10 Essential Quotes for Writers

The magic “x-factor” that people talk about when they talk about talent is not so magical: it’s simply a matter of hard work. And no other craft reminds one of the torments of hard work than writing. Unlike the sculptor, the writer has to create mounds of clay from scratch—pages and pages of terrible first and subsequent drafts. Writers don’t get the enjoyment of going into a field of sunflowers with a canvas, paints, and brushes, to capture the light for an entire afternoon, or playing off someone else’s energy as actors do when rehearsing a scene. We’re locked up alone with our nagging imaginations, in need of focus, and in need of a whip.


The big idea presented here is that a writer’s whip, for taming the imagination, is the hard-earned wisdom of those who came before. Hemingway and Fitzgerald honed their craft by studying Sherwood Anderson, Ivan Turgenev, Joseph Conrad, and others. (A boxing aficionado, Hemingway considered himself “getting in the ring” with these greats. He took the metaphor too far when he wrote a novel mocking his mentor, Anderson, to get out of a book contract.)  

For anyone who has a story to tell—whether in a proposal, blog post, press release, screenplay, children’s book, any kind of book—here are 10 quotes that will help you write it:

“It’s not about what happens to people on a page; it’s about what happens to a reader in his heart and mind.” –Gordon Lish, legendary editor who helped launch Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” –Toni Morrison; her peers voted Beloved the greatest novel of the past 25 years

“We struggle against most of our exceptional qualities until we’re about forty and then, too late, find out they compose the real us.” –Gertrude Stein as quoted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who considered her a genius; and she was Hemingway’s literary wet-nurse

“Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.” –Leo Tolstoy; Anna Karenina is often called “the greatest novel ever written”

 “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have it.” –Ernest Hemingway, the man who started a literary revolution with short sentences and paragraphs

“Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start with an emotion—one that’s close to me and that I can understand.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald; his notes on the manuscript helped launch Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, blasting “Hem” out of obscurity

“Beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned.” –Oscar Wilde, who maintained his famous sense of humor on his deathbed: while sipping champagne, he said, “I’m dying beyond my means.”

“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.” –Ray Bradbury, wrote every day and never went to college

“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.” –J.D. Salinger, who had a hard time publishing  The Catcher in the Rye; the biggest complaint was that Holden Caulfield wasn't believable 

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” –Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most productive people in history

Image Credit: aqsahu (Flickr)

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.