Yesterday was my 50th birthday. I had a most wonderful day: fantastic southern barbecue, beautiful flowers, wine, and in the evening, the glow of tiny Chinese lanterns illuminating the faces of my friends as we sat on the patio trading stories.
In honor of this most auspicious day, I offer you a gift: some quotes from some of my favorite authors, with a bit of commentary after. Feel free to banter about my choices in your comments. In no particular order:
“Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust, and old authors to read.” (Atheneus) This quote reminds me of my party last night, except that we weren’t really reading. I think the sentiment is lovely, though, especially now that I’ve hit the half-century mark and can no longer be termed a “new” writer.
“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.” (James A. Baldwin) I think one reason I love to read and write is because I always felt odd. I never quite fit into any group, and I constantly felt that no one else thought about things in the same way I did. Books really became my friends, and made me see that there were other souls in the world who love to dream, imagine, and fret over things they can’t control. That connection is what keeps me reading and writing.
“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” (Oscar Wilde) Oh, boy. Right now, this one is really on my mind, mostly because I’m also a public high school teacher. Districts all over the country are sacrificing any creative thought in teaching on the altar of data and consistency. I am truly afraid that we are training a whole generation of kids with only one skill: bubbling test answers.
“When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” (Flannery O’Connor) So true. I have a really tough time looking at my own books after they’ve been published, partly because I know I’ll see places that are flawed, or phrases I could’ve written better. But Flannery is right: once we’ve given birth to a book, it takes on a life of its own, much like a child.
“I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.” (J.K. Rowling) I think every writer loves the J.K. Rowling story, about how she was dirt poor and lived in an attic and wrote in coffee shops and almost didn’t get published. It gives us hope. But I think this quote offers the best piece of advice: write what you like. Write what makes you happy. Whatever follows is fate, and out of your hands.
“Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don’t have time for all that.” (George Carlin) Oh, George. I miss you. And I feel acutely the crush of time and space to contemplate my navel and think big thoughts. I guess the trick is to find small spaces within the day to allow thoughts and imaginings to ramble freely. That is hard when you have 200 students who need attention and children at home and mundane things like car payments and dirty laundry. I’m hoping this next decade brings me more time to dream.
“Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?” (Kurt Vonnegut) With all the Occupy Wall Street activity invigorating the country right now, this quote really resonated with me. Whether your “message” is political or simply entertaining, if you write because you have to, you’ve lost the battle. I don’t think we all have to be arrested to be effective. But we do have to have something to say, and that may make other people angry. That’s not the point. The point is, say what you need to say.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my gift of quotes. I will now go eat some of the leftover southern barbecue from last night, dig into my box of dark-chocolate caramels, lie on the floor, and dream about what comes next.