Fuel for Writers: A Writing Coach Takes a Winding Journey Through 10 Literary Quotes

1. EVERY STORY IS A STORY OF SUSPENSE. I wish I could recall where I heard this. It’s been invaluable as I help writers get the most power from their stories. Whether you’re writing a memoir or a novel, remember that readers are held fast by suspense. Give your story stakes by making your readers care about a character or an anticipated event—and then create suspense by threatening that in which you’ve gotten them to invest.

2. But how do you get started? Crime novelist Lawrence Block says, “One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”

3. And if you get stuck? Speaking to the power of the unconscious to provide elegant creative solutions, Nobel Prize in Literature winner Saul Bellow says, “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”

4. In her guide to finding your most authentic voice, WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, poet Pat Schneider explains this further: “Never underestimate the power of sleep. Leading a disciplined writing life is not all about work. It is also about sleep. Entering and staying in the mysterious place where daydream meets night dream is important to the writing life. Our deepest writing, our genius, requires an engagement of the unconscious mind.”

5. Writer Brenda Ueland, author of the classic IF YOU WANT TO WRITE, finds another way to unravel a tangled tale. A fiend for walking to find creative gold, she says, “I will tell you what I have learned for myself. For me, a long five- or six-mile walk helps. And one must go alone and every day.” (Personally, I manage two miles a day—and consistently find at least one crystalline, often startling, solution along the way.)

6. And then there’s the question of what you feed your writer self while it’s walking and sleeping and spinning out the threads of suspense. Best-selling author Stephen King, never one to beat around the bush when offering writing advice, says this: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” 

7. Poet and novelist Natalie Goldberg, who has encouraged at least one generation of writers to settle into a meaningful writing practice agrees. In WRITING DOWN THE BONES, she says, “If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source.”

8. Sometimes, though, we need to remind ourselves why we write. Diarist and novelist Anais Nin says, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

9. However, (brilliant) novelist Amy Tan, who contributed her essay “Pixel by Pixel” to the anthology LIGHT THE DARK: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, found her way to a different meaning. At the start of “Pixel,” she says,

In my novel THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT, a character named Edward Ivory recites the following lines from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’:

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

…. And I realized [Tan says]: This is what the character is about. No, more than that: This is what my writing is about. This is what my whole life is about.

10. Tan’s conclusion, that her whole life reflects Whitman’s idea that we must travel our road ourselves reminds me of another quote by Natalie Goldberg. Speaking of her desire to write a novel after her well-received books on writing process, WRITING DOWN THE BONES and WILD MIND, were published, Natalie says,

“I [had] a story I wanted to tell, something I’d half lived and half felt, and I needed the big space a novel afforded to tell it. I was a writer and liked to keep my hand moving. The road was out there and I wanted to ride it.”

This takes us far from the idea we started with—that suspense is what keeps a reader turning the pages and that, implicitly, we bother to write at all so as to be read. In searching out quotes that were meaningful to me, however, I seem to have taken myself on a winding journey. And here is where I end up: Maybe we don’t always write to be read. Maybe, at least sometimes, we write because we are creatures who have something to say, who have a head full of words to say it with, and who have a road before them just waiting to be illuminated by those words.

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