Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My life as a quote hoarder

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Matsuo Basho

A few months ago, this blog quietly passed a milestone that I didn’t even notice at the time: I published my thousandth quote of the day. (In retrospect, I was happy to find that it was this quotation from Matsuo Bashō, which I love: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.”) These daily quotes, like so much else on this blog, were intended to fill a specific role that quickly evolved into something unexpected. I initially conceived them as an easy recurring event that would allow me to post a smidgen of content on slow days when I didn’t feel like writing something substantial—that is, they were born out of sheer laziness. As regular readers know, however, this isn’t exactly how it turned out: for the last three years, on most weekdays, I’ve published both a quote and a full blog post. In short, what I originally meant to serve as a labor-saving device has almost doubled my workload, to the extent that there are days when I’ll spend just as much time tracking down a good quote, discarding dozens of possible alternatives, as I will writing the main post itself.

And as time goes on, the kind of quotes that I like become increasingly hard to find, largely because I’ve already used up so many good ones. It doesn’t help that I’m looking for a particular sort of quotation that considerably narrows my universe of options. When I look back at the quotes I’ve posted, a certain tone starts to emerge: they’re primarily quotes about creativity, writing, and the other arts, but I’m drawn specifically to practical advice, prickly admonitions, or passages that illustrate the aspects of the creative process that I find personally appealing—ingenuity, flexibility, and pragmatism. I don’t like blandly inspirational quotes about the joys of reading or writing, as much as I may agree with their sentiments. If you’re reading this now, you probably already love books and know that writing is a vitally important activity, so I’m looking for quotes that don’t just congratulate ourselves for having our priorities straight, but remind us that we’re here to get a job done. After a while, a lot of the famous quotes on the artist’s life start to feel like daily affirmations, and I’d rather have something on the order of Degas: “An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.”

"Les Petits Rats" by Edgar Degas

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always been a compulsive quote hoarder. In college, I kept a commonplace book of favorite passages from what I was reading, and although I’ve given up that habit, I’ve continued to collect quotations, mostly because they’re so useful. As Margaret Drabble once wrote—see what I did there?—much of the art of education consists of learning to think in quotations, or of assimilating the wisdom of others until it becomes part of your own, and the crucial thing is to pick the right sources. Like many writers, I’m also obsessed with epigraphs, and whenever I’m working on a new project, which is most of the time, I’m quietly assembling a list of possibilities. As I hope to discuss further in a future post, an epigraph is one of the most undervalued tools in a writer’s bag of tricks: it allows you to set the tone for the novel to come, provides a clue to point the reader’s attention in one direction or another, and offers one of the only permissible ways of explicitly laying out the story’s themes. Not surprisingly, then, I’m always on the hunt for good epigraphs, and I’ll sometimes keep a promising one in storage for years until I find a place for it. (The line from W.H. Auden that leads off City of Exiles falls into this category.)

These days, I maintain several text files on my laptop in which I compile quotations as I encounter them, although filling out this blog’s quota of quotes has often led me further afield. About a third of the quotes come organically from my own reading, and I can tell you that there’s nothing more satisfying than coming across the perfect quote for tomorrow’s blog post by chance. Another third or so are mined from a handful of valuable reference works that I’d probably be browsing through anyway, notably The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations and The Harvest of a Quiet Eye. The last third originate from a range of miscellaneous sources, mostly online, although I’ve learned from experience to independently check anything I find on Wikiquote, particularly if it makes me feel especially warm and fuzzy—it’s often too good to be true. This also explains why I’ve increasingly culled quotes from such fields as architecture or computer science, to the point where I taught myself a bit of coding so I wouldn’t feel like quite such a poseur. The result, I’m happy to say, is as much of a self-portrait as the rest of this blog, assembled in a gradual collage, and whenever I revisit it, I’m often surprised by passages I’ve forgotten. This blog may not go on forever, but the quotes, at least, will remain, and I have a hunch that they’ll end up being the most lasting thing I’ve done here.

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2014 at 9:30 am

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