Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Edgar Degas

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

Quote of the Day

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"Dancers Practicing at the Barre" by Edgar Degas

A painting is above all a product of the artist’s imagination; it must never be a copy. If, at a later stage, he wants to add two or three touches from nature, it doesn’t spoil anything, of course.

Edgar Degas

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December 6, 2013 at 7:30 am

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My twenty favorite writing quotes

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It’s hard to believe, but over the past two years, I’ve posted more than six hundred quotes of the day. At first, this was simply supposed to be a way for me to add some new content on a daily basis without going through the trouble of writing a full post, but it ultimately evolved into something rather different. I ran through the obvious quotations fairly quickly, and the hunt for new material has been one of the most rewarding aspects of writing this blog, forcing me to look further afield into disciplines like theater, songwriting, dance, and computer science. Since we’re rapidly approaching this blog’s second anniversary, I thought it might be useful, or at least amusing, to pick out twenty of my own favorites. Some are famous, others less so, but in one way or another they’ve been rattling around in my brain for a long time, and I hope they’ll strike up a spark or two in yours:

Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.

Gustave Flaubert

An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.

Edgar Degas

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Linus Pauling

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from such things.

T.S. Eliot

Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Luck is the residue of design.

Branch Rickey

The first thing you do when you take a piece of paper is always put the date on it, the month, the day, and where it is. Because every idea that you put on paper is useful to you. By putting the date on it as a habit, when you look for what you wrote down in your notes, you will be desperate to know that it happened in April in 1972 and it was in Paris and already it begins to be useful. One of the most important tools that a filmmaker has are his/her notes.

Francis Ford Coppola, in an interview with The 99 Percent

Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.

Lionel Trilling

The worst error of the older Shakespeare criticism consisted in regarding all the poet’s means of expression as well-considered, carefully pondered, artistically conditioned solutions and, above all, in trying to explain all the qualities of his characters on the basis of inner psychological motives, whereas, in reality, they have remained very much as Shakespeare found them in his sources, or were chosen only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

As a writer, I’ve tried to train myself to go one achievable step at a time: to say, for example, “Today I don’t have to be particularly inventive, all I have to be is careful, and make up an outline of the actual physical things the character does in Act One.” And then, the following day to say, “Today I don’t have to be careful. I already have this careful, literal outline, and I all have to do is be a little bit inventive,” et cetera, et cetera.

David MametSome Freaks

Great narrative is not the opposite of cheap narrative: it is soap opera plus.

Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama

You must train day and night in order to make quick decisions.

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.

Kurt Vonnegut, to The Paris Review

The best question I ask myself is: What would a playwright do?

Dennis Lehane, to The Writer Magazine

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

William Blake

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.

—Attributed to Leonard Bernstein

If you have taken the time to learn to write beautiful, rock-firm sentences, if you have mastered evocation of the vivid and continuous dream, if you are generous enough in your personal character to treat imaginary characters and readers fairly, if you have held onto your childhood virtues and have not settled for literary standards much lower than those of the fiction you admire, then the novel you write will eventually be, after the necessary labor of repeated revisions, a novel to be proud of, one that almost certainly someone, sooner or later, will be glad to publish.

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

Stephen King, On Writing

You can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the f—king game.

Harlan Ellison

He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator—though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

Quote of the Day

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What use is my mind? Granted that it enables me to hail a bus and to pay my fare. But once I am inside my studio, what use is my mind? I have my model, my pencil, my paints. My mind doesn’t interest me.

Edgar Degas

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June 7, 2012 at 7:30 am

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December 29, 2011 at 8:00 am

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January 2, 2011 at 10:04 am

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