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Quotes for Inspiration

Posted on Saturday, May 30, 2015 at 8:34 PM

Three book sources of quotes that invite you to sit back, enjoy, and choose.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Whenever I set about to shape a new lecture or lesson, I look for nuggets and wisdoms of others that can be used to initiate the topic under scrutiny. My first sources usually are books consisting of quotes; they're loaded, of course, with possibilities. And not only do I find what I need, but, in the process, I get reminders for myself as writer and myself as editor of matters that, over time, can slip the mind but remain essential for successful practice of the craft.

Here are three sources that I've consistently, repeatedly mined:

Good Advice on Writing, Great Quotations from Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well by William Safire and Leonard Safir (Simon & Schuster, 1992);

The Quotable Writer edited by Lamar Underwood (The Lyons Press, 2004);

W.O.W.: Writers on Writing compiled by Jon Winokur (Running Press, 1990).

The Safire/Safir collection is set up like a dictionary or encyclopedia, with quotes placed under topics alphabetically arranged, from Accuracy, Action, Adjectives, and Adverbs to Witness, Words, Work Process, and Writer's Block.

Underwood divides his gathered treasures by topicality: "Words of Wisdom for Aspiring Writers," "The Writer's Craft: How the Pros Master It," "The Insiders," and "The Ups and Downs of the Writing Life," among others.

Winokur uses subject labels such as Good Writing, Grammar, Material, Self-Criticism, and Style as his means of division.

All three invite you to sit back, enjoy, and choose. Here are a dozen nuggets, four from each book. If you're a regular reader of these columns, you may remember coming across a few of them before. There's no harm in that; wisdoms hold.

From Safire/Safir

Barbara Tuchman: "I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to 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." (page 35)

Stendhal: "I see but one rule: to be clear. If I am not clear, all my world crumbles to nothing." (page 43)

Edna Ferber: "Life can't ever really 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." (page 64)

Isaac Asimov: "Remember: what lasts in the reader's mind is not the phrase but the effect the phrase created: laughter, tears, pain, joy. If the phrase is not affecting the reader, what is it doing there? Make it do its job or cast it without mercy or remorse." (page 80)

From Underwood

George Higgins: "Reading your work aloud, even silently, is the most astonishingly easy and reliable method that there is for achieving economy in prose, efficiency of description, and narrative effect as well. Rely upon it: if you can read it aloud to yourself without wincing, you have probably gotten it right." (page 10)

William Zinsser: "The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn't induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence ... I urge you not to count on the reader to stick around. He is a fidgety fellow who wants to know -- very soon -- what's in it for him." (page 27)

W. Somerset Maugham: "But the author does not only write when he is at his desk; he writes all day long, when he is thinking, when he is reading, when he is experiencing everything he sees and feels is significant to his purpose and, consciously or unconsciously, he is ... storing and making over his impressions." (page 74)

Natalie Goldberg: "Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life.... But there's another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and details." (page 274)

From Winokur

Truman Capote: "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." (page 5)

Anne Bernays: "Nice writing isn't enough. It isn't enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can't just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page." (page 17)

George Orwell: "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there's 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." (page 134)

Tracy Kidder: "You can write about anything, and if you write well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic interest in the subject will become involved." (page 158)

Look these anthologies up. You'll be richer for it.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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