Collecting Words

It’s February! Happy Black History Month! Earlier this week, my co-worker told me the story of Cathy Williams, the first African-American woman to enlist in the United States Army in 1866 under the guise of William Cathy. If you’re like me and hadn’t heard of her before, go look her up!

February also brings rain where I live, and it’s been pouring buckets here in Southern California, which has given me plenty of time to stare out the window and think about writing (aka: avoiding what I should be doing).

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about literary quotes. As a reader and a writer, I LOVE words. I love the power that words have, I love how I can be moved to tears or laughter by letters smushed together and strung side by side to create a phrase that makes my brain sit up and go “Whoa.”

When I was in college, I started to keep a book of quotes. I would collect as many words as I could, as often as possible. The words would mostly come from books, but if I heard something that I liked from a TV show or a movie, I’d write it down. Song lyrics weren’t off limits, either. If it made me take pause, it went into the book.

I glanced through this journal of mine from the first page to the one holding my latest quote. Not surprisingly, the Me from 10+ years ago was drawn to 90% angst-ridden, love-obsessed phrases and 10% Kelly Clarkson song lyrics. The quotes range from melodramatic musings to quoting an author who must have been the “Book of the Week” for one of my Lit classes. Things then turn existential, with thoughts from famous poets and philosophers on Life and Death and various other cheery topics. There are pages on quotes explaining the benefits of travel, dozens on the craft of writing, and even some of Meredith Grey’s monologues. It’s quite the ride.

A handful of quotes are seared in my mind. I can recite that scene from Dead Poet’s Society and can spill out Harry Potter-isms like no one’s business. My favorite book, perhaps unsurprisingly, has my favorite quote: “He could see plainly that she was not herself. Rather, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” This would be Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.

I recently recalled my high school senior English class. This was one of my favorite classes, in part because my teacher was fantastic (a 4’10” firecracker of a woman) and all we did was read. I remember looking forward to our senior project all year. See, her classroom was “famous” because each year her senior students got to leave something behind. That something was a ceiling tile.

At the end of every year, her students were assigned one final project. It was simple: find a quote that was meaningful to us. We were then given a 3×3 ceiling tile on which to write our quote. When all was said and done, her classroom was literally covered by literary quotes, some decorated in stunning colors, some featuring images from their books, others hosting only the powerful words. Our quotes were left behind for the next year’s class to ponder until it was their turn.

Most of the quotes in my book tend to come from what I was fed in school: predominately white, male, American and Western European works from the “Canon”. It wasn’t until I finished school that I got to/realized I could branch out and discover other writers and stories.

Something I noticed though, looking through my book of quotes, is that there was not a great deal from LGBTQ+ writers/stories/media. Why was that? Is it because LGBTQ+ lit wasn’t really “a thing” in 19th and 20th century literature? (Those bursting-to-the-brim-with-love letters from historical figures NOT included.) Any work containing diverse characters certainly wasn’t on my middle school summer reading list. Yet, even lately, I have hardly written down a quote from a book by an author telling a queer story.

Of course, my idea of a moving or powerful or beautiful quote is subjective. I’m drawn to flowery language, strong metaphorical imagery, and almost lyrical words. Does the fact that we don’t speak and write the way we once did, therefore, factor into what I deem worthy of my book? I can rattle off a few lovely sentences written by Sarah Waters, but why aren’t there more diverse writers filling the pages of my book? Maybe I’m too picky. Maybe my tastes have changed. Maybe I’m holding 21st century writers to a 19th century standard. Or perhaps I’m simply not looking hard enough for those stunning sentences that make me stop and say, “Whoa.”

What do you think? Who or what am I missing? What books have featured lines that floor you on impact? And please, I’d love to know, what are some of your favorite quotes?

7 comments

  1. Hey Sam! I love hearing about stories that include awesome teachers- especially English teachers and yours sounds inspiring. I wish I had written down the book I was reading but I just noted the words and author and that would be Melissa Brayden, “People make life worth living.” I’m pretty sure it was one of the stories in her SoHo series but can’t be certain at this point.

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    • I like that one! It reminds me of the song “People” from the movie Funny Girl.

      “People,
      People who need people
      Are the luckiest people in the world.”

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  2. Quotes! Because words are awesome and sentences are even more awesome!

    “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” The Hollow Men by T.S. Elliot

    “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.” The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes

    “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold…” The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

    “You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

    “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

    “Pass the damn ham, please.” To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    There are so many more…

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