Letters of Life

On Writing

This is a series of sticky posts, because some things are better said again. Keep coming back over the next week as the stickies will change every few days to keep things fresh. And under the sticky, you’ll find my latest post. 


Many years ago, I bought a book called Good Advice on Writing: Great Quotations from Writers Past and Present on How to Write Well. It wasn’t the title that persuaded me, but the editor of the book, William Safire.

I adored his column On Language, syndicated from The New York Times, and which appeared in The Straits Times. It was about words, their history, their usage and delightful descriptions of how they were often misused by American politicians, including presidents, past and present. His essays were often sprinkled with witty and concise anecdotes from his job as a journalist in the rarefied world of American politics and in the higher echelons of American journalism, considered the best in the world.

Mr Safire passed away on 27 September 2009, aged 79. I pulled this book out from a long-unopened book cupboard earlier today and found, to my surprise, a trove of elegant, witty, pithy quotations from the world’s greatest philosphers, painters, poets, novelists, and writers.

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. — J.D. Salinger, author of the classic Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey and more.

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, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood, and more.

When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries. You must be on guard against these. Destroy the thing, do it over several times. In each destroying of a beautiful discovery, the artist does not really suppress it, but rather transforms it, condenses it, makes it more substantial. What comes out in the end is the result of discarded finds. Otherwise, you become your own connoiseur. I sell myself nothing. —Pablo Picasso

It’s in the voice. You get a call from a friend, you know right away who it is. One paragraph, you know the voice. — Donald Newlove

The price of learning to use words is the development of an acute self-consciousness. Nor is it enough to pay attention to words only when you face the task of writing—that is like playing the violin only on the night of the concert. You must attend to words when you read, when you speak, when others speak. Words must become ever present in your waking life, an incessant concern, like colour and design if graphic arts matter to you, or pitch and rhythm if it is music, or speed and form if it is athletics. –Jacques Barzun

And finally, something from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas:

The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flush, or thunder in.


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