James Baldwin Quotes on Writing: The Complete Collection

james baldwin quotes on writing
by CJ McDaniel // March 16 // 0 Comments

One will recognize James Baldwin’s work through his writing style and telling power. Baldwin’s body of work usually centers on themes related to race, politics, and sexuality. Hence, it’s safe to say that his ability to address an issue and shake the reader to make an action is highly respectable. He even earned international recognition for using his craft to raise public awareness of racial and sexual oppression. As such, many readers and writers aspire to follow James Baldwin’s footsteps, relying on his works and quotes on writing to make a statement themselves.

Born in New York on August 2, 1924, American novelist, essayist, playwright, and social critic James Arthur Baldwin’s passion for writing started early in life. His principal and teachers fostered his interest in grade school, which also explained why he spent much of his time in libraries back then. His writing career then consisted of novels, essays, and plays exploring racial and social issues—making him well-known as a writer and civil rights activist. He was an outspoken observer who used his platform to keep injustice in check, becoming an inspirational figure for many.

Baldwin’s eloquence and passion made him an influential voice during his time, and the same goes for today. Many readers and writers value his fiction and play since they are still relevant, providing insight for the present and future generations to explore. Moreover, his impact goes beyond his contribution to society. As a writer himself, budding, non-professional, and professional writers can learn many things from his written pieces and quotes on writing too.

James A. Baldwin Quotes About Writing

James Arthur Baldwin remains one of America’s most noteworthy and thoughtful critics. His best-known works include the novel “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “Notes of a Native Son.” His name grew popular because of his advocacy against sexual and racial discrimination. Moreover, this popularity boomed because of his creative works, which showcased his eloquence, cynical tone, and rhetorical force.

As a celebrated writer, one can expect wisdom from him about writing. If you’re here for that, enjoy the collection of James Baldwin’s quotes about writing below.

You write in order to change the world.

James A. Baldwin

There is something terribly radical about believing that one’s own experience and images are important enough to speak about, much less to write about and to perform

James A. Baldwin

One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience.

James A. Baldwin

Writing is a political instrument.

James A. Baldwin

The writer’s greed is appalling. He wants, or seems to want, everything and practically everybody, in another sense, and at the same time, he needs no one at all.

James A. Baldwin

You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

James A. Baldwin

When you’re writing you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know.

James A. Baldwin

I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, ‘Look.’ I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.

James A. Baldwin

Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has probably become a neglected institution, his death must always be seen as untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching. The world has many labels for him, of which the most treacherous is the label of Success.

James A. Baldwin

You write in order to change the world … if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.

James A. Baldwin

One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.

James A. Baldwin

You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way… people look at reality, then you can change it.

James A. Baldwin

I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.”

James A. Baldwin

The importance of a writer is continuous…His importance, I think, is that he is here to describe things which other people are too busy to describe.

James A. Baldwin

These days, attention and curiosity work together in my writing life as I notice and wonder.

James A. Baldwin

It is quite impossible to write a worth-while novel about a Jew or a Gentile or a Homosexual, for people refuse, unhappily, to function in so neat and one-dimensional a fashion.

James A. Baldwin

What the times demand, and in an unprecedented fashion, is that one be–not seem–outrageous, independent, anarchical. That one be thoroughly disciplined–as a means of being spontaneous. That one resist at whatever cost the fearful pressures placed on one to lie about one’s own experience. For in the same way that the writer scarcely ever had a more uneasy time, he has never been needed more.

James A. Baldwin

For he was one of those poets who escaped the terrors of writing by writing all the time.

James A. Baldwin

(As your experience about writing accrues) you learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had.

James A. Baldwin

People make you pay for the way you look, which is also the way you think you look, and what time writes in a human face is the record of that collision.

James A. Baldwin

Writing for me must be a very controlled exercise, formed by passions and hopes.

James A. Baldwin

The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen … Perhaps it can’t be done without the poet, but it certainly can’t be done without the people. The poet and the people get on generally very badly, and yet they need each other. The poet knows it sooner than the people do. The people usually know it after the poet is dead; but that’s all right. The point is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world.”

James A. Baldwin

He was one of those poets who escaped the terrors of writing by writing all the time.

James A. Baldwin

James Baldwin Quotes for Writer

Baldwin used writing as a platform to make a change and encourage others to take a stand against discrimination. Decades have passed, and his relevance as a writer still stays, enough to inspire other writers to stand for what is right. Moreover, he also left quotes for writers to draw inspiration and motivation from, especially when facing difficulty continuing their passion. Such words are what’s in the collection you’ll see below.

Rewriting [is] very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it… The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. You have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

James A. Baldwin

I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young — I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.

James A. Baldwin

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

James A. Baldwin

When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

James A. Baldwin

I want to be an honest man and a good writer.

James A. Baldwin

The writer’s only real task: to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art

James A. Baldwin

Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.

James A. Baldwin

An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else in the world can tell, what it is like to be alive. All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell that, I’m not trying to solve anybody’s problems, not even my own. I’m just trying to outline what the problems are.

James A. Baldwin

I want to be stretched, shook up, to overreach myself, and to make you feel that way too.

James A. Baldwin

In this endeavor to wed the vision of the Old World with that of the New, it is the writer, not the statesman, who is our strongest arm. Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.

James A. Baldwin

But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

James A. Baldwin

If you know from whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations on where you can go.

James A. Baldwin

Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has probably become a neglected institution, his death must always be seen as untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching. The world has many labels for him, of which the most treacherous is the label of ‘Success.

James A. Baldwin

The writer trapped among a speechless people is in danger of becoming speechless himself. For then he has no mirror, no corroborations of his essential reality; and this means that he has no grasp of the reality of the people around him.

James A. Baldwin

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.

James A. Baldwin

The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him.

James A. Baldwin

Writers are extremely important people in a country, whether or not the country knows it. The multiple truths about a people are revealed by that people’s artists—that is what the artists are for.

James A. Baldwin

James Baldwin Quotes About Literature

Today’s generation remains appreciative of James Baldwin’s impact on literature. True enough, readers and writers still find value in his insightful work, considering the themes he used are still much discussed in our society. He used his mastery to use literature as an expression, not only as an outlet of creativity but to call for change and equality. Hence, it’s no surprise if you find delight in his quotes about literature, seeing his mastery in the field!

Be careful what you set your heart upon – for it will surely be yours.

James A. Baldwin

You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way… people look at reality, then you can change it.

James A. Baldwin

To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

James A. Baldwin

The future is like heaven-everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now.

James A. Baldwin

No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it.

James A. Baldwin

When one begins to live by habit and by quotation, one has begun to stop living.

James A. Baldwin

Every legend, moreover, contains its residuum of truth, and the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.

James A. Baldwin

James Baldwin Quotes About Books

Likes most writers, James Baldwin loved reading and writing when he was younger. This interest grew, and even though his works consist broadly of essays and plays, it’s understandable why he also had something to say about books. Although his quotes about books aren’t as many as other writers, these very few contain insight into his mind, giving you an idea of what books are to this incredible writer.

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

James A. Baldwin

When you’ve finished a novel, it means, “The train stops here, you have to get off here.” You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it

James A. Baldwin

Something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that. Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.

James A. Baldwin

Books taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive.

James A. Baldwin

I often wonder what I’d do if there weren’t any books in the world.

James A. Baldwin

James Baldwin’s work and quotes on writing still hold up today and for generations to come. Apart from the relevant social themes that his pieces explored, his writing style and literary mastery make him one of the most respected writers in the field. He remains an inspiration for many, and it will come as no surprise if this outlook continues in the future.

Need more inspiration on writing other than these quotes of James Baldwin? Check out our collection of quotes on writing from other authors here.

CJ grew up admiring books. His family owned a small bookstore throughout his early childhood, and he would spend weekends flipping through book after book, always sure to read the ones that looked the most interesting. Not much has changed since then, except now some of those interesting books he picks off the shelf were designed by his company!