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The Glint of Light on Broken Glass

Thirty truths about the art of writing

David says: “I have a notebook called, pretentiously no doubt, my ‘Commonplace Book.’ I took the title from E. M. Forster, the first writer – so far as I recall – whose book-length biography I read (the one by P. N. Furbank). Forster’s Commonplace Book was published, long after his death, by an American university press. I don’t expect mine to achieve such immortality, but I go back to it often. What I do in it is simple. I take quotations that have struck me in my reading, and copy them out by hand. Quotations may take in any subject that interests me, but more often than not the subject is literature. Here are thirty quotations I like. Do I really believe them all? Maybe not. But I find them interesting.”


1.  “The genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking.” – Alain Robbe-Grillet

2. “‘Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the young man answers: ‘I have important things I want to say,’ then he is not a poet. If he answers: ‘I like hanging around words listening to what they say,’ then maybe he is going to be a poet.” – W. H. Auden

3. “The moment comes to every writer worth consideration when he faces for the first time something which he knows he cannot do. It is the moment by which he will be judged, the moment when his individual technique will be evolved. For technique is more than anything else a means of evading the personally impossible, of disguising a deficiency … The consciousness of what he cannot do – and it is sometimes something so apparently simple that a more popular writer never gives it a thought – is the mark of the good novelist. The second-rate novelists never know: nothing is beyond their sublimely foolish confidence as they turn out their great epics of European turmoil or industrial unrest, their family sagas …” – Graham Greene

4. “The basic impulse behind the novel is the need to create a ‘desirable’ reality: that is, to project an image of the life you would like to lead, and the sort of person you would like to be.” – Colin Wilson

5. “When we are young we think genius or talent is everything; later we discover how much depends on character.” – J. B. Priestley

6. “It is safer for a novelist to choose as his subject something he feels about than something he knows about.” – L. P. Hartley

7. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

8. “It was precisely because he had not been to public school himself that [Frank] Richards [author of the “Greyfriars” children’s stories, featuring among other splendid characters the celebrated fat boy, Billy Bunter] was able to create the ultimate mythic public school, untrammelled by personal experience … To criticise the stories because they are unreal is pure snobbery. Their appeal lies in the very fact that they are unreal, in the sense that they are an idealisation, a distillation of elements from the cycle, transmitted into a dreamlike landscape, a mythic world, an alternative universe whose surroundings and elements have a recognisable surface reality but are subtly different, existing as it were out of time, to create that ‘imaginative Golden Age’ of which Northrop Frye talked … For Greyfriars is a whole world, as detailed and as richly textured as Trollope’s Barsetshire, Hardy’s Wessex or Tolkien’s Middle Earth.” – Jeffrey Richards

9. “Not time itself, but our awareness of it is what ultimately defines our transient, ephemeral nature. I also think this [time] is one of the three principal themes in the entire art of writing, beside love and death.” – Zoran Zivkovic

10. “Literary success can be won only in solitude and by persistent work.” – Honoré de Balzac

11. “He was learning, for the first time in his life, the lesson that all artists learn: that it isn’t, for the artist, the question whether he works well or ill, but whether the creative impulse is strong within him. That is not, of course, the question for anyone who from the outside considers the art when it is made, but for the artist this absolute necessity of release is all-dominating.” – Hugh Walpole

12. “You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking-glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different – deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard before but very much want to know.” – C. S. Lewis

13. “He had one of those movements of contempt and even horror which every artist has at times when he thinks of his own work.” – George Orwell

14. “Low art is just telling things, as, there is the night. High art gives the feeling of the night. The latter is nearer reality although the former is a copy.” – Robert Henri, teacher to painter Edward Hopper

15. “It’s no use trying to do something that somebody else has done as well as it can be done. Do something different.” – Ezra Pound, quoted by T. S. Eliot

16. “At the moment when one writes, one is what one is, and the damage of a lifetime … cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” – T. S. Eliot

17. “Listen carefully to the first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is that the critics don’t like and cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” – Jean Cocteau

18. “The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.” – E. M. Forster

19. “The novel is an irrational form, the conditions necessary for its creation equally irrational, and perhaps the closest thing we have to proof that Forster’s half-expressed emotional life – and James’s, for that matter, and Proust’s – made him the writer he was is the fact that there have been no uncloseted (or, as far as I know, closeted) gay novelists of similar reach since his time.” – Dale Peck

20. “Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries for which we long occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our true life that the country in which we may happen to be.” – Marcel Proust

21. “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.” – Oscar Wilde

22. “The fiction of one’s life is the truth.” – Vincent Price

23. “What is there anyway? All expression lifts us further away from simplicity and causes unhappiness … Material, scientific expression: flying-machines, moving pictures, and telegraphy are simply disturbing. They add nothing valuable to human life. Any novelist who invokes the aid of science dies a swift death. Zola’s novels are stuffed with theories of heredity but ideas about heredity change every day. The current craze is for psychoanalytic novels, which are not half so psychoanalytic as the books of Jane Austen, as posterity will find out for itself … Art in this epoch is too self-conscious. Everybody is striving to do something new, instead of writing or painting or composing what is natural …” – Carl Van Vechten

24. “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection – a wound inherent in the nature of life itself – and is an attempt either to learn to live with the wound or to heal it. It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work, and it is the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant as medicine or distraction.” – John Gardner

25. “People think that writing must be easy for me. It isn’t. It’s murder. I’ve never yet written a book I haven’t abandoned in disgust halfway through. I never have much faith in my writing – I am always scared that people will find out that I can’t really write.” – Agatha Christie

26. “Again and again, I … admonish my students both in Europe and America: ‘Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.” – Viktor E. Frankl

27. “I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I’ve felt it.” – Igor Stravinsky

28. “When [as a child] asked if she would like a dog, she replied that she wanted a unicorn.” – Daily Telegraph obituary of Rumer Godden

29. “After all, what is the meaning of life? In itself, there is no intrinsic meaning. However, if we use life in a positive way, then even the days and the months and the aeons can become meaningful. On the other hand, if you just fritter your life away aimlessly then even one day feels too long. You will find that once you have a firm determination and a clear objective, then time is not important.” – The Dalai Lama

30. “It may be that there is no place for any of us. Except we know there is, somewhere; and if we found it, but lived there only a moment, we could count ourselves blessed.” – Truman Capote