30 Pieces Of Writing Advice From Cheryl Strayed, Toni Morrison, & More

by E. Ce Miller
Studio Firma/Stocksy

If you’re one of the many writers trying your hand at NaNoWriMo this year, (that’s National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated) then you well know we’re approximately half way through the month of November — and hopefully, you’re well on your way to completing your goal of 50,000 words. As a repeated NaNoWriMo hopeful myself, I know what a complete drag that halfway point can be: by this time the adrenaline of starting SOMETHING BIG (aka: your novel) has worn off, your caffeine tolerance has skyrocketed, and your non-writer friends have gone from vaguely supportive to disbelief that you’re actually staying in to write all weekend AGAIN. Maybe you’re a little behind on your word count, or on sleep, or — most likely — both, and the end of November seems both too soon and impossibly far away.

From one writer to another, let me tell you: this is hardly atypical. Whether you’re attempting to write your novel in one frantic NaNoWriMo burst or you’ve been drafting it for years, I’d venture to guess that most writers suffer from creative fatigue (and, you know, finger cramps) in the middle of any project — no matter how ambitious. And lucky for you, not only have many of these successful writers lived to tell about it, they’ve offered plenty of words of wisdom for their fellow aspiring novelists.

Below you’ll find some inspiring words of wisdom — and great writing advice — from writers, designed to power you through the rest of your NaNoWriMo.

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”

― Octavia E. Butler, author of Kindred

“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.”

― Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar

“Oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge, it limits knowledge.”

― Toni Morrison, author of Beloved

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”

― Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid's Tale

“People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.”

― Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries

“Write what should not be forgotten.”

― Isabel Allende, author of The House of the Spirits

“The writing of a novel is taking life as it already exists, not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it and offer it to the reader. The essence will not be, of course, the same thing as the raw material; it is not even of the same family of things. The novel is something that never was before and will not be again.”

— Eudora Welty, author of The Optimist's Daughter

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”

— Joyce Carol Oates, author of A Book of American Martyrs

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

— Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim At Tinker Creek

"You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write."

— Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

― Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird

“Cram your head with characters and stories. Abuse your library privileges. Never stop looking at the world, and never stop reading to find out what sense other people have made of it. If people give you a hard time and tell you to get your nose out of a book, tell them you're working. Tell them it's research. Tell them to pipe down and leave you alone.”

― Jennifer Weiner, author of Good In Bed

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

― Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones

“If people cannot be flawed in fiction there's no place left for us to be human.”

― Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist

“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”

“What's the point of having a voice if you're gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn't be?”

― Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give

“The best writers aren’t the ones with the best stories to tell; rather they’re the ones who know how to transform their small, particular stories into visceral magic.”

― Heather Havrilesky, author of How to Be a Person in the World

“There are no bad words, only bad ways to use good words.”

― Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

“We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

― Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

“If you’re going to be a writer, first of all, it takes more time. It takes more thinking. It takes more creative energy. You’re going to be buying books, reading books, talking about books. You’ll go off on your own, like a little anti-social human being to do an activity that will benefit nobody. No one is waiting for your work. You are writing because you have a story to tell.”

― Kate Gale, author of The Goldilocks Zone

“The writer trusts nothing that [s]he writes — it should be too reckless and alive for that, it should be beautiful and menacing and slightly out of [her] control.”

― Joy Williams, author of The Quick and the Dead

“Write with great truthfulness; work harder than you thought possible; have passion, enormous sweeping passion. Give it first to your work. Let your work have all of the passion it requires, and whatever is left, put into your life.”

― Ann Patchett, author of State of Wonder

“We write only the books that we need to write, or are able to write, and then we must release them, recognizing that whatever happens to them next is somehow none of our business.”

― Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

“When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment ― once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognize and do not believe in ― what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception.”

― Zadie Smith, author of Swing Time

“As writers we live life twice. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.”

― Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones

“But the sensibility of the writer, whether fiction or poetry, comes from paying attention. I tell my students that writing doesn't begin when you sit down to write. It's a way of being in the world, and the essence of it is paying attention.”

― Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

“If, while watching the sun set on a used car lot in Los Angeles, you are struck by the parallels between this image and the inevitable fate of humanity, do not, under any circumstances, write it down.”

― Fran Lebowitz, author of Metropolitan Life

“I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words.”

― Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing

“Perhaps it is just as well to be rash and foolish for a while. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would get written at all. It might be better to ask yourself 'Why?' afterward than before. Anyway, the force of somewhere in space which commands you to write in the first place, gives you no choice. You take up the pen when you are told, and write what is commanded.”

― Zora Neale Hurston, author of Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”

― Virginia Woolf, author of A Room of One's Own