Maya Angelou (1928–2014) is one of the most celebrated writers of our time. She was a poet, a singer, a memoirist, a civil rights advocate. She even directed a feature film! If there’s anyone to turn to for inspiration for your writing, Maya Angelou is definitely the one.
Here are a dozen quotes she said over the years that will help your writing immensely!
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Probably her most famous quote about writing, and one of my all-time favorites. Because she’s absolutely right. If there’s a story inside you that needs to get out, don’t wait. Don’t ponder. Because it hurts so much to keep it inside of you. Once it’s on the page, even in a mediocre first draft, you simply feel so much better!
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
You can write the most beautifully written novel ever written, but if you don’t make your readers feel anything, you’re never going to be successful as a writer. Because readers young and old will forget the words you used. What they’ll never forget is how you made them feel, what you made them remember about their own lives as they read your novel. Find a way to your readers’ hearts, and amazing things can happen.
“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”
When you do find your way to the readers’ hearts, they will thank you. To think on a story is one thing. It’s important for the story to work in the brain, too, of course. But when readers are only using their brains when they read through your work, you’ll never be able to make a significant impact on their lives. Go for the heart each and every time.
“I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being — what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.”
That’s the beauty of great fiction, isn’t it? That even though the characters and situations are made-up, the whole story reads like truth. There’s not even the slightest whiff of lying anywhere. No whiff of artificiality. Make sure even in your most outlandish and weird and bizarre of fiction that you’re constantly telling the truth, and readers will always come along for the ride.
“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”
I feel sad for all the young people today who don’t read. Who get their information from the iPad and from their phones. Who would rather play games for two hours than pick up a classic children’s book. Because reading absolutely does give you a sense of yourself in the world. It shapes your life and opens up your life in ways nothing else can.
“The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.”
Another quote about reaching for the hearts of readers, which was obviously important to Ms. Angelou. And of course it’s important because that’s really how you reach your readers, not through anything else. Your ambition in your latest novel to reach for the stars is noble, but never forget to tell a story that expresses emotion for the reader, too.
“Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”
This is one thing nobody tells you about writing novels. It really doesn’t get easier. You learn a few tricks along the way, and when you write eleven novels, you know in your heart you can write a twelfth. But the process itself is always hard, both in drafting and in revising, and there’s always that tiny voice in your head that says that even if you’ve had some success in the past, you’re going to be discovered to be a fraud this time out. It’s just the way it is!
“I believe that the most important single thing, beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.”
You simply have to be daring in your fiction writing. Don’t give us the same old thing. Don’t just write a genre book that you think might sell. You need to have discipline and creativity in your writing life, but you absolutely need to be daring to dare, because that’s when the truly original projects come about, the projects that readers are clamoring for.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
She’s absolutely right about this. Creativity can’t be used up. Creativity doesn’t just go away. The more of it you use, the more of it you have, because it just builds and builds with the more ideas that come to you and the more you spend the day dreaming and working and contemplating and discovering. There’s not a limit to your creativity, remember that.
“I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music.”
Writing doesn’t have to be a small part of your day, even if your situation only allows for a few select minutes of actual writing. Try to keep writing a large part of your day by using methods like the following: daydream about your story, your world, or jot down ideas on notepads when they come. Think of writing as exercise, as eating food, as listening to music. Make it as big a part of your day, every day, as you can.
“Making a decision to write was a lot like deciding to jump into a frozen lake.”
I was so terrified to write my first novel. I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea, really, exactly what I was doing. It totally was like jumping into a frozen lake and trying to fight my way out. Making writing a big part of your life is not a decision to make lightly. You really do need passion for the discipline. You need to want to do it, or you’ll fade fast, I’m telling you.
“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”
You should pay attention to the originality in your writing, the pacing, the characters, the genre, the themes. But don’t ever forget the power of language in your writing. The words you choose. The rhythm of your sentences. When you’re immersed in a first draft of a new novel, the language itself might not be at the top of your radar, but it should be. Language is where the writing begins, after all. Never forget that!