Robert Lopez | Longreads | October 2019 | 25 minutes (6,239 words)
For years I’ve been misquoting the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz without knowing that Milosz is the one I’ve been misquoting. I’ve done this, I’m sure, because I heard someone else misquote Milosz. I’m pretty sure this person did so without attribution, as well.
How far back it goes is unknowable, of course, but it’s akin to a literary game of telephone that is entirely without consequence or the least bit interesting.
What I’ve been saying is this: When a writer is born into a family, it’s the end of the family.
I preface this statement with the safe and inarguable, “A writer once said …”
I used to think Flannery O’Connor said this about writers and families, as it sounds like something she would’ve said.
It isn’t very scholarly or academic to say, “A writer once said,” but it gets the point across to students. I trot this misquote out whenever I’m trying to get my students to risk more on the page, whenever I see them pussyfoot around potentially interesting and dangerous material. I use the Milosz quote to give them license to let it fly, to destroy themselves and their families.
I employ any number of quotes and misquotes when I teach fiction and nonfiction writing to students. Babel, Hemingway, Faulkner, Chekhov, Didion, Pritchett, Hannah, Shakespeare, O’Connor, Borges, Stengel, Berra, Ray Charles, A writer, etc.
The actual quote from Milosz is: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
I like the misquote better.
There’s a finality to the misquote that feels apocalyptic, whereas the actual quote sounds softer. One can finish a coffee table or a deck. One lover can ask another, “Did you finish?” and it would be considerate, thoughtful. A diamond is finished as are countless other precious gemstones and earthly items.
A family finished can mean they’ve attained the pinnacle of human achievement. No reason to go any further, to go forth and continue with this mindless multiplying, for we have birthed a writer.
Of course, it could be an issue with translation, too, and there’s no accounting for that. And I don’t know where the quote comes from, if it was in a poem or essay or lecture or what. A google search doesn’t provide this information, and I will have to dig deeper.