James Thurber on writing and rewriting

A few lines from James Thurber today: first, on the fun of writing and rewriting:

The act of writing is either something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting’s fun. You’re getting somewhere, whether it seems to move or not.

I do think it’s possible to both dread and enjoy the act of writing: these need not be mutually exclusive. And I know writers who are world-class procrastinators because they can’t bear the thought of writing, but who like nothing better once they knuckle down to it.

I also love this description of how Thurber’s act of writing appears to the people around him:

I never quite know when I’m not writing. Sometimes my wife comes up to me at a party and says, ‘Dammit, Thurber, stop writing.’ She usually catches me in the middle of a paragraph. Or my daughter will look up from the dinner table and ask, ‘Is he sick?’ ‘No,’ my wife says, ‘he’s writing something.’

Both quotations are from ‘The Art of Fiction No. 10’ at the Paris Review.


12 Responses to James Thurber on writing and rewriting

  1. mollymooly says:

    Dorothy Parker – “I hate writing, I love having written.”

    This seems to be a variant – “I hate being about to write, I love writing.”

  2. Stan says:

    mollymooly: I expect there’s a version to suit everyone.

  3. Jim Brown says:

    I’m the same way. I struggle getting started, but once I’m actually writing, even if it’s not going well, I focus on the work, and the next thing you know, two or three hours have passed. Then, when I think I’m onto something good, I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. I really believe that good writing is more the result of good old fashioned hard work than talent.

  4. limr says:

    One more procrastinator here. Starting to write is always a struggle, but once I do, I can’t seem to stop. I finally knew that I’m not a fiction writer, though, when I realized that the writing itself was still so much of a struggle that I didn’t enjoy it. And the end product never seemed worth the struggle. I get “lost” in essay writing in a way I never did writing fiction, and I think the quality of my non-fiction is better than my fiction because of it.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    I have this pinned to the front of my desk:

    You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. (Ray Bradbury).

    I think I’m always writing and always have been.


  6. Stan says:

    Jim: Thanks for the insight. That rings true. I find a kind of inertia builds up, a contrary resistance like Poe’s imp of the perverse, but once I get past that and just get down to it, I feel much better – regardless of how good or bad the writing is. The first draft isn’t usually much to shout about, but at least it’s there and momentum has been established.

    limr: There’s an Irish expression: “Tús maith leath na hoibre”, which means “A good start is half the work”. Being unable to stop is a great place to find yourself! And it sounds as though non-fiction suits you much better. It can be hard enough to find motivation, but if you’re not enjoying the writing it becomes harder still.

    WWW: I like that quote. Writing generates its own reality, fictional or otherwise: somewhere your mind can wander and shape what it finds. I think you always will be writing, too.

  7. alexmccrae1546 says:


    IMHO, they kinda broke the proverbial mold w/ the late, so very great, Ray Bradbury.

    He had a unique passion for life, an unflagging inner drive to write, write, write, an unbounded curiosity, and an abiding faith in the essential goodness of mankind. But also a belief in the constant interplay of good and evil played out upon the human stage.

    www, the Bradbury quote you cited, for me, sort of sums up the notion that a fertile, ever-percolating creative imagination channeled into the craft of writing (particularly fiction), can be a great escape, or at least a welcome respite from life’s harshest, most self-destructive realities. (Hope I’m not putting words into Bradbury’s mouth, here. HA!)

    Playing devil’s advocate, or petty peever, here, I don’t know if “drunk” was the most apt term Bradbury could have used, since being “drunk”, in a literal sense, suggests the “drunkard” would be out of control, perhaps emotionally unstable, incoherent, or expressing addled, or irrational thoughts. In other words—a complete mess. Not really a conducive condition for writing anything of merit, I would say.

    However, I do get Bradbury’s drift, here, where he’s not using the word “drunk” quite so literally, but more metaphorically, in the sense of one being totally consumed by, wild about, or thoroughly immersed in, dare I say, obsessed with, the writing process; the continuous writing enterprise thus countering life’s travails that could otherwise cloud one’s creative vision, and ultimately “destroy” one’s very soul. (Sorry for the drama, there.)

    I must say, for me it was a sad, sad day when I got word of Ray Bradbury’s passing, a few months back. The man never took his eye of the ultimate prize, still writing up till his very last mortal moments.

    Curiously, he never viewed himself as a bone fide science-fiction writer, per se, and kind of eschewed that label throughout his long and distinguished career. Bradbury viewed himself as more of a chronicler of other-worldly possibilities, and fantastical explorations of the human condition.

    He didn’t feel compelled to necessarily send his characters off into the realm of dark, seemingly infinite, galaxy-studded space, but could find compelling drama right here on terra ferma, either in the projected future, or the revisited past. His Dandelion Wine comes immediately to mind.

    I had the serendipitous good fortune to have chatted very briefly w/ Bradbury at a Toluca Lake, CA eatery, about a decade ago.

    Well-chair-bound, but still full of vim and vinegar, he came off as such a spirited, friendly, engaging fellow, and even displayed some of his sharp wit, delivered w/ a wide smile, a little chuckle, and infectious charm.

    In his devout passion for his writing craft, and his unflagging advocacy for reading the very best in literature, particularly concerned for our very young fledgling readers, Bradbury has had few equals.

    I’m quite certain he IS resting in piece….. but still writing up a storm.

  8. alexmccrae1546 says:


    In my rush to wrap up that last post I made a couple of sloppy boo-boos.

    First off, in the penultimate paragraph, that should have read “his concern for”, not “concerned”.

    Secondly, in my last line, Bradbury should be resting in “peace”, not “piece”.

    Chalk that up to a a Bradburian slip.

  9. Stan says:

    Alex, I know what you mean about Bradbury’s choice of the word drunk, but it’s hard to think of a better alternative; and drunk snappily achieves the pleasure and preoccupation of writing, to the point of intoxication and even mild, merry derangement. I wonder if internet conversations count as degrees of separation, or is that too easy? If they do, thanks to you I’m now just two degrees away from Bradbury. :-)

  10. alexmccrae1546 says:


    First off, I shouldn’t have assumed that you’d automatically be majorly enthused about the nod of reviving Chandler’s arch-sleuth, Philip Marlowe, going to author John Banville.

    In fact, you stated in an earlier post that you were “still processing” the Chandler estate’s ultimate pick. Sounds like you may be more aligned w/ L.A. Times critic, David Ulin’s wait-and-see/ hope-for-the best camp of abiding Chandler fans? Skeptical, but still open to be pleasantly surprised by Banville’s effort.

    (Sorry. This commentary should have followed your previous article, where, in response, I was venturing to waxing somewhat poetic re/ my most recent revisiting of the hard-edged, fringe world of Walter Mosley’s complicated gumshoe character, Easy Rawlins.)

    Moving right along—I pretty much assumed Bradbury was using “drunk”, as you’ve indicated, i.e., in the sense of writing w/ a kind of ‘intoxicated merriment’, if you will; rather than in the literal sense of being alcoholically impaired. (But sometimes it’s fun to parse words just for the mental exercise of it.)

    Stan, indeed, I’d have to concur w/ you that you’re now, officially, two degrees-of-separation distanced from the late, great Ray Bradbury…. at least in the virtual reality realm.

    I dare say, if the truth be told, by our online association, you are two degrees removed from countless other celebrated Hollywood performers, L.A.-base sports figures, and several literary types with whom I’ve managed to engage in conversation over my 33-plus years living here in LA LA Land. (Clearly, I’m not the socially shy, shrinking violet type. HA!)

    Case in point, a few Comic-Con’s* ago, down San Diego, CA way, my fellow animation/ cartoonist buddy, Roman, and I happened to have bumped into the veteran actor Richard Dreyfuss, all ‘dress-down’, low-key, in subtle shades-of-white (NOT grey. HA!)—white baseball cap, a white, casually-cut, sporty linen jacket, a white T-shirt, white slacks, socks and sneakers. A regular Tom Wolfe clone. HA!

    The pint-sized thespian was also wearing sunglasses, trying I suspect, to pass incognito, thru the massive crush of rabid geeks and freaks. But my well-honed ‘celeb-dar’ was working overtime that particular day, and I immediately saw thru Dreyfuss’ all-white, flimsy disguise.

    I politely accosted Dreyfuss as he was browsing thru some rather naughty, ‘adult’, graphic novels at a bustling, popular book booth, w/ the line, “Mr. Dreyfuss, I presume?”

    After an initial bit of awkwardness on all our parts, the actor couldn’t have been more affable and talkative. Early on in our conversation his interest was piqued by our backgrounds in studio TV animation at Disney and Warner Bros. He just happened to have been negotiating some kind of documentary film deal w/ the BBC, that he would ultimately narrate, write, and co-produce.

    Dare I to say, the subject was NOT roses. Au contraire!

    Would you believe his major theme was a filmic history, and significance of the female ‘organ of pleasure’, from the present day, and going as far back thru the mists of time to our earliest ancestors. Yikes!

    A thoroughly wound-up Dreyfuss queried us on the feasibility of creating strategically injecting digitally animated segments into his film, illustrating say the physiological/ neurological mechanisms entailed in the phases leading up to female orgasm, then the actual climax, followed by the inevitable denouement. (Kind of a Masters & Johnson approach, yet far less clinical, perhaps. He envisioned these animated interludes as being strictly “artistically”/ “tastefully” done. Hmm…. right.)

    As Dreyfuss continued to ramble on about his cock-a-mamy, bordering on X-rated pet film project, my pal Roman and I were becoming increasingly mystified; or more precisely, just completely plain weirded out.

    In parting, after almost a half-hour of jaw-boning, Dreyfuss offered both of us his business card, w/ cell phone number and e-mail address. I half-jokingly told him, “Our people will be in touch w/ your people”, in keeping w/ typically shallow Hollywood small-talk. (“Let’s do lunch” is another common show-biz insider throw-away line.)

    So Stan, you’re welcome to add actor Richard Dreyfuss to your growing list of ‘two-degree-ers’. HA!

    Still have yet to cross paths w/ Kevin “Six-Degrees-of-Separation” Bacon (who unwittingly started this whole craze), although I think I’d much prefer to serendipitously run into his lovely wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick, who has played the gritty policewoman, Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, for some seven seasons on the TNT’s “The Closer”.

    Not to be too indelicate here, but I’m curious. Would the hubby and wife pair of Kevin and Kyra, in ‘doing the wild-thing’, be basically ‘making bacon’? (Oh, behave!)

    *For the uninitiated in the nerdy/ fan-boy arts, Comic-Con is the annual mid-summer, four-day, mass gathering of thousands of Star Wars geeks, Marvel Super Hero maniacs, diehard Trekies (Trekkers?), avid comic book/ graphic novel aficionados, and sundry other ‘entertainment’ zealots, and zanies, at the sprawling San Diego Convention Center.

    (Use of deodorant, and even minimal hygiene practice is apparently totally optional…. if you get my drift.?

  11. […] Previously: James Thurber on writing and rewriting. […]

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