Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 18, 2017

Rules for a Successful Writing Life from Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, inspiration

Photo credit: Emily's Quotes - http://bit.ly/2e6jcwF

Today I'm thinking about the people who inspired me on this writing journey.

There are the usual suspects... My mother, who encouraged my constant scribbling. The 6th grade teacher who put my essay up on the wall with a shiny gold star. Countless friends and teachers, in my home writing chapter and online. The founders and contributors here at WITS.

There are the great writers who have already passed: Pat Conroy, Blake Snyder, Zig Ziglar, Harper Lee. And Maya Angelou, who deserves a post all to herself. Angelou is who I'm thanking today, as she's my get-up-and-go girl when I'm down about this writing life. Her quotes are in blue.

A mentor helps a person to interpret the world.

I can hear Angelou's strong voice in my mind, that well-modulated tone that filled hundreds of auditoriums and thousands of hearts. She said, "In order to be an effective mentor, a mentor has to care." It's her special talent that, although we've never met, I still feel her care. I know I'm not alone...she has mentored millions with her words. 

Her Lessons for a Successful Life

1. Do right – it will satisfy your soul.

"Try to be the best you can be. People will know you and they will add their prayers to your life and be happy for you."

I don't know about you, but I'm a huge fan of kindness. It doesn't cost you anything to help lift others up. It doesn't push you down. In fact, it will probably give you a mental lift for the next task you face. It might be a door you open, a review you write or a tweet that you share, but paying kind deeds forward will satisfy you. I promise.

Pick up the battle – this is your life. This is your world. Make it a better one where you are. It is up to us to make the world better.

2. Be courageous.

Courage is the most important of all the virtues – you can’t be kind or fair or humane or generous until you find your courage. Courage is required to defend all the other virtues, and to be a whole person.

3. Self-love is very important.

Never trust anyone who says they love you if they don’t first love themselves. At a college commencement address, Angelou shared an old African proverb with those young people: Be careful of a naked man who offers you a shirt.

If you're having trouble with the self-love today - and we all have those days - she recommends "gathering everyone who has loved you - bring them along with you when you have to do anything."

Think of your granny who stroked your hair as you fell asleep at night, or the relative who taught you an important skill. Think of your best friend who thinks you hang the moon and stars in the sky. If you're a believer, think of God. 

Just because your loved ones aren't always with you anymore, doesn't mean their love doesn't still live inside you. Pass their love along to yourself.

4. If you don’t laugh, you will die.

The sense of humor is self-defense against life’s difficulties, but it's also good for us. Stress is the current slow-killer in our society, paving the way for illness and depression.

This article from Laughter Online University gives several health benefits of laughter:

  • Laughter triggers the release of a cocktail of happy chemicals that boosts the immune responses, particularly components related to anti-viral and anti-tumor defenses.
  • Laughter boosts secretion of growth hormone, an enhancer of key immune responses.
  • Laughing leads to the release of endorphins, a natural opiate that has been scientifically shown to carry messages of attachment and bonding (the scientific terms for love), and to stimulate feelings of caring and forgiveness in addition to acting as a natural painkiller.
  • Laughter stimulates circulation and aids muscle relaxation, both of which help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress.
  • Laughter can help you learn. This theory is held by many learning experts and leaders.

I'm quite certain that the younger Maya didn't know the science of it all, but she learned that laughter helps you find a way forward when you feel like there is no way.

5. Be a blessing to someone.

Be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. We may not speak the same language or dance the same dance, but be a blessing to someone.

After a childhood rape, Maya Angelou stopped speaking for five years. When she stopped speaking, she started reading and the stories kept her afloat.

She knew what we all know: stories are important. They are our friends when we're lonely, assurance when we're scared, inspiration when we're down. Stories are a gift and many of us write to pay that gift forward.

Angelou quotes that speak to me as a writer:

“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

“If you get, give. If you learn, teach.”

“When I am 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. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound.”

“All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart, which tells that we are all more alike than we are unalike.”

“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

“My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts of kindness.”

“Nothing can dim the light which shines from within.”

She exhorted all of us to "turn struggles into triumphs," know you are talented, do your best and, most of all, "keep rising."

From her poem, Still I Rise...

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.



Do you have a Maya Angelou quote that particularly speaks to you? Or a quote from a different writing mentor. Who has been a rainbow in your cloud?

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About Jenny Hansen

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm.

51 comments on “Rules for a Successful Writing Life from Maya Angelou”

  1. Boy, did this post motivate me and make me smile. Thanks for that!

    Here's a good quote/message that I like to remember:

    "Don't try to think about what people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."--Barbara Kingsolver

  2. Wow, great timing, Jenny. I needed this today. Thank you.

    My favorite Maya quote?

    'We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.'

    Be brave, writers!

    1. That's a wonderful one, Laura! I'm making a list of her quotes for my own inspiration needs and I'll add that one.

      I'm down with gluten these last several days - why are you down?

  3. Thanks, Jenny. This is a great post and one I should read daily. I think for me #3 Be Courageous is the one I most have to remember. When I think of all the things I can do (and could have done) if only I'm not afraid. Afraid of looking foolish or stupid, afraid people won't like me, afraid I'll fail, and afraid I'll succeed. I think I'll make a new mantra: Be Courageous.

    1. I can whack any day sideways thinking about the "could have dones." I'm all for her quote at the top. "Do your best. And when you know better, do better." That, and the support of people who love me, are what help me to be courageous.

  4. A wonderful post, Jenny. Many years ago, I attended a key-note address Maya Angelou gave to the North Carolina Writers Network at an annual conference. It was the most memorable evening ever --- a phenomenal combination of song, dance, poetry, and heart-felt writing advice. I think back on it often. A truly inspiring woman.

    1. You lucky, lucky lady, Rebecca! She is one of the people I wish I'd seen live. I've seen Ray Bradbury several times before he died. But I've always wished I'd seen Maya live. She was so wise and so special.

  5. Thank you so much for giving us this post to start our days of writing. I can hear the quotes in Maya's unique voice. They resonate in my soul.

  6. I attended a Southern Women Writers Conference in Rome, GA, one year and was thrilled to hear Maya Angelou speak. Loved your post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and hers. Marilyn (aka cj)

  7. Thank you Jenny! It's wonderful to have so many of Maya Angelou's quotes and pearls of wisdom in one place. I've bookmarked this post for future reference. She is one of the people I find the most inspirational in both her literary works and her humanity and understanding of human nature. I had the good fortune of thanking her in person for all she does and she thanked me back in the most generous manner. On the day I met her I had been wondering whether or not I should try my hand at fiction, scared I wasn't good enough to write fiction. Being from a family of Korean mudang, (shamans) I think meeting Maya Angelou might just have been the sign from the universe that I needed to get started on my literary journey. ; )

    1. Wow, I just got chills! That's an amazing story. And I'm impressed with you for recognizing the sign when it flashed for you. So many people miss those important signposts.

  8. The. Best. Post. Ever. Jenny. Maya is such an inspiration, and to hear her speak on that clip gives me shivers. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to her. The bird quote has always been a favorite of mine.

    1. You are so very welcome, Carrie. It's astonishing to me, reading through the comments, how many of us have met her in person, and how many of us treasure her quotes.

  9. Such an inspiring post from an inspiring woman. This was a shout of inspiration that I needed. Copied it off for me to refer to when I need a boost. Thanks for posting.

  10. Boy, did I need that this morning, before I wasted the day in a funk of procrastination.

    And the reminder of how far Angelou lifted herself from the hardships of her life . . . wow! That was a timely kick in the butt. What an incredible woman. What an incredible mentor.

    I will remember now that she can be - is - a mentor to me, too. Your post did that. Thanks!

    1. I know that funk of procrastination. That crazy lazy bitch has derailed me more times than I care to count. Thank you, Sherri for your lovely comment!

      1. Motivated by your post - and all the great replies and exchanges - this evening I found a post of Angelou's 10 rules for success. At the end was a powerful performance of her "I rise" poem, but her rule number one really struck me: "courage."

  11. I read all the quotes you wrote above and I don't know if I could top them. This was the perfect start to the new year even if we've reached mid-January, it's still the beginning. We're still contemplating the year ahead, making our goals, whether secular or personal. I wish I could say I have/had a Maya Angelou in my life. So I think I will adopt her through her words and voice. Thanks for the reminders my friend. This has to be one of your best posts ever! 🙂

    1. Trust me, it feels like Christmas just happened a few days ago. I hate how time whirls when your kids are small. I just want to glom on to every piece of the magic and POOF, there it goes!

      And wowzers, thanks for that compliment at the end. I actually struggled a bit with direction for this post (because Maya has SO much awesome to choose from) so I really appreciate that. 🙂

  12. When I sat in a hotel convention hall in Boston in the mid-1980s and first heard Maya Angelou speak, something in me changed forever. For. Ever. The words she chose. The way she spoke them. It was spiritual...and she touched the core of me. What a remarkable human being. Her time here enriched us all, and she left this world better than she found it. And that, yes that is a life well lived.

    1. I agree with you, that she left the world a better place, and I'm also so happy for you that you got to be in the same room with her and her brilliance. I'm only just a teensy bit jealous, but I know I can go comfort myself with YouTube. There's a lot of clips of her there, and I love them.

  13. Thanks, Jenny. Here's mine:

    "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style." -- Maya Angelou

    A wonderful post! Pinned & shared. 🙂

  14. I wish I had met her. But that's the amazing legacy great writers leave, we fell as if know their heart and they were a friend.

    Amazing post, Jenny. My favorite: "Just because your loved ones aren’t always with you anymore, doesn’t mean their love doesn’t still live inside you. Pass their love along to yourself." Remembering my Mom tonight.

    1. Thanks, Deb! And I was remembering my mama when I wrote that. I need to always remember to pass her love along to myself because she loved me to pieces. 🙂

  15. so many beautiful things she has said, this one is a favorite:

    “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
    ― Maya Angelou

    1. I do love that one, and I agree with it. It goes along with never knowing what it's like to walk in someone's shoes. We often have no idea what it took to get them to today.

  16. I love this woman. She was and is a great inspiration for me. Thank you for introducing her to so many others who may not know her and her philosophy about writing and how she writes.
    Shalom aleichem,

  17. Jenny, what a wonderful idea for a post. Angelou was amazing. And the notion in the video--that we hold a place within ourselves pristine so it cannot be violated--is so pertinent to those of us in the highly competitive and critically examined field of publishing. Loved every word of this!

    1. Thank you, Kathryn! That place inside ourselves is such an important lesson. And I particularly thought of the amazing introverts who live in a world that tries to encroach on personal space. It really struck me, how much better they defend that safe space inside than extroverts like me.

  18. Thank you for pulling some of my past, before writing, to the present with this post, Jenny. Talk about a strong role model for us all!

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