Quote Origin: I Write Because I Want More Than One Life

Anne Tyler? Lee Smith? C. S. Lewis? George R. R. Martin? Louis L’Amour? Apocryphal?

Preparing to write in a notebook from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent author disclosed a fascinating insight into her prime motivation for writing novels. She desired to live more than one life. Would you please help me to identify this author and find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: U.S novelist and literary critic Anne Tyler has written popular and acclaimed novels including “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant”, “The Accidental Tourist”, and “Breathing Lessons”. In 1976 she published a piece about writing in “The Washington Post”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

I write because I want more than one life; I insist on a wider selection. It’s greed, plain and simple. When my characters join the circus, I’m joining the circus. Although I am happily married, I spend a great deal of time mentally living with incompatible husbands.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1961 fantasy and theological author C. S. Lewis wrote “An Experiment in Criticism” which discussed inhabiting many different lives from the perspective of a reader:2

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.

In 1976 the article by Anne Tyler was reprinted in other newspapers such as the “Democrat and Chronicle” of Rochester, New York. Thus, her quotation achieved further circulation.3

In 1989 Old West novelist Louis L’Amour published a memoir titled “Education of a Wandering Man”. He referred to the wide variety of lives a reader could experience vicariously:4

It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

In 1992 the quotation by Anne Tyler appeared in “The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women” compiled by Rosalie Maggio. The paragraph from 1976 was printed in this reference work, and the accompanying citation pointed to “The Washington Post”.5

In 1997 “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” included the following entry:6

Anne Tyler novelist
I write because I want more than one life; I insist on a wider selection. It’s greed, plain and simple.
Civilization Mar 95

In 2011 fantasy author George R. R. Martin published “A Dance with Dragons”. One of his characters highlighted the multiplicity of lives accessible via reading:7

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”

In 2016 the writer Lee Smith was interviewed by Wendy Werris of “Publishers Weekly”, and the remark of Anne Tyler was mentioned:8

You quote Anne Tyler in the book: “I write because I want more than one life.” How has this idea affected you as a writer and in your personal life?

Actually, I have spent most of my working life as an English teacher with several children to raise–not much time for exotic travel or adventures. . . .  Using oral history and research, I have been able to write about serpent handlers, beauticians, whores, Civil War soldiers, and country music singers–lots of people I will never be.

In conclusion, Anne Tyler deserves credit for this quotation. She wrote it in “The Washington Post” in 1976. Other authors have commented on inhabiting multiple lives from the readers perspective. Tyler was speaking from a writer’s perspective.

Image Notes: Preparing to write in a notebook from Unsplash photographer Go to Sixteen Miles Out. The image has been cropped and resized.

  1. 1976 August 15, The Washington Post, ‘Because I Want More Than One Life’ by Anne Tyler, Start Page G1, Quote Page G7, Column 1, Washington D.C. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  2. 2012 (First published 1961), An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis (Clive Staples Lewis), Section: Epilogue, Quote Page 140 and 141, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Verified with Google Preview) ↩︎
  3. 1976 October 17, Democrat and Chronicle, From whence the magic springs by Anne Tyler, (Continuation title: Magic), Start Page 1G, Quote Page 7G, Column 2, Rochester, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
  4. 2008 reissue (1989 Copyright), Education of a Wandering Man: A Memoir by Louis L’Amour, Chapter 3, Unnumbered Page in Preview, Bantam Dell: A Division of Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩︎
  5. 1992 Copyright, The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women, Compiled by Rosalie Maggio, Topic: Writing, Quote Page 360, Column 1, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  6. 1997, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes Since 1950, Revised Edition, Edited by James B. Simpson, Section: Literature, Topic: Writers and Editors, Person: Anne Tyler (novelist), Quote Page 475, Column 1, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  7. 2013 (Copyright 2011) A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin, Series: A Song of Ice and Fire, Quote Page 495, (Mass Market Paperback), Bantam Books: An Imprint of Random House Publishing Group. (Amazon Look Inside) ↩︎
  8. 2016 February 29, Publishers Weekly, Volume 263, Issue 9,PW Talks with Lee Smith: What Makes a Southern Writer a Southern Writer by Wendy Werris, Publisher PWxyz, LLC., New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎