The 69 Pages of Writing Advice Denis Johnson Collected from Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, Stephen King, Hunter Thompson, Werner Herzog & Many Others

The inter­net is full of inspi­ra­tional quo­ta­tions about writ­ing, many of them from accom­plished and respectable writ­ers. But what need could such writ­ers have of inspi­ra­tional quo­ta­tions them­selves? Sure­ly true lit­er­ary art flows from its authors with­out need of encour­ag­ing words, demand though it may sus­tained peri­ods of labor, frus­tra­tion, and even suf­fer­ing. These days, more than a few who seek to cre­ate such art spend time study­ing not just its past mas­ter­works but its liv­ing mas­ters. “Some years ago,” the nov­el­ist Karan Maha­jan recent­ly tweet­ed, “I was lucky to take a class with Denis John­son, who dressed like a card-shark, in flashy jack­ets and (unlike a card-shark) wept over sen­tences. He gave my class a 69-page list of writ­ing quotes he returned to fre­quent­ly.”

John­son’s list, which you can see in PDF form here, shows that at least one of our era’s most cel­e­brat­ed writ­ers swore by the kind of writ­ing advice most of us scroll past every day. Though some­what eccen­tri­cal­ly for­mat­ted, it rounds up a great deal of valu­able wis­dom from nov­el­ists, poets, and play­wrights — as well as philoso­phers, sculp­tors, film­mak­ers, and oth­er fig­ures besides — from dif­fer­ent lands and dif­fer­ent times.

In it you’ll find these reflec­tions on the art, craft, and life of writ­ing, among many oth­ers:

  • “In genius we per­ceive our own reject­ed thoughts, return­ing to us with a kind of alien­at­ed majesty.” — Ralph Wal­do Emer­son
  • Sim­plic­i­ty is not an end in art, but we usu­al­ly arrive at sim­plic­i­ty as we approach the true sense of things.” — Con­stan­tin Brân­cuși
  • The first and most obvi­ous char­ac­ter­is­tic of fic­tion is that it deals with real­i­ty through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tast­ed, and touched.” ― Flan­nery O’Con­nor
  • “Writ­ing, ide­al­ly, is rec­og­niz­ing your bad writ­ing.” — August Wil­son
  • “One is always seek­ing the touch­stone that will dis­solve one’s defi­cien­cies as a per­son and as a crafts­man. And one is always bump­ing up against the fact that there is none except hard work, con­cen­tra­tion, and con­tin­ued appli­ca­tion.” — Paul William Gal­li­co
  • “But what is art, real­ly, but a good instinct for stay­ing alive in your own alley?” — Hunter S. Thomp­son
  • There is a micro­scop­i­cal­ly thin line between being bril­liant­ly cre­ative and act­ing like the most gigan­tic idiot on earth. — Cyn­thia Heimel
  • “A writer is a per­son for whom writ­ing is more dif­fi­cult than it is for oth­er peo­ple.” — Thomas Mann
  • “I learned nev­er to emp­ty the well of my writ­ing, but always to stop when there was still some­thing there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” — Ernest Hem­ing­way
  • “First thought best thought.” — Jack Ker­ouac
  • “The job boils down to two things: pay­ing atten­tion to how the real peo­ple around you behave and then telling the truth about what you see.” — Stephen King
  • “The impor­tant thing is that there should be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a pro­fes­sion­al writer doesn’t do any­thing else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the win­dow or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any oth­er pos­i­tive thing, not read, write let­ters, glance at mag­a­zines, or write checks. Write or noth­ing.” — Ray­mond Chan­dler
  • “I know this, with a sure and cer­tain knowl­edge: a man’s work is noth­ing but this slow trek to redis­cov­er, through the detours of art, those two or three great and sim­ple images in whose pres­ence his heart first opened.” — Albert Camus
  • “Don’t look back.” – Bob Dylan

Over the course of these 69 pages, cer­tain themes emerge: the impor­tance of writ­ing with one’s “blood,” the unim­por­tance of crit­ics, the val­ue of sim­plic­i­ty, the dan­ger of adjec­tives (and oth­er excess descrip­tion), the neces­si­ty of let­ting noth­ing block the flow of the first draft. While many of these quo­ta­tions offer prac­ti­cal advice — much of it about con­sis­tent­ly putting in the hours, both con­scious and uncon­scious — some approach from a more oblique angle not just “writ­ing” as a pur­suit but the liv­ing of life itself. “To fail to embrace my dreams now would be a dis­grace so great that sin itself could not find a name for it,” writes Wern­er Her­zog in the diary he kept dur­ing the ago­nized mak­ing of Fitz­car­ral­do. If this inspired the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, it ought to inspire the rest of us as well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

7 Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Write Only 500 Words Per Day and Pub­lish 50+ Books: Gra­ham Greene’s Writ­ing Method

To Make Great Films, You Must Read, Read, Read and Write, Write, Write, Say Aki­ra Kuro­sawa and Wern­er Her­zog

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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