Be Astonished: Quotes on Writing and Life by Women Poets and Writers

I am a collector of quotes. A sentence or three is brief enough for me to commit to memory and long enough to encapsulate some shard of wisdom about the human condition. I recently looked at my odd and sundry collection and found something important missing: women's voices. Sure, I had some Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich quotes, but overall I'd amassed a group of men from many countries and backgrounds.  Where were the women?

Over the last few months, I began asking everyone I knew as well as many on-line communities for favorite quotes by women writers. I also went through books of quotations and my own notebooks from classes I'd taught or taken. This list of 37 quotes by 33 women is just the beginning. I'm hoping you will add your favorite quotes by women writers to the list.


"Instructions for living a life:

pay attention
be astonished
tell about it"

                       Mary Oliver

"Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing." 

                    Arundhati Roy

“Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.”

Lucille Clifton

"Poetry isn’t a profession; it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that."

Mary Oliver

"I’m thrilled when…a writer is working out at the edges of his/her fingertips."

Lia Purpura

"Please do not mix moons with stars."

Elevated Ice Cream, Port Townsend

"The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience."

Emily Dickinson

"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt

“Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Jane Goodall

"All my life I have lived and behaved very much like the sandpiper - just running down the edges of different countries and continents, 'looking for something'." - Elizabeth Bishop

Medbh McGuckian says:

I have a great affection for the picture of Emily Bronte 's loaves rising, but am fonder of Tsvetaeva, one daughter living, one daughter dead, clearing a defiant space on the kitchen table. To be torn apart by births or revolutions or both, and survive at least for a time, is a prerequisite for the fullest genuine genius to flower.

—Delighting the Heart: a Notebook by Women Writers

“Revision is not going back and fussing around, but going forward into the highly complex and satisfying process of creation” 

 May Sarton

“I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn't impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.”
Anaïs Nin

"Craft is a trick you make up to let you write the poem."

"Tell almost the whole story."

Anne Sexton

“How often I have tried to tell writing students that the first thing a writer must do is love the reader and wish the reader well. The writer must trust the reader to be at least as intelligent as he is. Only in such well wishing and trust, only when the writer feels he is writing a letter to a good friend, only then will the magic happen.” 

Falling Through Space by Ellen Gilchrist

"Your day's work might turn out to have been a mess. So what? Vonnegut said, 'When I write I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.' So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use lots of paper. Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist's true friends."
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

The borders between midnight and dawn, between the natural world and the one that embraces the gigabyte, are more fluid now. The rhythm of my writing, if I can even call it a rhythm, is to write in fragments, in slow musical patterns, in excruciatingly tentative steps. This summer I began to appreciate hiking up the Discovery Trail and learning the names of hemlock, cedar, mountain ash. Somehow the interruptions and distractions began to seed new ideas and my poetry pushed further into unexplored territory. Wild bouquets of yarrow, mint, and rosemary on the bookshelf actually do contribute to my writing life.

Susan Rich – On residency at Hedgebrook

What is important is not the lucky break, the stopping of the train--that's only part of it. Life is full of trains that stop. What counts is what we are doing with our lives when there is no opportunity and not a train in sight.

Phylis Whitney – fiction writer

"All stories about our mothers are love stories, no matter how blighted. You may not find the love until the end of the story, or you may never find it. But others will." 

Brandon French

I’m sorry that our country and the people do not consider the arts as vital to our well-being as, say, medicine. Suffering is unnecessary. It doesn’t make you a better artist; it only makes you a hungry one. However, to me the acquisition of the craft of writing was worth any amount of suffering.

–Rita Mae Brown

It always seemed to me a sort of clever stupidity only to have one sort of talent—like a carrier pigeon. –George Eliot

“If you’re going to write, don’t pretend to write own. It’s going to be the best you can do, and it’s the fact that it’s the best you can do that kills you.” –Dorothy Parker

“Ignorance is not excuse—it’s the real thing.” –Irene Peter

“Thanks goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”—Beatrix Potter

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.” –Virginia Woolf

“I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” –Jane Wagner

“I was gravely warned by some of my female acquaintances that no woman could be expected to be regarded as a lady after she had written a book”. – Lydia M. Child

“Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.”—Sylvia Plath

“I believe you are your work. Don’t trade the very stuff of your life, time, for nothing more than dollars. That’s a rotten bargain.”

–Rita Mae Brown

“So long as you write what you wish to rite, that is all that matters, and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeves, is the most abject treachery.”

–Virginia Woolf

"When an angel carries away my soul/ All shrouded in fog, folded in flames/ I have no body, no tears to weep/ Just a bag in my heart, full of poems."—Elena Shvarts

"I know you are reading this poem
in a room where too much has happened for you to bear"

“--poet journalist pioneer mother
uncovering her country: there are roads to take”
(A. Rich/ from "An Atlas of the Difficult World")

“Listen carefully to what country people call mother wit. In those homely sayings are couched the collective wisdom of generations.” –Maya Angelou

"There were always in me, two women at least, one woman desperate and bewildered, who felt she was drowning and another who would leap into a scene, as upon a stage, conceal her true emotions because they were weaknesses, helplessness, despair, and present to the world only a smile, an eagerness, curiosity, enthusiasm, interest." 
  — Anaïs Nin

"Life on Earth is quite a bargain.
Dreams, for one, don't charge admission.
Illusions are costly only when lost.
The body has its own installment plan.

…through the open window comes a breath of air,
the walls reveal no terrifying cracks
through which nowhere might extinguish you." 

from “Here” by Wislawa Szymborska (--tr. Branczak & Cavanagh,) 

I remember telling myself that I had yet to live an interesting life. What could this twenty-something woman who’d lived only in Massachusetts write about? Weren’t there enough poems singing the praises of New England leaves? I decided to stop writing. I needed to go out and extend the margins of my world before I’d know anything worthy of a poem. And so I joined the Peace Corps, traveled the desert, took care of children during the famine, and stayed in West African brothels. And even then, I didn’t believe I could write.

As a young writer, I had dreamed of changing the world, now I believed the only way I could return to writing was to have absolutely no expectations. And so it was that a Thursday night workshop held in an eccentric woman’s living room allowed me to begin my journey back to writing. I went on to obtain an MFA in Creative Writing. The journey took ten years. Ten years of not writing in order to begin again.

Susan Rich


  1. So many I've not read before. Thanks so much for sharing. I particularly love the last one by you!

  2. Thanks so much, Deb. I felt a little weird putting my own quotes but since this is about women's voices being heard. Let me know if you have any to add to the list!

  3. Wonderful collection of quotes. Here are a few to share:

    When you love something, you understand it. ~ Gertrude Stein

    I can shake off everything if I write. My sorrows disappear; my courage is reborn. ~ Anne Frank

    The past . . . can be a conscious silence that rests open-eyed. . . . ~ Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea)

    Older now, you find holiness in anything that continues. ~ Naomi Shihab Nye

    There's no such thing as a small portion once you bite in and savor the flavors. ~ Julia Alvarez

    Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door. ~ Emily Dickinson

    Protest, too, is a form of praise. ~ Eleanor Wilner

    . . . a poet does not need a leave of absence from anything. . . . ~ Dunya Mikhail

    Writing is an act that generates and expands attention. ~ Jane Hirshfield

    Like other poets, I am often asked if I have a spiritual practice. Yes, writing is my spiritual practice. ~ Alicia Ostriker

    I would rather wonder than know. . . . ~ Mary Ruefle

  4. Thank you so much for these, Maureen;

    I especially love the Mary Ruefle quote. And the Eleanor Wilner and and and ....

  5. I stole the Alicia Ostriker quote from Maureen's comment to put in the margin of my blog!


    1. T, can you add the Marylinn Kelly quote here? I love it and forgot to "steal" it. I also am curious who she is...

    2. Susan,

      Here's a link to Marylinn's blog:

      And here's the quote:

      "The trick, Gloria thought as she experienced near-whiplash at the revelation, was to keep the level of believing in magic constant."
      --Marylinn Kelly

  6. Wonderful! That's exactly the kind of exchange I was hoping would happen...

  7. Curiously, I don't know many men who are torn between writing and answering the call of the housework. Since I sometimes am, I love these words which put things in context:

    At the worst, a house unkempt cannot be so distressing as a life unlived. Rose Macaulay

    Thanks for this post - good to get women's words out there. I particularly like the Virginia Woolf quote.

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  9. By reminding you of your purpose, daily quotes can focus your attention on tasks for the day. One of my favorite quotes to start my day is "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." It reminds me that every day I've got to do my best - and continually reach for what I want to be.

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  10. These quotes concerning life are a best way to understand the theory of life ups and downs.
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  11. So happy I found your blog. I would like to invite you to be a guest writer.

  12. A fantastic selection of simply beautiful quotes, I don't think I could pick a favourite! Thanks for sharing!

  13. You always shared creative writing quotes. Thank you.
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