Maya Angelou Writing Quotes

Maya Angelou rose from a past that should have doomed her to a life of mediocrity. Instead, she rose to be one of the most celebrated poets and memoirists. In this article, we explore her insights and advice on writing through quotes from several of her interviews and books. Some of the topics covered include:

  • The importance of doing what you love as a writer
  • Tips on how to become a good writer
  • Her insights on reading and learning
  • Her writing process and routine

If you want to learn more about Maya Angelou, check out her quick biography.

Quotes on Why You Should Write

1. There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

2. When I’m writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

3. There are those who say that a poet should use her and his art to change the world. I’d agree with that, but I think everybody should do that. I think the chef and the baker and the candlestick maker -I think everybody should be hoping to make it a better world. That doesn’t mean that the poet has to stand on the soapbox and beat his chest unless that’s who he is. – The Rumpus Interview, 2014

4. What humility does for one, is it reminds us that there are people before me. I have already been paid for. And what I need to do is prepare myself so that I can pay for someone else who has yet to come, but who may be here and needs me. – Feminist Interview, 2008

5. I think I’ve been wonderfully blessed to be able to say something or write something, to live a certain way that makes life a little better for someone else. – Playboy Interview, 1999

6. I feel I have responsibility. I have no modesty at all. I’m even afraid of it – Feminist Interview, 2008

Quotes on Being a Writer and the Writer’s Life

7. Making a decision to write was a lot like deciding to jump into a frozen lake. I knew I was going in, so I decided I might as well try what John Killens suggested as the deepest end. – The Heart of a Woman, 1981

8. I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music. – Conversations With Maya Angelou, 1989

9. I love what I’m doing. So I don’t mind working. I don’t mind the struggle. I owe it to the muse, to the creator.  – HBR Interview, 2013

10. Whatever the story, my mode of telling it is through writing. It’s a good thing I love English. I just have to pray for the intelligence and courage to ask of it everything I want. – Playboy Interview, 1999

11. I hope to continue to write, and I want to write well. I will continue to write a little music and write some songs and some poetry and lectures. – Garage Interview

12. I’ll be celebrating my 85th birthday. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I’ll probably be writing when the Lord says, “Maya, Maya Angelou, it’s time.” – Time, 2013

13. So what I have to do, and will spend the rest of my life doing, is trying to write the most graceful and gracious English ever. – Playboy Interview, 1999

14. I’d like to write better. I have the dream to write so well that a reader is 50 pages into a book of mine before he knows he’s reading. – Playboy Interview, 1999

Quotes on Doing What You Love

15. You have to look to yourself. You must realize it’s not your brother’s life, it’s not your cousin’s life, it’s your life. You have this one chance to be yourself, and nobody else can be you but you. So try to be somebody you like. – Garage Interview

16. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

17. Few, if any, survive their teens. Most surrender to the vague but murderous pressure of adult conformity. It becomes easier to die and avoid conflict than to maintain a constant battle with the superior forces of maturity. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

18. I had to trust life, since I was young enough to believe that life loved the person who dared to live it. – The Heart of a Woman, 1981

19. Life is going to give you just what you put in it. Put your whole heart in everything you do, and pray, then you can wait. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

20. I decided many years ago to invent myself. I had obviously been invented by someone else -by a whole society -and I didn’t like their invention. – Conversations with Maya Angelou, 1989

Quotes on Fear and Failure

21. Every try will not succeed. But if you’re going to live, live at all, your business is trying. And if you fail once, so what? …You fail, you get up and try again. – The Heart of a Woman, 1981

22. I had to try. If I ended in defeat, at least I would be trying. – The Heart of a Woman, 1981

23. I thought if I could face the worst danger voluntarily, and triumph, I would forever have power over it. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

Quotes on Dealing with Struggles and Challenges

24. Anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

25. What I’ve been able to do with my life is take lemons and use them to make lemonade and lemon pie, lemon tarts, even lemon candies. – Playboy Interview, 1999

26. She comprehended the perversity of life, that in the struggle lies the joy. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

27. Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

28. Children’s talent to endure stems from their ignorance of alternatives. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

Quotes on Language, Being Mute and Learning to Talk

29. For about six years, from when I was seven to 13, I was a mute. – Playboy Interview, 1999

30. I would listen to the accents and I still love the way human beings sound. There is no human sound which is unbeautiful to me. And so I’m able to learn languages because I really love the way people talk. . – NPR Interview, 1986

31. I’ve been able to speak 10, 11, 12 languages; I can get around in six or seven now. It’s really because I love to hear human beings talk and sing that I’ve listened so assiduously, and out of that came the love of language. – Playboy Interview, 1999

32. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

33. Now no one is going to make you talk -possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

34. She would catch me and say, “You do not love poetry, not until you speak it.” I’d run away and every time she’d see me she would just threaten to take my friend. Finally, I did take a book of poetry, and I went under the house and tried to speak, and could. – NPR Interview, 1986

Quotes on Reading, Knowledge and Learning

35. I read everything there was, every book in the black school to which I went, whatever there was I read, and I memorised. – High Profiles Interview, 2002

36. All those years in that little town in Arkansas, I learned through the literature. – Conversations with Maya Angelou, 1989

37. It was a terrible, terrifying time [the time she was mute], but at the same time it afforded me an introduction to world literature– High Profiles Interview, 2002

38. It forced me to educate myself [having a son when very young], so I could educate him and encourage him to educate himself. Because of that, I have learned things I probably would have never learned. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. – Garage Interview

39. All knowledge is spendable currency, depending on the market. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

40. She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

41. Miss Kirwin was that rare educator who was in love with information. I will always believe that her love of teaching came not so much from her liking for students but from her desire to make sure that some of the things she knew would find repositories so that they could be shared again. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

42. You know that old song about the young person who at ten knew that his dad and mom knew everything, then at fifteen he couldn’t believe they knew nothing, and then at twenty he was amazed that they learned so much in the last five years? I like that because that’s the way learning is. – The Rumpus Interview, 2014

Quotes on How to Become a Good Writer

43. There are those critics…who say, “Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer”. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

44. Being a natural writer is much like being a natural open-heart surgeon. – Playboy Interview, 1999

45. I somehow got the feeling early on that if human beings did a thing, I could study it and try to do some of it too.  – HBR Interview, 2013

46. I memorized so many poets. I just had sheaves of poetry, still do. – NPR Interview, 1986

47. If I had not studied Latin in school, I wouldn’t have found it as easy to comprehend the structure of language. Had I not danced, I might never have really listened to music and known I could compose something. – HBR Interview, 2013

48. I understood early that not everything I did was going to be a masterpiece, but I would try to do it the best I knew how. I’ve listened to an inner voice and had enough courage to try unknown things. – HBR Interview, 2013

49. Nathaniel Hawthorne says, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

50. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, “No. No, I’m finished. Bye.” And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

51. I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

52. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

53. Find something you like, go into a room, close the door and read it aloud. Read it aloud. – Feminist Interview, 2008

54. Everybody in the world who likes dance can see dance, or hear music, or see art, or admire architecture…But the writer has to take these most common things, more common than musical notes or dance positions, a writer has to take some adverbs, and verbs and nouns and ball them up together and make them bounce. – Feminist Interview, 2008

55. Because I had a fairly large vocabulary and had been reading constantly since childhood, I had taken words and the art of arranging them too lightly. The writers assaulted my casual approach and made me confront my intention. – The Heart of a Woman, 1981

56. If I wanted to write, I had to be willing to develop a kind of concentration found mostly in people awaiting execution. I had to learn technique and surrender my ignorance. – The Heart of a Woman, 1981

57. Can’t Do is like Don’t Care. Neither of them have a home. – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 1969

58. I like to go back and read poems that I wrote fifty years ago, twenty years ago, and sometimes they surprise me – I didn’t know I knew that then. Or maybe I didn’t know it then, and I know more now. – The Rumpus Interview, 2014

Quotes on Creativity, Writer’s Block and How to Generate Ideas

59. You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have. – Conversations with Maya Angelou, 1989

60. I’ll read something, maybe the Psalms, maybe, again, something from Mr. Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson. And I’ll remember how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

61. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

62. All I have to do is listen to hip-hop or some of the rappers. I listen to country-western music. I write some country music. There’s a song called “I Hope You Dance.” Incredible. I was going to write that poem; somebody beat me to it. .” – Time, 2013

63. I don’t call it a block. I’m careful about the words I use, because I know that my brain will remember and tell them back to me. – HBR Interview, 2013

64. I really thought that there was a small mind and a large mind, and if I could occupy the small one, I could get more quickly to the big one. So I play solitaire…Sometimes after that I’ve got two pages worth looking at; sometimes I’ve got 20. – HBR Interview, 2013

65. There are times when I sit on the hotel bed with a deck of cards and play solitaire to give my “little mind” something to do. – HBR Interview, 2013

66. The idea comes and I will live with them ‘til I get it as close to what I mean. I’ve never been totally satisfied. I’ve come close a few times. – The Rumpus Interview, 2014

Quotes on Maya Angelou’s Writing Philosophy

67. I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool -and I’m not any of those -to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

68. The black writer in particular should throw out all of that propaganda and pressure, disbelieve everything one is told to believe and believe everything one is told not to believe. Start with a completely clean slate and decide, “I will put it out.” – Conversations with Maya Angelou, 1989

69. In West Africa they call that ‘deep talk.’ I’d like to think I write ‘deep talk.’ When you read me, you should be able to say, Gosh, that’s pretty. That’s lovely. That’s nice. Maybe there’s something else? Better read it again. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

70. I also know that I write more slowly now, and I don’t use as much rhyme anymore. That may be because I’m not walking as much as I used to. At my age I’m doing well to get around at all so maybe that’s what has got me in a long meter. – The Rumpus Interview, 2014

71. Human beings should understand how other humans feel no matter where they are, no matter what their language or culture is, no matter their age, and no matter the age in which they live. If you develop the art of seeing us as more alike than we are unalike, then all stories are understandable. – HBR Interview, 2013

72. I came to the conclusion that what Machado de Assis had done for me was almost a trick: he had beckoned me onto the beach to watch a sunset. And I had watched the sunset with pleasure. When I turned around to come back in I found that the tide had come in over my head. That’s when I decided to write. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

73. The subject of the poem usually dictates the rhythm or the rhyme and its form. Sometimes, when you finish the poem and you think the poem is finished, the poem says, “You’re not finished with me yet,” and you have to go back and revise, and you may have another poem altogether. It has its own life to live. – The Rumpus Interview, 2014

Quotes on Maya Angelou’s Influences

74. I find in my poetry and prose the rhythms and imagery of the best -when I’m at my best -of the good Southern black preachers. The lyricism of the spirituals and the directness of gospel songs and the mystery of blues are in my music, are in my poetry and prose, or I’ve missed everything. – NPR Interview, 1986

75. I was very influenced – still am -by Shakespeare. I couldn’t believe that a white man in the 16th century could so know my heart. If he could know my heart, a black woman in the 20th century, a single parent… then obviously I could know a Chinese Mandarin’s heart and the heart of a young Jewish boy with braces on his teeth in Brooklyn. – NPR Interview, 1986

76. There’s a statement by [the Roman dramatist] Terence: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” If you know that, accept that, then you can tell a story. You can make people believe characters are just like they are. – HBR Interview, 2013

Quotes on Maya Angelou’s Writing Process and Routine

77. Although I live in a huge house, I keep a hotel room and go there at about 6:30 in the morning. I have a Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, a Bible, a yellow pad, and pens, and I go to work. I encourage housekeeping not to go in, since I leave at about one in the afternoon and never use the bed. – HBR Interview, 2013

78. To write, I lie across the bed, so that this elbow is absolutely encrusted at the end, just so rough with callouses.-The Paris Review Interview, 1990

79. I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower… Then I go out and shop…And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

80. When I would end up writing after four hours or five hours in my room, it might sound like, It was a rat that sat on a mat. – The Paris Review Interview, 1990

Quotes on Criticism

81. I’ve reached an age where many of the critics I respect have gone on to the next transition, but I’ve learned to listen to young people. – HBR Interview, 2013

82. I’m reaffirmed more often than not. That is to say, I don’t learn something new from them, but I do find that what I’ve found to be true is still true. – HBR Interview, 2013

Further Reading

If you loved the quotes by Maya Angelou, check out the huge collection of writing quotes below. The collection features the best quotes by some of the most famous writers such as Margaret Atwood, Anne Lamott, Anais Nin, Anne Frank, and J.K Rowling among many more.

The quotes are full of valuable advice for any aspiring writer.

If you are struggling to create a business around your writing and need some encouragement, read the quotes below.

  • Sources Cited for Maya Angelou’s Quotes

Conversations with Maya Angelou (1989) Conversations with Maya Angelou (Literary Conversations Series) [see on amazon]

Feminist Interview (2008) Conversation with Maya Angelou

Garage Interview Revisiting an Exclusive Interview with the Late Dr. Maya Angelou

High Profiles Interview (2002) On the Way Up

HBR Interview (2013) Life’s Work: An Interview with Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings [see on amazon]

NPR Interview (1986) ‘Fresh Air’ Remembers Poet And Memoirist Maya Angelou

Playboy Interview (1999) Playboy Interview with Maya Angelou

The Heart of a Woman (1981) The Heart of a Woman [see on amazon]

The Paris Review Interview (1990) Maya Angelou, The Art of Fiction No. 119

The Rumpus Interview (2014) The Rumpus Interview with Maya Angelou

Time (2013) 10 Questions With Maya Angelou