Bad Advice Wednesday: 15 Great Writers’ Writing Advice Revisited

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour



Baby’s last snapshot.


1.  Ernest Hemingway: “Kill your babies.  Then kill your grown children, too.”

2.  Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint on the old lady whispering hush.”

Ralph “Waldo” Emerson

3.  Ralph Waldo Emerson: “People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad, and I ought to know.”

4.  John Steinbeck: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.  Because you’re not.”

5.  Alice Munro: “Anecdotes don’t make good stories. Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about, but about a Canadian woman with a string of strange boyfriends and an inconclusive ending.”

6.  Mark Twain: “Substitute fuck you, you asshole fucking piece of stinking pig-shit every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

7.  Sylvia Plath: “The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.  Where’s the oven?”

8.  Robert Frost: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.  No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.  No alcohol in the writer—yeah, right.”

9.  Toni Morrison: “Wait, wait, wait, wait.  Don’t try to write through it, or force it.  Many do, but that won’t work.  Just wait, it will come.  Everyone knows Domino’s pizza delivery takes forever.”

10.  George Orwell: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always it out.”

11.  E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  Sometimes you run over a drunk who’s lain down and fallen asleep on the warm pavement.  I mean, do you keep going, or what?”

12.  Henry Miller:  “When you can’t create, you can work.  When you can’t work, you can masturbate.  And then you can do it again.”

Willa Cather

13.  Willa Cather: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.  So don’t let any of your characters live past then.”

14:  Ayn Rand: “Words are a lens to focus one’s mind on burning ants to death.”

15.  E.B. White: “No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence or whose attitude toward those losers is patronizing.”



[Bill Roorbach’s skin is very dry from gardening but very thick from a roman-candle writing career (how many fiery but colorful balls do you think are left in this mortal tube?).  He just noticed that all the subjects in the photos he’s reproduced here are facing to their right, each incrementally more than the last.  What do you suppose they are looking at?  And what does it say about Bill?  For original quotes, Google will do!]

  1. Ladybelle Fiske writes:

    And Bill and Dave… how about you come up with fake quotes to represent EACH OTHER?

  2. Ladybelle Fiske writes:

    John Steinbeck: “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Because you’re not.”

    Ah… he must have had a precognitive flash about me (and many other writers).

  3. Dick Weaver writes:

    I think some of these may be fake!

  4. monica wood writes:

    Oh, my god! Gasping for air!

  5. L. Jessica Devor writes:

    Blue, I pick blue! (For your next roman candle adventure~) Great fun, I think Sylvia Plath is laughing….Is that too much? Darn that cosmic joke tendency anyway….wicked, positively wicked~ All in good fun.

    • Bill writes:

      Sylvia Plath: “Life was not to be sitting in hot amorphic leisure in my backyard idly writing or not writing, as the spirit moved me. It was, instead, running madly, in a crowded schedule, in a squirrel cage of busy people. Working, living, dancing, dreaming, talking, kissing- singing, laughing, learning.”

      • L. Jessica Devor writes:

        I knew I liked that gal~ Got me poking around for bell jar’s too, unheard of in Ffld County back in the day. I truly believe in cathartic writing. It makes processing a pleasant event. that gives way quite easily to a nice gin and tonic.

        • L. Jessica Devor writes:

          Dang that punctuation beast-no period there. Period. And #14 with a magnifying glass….

    • Meg Pokrass writes:

      I do not believe any of these quotes, Bill. They were all taken our of context. All of these brilliant writers were, at the time of these saddening blatherings, performing in the Catskills and finally trying out comedy. Someone (probably their agents) told them “the money is in the funny”). They had all become comics, at that point (well, not Sylvia Plath so much) but the rest. We all know that writers like these end up in Reno performing night quotes.

      • Bill writes:

        Meg, you should be a detective. Or as Virginia Woolf said in her last moments, “Glub, glub, glub, glub.”

        • Bill writes:

          Wait, it might have been five “glubs.” Striving to be accurate here at quotation central. Maybe I should post the real quotations…

      • marty castleberg writes:

        Look at the run Henry Miller had at the Sands, doing warm up for the Rat Pack. I heard they let him go because of a little matter of stage urination.

      • thierry kauffmann writes:

        I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.
        Love art. Of all lies, it is the least untrue.
        Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.

  6. “It starts with this: put your desk in the corner of Starbucks, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of a tenured professors office. Writing isn’t a support system for tenure. It’s the other way around.”

    -Stephen King

  7. Kristin writes:

    It’s completely acceptable, if not encouraged, to paint Twain’s wise words on my classroom wall, right? Great!

    • Bill writes:

      The proverb says that Providence protects children and idiots. This is really true. I know because I have tested it. Two words: poison candy.
      – Autobiography of Mark Twain

  8. Elizabeth Hilts writes:

    Just what I needed this morning.. I’m so grateful to learn that Margaret Wise Brown wisely took Chekhov’s advice.

    • Bill writes:

      Flannery O’Connor: The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. Lunch, though, that’s another story.