Writing Quips and Tips From John Irving


What can writing advice can we absorb from American best-selling novelist John Irving? Here are several writing quips, from which I’ve teased tips about the definition of a “real” writer, the importance of action in writing, and how to be brave enough to live the life you love.

First, a quip from The World According to Garp.

“’All men are liars,’ said Roberta Muldoon, who knew this was true because she had once been a man.”

If you haven’t read The World According to Garp – or watched the movie, which starred Robin Williams and Glenn Close – you’re denying yourself a great literary pleasure. Truth be told, I liked A Son of the Circus more than Garp, because it was more complicated and exotic. Anyway, enough about Irving’s novels. Here are a few writing quips and tips to chew on…and an assignment for my fellow scribes at the end!

Writing Quips and Tips From John Irving

Quip: “I always begin with a character, or characters, and then try to think up as much action for them as possible.”

  • Writing Tip: Even if you’re writing a non-fiction article for a health magazine about different types of holistic healing (like I currently am), make sure you’re dumping as much action in as possible — without getting too crazy with exclamation points!!!!! And smiley faces 🙂 (which don’t count as active writing, by the way). Give your readers sharp verbs, active sentences, short snappy phrases, colorful characters. Plant seeds throughout your writing; your keep readers both hungry and fed.
  • Writing Tip #2: Just because Irving begins with characterization – and just because he’s one of the most successful writers in the world – doesn’t mean you have to start with your characters in mind. All writers write differently, right? And, there’s no “one size fits all” or formula for successful writing.

Quip: “If you care about something you have to protect it,” wrote Irving in A Prayer for Owen Meany. “If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”

  • Writing Tip: If you were brave enough…what kind of life would you be living? What kind of career would you build? You’re obviously interested in writing – else you wouldn’t be here. What are your writing goals… and do you have the guts to pursue and maybe even achieve them? If you wish you were more productive, here are some tips for staying motivated to write.

Quip: “There is no living writer of whom I am simply in awe, except Gunter Grass.”

  • Writing Tip: It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of John Irving’s hero (I just learned that Grass is a Nobel-prize winner German author)…what matters is you hold on to the authors you admire and are inspired by. (Maybe don’t hold on to them physically; that could turn bad for you).  Stay with those successful writers, fellow scribes. Meditate on their words, think about their lives, re-read their books, post their quips on your bulletin board. You’re absorbing more than you realize.

Quip: “The way you define yourself as a writer is that you write every time you have a free minute,” said Irving. “If you didn’t behave that way you would never do anything.”

  • Writing Tip: Not only do writers write every second they get (or think about writing even when they’re scrubbing dirt from under their fingernails), they have their own definitions of what it means to be a writer. This means that my definition of being a “real” writer or blogger is different that your definition…and it’s not worth arguing about. You’re a writer if you live up to your own expectations of yourself as a writer. You’re a writer if you haven’t given up on your writing dreams.

Here’s an assignment for my fellow scribes:



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What writing tip(s) would you pull from this last quotation from John Irving? Don’t be shy – there isn’t a wrong answer! And, trust me, nobody will make fun of you here…

“A writer uses what experience he or she has,” said Irving. “It’s the translating, though, that makes the difference.”

What do you think of John Irving’s writing quips and tips – for instance, do you see yourself as a “real” writer? Are you protecting your writing dreams and goals by being deliberate and disciplined? I welcome your comments below…






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4 thoughts on “Writing Quips and Tips From John Irving

  • Kate Sebeny

    Perhaps you know the exact John Irving quote I’ve been struggling to remember or find again. (I believe it’s from Garp, but I could be wrong.) It’s something to the effect that a novel is a place to put all those odds and ends of meaningless experience so they make sense in art, if not life.

  • Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks George and Crystal for responding to my “assignment” to pull a writing tip from John Irving’s last quip! I appreciate your thoughts — it’s a difficult quotation and I didn’t want to tackle it alone 🙂

    He could also be talking about the reader’s take on the writer’s experience. That is, the reader could translate my words differently than I intended, or translate my experiences differently than I expressed…which often happens in writing, I think. As readers, we may infer things that the writer never intended.

    I wonder what John Irving would say about his writing quip….
    .-= Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen´s last blog post ..51 Over-Used Adverbs, Nouns, and Clichés in Writing =-.

  • Crystal R. Martin

    I believe John Irving is speaking about creativity. Two people may start out with the same experience, but the beauty of the translation is how they make it their own.

    I am a real writer. At first I found this a difficult statement, because when I would joyfully announce that I was a writer, the first question I would receive was always – “What have you published?” When I would say nothing yet, I would receive the look of doubt that screamed, “Yeah right”. I’ve since found it’s all about what I believe that matters.

  • George Angus

    Hi Laurie,

    The word “translation” here in my mind means putting your thoughts through the filter that is your writing voice.

    Wonderful quips, Laurie.

    George
    .-= George Angus´s last blog post ..Kindle Thoughts – A Writer’s Perspective =-.