Mantras for Writers


We’re writers. We like words. We don’t always like writing. Or maybe we just need a little nudge sometimes. Today we’ve collected some of the inspirational (or harassing, or shaming, or whatever works for us) quotes that we have posted around our computers. Maybe some of these will work for you.

Christie: I am writing a book. Book writing is hard. Some days are harder than others, and for inspiration, I’ve taped a bunch of mantras and words of wisdom to my computer monitor. I’ve stolen most of these from inspiring people.

I am in deep water, but I know how to swim. — From my wise colleague and friend Farai Chideya. (Everyone should read her book on building a career in this changing world.)

Grandiose intentions are the death of getting shit done. — Helen Fields, telling me to stop ruminating already and start writing.

There’s no magic. Really, there isn’t. It’s just one word in front of the other until you’re done. (From a discussion I had with Deborah Blum about book writing.)

I don’t need more time. I need a deadline. This is my “calling myself on my shit” self-talk. Every task balloons to fit the time I’ve given it. Deadlines are how writing gets done.

WTMFA! (Write the motherfucker already!) Some very good advice (based on a Dan Savage saying) that I’ve put on a mug, a whiskey flask and, most recently, my office chalkboard.

Obey the poem’s emerging form! This one was given to me by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, whose friend Jack Mueller shouted it to her, with insistent love. I don’t write poetry, but I’ve found that Jack’s words are true for most creative endeavors.

Just one more hill. Here, have a banana. Now keep writing. — Greg Hanscom, my suffer buddy.

Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astounded. Tell about it. Helen: I actually have as much inspirational scrap about the anxieties of freelancing as about writing. It’s been three years since I freelanced full time, and now that I have a day job I only sit here at my home desk on weekends and work-from-home days. Most of the time my day job is not that hard, which means I have plenty of creative energy left over and have been trying to move forward on some interesting personal projects that I will not tell you about, for fear I will jinx them.

You can survive. In fact, you can thrive. Just get a little shameless, and a little creative. — The beginning of an email written by our own Thomas Hayden in 2009, not long after I’d been laid off and was trying to figure out if I could make it as a freelancer.

Maybe → (1) I can solve your problems. (2) This is what I do, & I do it well. — An inspirational post-it written for me by my old friend Dylan Fresco several years ago, when I was struggling to figure out my role as a freelancer.

Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. — I jokingly describe the majority of my LWON posts as “Whoa, I saw a bug!” but I’m only following the poet Mary Oliver’s instructions. (Recent example.)

Ah! Yet it survives your dislike! Astonishing! — I have recently fallen in love with the book Syllabus by cartoonist Lynda Barry, and this section about judging art really stuck with me. You don’t think this drawing is very good? Who cares? It still exists, and it still says something.


Ann:  I had a conversation with Christine Gorman a long time ago when we were both starting out, and she said an evil little troll lived under her desk and stuck its head up now and then and said to her, “You can’t do this.”  I don’t actually remember whether this troll was hers or mine; we both had one.  Anyway, I keep a troll-mallet handy.  WHAM!  Or if your tastes are less obviously violent, a pocket flamer-thrower.  BZZZT.  Whatever, don’t ever not even once let the fucker get away with it.

I get lost in the trees of all the background research and can’t find the story and consider just writing down everything I know.  That is the worst possible option; I’ve done the experiment and you can trust me on this.  Figure out where you’re going to end — you probably already know — and write to the ending.  Put in everything the readers need to get to the ending and leave out everything that doesn’t get them to that ending.


Richard: I recently wrote about this very topic for another site. The advice comes down to a saying that happens to be similar to one of Christie’s mantras: “Shut the fuck up and write.” For a more nuanced version, see: “Quiet in There.”


Jenny: I keep it simple. Above my desk I have a Post-it note from an editor I like a lot, from the first feature story of mine he edited for National Geographic (which I feared was crap). His note reads: J-Bird, I love it. Come see me.

Another Post-it reads EASE. My husband insisted on that one after one of my many ‘I can’t write worth fuck’ panic attacks.

Lastly, I have a photo taped to my lamp of Idris Elba giving me a piercing stare and saying (in a speech bubble I added), “Your words make me hot. Write more of them.”


Rose: I am embarrassingly fond of inspirational quotes and mantras.

But my all time favorite is the one that I have pinned to the wall next to my desk. It’s a photo of a note that Octavia Butler wrote to herself: “Tell stories filled with Facts! Make people Touch and Taste and KNOW. Make People FEEL! FEEL! FEEL!”


drawings by the multi-talented triple-threatening Helen Fields; bottom one is her actual bulletin board; top one was done for Christie Aschwanden’s Twitter feed

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4 thoughts on “Mantras for Writers

  1. So great. I want all of these notes to reside somewhere on my desk. Now. Perhaps I’ll just leave this browser window open for a while.

  2. I’d also like to add a couple.
    A longtime favorite, words of wisdom from Arthur Ashe:
    >>Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
    And a new addition, from a fortune cookie:
    >>Everyone is rooting for you. Don’t give up!

  3. Never let what you cannot do stop you doing what you can.

    I do not let being unable to remember where I got this from stop me from applying it.

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Categorized in: On Writing