19 Quotes on Writing by Gore Vidal. Some Witty, Some Acerbic, Many Spot On

Next to “cel­e­brat­ed” (or “celebri­ty”) the descrip­tion I’ve most seen applied to the late Gore Vidal is “acer­bic,” or some such synonym—“scathing,” “dis­dain­ful”… I’m sure he would rel­ish the com­pli­ment. One of the most fit­ting adjec­tives, per­haps, is “Wilde-like” (as in Oscar Wilde), deployed by Hilton Als in the New York­er. The adjec­tive fits espe­cial­ly well con­sid­er­ing one of Vidal’s most-tweet­ed quotes from his trea­sury of Wilde-like apho­risms: “Write some­thing, even if it’s just a sui­cide note.” It’s clever and mor­bid and naughty and dev­il-may-care, and almost entire­ly fatu­ous. Unlike sev­er­al writ­ers recent­ly fea­tured here—Mar­garet Atwood, Ray Brad­bury, Hen­ry Miller, George Orwell, et al.—who help­ful­ly com­piled num­bered lists of writ­ing advice, Vidal’s pro­nounce­ments on his craft were rather unsys­tem­at­ic. But, like many of those named above, what Vidal did leave in the form of advice was some­times face­tious, and some­times pro­found. Despite his evi­dent con­tempt for neat lit­tle lists, one writer in the UK has help­ful­ly com­piled one any­way. The “sui­cide note” quote above is num­ber 4:

  1. Each writer is born with a reper­to­ry com­pa­ny in his head.
  2. Write what you know will always be excel­lent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imag­ine, what you sus­pect!
  3. I some­times think it is because they are so bad at express­ing them­selves ver­bal­ly that writ­ers take to pen and paper in the first place.
  4. Write some­thing, even if it’s just a sui­cide note.
  5. How mar­velous books are, cross­ing worlds and cen­turies, defeat­ing igno­rance and, final­ly, cru­el time itself.
  6. South­ern­ers make good nov­el­ists: they have so many sto­ries because they have so much fam­i­ly.
  7. You can’t real­ly suc­ceed with a nov­el any­way; they’re too big. It’s like city plan­ning. You can’t plan a per­fect city because there’s too much going on that you can’t take into account. You can, how­ev­er, write a per­fect sen­tence now and then. I have.
  8. Today’s pub­lic fig­ures can no longer write their own speech­es or books, and there is some evi­dence that they can’t read them either.
  9. I sus­pect that one of the rea­sons we cre­ate fic­tion is to make sex excit­ing.

Writer’s Digest gives us ten addi­tion­al quotes of Gore Vidal on writ­ing (unnum­bered this time):

“You can improve your tal­ent, but your tal­ent is a giv­en, a mys­te­ri­ous con­stant. You must make it the best of its kind.”

“I’ve always said, ‘I have noth­ing to say, only to add.’ And it’s with each addi­tion that the writ­ing gets done. The first draft of any­thing is real­ly just a track.”

“The rea­son my ear­ly books are so bad is because I nev­er had the time or the mon­ey to afford con­stant revi­sions.”

“That famous writer’s block is a myth as far as I’m con­cerned. I think bad writ­ers must have a great dif­fi­cul­ty writ­ing. They don’t want to do it. They have become writ­ers out of rea­sons of ambi­tion. It must be a great strain to them to make marks on a page when they real­ly have noth­ing much to say, and don’t enjoy doing it. I’m not so sure what I have to say but I cer­tain­ly enjoy mak­ing sen­tences.”

“Con­stant work, con­stant writ­ing and con­stant revi­sion. The real writer learns noth­ing from life. He is more like an oys­ter or a sponge. What he takes in he takes in nor­mal­ly the way any per­son takes in expe­ri­ence. But it is what is done with it in his mind, if he is a real writer, that makes his art.”

“I’ll tell you exact­ly what I would do if I were 20 and want­ed to be a good writer. I would study main­te­nance, prefer­ably plumb­ing. … So that I could com­mand my own hours and make a good liv­ing on my own time.”

“If a writer has any sense of what jour­nal­ism is all about he does not get into the minds of the char­ac­ters he is writ­ing about. That is some­thing, shall we say, Capote-esque—who thought he had dis­cov­ered a new art form but, as I point­ed out, all he had dis­cov­ered was lying.”

“A book exists on many dif­fer­ent lev­els. Half the work of a book is done by the reader—the more he can bring to it the bet­ter the book will be for him, the bet­ter it will be in its own terms.”

[When asked which genre he enjoys the most, and which genre comes eas­i­est:]
“Are you hap­pi­er eat­ing a pota­to than a bowl of rice? I don’t know. It’s all the same. … Writ­ing is writ­ing. Writ­ing is order in sen­tences and order in sen­tences is always the same in that it is always dif­fer­ent, which is why it is so inter­est­ing to do it. I nev­er get bored with writ­ing sen­tences, and you nev­er mas­ter it and it is always a surprise—you nev­er know what’s going to come next.”

[When asked how he would like to be remem­bered:]
“I sup­pose as the per­son who wrote the best sen­tences in his time.”

 A series of snip­pets of Gore Vidal’s wit from Esquire pro­vides the bit­ing (for its non-sequitur jab at rival Nor­man Mail­er): “For a writer, mem­o­ry is every­thing. But then you have to test it; how good is it, real­ly? Whether it’s wrong or not, I’m beyond car­ing. It is what it is. As Nor­man Mail­er would say, “It’s exis­ten­tial.” He went to his grave with­out know­ing what that word meant.”

Vidal returns to the theme of mem­o­ry in a 1974 inter­view with The Paris Review, in which he admits to plac­ing the ulti­mate faith in his mem­o­ry: “I am not a cam­era… I don’t con­scious­ly watch any­thing and I don’t take notes, though I briefly kept a diary. What I remem­ber I remember—by no means the same thing as remem­ber­ing what you would like to.”

While Vidal is memo­ri­al­ized this week as a celebri­ty and Wilde-like provo­ca­teur, it’s also worth not­ing that he had quite a lot to say about the work of writ­ing itself, some of it wit­ty but use­less, some of it well worth remem­ber­ing.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.


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  • Con­trast­ing Hen­ry Miller and Vidal’s advice becomes hilar­i­ous in light of Vidal’s trash­ing of Miller.

    These items of Miller’s in par­tic­u­lar come off as rather damn­ing:

    3. Don’t be ner­vous. Work calm­ly, joy­ous­ly, reck­less­ly on what­ev­er is in hand.
    5. When you can’t cre­ate you can work.
    7. Keep human! See peo­ple; go places, drink if you feel like it.
    8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with plea­sure only.
    10. For­get the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writ­ing.
    11. Write first and always. Paint­ing, music, friends, cin­e­ma, all these come after­wards.

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