‘Remember: The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places. Underneath the grid is a field – it was always there – where to be lost is never to be wrong, but simply more.’

– Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

‘I read that beauty has historically demanded replication. We make more of anything we find aesthetically pleasing, whether it’s a vase, a painting, a chalice, a poem. We reproduce it in order to keep it, extend it through space and time. To gaze at what pleases – a fresco, a peach-red mountain range, a boy, the mole on his jaw – is, in itself, replication – the image prolonged in the eye, making more of it, making it last.’

– Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

‘Some of the most celebrated passages in literature are those whose cadences move us in ways that reinforce and finally transcend their content. The sentences affect us much as music does, in ways that cannot be explained. Rhythm gives words a power that cannot be reduced to, or described by, mere words.’

– Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

‘As I wrote, I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required what a friend calls “putting every word on trial for its life”: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.’

– Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer

‘I used to love to write. As a child I used to write all the time. I loved to write up until the second I got my first professional writing job. It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.’

– Fran Lebowitz, A Humorist at Work, The Paris Review

‘When I was very little, say five or six, I became aware of the fact that people wrote books. Before that, I thought that God wrote books. I thought a book was a manifestation of nature, like a tree. When my mother explained it, I kept after her: What are you saying? What do you mean? I couldn’t believe it. It was astonishing. It was like—here’s the man who makes all the trees. Then I wanted to be a writer, because, I suppose, it seemed the closest thing to being God.’

– Fran Lebowitz, A Humorist at Work, The Paris Review

‘Every time I sit at my desk, I look at my dictionary, a Webster’s Second Unabridged with nine million words in it and think, All the words I need are in there; they’re just in the wrong order.’

– Fran Lebowitz, A Humourist at Work, The Paris Review

‘I’m such a slow writer I have no need for anything as fast as a word processor. I don’t need anything so snappy. I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself… I have a real aversion to machines. I write with a pen. Then I read it to someone who writes it onto the computer. What are those computer letters made of anyway? Light? Too insubstantial. Paper, you can feel it. A pen. There’s a connection.’

– Fran Lebowitz, A Humourist at Work, The Paris Review

‘I think every book I’ve done has tried to be different; this is what I set out to do, because I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, This is it. Always there will be someone who can tell it differently depending on where they are standing; the same person telling the story will tell it differently. I think of that masquerade in Igbo festivals that dances in the public arena. The Igbo people say, If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place. The masquerade is moving through this big arena. Dancing. If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.’

– Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139, The Paris Review

‘I am not an early-morning person; I don’t like to get out of bed, and so I don’t begin writing at five A.M., though some people, I hear, do. I write once my day has started. And I can work late into the night, also. Generally, I don’t attempt to produce a certain number of words a day. The discipline is to work whether you are producing a lot or not, because the day you produce a lot is not necessarily the day you do your best work. So it’s trying to do it as regularly as you can without making it—without imposing too rigid a timetable on your self.’

– Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139, The Paris Review

‘It is like wrestling; you are wrestling with ideas and with the story. There is a lot of energy required. At the same time, it is exciting. So it is both difficult and easy. What you must accept is that your life is not going to be the same while you are writing. I have said in the kind of exaggerated manner of writers and prophets that writing, for me, is like receiving a term of imprisonment–—you know that’s what you’re in for, for whatever time it takes. So it is both pleasurable and difficult.’

– Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139, The Paris Review

‘Once a novel gets going and I know it is viable, I don’t then worry about plot or themes. These things will come in almost automatically because the characters are now pulling the story. At some point it seems as if you are not as much in command, in control, of events as you thought you were. There are things the story must have or else look incomplete. And these will almost automatically present themselves. When they don’t, you are in trouble and then the novel stops.’

– Chinua Achebe, The Art of Fiction No. 139, The Paris Review

‘There’s something that happens in the moment of creation of a good sentence, or a good swath of sentences, that feels like the dropping away of self. Somebody else shows up and that person is better than the normal, everyday you. I’m guessing that the various approaches to writing are ultimately all about getting to that moment, that moment of spontaneity and self-negation. It’s going to feel different for each writer and he or she will describe it differently, but basically there’s one holy fountain and we’re all trying to get to it through the same woods.’

– George Saunders, The Art of Fiction No. 245, The Paris Review

‘I exist mostly to one side of time. Only in rare moments – for example, when I am with those I love or in times of great exuberance or when I am writing and the work is going well – do I feel in time, that I am where I am meant to be and utterly free from the wish to be anywhere else. The other times have the interference of discord, as though I were detained and that somewhere nearby, possibly in the next street, there is a desired encounter or event taking place, one from which, whether by coincidence or ignorance or bad luck, I am being excluded. The strange thing was that I never suffered this in Siena. Every day and for the entire month I spent there I felt myself to be in time. I woke up at the right moment and left the flat just at the perfect instant so as to encounter everything that unfurled before me. I never rushed or felt myself hurried by anything. Everything I experienced was happening at the pace at which it ought to happen.’

– Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena

‘Perhaps learning a new language is a reminder of when we were unable to say anything at all, when we did not have the means to communicate that we were hungry or cold or simply bewildered, and some of that distress must remain and is enlivened by occasions of inarticulacy. But it must also be my own specific experience of having been obliged to immigrate, at the age of eleven, from my mother tongue, Arabic, to English. And if you have done such a move once, any further disruption can come to represent a mortal danger.’

– Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena

‘If I stop and think of the people closest to me, of where they might be at this exact moment, what they might be up to, how they might be feeling, what might be preoccupying their thoughts, the weight of their concerns, I become incapable of doing anything else. It is a truly debilitating state. It fills me with immeasurable anxiety, sorrow and longing. I have never understood why the basic fact of the lives of those with whom I am intimate running concurrently and separately from mine must fill me with such darkness.’

– Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena

‘Implicit in the act of creation is praise, of discovering and naming the world, of acknowledging it, of saying it exists. The French artist Henri Cartier-Bresson had once described taking a photograph as saying ‘yes’, not the ‘yes’ of approval but that of acknowledgment.’

– Hisham Matar, A Month in Siena

‘Now it was warmer and she was opening more rooms, airing the dark reaches, letting sunlight dry all the dampness. Some nights she opened doors and slept in rooms that had walls missing. She lay on the pallet on the very edge of the room, facing the drifting landscape of stars, moving clouds, wakened by the growl of thunder and lightening. She was twenty years old and mad and unconcerned with safety during this time, having no qualms about the dangers of the possibly mined library or the thunder that startled her in the night. She was restless after the cold months, when she had been limited to dark, protected spaces.’

– Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

‘Four centuries later monks began living again in the caves above what had once been the temple clearing. It had been a long era of humanlessness, religiouslessness. The knowledge of such a monastery had vanished from people’s minds and the site was an abandoned forest sea. What was left of wooden altars was eaten by colonies of insects. Generations of pollen silted the bathing pool and then rough vegetation consumed it, so it was invisible to any passerby who did not know its sudden loose depth, which was a haven for creatures that scurried on the warmth of the cut rock and on unnamed plants in this nocturnal world.

For four hundred years the unheard throat calls of birds. The hum of some medieval bee motoring itself into the air. And in the remnant of the twelfth-century well, under the reflected sky, a twist of something silver in the water.’

– Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost

‘She would have turned on a light but she had noticed Ananda never stepped into electrically lit areas. He worked always with flare torches in his room if it was too overcast. As if electricity had betrayed him once and he would not trust it again. Or maybe he was of that generation of battery lovers unaccustomed to official light. Just batteries or fire or moon.’

– Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost

‘She walks towards his night tent without a false step or any hesitation. The trees make a sieve of moonlight, as if she is caught within the light of a dance hall’s globe. She enters his tent and puts an ear to his sleeping chest and listens to his beating heart, the way he will listen to a clock on a mine. Two a.m. Everyone is asleep but her.’

– Michale Ondaatje, The English Patient

‘Conquest, colonization, plantation slavery, colonial government and liberal imperialism were significant phases in British history. The colonial relationships were essential ingredients of Britishness – as much a part of daily life and the national imaginary as the sugar at the bottom of the emblematically English cup of tea, or the ache at the root of the proverbial British sweet tooth.’

– Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

‘The whole experience was eerily familiar and disconcertingly strange at the same time. One can attribute this to the sense of déjà-vu which assails colonial travellers on first encountering face-to-face the imperial metropole, which they actually know only in its translated form through a colonial haze, but which has always functioned as their ‘constitutive outside’: constituting them, or us, by its absence, because it is what they – we – are not. This is a manner of being defined from the beyond.

On the boat train to London, I kept feeling I’d seen this place somewhere before, as in a screen memory. It provoked a deep psychic recognition, an illusory after-effect. Had I been here before? Yes and no.’

– Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

‘The historical facts of colonialism and slavery come to be dominating, recurring issues: not simply as events which occurred in the distant past, but as histories which eat into the present and whose afterlives still organize our contemporary post-colonial world.’

– Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

‘The beauty of the place was subtle. In the south-western deserts you needed to look twice at emptiness, you needed to take your time, the air like ether, where things grew only with difficulty. On the island of her childhood she could spit on the ground and a bush would leap up.’

– Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost