These touchstone quotations help guide and drive my writing.
“Haste! Haste! Let no time be lost through little love, that striving to do well may renew grace.”
An essay by Robert Duncan first brought these wondrous lines from Dante’s Purgatorio to my attention many years ago. They help urge me toward ideals for my life and work: to use time wisely, to put compassion always at the forefront, to try again and again no matter how often I fail, and to maintain faith in the unmerited gifts of grace that come to us in many forms, including moments of transcendence and glimpses into the world of the spirit.
“The duty of the writer is to make the familiar strange.”
I first came upon this quote from the Russian Formalist critic, Viktor Shklovsky when I was starting to write fiction. It struck me as a bracing goal for any writer who wants to clear away the shadows of habit and convention that obscure our outer and inner vision, and bring the reader jolts of insight. In writing, I try always to keep in mind Shklovsky’s principle of making “the familiar strange” to help me create a fictional world that is vividly alive and aware.
“Humility is a rare virtue and an unfashionable one and one which is often hard to discern. Only rarely does one meet someone in whom it positively shines, in whom one apprehends with amazement the absence of the anxious avaricious tentacles of the self.”
This quote from Iris Murdoch’s essay The Sovereignty of Good encapsulates her wise take on humility as an essential virtue. The perplexing questions of good and evil are ones she explores fearlessly and compassionately in all 26 of her novels. Other writers to whom I return for their insight and courage in tackling the most perplexing and contradictory strands of human character and behaviour include J. M. Coetzee, Penelope Fitzgerald, A. S. Byatt, Michael Ondaatje and Marilyn Robinson.
“Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart/could have recovered greenness?”
This is from the 17th-century poet George Herbert’s “The Flower,” where he meditates on despondency and the wonder that his states of depression do inevitably lift, so that he can “once more smell the dew and rain, and relish versing.” For their consoling clarity, honesty and passionate expression of faith, Herbert’s poems are a great comfort in times of despair and inner turbulence.
Solvitur ambulando. (It is solved by walking.)
Walking is inextricably connected to my writing process. Long solitary daily walks, in all weathers, help open the way to unexpected turns and revelations for plots and characters of my books. Rambling and its natural rhythms induce a meditative state that uncovers solutions to problems of all sorts, which is a great blessing.