may write for the joy of it, but the act of writing is not complete in itself. It has its end in its audience.”

  • Writing is a good example of self-abandonment. I never completely forget myself except when I am writing and I am never more completely myself than when I am writing. Flannery O’Connor, in letter to “A” (Dec. 9, 1961); reprinted in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (1979; Sally Fitzgerald. ed.)
  • Every morning between nine and 12, I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper. Many times, I just sit there for three hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: if an idea does come between nine and 12, I am there ready for it. Flannery O’Connor, quoted in Gene Olson, Sweet Agony: A writing Manual of Sorts (1972)
  • I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say. Flannery O’Connor, quoted in Donald M. Murray, Shop Talk: Learning to Write with Writers (1990)

QUOTE NOTE: For other quotations on the theme of writing to find out what one thinks, see the entries in this section by Edward Albee, Joan Didion, Stephen King, V. S. Pritchett, and James Reston.

  • I have learned in my thirty-odd years of serious writing only one sure lesson: stories, like whiskey, must be allowed to mature in the cask. Sean O’Fáolain, in The Atlantic Monthly (Dec., 1956)
  • I consider myself kind of a reporter—one who uses words that are more like music and that have a choreography. I never think of myself as a poet; I just get up and write. Mary Oliver, quoted in “Maria Shriver Interviews the Famously Private Poet, Mary Oliver,” in O: The Oprah Magazine (March, 2011)
  • There one sits, reading and writing, month after month, tear after year. There one sits, envying other young writers who have achieved a grain more than oneself. Without the rush and brush and crush of the world, one becomes hollowed out. The cavity fills with envy. Cynthia Ozick, in Paris Review interview (Spring 1987)

QUOTE NOTE: Ozick was reflecting on the many years she spent writing before her first book was published at age 37 (Trust, in 1966)

  • Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust. Walker Percy, in Signposts in a Strange Land (1991)
  • I’m highly irritable and my senses bruise easily, and when they are bruised, I write. S. J. Perelman, “The Cranky Humorist,” in Life magazine (Feb. 9. 1962)

Perelman added: “It’s a strange way for an adult to make a living, isn’t it?”

  • The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere. S. J. Perelman, quoted in Myra MacPherson, “Perelman’s Rasping Wit Becomes an Anglo-File,” Washington Post (Oct. 18, 1970)

QUOTE NOTE: This is how the quotation is typically presented, but there’s an interesting story behind it. Perelman had been thinking about moving from America to England for several years, once saying that he might enjoy living in a nation that had a “taste for eccentricity.” MacPherson interviewed him just prior to his departure in the fall of 1970.

In the interview, Perelman said he had received many letters that all pretty much said the same thing: “I wish I had the guts to do what you’re doing.” About these letters, he commented, “It doesn’t take guts. The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere.” Perelman stay in England was short-lived. As he was returning to America in 1972, he offered one of his most famous observations about the English people (see the Perelman entry in UNCOUTH).

  • A writer didn’t need “an” idea for a book; she needed at least forty. And “get” was the wrong word, implying that you received an idea as you would a gift. Elizabeth Peters, in Naked Once More (1989)

Peters added: “You didn’t get ideas. You smelled them out, tracked them down, wrestled them into submission; you pursued them with forks and hope, and if you were lucky enough to catch one you impaled it, with the forks, before the sneaky little devil could get away.”

  • I feel terribly vulnerable and “not-myself” when I’m not writing. Sylvia Plath, in a 1957 letter, in Letters Home (1973; Aurelia Schober Plath, ed.)
  • I don’t write for a public, I write to clear my own mind, to find out what I think and feel. V. S. Pritchett, quoted in a 1979 issue of Time magazine (specific issue undetermined)

QUOTE NOTE: For other quotations on the theme of writing to find out what one thinks, see the entries in this section by Edward Albee, Joan Didion, Stephen King, Flannery O’Connor, and James Reston.

  • Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. Marcel Proust, in Time Regained (1926), Vol. VII of In Search of Lost Time (formerly Remembrance of Things Past (1913–27)

QUOTE NOTE: This passage has also been translated as follows: “In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.”

  • I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me—which is all that any one can do. Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh, in a letter to T. H. Warren, President of Magdalen College, Oxford (April 28, 1907); reprinted in The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh, 1879-1922 (1926; Lady Lucy Raleigh, ed.)

QUOTE NOTE: The author here is not the famous 17th century British statesman and explorer, but a similarly-named Professor of English Literature at Oxford University (he was born in 1879 and died in 1922). After publishing a book about Shakespeare in 1907, this Sir Walter wrote more fully: “Everyone says it was a horribly difficult thing to write on Shakespeare. So it was and is, I suppose, but I didn’t think of it that way, or I couldn’t have written. I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me, which is all that any one can do. I feel as free to think about Shakespeare as to think about the moon, without putting myself into competition. So I was not conscious of impudence, or even of ambition.”

My heartfelt thanks to Garson O'Toole, aka The Quote Investigator, for his typically rigorous research on this quotation. See his post here

  • How do I know what to think when I can’t read what I write. James Reston, in Deadline: A Memoir (1991)

ERROR ALERT: This observation from Reston is often mistakenly phrased as “what I (italics mine) think when I can’t read what I write,” and offered as a memorable bon mot on the craft of writing. The truth is that it was originally offered during a 1966 New York City newspaper strike that lasted for 114 days. Reston’s full thought was: “I've been fielding the Times on the first bounce on my front stoop every morning now for 25 years, and it's cold and lonely out there now. Besides, how do I know what to think when I can’t read what I write.” It’s possible that Reston was influenced by a remark from an unnamed elderly woman that E. M. Forster passed along in his 1927 book Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

QUOTE NOTE: For other quotations on the theme of writing to find out what one thinks, see the entries in this section by Edward Albee, Joan Didion, Stephen King, and Flannery O’Connor, and V. S. Pritchett.

  • I live my life in widening circles/that reach out across the world. Rainer Maria Rilke, in The Book of Hours (1905)
  • I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway. I would prefer to, I assure you—it would make life easier. But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists. Philip Roth, the character Philip speaking to his wife, in Deception (1990)

QUOTE NOTE: This was the first time Roth gave his own first name to a character in one of his fictional works; it seems safe to conclude that the character was reflecting the views of the author.

  • I dislike books through which the moral bellows like a foghorn. I find it intellectually dishonest, to promise a child a story and then deliver a sermon. Katherine Rundell, in a 2024 interview with Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, reported in “Washington Post Book Club Newsletter,” (Feb. 9, 2024)

QUOTE NOTE: Rundell’s observation came as she was speaking to Charles about her new children’s novel Impossible Creatures.

  • It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? Vita Sackville-West, in Twelve Days (1927)
  • I shall live bad if I do not write and I shall write bad if I do not live. Françoise Sagan, quoted in Harvey Breit, “In and Out of Books,” The New York Times Book Review (Nov. 11, 1956)

QUOTE NOTE: This was a key portion of Sagan’s reply when, during a 1956 visit to the United States, she was asked if she would consider writing a short piece for The New York Times. Sagan was an international celebrity at the time (her 1954 novel Bonjour Tristesse had appeared in an English translation a year earlier and a film adaptation was in the works). Hoping to entice her, the newspaper told Sagan that they were willing to accept an article on just about any topic: Paris, her youth, her current life, some aspect of her writing, whatever. In his piece, Breit attempted a phonetically accurate version of Sagan’s heavily-accented reply:

“What could I say about Parees that as not been said before? And youth? I feel forty years removed from youth. About myself? I can tell in one sentence: I shall live bad if I do not write and I shall write bad if I do not live.”

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites and published quotation anthologies present a grammatically correct version of Sagan’s original words (“I shall live badly if I do not write and I shall write badly if I do not live”). Her original words and the “corrected” version, of course, are examples of the literary device known as chiasmus. Many thanks to Garson O’Toole, the Quote Investigator, for his invaluable help in sourcing this quotation.

  • Art, for the sake of art itself, is an idle sentence. Art, for the sake of truth, for the sake of what is beautiful and good, that is the creed I seek. George Sand, in letter to Gustave Flaubert (April 9, 1872); reprinted in Letters of George Sand, Vol. 3 (1886, R. L. de Beaufort, ed.)
  • My view of myself is that I came in through the basement window of literature. I’m not well educated or well read enough to do things correctly, and when I write what seems to me a “correct” story, it’s got low energy and isn’t true to my experience. George Saunders, in Paris Review interview (Winter 2019)

Sanders continued: “Somehow the story and the language have to be a little messy or low. I love the idea of pushing an idea through a too-small linguistic opening—that feeling of overflow. I love the idea that the passion contained in a story is so great that it fucks up the form and makes it unseemly and impolite.”

  • I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself. May Sarton, in At Seventy (1984)
  • I can’t seem to fathom that the things important to me are not important to other people as well, and so I come off sounding like a missionary, someone whose job it is to convert rather than listen. David Sedaris, “Put a Lid On It,” in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004)
  • Don’t ask who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life. Giorgos (George) Seferis, quoted in “A Greek Poet’s Odyssey,” Life magazine (Jan. 17, 1964)
  • I’ve heard writers talk about “discovering a voice,” but for me that wasn’t a problem. There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. Sam Shepard, in Paris Review interview (Spring 1997)
  • The books I write often feel like the books I wanted to read, but they didn’t exist, so I brought them into being. Rebecca Solnit, “Rebecca Solnit: By the Book.” in The New York Times (Aug. 16, 2018)
  • I don’t write because there’s an audience. I write because there is literature. Susan Sontag, in Paris Review interview (Winter 1995)

QUOTE NOTE: This was Sontag’s reply to the question, “Do you think much about the audience for your books?”

  • I read the biography of Madame Curie by her daughter, Eve Curie, when I was about six, so at first I thought I was going to be a chemist. Then for a long time, most of my childhood, I wanted to be a physician. But literature swamped me. What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive. Susan Sontag, in Paris Review interview (Winter 1995)

Sontag went on to add: “[I started reading] When I was three, I’m told. Anyway, I remember reading real books—biographies, travel books—when I was about six. And then free fall into Poe and Shakespeare and Dickens and the Brontës and Victor Hugo and Schopenhauer and Pater, and so on. I got through my childhood in a delirium of literary exaltations.”

  • I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” Susan Sontag, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” (The Nadine Gordimer Lecture), in At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007)

Sontag continued: “Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue. For instance: ‘Be serious.’ By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny. And…if you’ll allow me one more: ‘Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitively exalted and influenced by Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov.’” [ellipsis in original]

  • What I write is up to the characters. I go to wherever they invite me, I run through the story with them as it unfolds around us, and I record it as faithfully as I can. Harvey Stanbrough, in a Substack post (Dec. 30, 2023)
  • All my important decisions are made for me by my subconscious. My frontal lobes are just kidding themselves that they decide anything at all. All they do is think up reasons for the decisions that are already made. Rex Stout, in Life magazine (Dec. 10, 1965)
  • I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell. William Styron, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1954)

Writing is hell has become one of Styron’s most frequently quoted lines. Only twenty-eight and the author of only one novel (Lie Down in Darkness) at the time, he was asked, “Do you enjoy writing?” After immediately replying, “I certainly don’t,” he continued as above. Later in the interview, he admitted he was happiest when writing: “When I’m writing I find it’s the only time that I feel completely self-possessed, even when the writing itself is not going too well. It’s fine therapy for people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time—for jittery people. Besides, I’ve discovered that when I’m not writing I’m prone to developing certain nervous tics, and hypochondria. Writing alleviates those quite a bit.” See the full interview at Paris Review

  • What every aspiring writer yearns for is the approval of an older established writer; to be told “Yes, you have it, just persevere and you’ll be all right.” Paul Theroux, “Memories of V. S. Naipaul, in The New Yorker (Aug. 24, 2018)

Theroux was a twenty-five-year-old teacher in Uganda when he was urged to persevere by Naipul, then in his mid-thirties and already the author of five novels, including A House for Mr. Biswas. About Naipul's approval/encouragement, he wrote: “He gave me that, and it meant everything.”

  • What I like to do is to treat words as a craftsman does his wood or stone or what-have-you, to hew, carve, mold, coil, polish, and plane them into patterns, sequences, sculptures, fugues of sound expressing some lyrical impulse, some spiritual doubt or conviction, some dimly-realized truth I must try to reach and realize. Dylan Thomas, “Poetic Manifesto,” in Texas Quarterly (Winter, 1961)

QUOTE NOTE: Thomas originally wrote the Manifesto in 1951, in response to five questions submitted by a student who was writing a thesis on him. For one other fascinating thing Thomas attempted to do with words, see his WORDS entry.

  • I have no home but me. Anne Truitt, in Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (1982)
  • I want to live other lives. I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. Anne Tyler, in Marguerite Michaels, “Anne Tyler, Writer 8:05 to 3:30,” The New York Times (May 8, 1977)

Tyler added: “It’s lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic—and six times divorced—if I weren’t writing. I would decide that I want to run off and join the circus and I would go.”

  • There are days when I sink into my novel like a pool and emerge feeling blank and bemused and used up. Anne Tyler, “Still Just Writing,” quoted in Janet Sternburg, The Writer on Her Work (2000)
  • I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten—happy, absorbed and quietly putting one bead on after another. Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write (1938)
  • I think of my books as canvases. I paint with words. John Updike, in interview (March, 1995), reported in Herbert Mitgang, Words Still Count With Me: A Chronicle of Literary Conversations (1995)

From an early age, Updike showed talent at both writing and drawing, and for a time he even dreamed of a career as a cartoonist. After graduating with a degree in English from Harvard in 1954, he spent a year at Oxford University’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts. In the interview, he added: “Painting is great training for a writer. It makes you more visually alert and forces you to compose. A book has to have a shape.”

  • There is no doubt that I have lots of words inside me; but at moments, like rush-hour traffic at the mouth of a tunnel, they jam. John Updike, in Self-Consciousness: Memoirs (1989)
  • You reach an age when every sentence you write bumps into one you wrote thirty years ago. John Updike, quoted in Henry Bech, “Questions of Character: There’s No Ego as Wounded as a Wounded Alter Ego,” The New York Times (March 1, 1999)

QUOTE NOTE: In the article, Updike was “interviewed” by his popular fictional character, Henry Bech, a Jewish writer who has long served as an alter-ego to Updike.

  • I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise. Gore Vidal, in Preface to Visit to a Small Planet and Other Television Plays (1956)
  • Every drop of ink in my pen ran cold. Horace Walpole, in letter to George Montagu (July 20, 1752)
  • For the last six weeks I have found myself pestered by some characters in search of an author. Sylvia Townsend Warner, in 1941 letter, in William Maxwell, Letters: Sylvia Townsend Warner (1982)
  • I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. Evelyn Waugh, in Paris Review interview (Summer–Fall, 1963)

Waugh continued: “I have no technical psychological interest; it is drama, speech,and events that interest me.”

  • I put the words down and push them a bit. Evelyn Waugh, quoted in New York Times obituary (April 11, 1966)
  • The brain upon which my experiences have been written is not a particularly good one. If their were brain-shows, as there are cat and dog shows, I doubt if it would get even a third class prize. H. G. Wells, in Introduction to Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (1934)
  • True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. Edith Wharton, on originality in writing, in The Writing of Fiction (1925)

Wharton continued: “That new, that personal, vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writer’s own; and the mind which would bring this secret gem to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.”

  • Sometimes in writing of myself—which is the only subject anyone knows intimately—I have occasionally had the exquisite thrill of putting my finger on a little capsule of truth, and heard it give the faint squeak of mortality under my pressure, an antic sound. E. B. White, in letter to his brother Stanley White (Jan., 1929); reprinted in Letters of E. B. White (1978)

White introduced the subject by writing: “I discovered a long time ago that writing of the small things of the day, the trivial matters of the heart, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work which I could accomplish with any sincerity or grace. As a reporter, I was a flop, because I always came back laden not with facts about the case, but with a mind full of the little difficulties and amusements I had encountered in my travels.”

  • I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. E. B. White, in Paris Review interview (Fall, 1969)

White preceded the thought by writing: “Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation.”

  • By writing at the instant, the very heartbeat of life is caught. Walt Whitman, an 1888 remark, quoted in Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1914)

Whitman explained his writing process this way: “The secret of it all is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation—without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote, wrote, wrote.”

  • All my writing was born out of anger. In order to contain it, I had to write. If I had not written, I would have exploded. Elie Wiesel, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1984)
  • I would love to be the poet laureate of Coney Island. Thornton Wilder, quoted in the New York Journal-American (Nov. 11, 1955)
  • I borrow from other writers, shamelessly! I can only say in my defense, like the woman brought before the judge on a charge of kleptomania, “I do steal, but, your Honor, only from the very best stores.” Thornton Wilder, in 1955 interview, quoted in Richard Henry Goldstone, Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait (1975)
  • I constantly rewrite, discard, and replace the cycle of plays. Some are on the stove, some are in the oven, some are in the waste-basket. There are no first drafts in my life. An incinerator is a writer’s best friend. Thornton Wilder, quoted in James Charlton, The Writer’s Home Companion (1989)
  • Invariably, it is this for which I write: the joy…of an argument firmly made, like a nail straightly driven, its head flush to the plank. George F. Will, “Journalists and Politicians,” in Newsweek (January 19, 1981); reprinted in The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions (1982)
  • Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion. Tennessee Williams, the character Tom Wingfield speaking, in The Glass Menagerie (1944)

QUOTE NOTE: The words come from a fictional character—an aspiring poet—but I am certain they also express how Williams felt about his own work as a writer. The words are also an example of the literary device known as chiasmus.

  • Once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation. Tennessee Williams, “On a Streetcar Named Success,” in The New York Times (Nov. 30, 1947)

QUOTE NOTE: In the article, published several days before A Streetcar Named Desire was about to open on Broadway, Williams wrote about how his life had changed in the three years since his earlier play The Glass Menagerie had opened to rave reviews in Chicago in 1944. “I was snatched out of virtual oblivion,” he wrote, “and thrust into sudden prominence.” In 1945, the play moved to Broadway, where it went on to commercial success and critical acclaim (including the winning of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award). Prior to the overnight success, Williams wrote that his was “a life clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.” The full article, a metaphorical tour de force that should be required reading for anyone who’s ever been skyrocketed to success, may be seen at: ”The Catastrophe of Success”.

  • Without deprivation and struggle there is no salvation and I am just a sword cutting daisies. Tennessee Williams, quoted in in Rex Reed, “Tennessee Williams Turns Sixty,” Esquire magazine (Sep., 1971)

Williams introduced the thought by saying: “The heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict. That struggle for me is creation. I cannot live without it. Luxury is the wolf at the door and its fangs are the vanities and conceits germinated by success. When an artist learns this, he knows where the dangers lie.”

QUOTE NOTE: In an April, 1973 Playboy magazine interview, Williams essentially recycled this entire observation, thus accounting for the slightly differing versions you will find of the same sentiment.

  • He relieved me of my greatest affliction, which is perhaps the major theme of my writings, the affliction of loneliness that follows me like a shadow, a very ponderous shadow too heavy to drag after me all of my days and nights. Tennessee Williams, on an unnamed friend in 1946, when Williams was thirty-five, in Memoirs (1975)
  • I think I was a lively newspaper writer, but that’s a long way from being a good writer. Tom Wolfe, reflecting on his early career as a general assignment newspaper reporter, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1991)
  • The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. Thomas Wolfe, “The Anatomy of Loneliness,” in The American Mercury Reader (1944)
  • I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. Tom Wolfe, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1991)
  • I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms. Virginia Woolf, a 1924 remark, quoted in Leonard Woolf, A Writer’s Diary (1953)
  • I believe that the main thing in beginning a novel is to feel, not that you can write it, but that it exists on the far side of a gulf, which words can’t cross: that it’s to be pulled through only in a breathless anguish. Virginia Woolf, in a 1928 letter to Vita Sackville-West; in The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (1985; Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska, eds. )
  • A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, in The Angel’s Game (2008)

QUOTE NOTE: These are the opening words of the novel (from protagonist and narrator David Martin), and they almost certainly express the views of the author. Martin continues: “He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”

  • Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America, to musicians and other artists who represent the best of their art. William Zinsser, in The Writer Who Stayed (2012)

Zinsser preceded the thought by writing: “I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives.”



  • A pretentious fad-chaser…the pom-pom girl of American letters. Edward Abbey, on Tom Wolfe, a 1974 diary entry, in Confessions of a Barbarian (1994)
  • The Shakespeare of science fiction. Brian Aldiss, on H. G. Wells, in Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986, written with David Wingrove)

AUTHOR NOTE: With The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), Wells almost created a template used by later sci-fi writers (the same might also be said of Jules Verne). Wells’s fans included some of history’s greatest writers, including Henry James, who said, “Whatever Wells writes is not only alive, but kicking.” Not all writers admired him, though, especially in his later works. In a review of his 1912 novel Marriage, Rebecca West called him “The Old Maid among novelists.”

  • He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day. Douglas Adams, on P. G. Wodehouse, in Foreword to the 2000 edition of Wodehouse’s Sunset at Blandings (originally pub. in 1977)

Adams preceded the observation by writing: “What Wodehouse writes is pure word music. It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures.”

  • His writing is sharp, lucid and logical, embodying imagination in the true sense of the word: common sense with wings. Kingsley Amis, on Arthur C. Clarke, in The Spectator (London, August, 1973)
  • He talked as if every sentence had been carefully rehearsed; every semicolon, every comma , was in exactly the right place, and his rounded periods dropped to the floor and bounced about like tiny rubber balls. Gertrude Atherton, on Henry James, in The Adventures of a Novelist (1932)
  • Few could compete with him for elegance, insight, and liveliness. A.J.P. Taylor, his friendly rival, once remarked that when he read one of Trevor-Roper’s essays, tears of envy stood in his eyes. John Banville, on Hugh Trevor-Roper, in “A Prince of the Essay,” The New York Review of Books (August 15, 2013)

Banville preceded the thought by writing: “Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language. He was also a man of prodigious learning, a classical scholar, and a remarkable historian. As a writer he took for models Francis Bacon, Donne, Hobbes, Sir Thomas Browne, Gibbon, and, perhaps surprisingly, Flaubert, and perhaps more surprisingly, George Moore. Stylistically, his nearest though laggardly competitor among his contemporaries would have been Evelyn Waugh, who loathed him personally—they both greatly admired Gibbon and sought to emulate his sonorous periods.”

  • Tolstoy was the most gifted writer who ever lived. It’s like he stuck a pen in his heart and it didn’t even go through his mind on its way to the page. Mel Brooks, on Leo Tolstoy, quoted in Kenneth Tynan, Show People (1980)
  • Colette wrote of vegetables as if they were love objects and of sex as if it were an especially delightful department of gardening. Brigid Brophy, on Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette), quoted in Anne Stibbs, Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle (1992)
  • She has always ridden the passions as if they were a magnificent horse. Anatole Broyard, on Edna Obrien, in The New York Times (Jan. 1, 1978)
  • Out of the stones that life threw at him he made a labyrinth. Anthony Burgess, on James Joyce, in Re Joyce (1968)
  • A little child whom the Gods have whispered to. Mrs. Patrick Campbell, on J. M. Barrie, in letter to George Bernard Shaw (Jan., 1913)
  • Chesterton had a body like a slag heap, but a mind like the dawn sky. He saw the world new, as if he’d just landed from another planet. John Carey, on G. K. Chesterton, in The Sunday Times (London, 1982)
  • His prose was a martini poured across the page—smooth and elegant, with juniper wit and distilled insights that made something you already liked even more complex in its flavors. Nicholas Dawidoff, on sportswriter Roger Angell, “The Power and Glory of Sportswriting,” in The New York Times (July 28, 2012)
  • As I once said of George Bernard Shaw, he bloomed at twenty, but nobody smelled him till he was forty. Robertson Davies, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1989 )

Robertson added: “My scent has been even later in catching the breeze.”

  • Trollope is endlessly gripping, though it’s rather crunchy granola: you chomp your way resolutely through it, and it’s worth it because the story is so good. Robertson Davies, on Anthony Trollope, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1989)
  • Shakespeare wouldn’t have been any good if he’d stayed in Stratford. He had to go to London to be bathed in the full current of the Renaissance. John Dos Passos, in Most Likely to Succeed (1954)
  • What hashish was to Baudelaire, opium to Coleridge, cocaine to Robert Louis Stevenson, nitrous oxide to Robert Southey, mescaline to Aldous Huxley, and Benzedrine to Jack Kerouac, caffeine was to Balzac. Anne Fadiman, in At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007)

QUOTE NOTE: Balzac, who often worked up to eighteen hours a day, drank forty to fifty cups of coffee a day. Over time, he gradually reduced the amount of water used in order to concentrate the caffeine dosage. Near the end of his life, he eliminated the water entirely, simply eating dry coffee grounds (many believe he ultimately died of caffeine poisoning). Balzac was the prototype of a person who carries things to excess. In The Literary Life and Other Curiosities (1981), Robert Hendrickson called him the world's greatest literary glutton, writing: “A typical meal for the French novelist consisted of a hundred oysters for starters; twelve lamb cutlets; a duckling with turnips; two roast partridges; sole a la Normandy; various fruits; and wines, coffee, and liqueurs to wash it all down.”

  • Mr. Faulkner, of course, is interested in making your mind rather than your flesh creep. Clifton Fadiman, on William Faulkner, in The New Yorker (April 21, 1934)
  • Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality—the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then, after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window. Sebastian Faulks, quoted in Fitzgerald’s obituary in The Guardian (May 2, 2000)
  • A stick hardened in the fire. F. Scott Fitzgerald, on Ernest Hemingway, in 1930 letter to Maxwell Perkins, reprinted in A Life in Letters (1994)
  • I was always aware, reading Chesterton, that there was someone writing this who rejoiced in words, who deployed them on the page as an artist deploys his paints upon his palette. Neil Gaiman, on G. K. Chesterton, in Guest of Honor speech at annual meeting of The Mythopoeic Society (Mythcon 35; July 31, 2004); reprinted in Mythprint (Oct., 2004)

Gaiman continued: “Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight.“ Gaiman’s speech, a tribute to J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton, is available for viewing at: Gaiman on Chesterton.

  • He has done more than anyone for the Spanish language since Cervantes. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, on Jorge Luis Borges, quoted in Marlise Simons, “A Talk with Gabriel Garcia Marquez,” The New York Times (Dec. 5, 1982)
  • He was my idol, but to say he influenced me is a bit absurd—like saying a mountain influenced a mouse. Graham Greene, on Henry James, quoted in Life (Feb. 4, 1966)
  • Have you ever read the novels of Anthony Trollope? They precisely suit my taste; solid and substantial, written on strength of beef and through inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth, and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in letter to James T. Fields (Feb., 1860)
  • An Ernest Hemingway story is constructed, as he himself once described it, like an iceberg, with one-fourth above the surface and the other three fourths deep in the paper where it does not show. A. E. Hotchner, “Hemingway’s Blessing, Copland’s Collaboration,” in The New York Times (Nov. 19, 2001)

For how the author himself described what came to be known as his “Iceberg Theory of Writing,” see the Hemingway entry in WRITERS—ON THEMSELVES.

  • Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature. William Dean Howells, on Samuel Clemens, in My Mark Twain (1910)
  • This book was, and is, the true transcript of a soul. Robert G. Ingersoll, on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in “Liberty in Literature” (speech in Philadelphia, Oct. 21, 1890); reprinted in The Writings of Robert G. Ingersoll, Vol. III (1900)
  • Arthur Guiterman is not a humorist who writes verse; he is a poet with an abundant gift of humor. Joyce Kilmer, “Poet’s Opportunities Greater Than Ever Before,” The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 28 1915)
  • Mr. Levin is the Swiss watchmaker of suspense novels; he makes what the rest of us do look like cheap watchmakers in drugstores. Stephen King, on Ira Levin, quoted in Levin’s 2007 obituary in The Independent (London)

AUTHOR NOTE: Levin authored many popular suspense novels later adapted into films (A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys From Brazil, and Deathtrap). A 1976 Newsweek article by Peter Prescott said of him: “A novel by Ira Levin is like a bag of popcorn: utterly without nutritive value and probably fattening, yet there’s no way to stop once you’ve started.”

  • He was an adventurer into the vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul. D. H. Lawrence, on Edgar Alan Poe, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)
  • He was a provocative, aggressive, contrary old man, enunciating his theories in clipped tones as though they were papal encyclicals. James Lees-Milne, on Hilaire Belloc, in Holy Dread: Diaries 1982-1984 (2001)
  • Pope had a sense of the neat rather than of the beautiful. His nature delighted more in detecting the blemish than in enjoying its charm. James Russell Lowell, on Alexander Pope, in “Pope” essay, The North American Review (Jan., 1871)

QUOTE NOTE: While Lowell did admire Pope’s wit, he was no fan of the man or his creations. Regarding “The Dunciad,” one of Pope’s most famous pieces of verse, Lowell wrote that it was “even nastier than it was witty. It is filthy even in a filthy age.” He concluded about the piece: “One’s mind needs to be sprinkled with some disinfecting fluid after reading it.” By the way, it was in this essay that Lowell offered his popular tweaking of a familiar proverb: “A man’s mind is known by the company it keeps.”

  • With long white hair, heavy brows, and a chest-length beard that begins halfway up his lightly melanated cheeks, Delany has the appearance of an Eastern Orthodox monk who left his cloister for a biker gang. Julian Lucas, on Samuel R. Delaney, in “How Samuel R. Delaney Reimagined Sci-Fi, Sex, and the City,” The New Yorker (July 3, 2023)

Lucas continued: “Three surgical-steel rings hang from the cartilage of his left ear; on his left shoulder is a tattoo of a dragon entwined around a skull. Under a sizable paunch dangled a heavy key chain, which jingled as he shook my hand.”

  • He had a wonderful talent for packing thought close, and rendering it portable. Thomas Babington Macaulay, on Francis Bacon, in “Lord Bacon,” in Edinburgh Review (July, 1837)

Macaulay continued: “In wit, if by wit be meant the power of perceiving analogies between things which appear to have nothing in common, he never had an equal.”

  • For Ali to compose a few words of real poetry would be equal to an intellectual throwing a good punch. Norman Mailer, on Muhammad Ali’s attempts at poetry, in The Fight (1976)
  • Helen could make a scholar immortal with a kiss; she can make a fool immortal with a jibe. W. Somerset Maugham, on Dorothy Parker, “On A Theme: Dorothy Parker,” in A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings 1901–1964 (1984, Anthony Blond, ed.)
  • I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more. Herman Melville, on Ralph Waldo Emerson and other “deep” writers, in letter to Evert A. Duyckink (March 3, 1849)

QUOTE NOTE: Melville was not a fan of Emerson the writer (once calling his writing “oracular gibberish”), but he greatly admired Emerson the thinker. He referred to deep-thinking writers as a “whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving and coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.”

  • Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul. Herman Melville, on Nathaniel Hawthorne, in “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” The Literary World (Aug., 1850)
  • She has a real gift for honing her anger to an epigrammatic edge. Michael Vincent Miller, on Wendy Kaminer, “Books of Our Times,” in The New York Times (May 17, 1992)
  • What opiate can best abate/Anxiety and toil?/Not aspirins, nor treble gins,/Nor love, nor mineral oil—/My only drug is a good long slug/Of Tincture of Conan Doyle. Christopher Morley, in a letter the The Times (London;Jan. 29, 1950)
  • J. M. Barrie—The triumph of sugar over diabetes. George Jean Nathan, in Comedians All (1919)
  • Anyone who doesn't read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a grave invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who had never tasted peaches. He would be quietly getting sadder, noticeably paler, and probably little by little, he would lose his hair. Pablo Neruda, on Julio Cortázar, a blurb on the jacket of Cortázar’s collection of short stories All Fires the Fire (1988)

Neruda added: “I don't want those things to happen to me, and so I greedily devour all the fabrications, myths, contradictions, and mortal games of the great Julio Cortázar.”

  • He has a capacity for enjoyment so vast that he gives away great chunks to those about him, and never even misses them. I can say no more of him than that he can take you to a bicycle-race, and make it raise your hair. Dorothy Parker, on Ernest Hemingway, in The New Yorker (November 30, 1929)
  • He’s a writer for the ages—for the ages of four to eight. Dorothy Parker, on an unnamed writer, quoted in Robert E. Drennan, The Algonquin Wits (1968)
  • A. E./I. O. U. Louis Phillips, in “My Poetical Indebtedness to A. E. Housman” (an unpublished 2019 poem)
  • Most modern fantasy just rearranges the furniture in Tolkien’s attic. Terry Pratchett, on the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien in modern fantasy writing, quoted in Stan Nicholls, Wordsmiths of Wonder: Fifty Interviews with Writers of the Fantastic (1993)
  • If a swamp alligator could talk, he would sound like Tennessee Williams. Rex Reed, in People Are Crazy Here (1974; originally in an Esquire magazine profile (Sep., 1971)

QUOTE NOTE: This is one of Reed’s most frequently quoted descriptions. What is less well known is how he continued the description of Williams: “His tongue seems coated with rum and molasses as it darts in and out of his mouth, licking at his moustache like a pink lizard. His voice wavers unsteadily like old gray cigar smoke in a room with no ventilation, rising to a mad cackle like a wounded macaw, settling finally in a cross somewhere between Tallulah Bankhead and Everett Dirksen. His hands flutter like dying birds in an abandoned aviary.”

  • Like a wild stranger out of wizard-land/He dwelt a little with us, and withdrew. Edwin Arlington Robinson, on Edgar Allan Poe, in the poem “For a Copy of Poe’s Poems” (1894)
  • Hair in disorder, eyes lost in a dream, a genius who, in his little room, is able to reconstruct bit by bit the entire structure of his society and to expose life in all its tumultuousness for his contemporaries and for all generations to come. Auguste Rodin, on Honoré de Balzac, in L’Art et les artistes (Feb., 1900)
  • He thought of civilized…human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths. Bertrand Russell, on Joseph Conrad, quoted in Norman Sherry, Conrad and His World (1972)
  • His intense and passionate nobility shines in my memory like a star seen from the bottom of a well. I wish I could make his right shine for others as it shone for me. Bertrand Russell, on Joseph Conrad, in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (1967-69)
  • He tapped at the clay feet of his idols with the chisel of his irreverent wit, even as he clambered onto their shoulders to see farther, and more clearly, than they ever could. A. O. Scott, on Martin Amis, in “Good Night, Sweet Prince,” an obituary in The New York Times (May 22, 2023)
  • A tiny terror who wore brass knuckles on his tongue, he frequently retaliated with knockout assessments of those he judged disloyal or simply disliked. Lloyd Shearer, on Truman Capote, in “Truman Capote—Voice From the Dead,” from Shearer’s syndicated column “Parade’s Special Intelligence Report” (Oct. 6, 1985)
  • He is the Willie Mays or Derek Jeter of the mystery genre: a brilliant all-rounder more talented in each area than any single writer should ever dream of being. Martin Sieff, on Rex Stout, in “Happy Christmas, Santa Wolfe,” a United Press International dispatch (Dec. 25, 2001)

Sieff added: “Stout was almost as witty as Raymond Chandler. His detective had splendid putdown lines almost as good as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And his mysteries were constructed a lot more smoothly than Agatha Christie’s. But you do not expect Chandlerian wit from Conan Doyle, or Conan Doyle’s superbly breathless sense of atmosphere and melodrama from Christie, or Christie’s scathingly clear, unblinking vision of the monstrous crimes that average human nature is capable of all from the same pen. Stout gives you all of it.”

  • He was the true king of our story tellers, the brightest star that flashed upon our skies. Upton Sinclair, on Jack London, in Mammonart: An Essay in Economic Interpretation (1925)
  • In later years the great novelist who was known as George Eliot had, in spite of her ugliness, a monolithic, mysterious, primeval grandeur of countenance, like that of an Easter Island statue, washed by oceans of light. Edith Sitwell, on George Eliot, in English Eccentrics (1933)

While impressive, this is not the most memorable observation made about Eliot’s face. That honor goes to Henry James, who wrote of her in an 1869 letter: “She is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous.“ He then added: “In this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her.”

  • I never cease to be surprised that the America Tocqueville observed in the early 1830s is, in most respects, recognizably the America of the end of the twentieth century—even though the demographic and ethnographic composition of the country has totally changed. It’s as if you had changed both the blade and handle of a knife and it is still the same knife. Susan Sontag, on Alexis de Tocqueville, in Paris Review interview (Winter 1995)
  • It was not a question of knowledge…but of alertness, a fastidious transcription of what could be thought about something, once it swam into the stream of attention. Susan Sontag, on Roland Barthes, in Paris Review interview (Winter 1995)
  • When I take up one of Jane Austen’s books…I feel like a barkeep entering the kingdom of heaven. I know what his sensation would be and his private comments. He would not find the place to his taste, and he would probably say so. Mark Twain, quoted in Q. D. Leavis, Fiction and the Reading Public (1932)

Austen’s writings were far more pleasing to Giuseppe di Lampedusa, the author of the best-selling novel in Italian publishing history: Il Gattopardo (The Leopard, 1958). Of Austen, he said: “Her novels are the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld set in motion.”

  • Our time’s first satirist is Evelyn Waugh. For thirty years his savagery and wit have given pleasure and alarm. His mixed dish is . . . all set down in a prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American. Gore Vidal, “The Satiric World of Evelyn Waugh,” in The New York Times (Jan. 7, 1962)
  • To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee. Evelyn Waugh, on Stephen Spender, in The Tablet (May 5, 1951)
  • One has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and entirely original similes to every page. Evelyn Waugh, on P. G. Wodehouse, in Frances Donaldson, Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbor (1967)
  • Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain this swamp quickly and get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope. E. B. White, on William Strunk and his “concern for the bewildered reader” who was lost in a swamp of words, in Introduction to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (2nd edition, 1972)
  • Her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two above very barren rock. Virginia Woolf, on Katherine Mansfield, diary entry (August, 1918)
  • She is so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth. Alexander Woollcott, on Dorothy Parker, “Our Mrs. Parker,” in While Rome Burns (1934)

Woollcott added: “It is not so much the familiar phenomenon of a hand of steel in a velvet glove as a lacy sleeve with a bottle of vitriol concealed in its folds.” About Mrs. Parker’s attractive and acerbic ways, Howard Teichmann also offered a memorable thought: “Petite, pretty, and deadly as an asp.”



  • Against the disease of writing one must take special precautions, since it is a dangerous and contagious disease. Pierre Abelard, in a 12th-century letter to his beloved Heloise, in C. K. Scot Moncrieff, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (1942)
  • Among all kinds of writing, there is none in which authors are more apt to miscarry than in works of humor, as there is none in which they are more ambitious to excel. Joseph Addison, in The Spectator (April 10, 1711)
  • It is easy to write a check if you have enough money in the bank, and writing comes more easily if you have something to say. Sholem Asch, quoted in Dorothy Sarnoff, Speech Can Change Your Life (1970)
  • Writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers. Isaac Asimov, quoted in Anne Commire, Something About the Author (1981)
  • Writing is an artificial activity. It is a lonely and private substitute for conversation. Brooks Atkinson, in Once Around the Sun (1951)
  • Writing is very improvisational. It’s like trying to fix a broken sewing machine with safety pins and rubber bands. A lot of tinkering. Margaret Atwood, in Earl G. Ingersoll, Margaret Atwood: Conversations (1990)
  • Writing is just a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to make it come out right. John Berryman, quoted in Life magazine (July 21, 1967)
  • The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern. Ambrose Bierce, the opening line of Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults (1909)

Bierce continued of the subject of precision: “It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else.”

  • Teaching writing, unlike most other kinds of teaching, is an intervention, closer to therapy than to any transmissible instruction. Sven Birkets, the opening sentence of “Getting to the ‘Click’: Teaching the MFA at Bennington,” in Los Angeles Review of Books (Oct. 12, 2021)

Birket’s powerful opening sentence opened my eyes about the teaching of writing. With all the emphasis on style, technique, mechanics, and craft, it turns out that the most important thing about the teaching of writing is the personal relationship between the teacher and the student, and what the teacher is able to bring out in the aspiring writer.

  • Writing is nothing more than a guided dream. Jorge Luis Borges, in Preface to Doctor Brodie’s Report (1972)
  • Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind. Catherine Drinker Bowen, in The Atlantic (Dec., 1957)

In a 1954 diary entry, Anaïs Nin wrote similarly: ”We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

  • Writing is like hunting. There are brutally cold afternoons with nothing in sight, only the wind and your breaking heart. Then the moment when you bag something big. The entire process is beyond intoxicating. Kate Braverman, “Contributor’s Notes,” in A. Adams & K. Kenison, The Best American Short Stories, 1991 (1991)

QUOTE NOTE: Braverman was reflecting on her short story “Tall Tales From the Mekong Delta,” which won an O. Henry Award in 1990. She said the story almost wrote itself after her mind heard one of the characters (Lenny) begin to speak. About the entire writing experience, she wrote: “I felt like I was strapped in the cockpit with the stars in my face and the expanding universe on my back. In my opinion, that’s the only way a writer should travel.”

  • Every writing career starts as a personal quest for sainthood, for self-betterment. Joseph Brodsky, in Less Than One (1986)

Brodsky added: “Sooner or later, and as a rule quite soon, a man discovers that his pen accomplishes a lot more than his soul.”

  • Writing is simply one thought after another dying upon the one before. Mel Brooks, in Playboy interview (Feb., 1975)
  • It is in the hard rockpile labor of seeking to win, hold, or deserve a reader’s interest that the pleasant agony of writing comes in. John Mason Brown, in the Saturday Review of Literature (July 9, 1949); reprinted in Still Seeing Things (1950)

QUOTE NOTE: Pleasant agony, of course, is a nice example of oxymoronic phrasing.

  • Writing is more than anything a compulsion, like some people wash their hands thirty times a day for fear of awful consequences if they do not. Julie Burchill, in Introduction to Sex and Sensibility (1992)

Burchill added: “It pays a whole lot better than this type of compulsion, but it is no more heroic.”

  • Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyze yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it. Octavia Butler, “Birth of a Writer,” in Essence magazine (May, 1989)
  • Writing is like pulling the trigger of a gun; if you are not loaded, nothing happens. Henry Seidel Canby, quoted in Lucy H. Chapman, Using English (1929)
  • Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is not market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. Willa Cather, “On the Art of Fiction,” in Alfred A. Knopf, The Borzoi (1920)
  • Writing is to descend like a miner to the depths of the mine with a lamp on your forehead, a light whose dubious brightness falsifies everything, whose wick is in permanent danger of explosion, whose blinking illumination in the coal dust exhausts and corrodes your eyes. Blaise Cendrars (pen name of Frédéric-Louis Sauser), in Le Lotissement du Ciel (1949), quoted in M. Caws, Selected Poems (1979)
  • Writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance. A way to light a candle in a gale wind. Alice Childress, “A Candle in a Gale Wind,” in Mari Evans (ed.), Black Women Writers (1984)
  • Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, then an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public. Winston Churchill, in remarks after being awarded The Times Literary Award in 1942, quoted in Richard Langworth, Churchill by Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations (2008)
  • The completely selfish pleasure of composition…for me surpasses the trumped-up pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex. Since I do not write to teach anybody anything, it’s a completely selfish act, but it gives me a sense of equilibrium and a reason for existence. Nothing gives me as much pleasure, when I’m doing it well, as writing. Henri Cole, answering the question “Why Write?” in Paris Review interview (Summer 2014)
  • Good writing is the hardest form of thinking. It involves the agony of running profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. Pat Conroy, in My Reading Life (2010)

Conroy continued: “If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable. But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent.”

  • Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors. Edward Dahlberg, in Alms for Oblivion (1964)
  • 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. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. Joan Didion, “Why I Write,” in Janet Sternburg, The Writer on Her Work (2000)

Didion added: “You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives…but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

  • When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. Annie Dillard, the opening lines of The Writing Life (1989)

Dillard continued: “You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads.”

  • Writing is turning one’s worst moments into money. J. P. Donleavy, in Playboy interview (May, 1979)
  • Writing is like driving at night. You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. E.L. Doctorow, in James McInerney, “Author, Author: An Interview with Doctorow,” in Vogue magazine (Nov. 1984)

QUOTE NOTE: In Bird by Bird (1994) Anne Lamott wrote about this observation: “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

  • Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. E. L. Doctorow, quoted in Bruce Weber, “The Myth Maker,” The New York Times (Oct. 20, 1985)

QUOTE NOTE: This has become one of Doctorow’s most popular quotations, but few know that he concluded the thought with these words: “If you do it right, you’re coming up out of yourself in a way that’s not entirely governable by your intellect. That’s why the most important lesson I’ve learned is that planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

  • Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. E. L. Doctorow, in Paris Review interview (Winter, 1986)
  • What civilians do not understand—and to a writer anyone not a writer is a civilian—is that writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe. John Gregory Dunne, “Laying Pipe,” in Crooning: A Collection (1990)
  • [Writing is] a kind of whittling, a kind of honing to the bone, until you finally get whatever the hell it is you’re looking for. It’s an exercise in sculpture, chipping away at the rock until you find the nose. Stanley Elkin, quoted in Ken Emerson, “The Indecorous, Rabelaisian, Convoluted Righteousness of Stanley Elkin,” in The New York Times (Mar. 3, 1991)
  • Writing is not an amusing occupation. It is a combination of ditch-digging, mountain-climbing, treadmill and childbirth. Writing may be interesting, absorbing, exhilarating, racking, relieving. But amusing? Never! Edna Ferber, in A Peculiar Treasure (1939)

Ferber began her observation by writing: “Only amateurs say they write for their own amusement.”

  • It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. Paul Gallico, in Confessions of a Story Writer (1946)

QUOTE NOTE: This looks like the earliest metaphor about opening a vein and bleeding as a metaphor for writing—and it may have stimulated Red Smith’s more familiar observation on the subject (see the Smith entry below). Gallico continued: “If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.” Thanks to the Quote Investigator for alerting me to this quotation.

  • Conversation is the legs on which thought walks; and writing, the wings by which it flies. Marguerite Gardiner (Lady Blessington), in Desultory Thoughts and Reflections (1839)
  • Writing is an aggressive act because you aren't leaving well enough alone. Some people will love you for it and others will feel threatened by your nerve. Whenever you write you reject being a passive receiver or a victim. When you finish a piece, you're refusing to be silenced or ignored. Writing is brave. Bonni Goldberg, in Room to Write (1996)
  • Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation. Graham Greene, in Preface to Ways of Escape (1980)

Echoing the book’s title, Greene had earlier written, “I can see now that my travels, as much as the act of writing, were ways of escape.” In expressing this thought, Greene cited the W. H Auden observation: “Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.”

ERROR ALERT: The phrase “panic fear” originally appears as you see it above, and not as it often mistakenly appears in quotation anthologies: “panic and fear.”

  • Writing is antisocial. It’s as solitary as masturbation. Disturb a writer when he is in the throes of creation and he is likely to turn and bit right to the bone…and not even know that he’s doing it. As writers’ wives and husbands often learn to their horror. Robert A. Heinlein, the character Richard Ames (pen name of Colin Campbell) speaking, in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985)

QUOTE NOTE: Speaking to his companion, Gwen Novak, Richard continued: “There is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized. Or even cured. In a household with more than one person, of which one is a writer, the only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute stages in private, and where food can be poked in to him with a stick. Because, if you disturb the patient at such times, he may break into tears or become violent. Or he may not hear you at all…and, if you shake him at this stage, he bites.”

  • Easy writing makes hard reading. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in Samuel Putnam, Paris Was Our Mistress (1947)
  • There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in A. E. Hotchner, The Good Life According to Hemingway (2008)
  • Writing reminds you of how much there is in your life that stands outside your explanations. In that way, it's almost a journey into faith and doubt at once. Pico Iyer, “Why I Write,” in Publishers Weekly (Feb. 24, 2012)
  • The act of writing itself is done in secret, like masturbation. Stephen King, the narrator speaking, “The Body,” in Different Seasons (1982)

The narrator continues with this description of what writing has always been like for him: “For me, it always wants to be sex and always falls short—it’s always that adolescent handjob in the bathroom with the door locked.”

  • Writing is seduction. Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)
  • Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy. Stephen King, “On Living: A Postscript,” in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000)

King concluded with this thought about his memoir on the craft: “The rest of it—and perhaps the best of it—is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

  • Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
  • The act of writing turns out to be its own reward. Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)

Lamott preceded the observation by writing: “Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. The thing you had to force you to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”

  • In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your own nest and say, “This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.” Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
  • For me, writing is like throwing a Frisbee. You can play Frisbee catch with yourself, but it’s repetitious and not much fun. Better it is to fling to others, to extend yourself across a distance. Richard Lederer, in A Man of My Words: Reflections on the English Language (2003)

To see how Lederer pursued the metaphor, go to: A Man of My Words.

  • Good writing is a wild bonfire of opinions. Jano le Roux, “7 (Miserable) Tell-Tell Signs AI Wrote Your Article,” in The Startup (July 13, 2023)
  • In certain ways writing is a form of prayer. Denise Levertov, quoted in Nicholas O’Connell, At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (1998)
  • Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing. Norman Mailer, in “Mr. Mailer Interviews Himself,” in New York Times Book Review (Sep. 17, 1965)
  • To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies—the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said—there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident. H. L. Mencken, “Theodore Dreiser,” in The Book of Prefaces (1917)
  • In writing as in gardening, prune prune prune. Sollace Mitchell, in a personal communication to the compiler (May 28, 2023)
  • Writing is like carrying a fetus. Edna O’Brien, in Paris Review interview (Summer, 1984)
  • Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. George Orwell, “Why I Write,” in Gangrel (Summer, 1946)
  • Writing is like exploring. Although the country a writer explores is imaginary, the discoveries he makes there are real. For it is the business of writers to reveal truths to us about ourselves and our lives. Lawrence Osgood, “Writing a Play,” in How I Write/2 (1972)

Osgood continued: “As an explorer makes maps of the country he has explored, so a writer’s works are maps of the country he has explored. The purpose of both maps is the same: to tell what the country is like.”

  • If we had to say what writing is, we would define it essentially as an act of courage. Cynthia Ozick, in The New York Times Book Review (Feb. 6, 1983)
  • True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,/As those move easiest who have learned to dance. Alexander Pope, in An Essay on Criticism (1711)
  • Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries. J. B. Priestley, quoted in International Herald Tribune (Jan, 3, 1978)

Priestley preceded the observation by writing: “Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness—when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven’t had time to know how much better it ought to be.”

  • Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic. Carl Sagan, in Cosmos (1980)
  • For me writing is a question of finding a certain rhythm. I compare it to the rhythms of jazz. Françoise Sagan, in Paris Review interview (Autumn, 1956)
  • In my opinion, there are only two kinds of writing: good and bad. Good writing rings true and sounds natural. Bad writing rings false and sounds labored. Laurence Shames, in “Q & A With Laurence Shames” (2022)

Shames continued: “Categories like ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ are probably more useful to reviewers and booksellers than they are to writers. There’s truth in fiction; there’s storytelling in non-fiction. A piece of whatever length still needs a beginning, middle, and end. Funny stuff as well as serious stuff should have a point to make. The challenge is always the same–to entertain and to reveal something about human nature.”

  • Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy. George Simenon, in Paris Review interview (Summer, 1955)

Simenon introduced the thought by saying: “Writing is considered a profession, and I don’t think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else.”

  • Writing a column is easy. You just sit at your typewriter until little drops of blood appear on your forehead. Walter “Red” Smith, quoted in Time magazine (Sep. 1, 1961)

QUOTE NOTE: Smith apparently offered this observation in a variety of slightly different ways over the years, the earliest in a 1949 Walter Winchell newspaper column. According to Winchell, when Smith was asked if writing a daily column was a chore, he replied: “Why, no, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s possible that Smith was inspired by a similar metaphor offered three years earlier by fellow sportswriter Paul Gallico (see the Gallico entry above). Similar observations have also been attributed, never with any original source information, to other writers, including Gene Fowler, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. For an informative and entertaining history of the quotation, see this fascinating post by master quotation researcher Garson O’Toole: Quote Investigator

  • The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business. John Steinbeck, quoted in Newsweek magazine (Dec. 24, 1962)
  • Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. Laurence Sterne, a reflection of the title character, in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67)
  • The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads. William Styron, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1954)
  • All writers look for a way out of writing. But writing is like serving a jail sentence—you’re not free until you’ve you’re your time on the rock-heap. Paul Theroux, in Sunrise with Seamonsters (1985)
  • There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily. Anthony Trollope, a reflection of the narrator, in Barchester Towers (1857)

The narrator preceded the observation with this thought: “Let biographers, novelists, and the rest of us groan as we may under the burdens which we so often feel too heavy for our shoulders; we must either bear them up like men, or own ourselves too weak for the work we have undertaken.” A moment earlier, he had introduced the subject with the following tweak of a legendary Euclid remark: “There is no royal road to learning; no short cut to the acquirement of any valuable art.” (see the Euclid entry in GEOMETRY)

  • Writing doesn’t require drive. It’s like saying a chicken has to have drive to lay an egg. John Updike, in a 1975 issue of The [Sydney, Australia] Bulletin (specific date undetermined)
  • Writing is more than just the making of a series of comprehensible statements: it is the gathering in of connotations; the harvesting of them, like blackberries in a good season, ripe and heavy, snatched from among the thorns of logic. Fay Weldon, in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (1984)
  • Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain. Elie Wiesel, in Paris Review interview (Spring, 1984)

Wiesel added: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”

  • I have yet to see a piece of writing, political or non-political, that does not have a slant. All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright. E. B. White, “Bedfellows,” in The Essays of E. B. White (1977)
  • Writing is, for most, laborious and slow. The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. E. B. White, in William Strunk & E. B. White, The Elements of Style (1999)

White continued: “A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. Like other gunners, the writer must cultivate patience, working many covers to bring down one partridge.”

  • The best writing has no lace on its sleeves. Walt Whitman, an 1888 remark, quoted in Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1914)
  • Some writings could sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. Elie Wiesel, in Introduction to Legends of Our Time (1968)

ERROR ALERT: Almost all internet sites, including Wikiquote, mistakenly present the quotation in the following way: “Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.”

  • Writing is the handmaiden of leadership. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill rode to glory on the back of the strong declarative sentence. William Zinsser, in Writing to Learn: How to Write—and Think—Clearly About Any Subject at All (1988)
  • Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly, about anything at all. William K. Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniv. Ed.)
  • Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)
  • Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)
  • All writing is ultimately a question of solving a problem. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well (2006; 30th Anniversary Edition)

A little later in the book, Zinsser wrote: “The writer’s job is like solving a puzzle, and finally arriving at a solution is a tremendous satisfaction.”



  • A character or an idea has to grow like a seed and take possession…it’s something to do with one’s own development and passage through life. Daphne du Maurier, quoted in Margaret Forster, Daphne du Maurier (1993)
  • I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more. Herman Melville, on Ralph Waldo Emerson and other deep-thinking writers, in a letter to Evert A. Duyckink (March 3, 1849)

QUOTE NOTE: Melville was not a big fan of Emerson the writer (he once described his writing as “oracular gibberish”), but he greatly admired Emerson the thinker. About deep-thinking writers in general, he described them as a “whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving and coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world began.”


(see also RIGHT and RIGHT & WRONG)

  • Once you know something is wrong, you’re responsible, whether you see it, or hear about it, and most particularly when you’re a part of it. M. E. Kerr, Buddy’s grandfather speaking, in Gentlehands (1978)
  • On the whole, we need not hesitate to assert, that in the long course of events, nothing, that is morally wrong, can be politically right. Nothing, that is inequitable, can be finally successful. Hannah More, in Hints Toward Forming the Character of a Young Princess (1837)

ERROR ALERT: All over the internet, William E. Gladstone is mistakenly credited with saying “Nothing, that is morally wrong, can be politically right.” He never said anything of the sort. More is the legitimate author of the sentiment.


(see also HUMOR and WIT)

  • As someone who has often been referred to as wry by reviewers who are trying to be kind, I long ago decided that “wry” means “almost funny.” Calvin Trillin, in the Introduction to The Lede: Dispatches from a Life in the Press (2024)


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