A Grab Bag Primer for Writers

Alexander Pope could take pomposity to levels that had never been reached before and have seldom been reached since. His essays and poetry were little more than a matted morass of verbosity, which is about as pompous as I can get. Back when we were struggling through his tantalizing little couplets in high school, I had an English teacher who told us that reading Alexander Pope was like being a prospector. “You have to dig through acres and acres of mud to find a single nugget,” she said.

Alexander Pope

Pope did have a nugget or two with lines like: “A wit with dunces, and a dunce with wits,” “an honest man’s the noblest work of God,” and “Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

But we were knee deep, then neck deep, in the mud before we found them.

As a writer, I am still prospecting.

In researching information for my series of Primer on writing from famous authors, I have uncovered numerous little single and solitary nuggets that might make a difference in your quest for wisdom from those who have labored, who have written, and who have found an audience.

They are inspiration for us all to follow:

  • Maya Angelou

    Maya Angelou: There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

  • Madeleine L’Engle: 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.
  • J. D. Salinger: What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re 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. That doesn’t happen much, though.
  • Mark Twain: Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” you’re editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.
  • Stephen King: If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.
  • Toni Morrison: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
  • Mark Twain: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
  • Saul Bellow: You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.
  • Anais Nin: We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.
  • Lloyd Alexander: Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.
  • Sylvia Plath: Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
  • Philip Pullman: After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.
  • Robert Frost: No tears in the writer, not tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
  • Jack Kerouac: One day, I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
  • Ray Bradbury: You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
  • Winston Churchill: History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.
  • Stephen King: Fiction if the truth inside the lie.
  • Anton Chekhov: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
  • Stephen King

    Charles Dickens: There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.

  • Stephen King: The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
  • Virginia Woolf: Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.
  • Isaac Asimov: If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.

And the closest old Alexander Pope ever came to advising a writer is this: At ev’ry word, a reputation dies.



Caleb Pirtle III is author of the Christian thriller, Golgotha Connection. 



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  • Jenny McCutcheon

    Mark Twain knew a thing or two. A truer master of dialects has never walked the earth and I doubt every will. John said for years that I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn every year whether I needed to or not. (Don’t know how to italize titles here.)

  • That J.D. Salinger quote is exactly how I feel about memoir. And I have been tempted sometimes, but that would be stalking.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Laura: Go ahead and stalk. It’s good for the soul and no author should mind someone calling and saying, “Hey, I like your book.”

  • Caleb Pirtle

    JiJi: Mark Twain figured it out, went his own way, and the world followed. The world was afraid not to. If you must read one book a year, Huckleberry Finn is at the top of the list.

  • Wonderful nuggets here, Caleb! One can see why this fab collection of authors are so well-known. You’re a good prospector, my friend!

  • Christina Carson

    God, I love Mark Twain.I don’t know if I would have wanted to live next door to him, but I sure would have loved hear him from time to time.

  • Saul Bellow’s thought about writing that comes to you in the middle of the night is right on the money. I think that sort of stuff is when the brain has shut down and some other portion of the writer’s psyche has taken over.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Stephen: I believe that part of your mind keeps working day and night and never shuts down. I know I have written myself in a corner many times, went to sleep, and woke up the next morning with a solution.

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