Quoting your own work

I was a little taken aback recently to meet an author who kept quoting their own work in support of their arguments. Seemed to me they were writing tickets. Um, really you’re quoting you to prove your points? Isn’t that redundant? Oh, look, I agree with me. How surprising!

But mostly I was weirded out because I couldn’t quote anything from any of my books even if you threatened to kill me if I didn’t start reciting stat. Who memorises their own books? I mean other than the writer I just met who does.

I put it to the test and asked a bunch of my writer friends if they could quote any of their work. Cassandra Clare and Robin Wasserman were easily able to rattle off opening lines of several of their books. Especially Robin who recited the whole opening paragraph of Skinned. Maureen came up with the opening of Scarlett Fever, which she happens to be working on right now.1 But she was also able to quote some choice lines of dialogue from less recent books. Scott can quote the opening of Uglies but, honestly, who can’t? I mean even I know that one.

But me? I cannot recite a single line from my own work.

So what about you other writers? Can any of you quote your own work? Can any of you recite beyond the opening lines? Am I a freak with the crappest memory ever?2 Do any of you think it’s kosher to quote yourself in a discussion?

Oh wait: “I have a parking fairy.” There. I quoted a line. Yay, me! Not sure what arguments I’ll win with it though.

  1. No, I can’t quote the opening of my 1930s book. It keeps changing, okay? []
  2. It is true that I’ve been known to forget names of characters in my book. My fans know my books way better than I do. []

46 comments

  1. Holly Black on #

    I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I’ve misquoted myself.

  2. Amy on #

    I can quote the opening of my completed-except-for-impending-rewrites-from-editor novel. I can quote a few lines here and there. No big chunks though. Sometimes my critique partner sends me an email telling me she loves a particular line and I don’t even recognize it as mine.

  3. Brendan on #

    Scientists cite their own work all the time. There’s hardly a journal article by Smith et al. that doesn’t include “… as previously shown by Carlyle and Smith (2001), Smith (2002), Smith and Jones (2003), and Smith, et al. (2006, 2007)”

  4. Shauna on #

    No way. I don’t remember much from my books. My cousin text me with a remark about one of them that she was reading and I was quite confused because I thought she was talking about people she knew. I didn’t realize until several texts later that we were talking about a situation I had made up and not one that was happening to her friends -_-

  5. Justine on #

    Brendan: That’s different. Firstly, it’s written down citing. I bet they couldn’t quote themselves in a conversation. Secondly, it’s not just scientists: I’ve had to cite myself in my scholarly work because no one else had done work in that area. It still felt weird, but.

    Shauna: Yup. I’ve had that experience. Sometimes I forget the names of my own characters.

  6. Lisa McMann on #

    Not kosher to quote your own work in a discussion to prove a point. In fact, it seems really odd. Unless the discussion/argument is with yourself. Then it somehow feels perfectly normal.

    I can quote the opening phrase of WAKE because I often read that passage at signings, but that is it. My family likes to walk around pointing at things and saying “S’mine” the way my main character says it in FADE, but that’s the extent of the quoting. My memory is shot.

  7. Tim Pratt on #

    I did a podcast interview once with a guy who asked me if I could recite the *last* lines of some of my books and stories, and by racking my brain I came up with a couple of them (they were short). But I was surprised I could do it — I mostly think of my books in terms of stories and characters and less in terms of the individual *words*, if that makes sense.

  8. R.J. Anderson on #

    I’ve done so many drafts of my debut novel, half the stuff I remember no longer exists in the story, and there are lots of bits I don’t remember writing at all. I’m with you, pretty much.

  9. Samantha Schweppe on #

    I can quote everything I have ever written.

  10. lisa on #

    I cacn’t quote anything I’ve written and would NEVER quote myself to support an argument I’m trying to make. If I were on a panel at a writers festival I might say something like, ‘well as I say in my book…’ and then paraphrase, but if I’m actually trying to make a point in an argument I would back up my point by paraphrasing another person’s argument.

  11. Malinda Lo on #

    I can quote the first line of my debut novel (and the one I’m currently writing) because I think first lines are super important and I thought a long time about them. But I don’t think I’d ever quote myself in a conversation to support my own argument! Weird!

  12. Tiffany Schmidt on #

    I’m really curious – what point was the author trying to argue? This situation seems so funny, could you keep a straight face? I would’ve giggled!

  13. Q on #

    I can quote what is currently the last line in my current (blasted) project, but everything else… Erm, no. Not even the first line. I really ought to know what the first line is, word for word, but I only have an idea. I must not cheat and check and then say I know it. Must not cheat.

    So you’re either not a freak or we’re both freaks.

  14. Sarah Rees Brennan on #

    I can cleverly and brilliantly quote myself – from drafts long discarded and in fact totally incompatible with things people have actually read. To the amazement of the populace!

  15. Michelle Sagara on #

    There are whole poems that I can quote (that I wrote, even).

    But of course, I don’t try to have those published. With the novels? Ummm. There are odd bits of dialogue, or a particular passage, that for some reason still resonate in memory, but those are frequently not at the beginning of a book, or not necessarily at the end.

    The only time I could see quoting something I’ve done in an argument, otoh, is if someone is telling me that I cannot possibly do such-and-such in a book I expect to have published. If I have done it, I could see myself pointing this out.

  16. Justine on #

    Tiffany: If I told you the actual convo the person would know I was talking about them and they would be cross with me.

  17. Harry Connolly on #

    I can quote one or two lines. Not too much, really.

  18. Diana Peterfreund on #

    I’m not sure what is meant by making a point. If someone says, “No books have hot guys with glasses in them,” I might say, “Well, the hot guy in my book, George, wears glasses.” And then I would be making a point by providing an example from my own work.

    But it’s also not the definitive answer. George is not the be all and end all of hot guys in books.

    I can probably quote lines here and there in my book. Far more often, I find myself reading my own work and being like, “I don’t remember writing this line. It’s better than I remember.”

  19. Barry Lyga on #

    I can remember bits and pieces here and there, but nothing that I would drop into a conversation. Embarrassingly, I’ve had people quote my own work to me…and yet I’ve not realized what they were doing. “Uh, that’s nice,” I’ll say, and then a few minutes later realize, “Oh, damn! That was ME!”

  20. E. Lockhart on #

    I have no idea what is in any of my books.
    I am not actually sure who wrote them. It doesn’t feel like me, most of the time.

  21. Anna on #

    I can quote my own poems better than prose I’ve written….but I can remember some random lines I’ve written, particularly if I had/have strong feelings about that line for some reason.

    But I’m wayyyy better at quoting other people’s books. I think I can quote whole pages of Holly Black’s “Tithe”….. O_o

  22. Justine on #

    I’m enjoying all your responses. Nice to learn that I am not alone.

  23. Merrie Haskell on #

    I was going to say I can’t quote my own work if I’m on the spot, but I can if I’m lazily pondering, to myself, sans spotlight.

    But then I realized I can do large chunks of “I honor you with my manhood,” etc. and gave the argument up as a lie.

    Though, I don’t recognize that as my own work anymore (in a visceral sense, that is), so maybe not.

    Anyway, once I write something down, I tend to think of it as “saved to off-site back-up” and it doesn’t need to stick around in my brain. I’m frequently delighted and surprised by myself, as a consequence. It’s really not a bad way to live one’s life.

  24. Justine on #

    Merrie: I love that you can quote your juvenilia!

  25. Merrie Haskell on #

    Only because of the command encores from that one day. :)

  26. Justine on #

    Merrie: Well, of course, there were many encores! That was some of the most spectacularly bad juvenilia I have ever heard. I am still in awe.

  27. Sherwood on #

    No quotes, but I can describe any image.

  28. Dave H on #

    I can quote this:

    “The victory moved the Shock into the WNBA Finals for the fourth time in six years. The Liberty were trying to reach the championship series for the first time since 2002.”

    *ducks*

  29. Justine on #

    Dave H.: I don’t think this is the place to confess that you are a Bill Laimbeer Satan worshipper.

  30. E. Kristin Anderson on #

    I can recite/quote from a lot of my poems, but mostly the ones I’ve reworked a million times – i.e. ones that get picked up by a mag and then I have to go back and forth with the editor through emails. If this is not the case, it tends to be a poem that I only remember for it’s horridness, having been written when I was a teen and discovered later as an adult. THE SHAME!

    However I can’t quote any of my prose without looking at it. So maybe it’s a poetry thing.

    And I definitely think quoting oneself during a lecture or a talk is weird, unless one is giving a reading. I had an anthropology professor in college who had us read his book and then cited himself often in class – it just felt awkward.

  31. Margo Rabb on #

    I once had someone come up to me and quote a line from a story, and I said, “Oh, who wrote that?”

    “You did!” she said.

    Kind of embarrassing.

  32. Rachel on #

    My dad’s a professor and he assigns his own work, which I thought was kinda weird but whatever. Um. Let’s see. I can quote a couple lines from one story I wrote but that’s mainly because I wrote the story to fit around the lines. That is, I had these lines floating around in my head for a while and finally found a character to say them.

  33. Herenya on #

    I quote things a lot, and I quote all sorts of different things – songs, books, films, slogans, poetry, somethings other people have said, and so forth. It’s a family trait, and I have a good memory for such things. It’s like there’s a muddle of quotes in my head and when something reminds me of one of them, or one of them expresses better than I can what I want to say, then out it comes!
    So things I’ve written myself end up in that quote-muddle – lines I’ve worked hard on, or which really resonated with me for whatever reason, or random lines which appear in my mind due to word-association. (I also remember most of my not very good poetry, but I’m generally less inclined to quote that.) If I was tied to a chair and to save my life had to start quoting things I’ve written, I could probably do so.

    But generally if I’m quoting myself, I’m doing so in a informal, personal space – in conversation with friends, or in my blog. Most of the time, I’ve quoting something no one else would recognise, and it’s not to prove a point, it’s because I feel I’ve already best put into words what I mean. (Or because that quote popped into my head and I feel like sharing it.) If I’m looking for evidence to back up myself, I’ll quote someone else.

  34. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    I can tell dozens of complete stories from memory. This started in fourth grade, when I had to memorize and then recite a native american legend in front of the whole class. With props, and mild acting. Ever after I have been able to recall and retell any number of stories I have picked up over the years. Its quite fun, actually.

    At one point, I could have recited the entire first chapter of Harry Potter 1 at the drop of a hat. Now I can only recite about the first three pages or so.

    As to my own work, not so much. I remember snippets from the things I’m working on, and a few bits here and there from older stuff. I am pretty good at remembering the gist of a scene and describing it, but not word-for-word.

    Sometimes I get deja vu while writing, and wonder if I have written that line before, or read it somewhere, or heard it from someone. Then I wonder if I’m a horrible writer who can’t even think of one original line. Then I wonder if I’m paranoid. Then I start to think the word “were” looks funny and I might be spelling it wrong. But that’s a separate issue.

    I would never quote myself to make a point in an argument. That makes no sense. I might say something I have said before, if its an argument I have made before, but I would not use that as a reference to prove my point.

    ~Mary

  35. Julia Rios on #

    The odd line here and there, but by and large, I misquote if I try (but I can usually remember the gist of it more or less). The exception being my juvenilia, particularly the stories I wrote for school when I was nine, but that’s only because they’re hilarious. I don’t think I would quote myself in conversation to prove a point, though I suppose there could be some unforseen circumstance in which I would.

  36. bennett madison on #

    I quote liberally and often from an imaginary book I’ve written called Bennett’s Bromides. It’s just a collection helpful aphorisms and “valuable little bits of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way!” Quoting from this book in casual conversation reminds people that they are speaking to a man of substance and wit. And as I wrote in Bennett’s Bromides, “Everyone appreciates a reminder that they are speaking to a man of substance and wit.”

  37. kath on #

    To clarify; not a writer, ordinary person.

    I do not think remembering bits of your work is unusual. Quoting your own work to support an argument makes their theory sound all lonley, though. Because wasn’t there anyone else whose work might support also it?

  38. Jennifer on #

    Not only do I not quote myself, I’ll read something I wrote on the Internet years ago, and slowly think, “Hey, this sounds like I wrote that…”

    I can quote plenty of other people, just not ME. I guess I’m not memorable.

  39. Karen Healey on #

    Huh, it turns out I can recite the opening and closing lines, and in-between, I can remember most of the really *nasty* things characters say to each other.

    I’m going to hope that’s because the burn lines are pithy and memorable, not because I’m good at being mean.

  40. Hannah on #

    I used to have Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder memorized, I read it so much. I can recite perfectly the opening line of Uglies (but who can’t?) and some opening lines of chapters in HTDYF. I also, occasionally quote manga or anime, too, when it fits.

    I guess it depends on what stands out to you and how good your memory is. I can memorize all the passwords I use on a ton of websites, but not my math homework.

    Also, quoting yourself in a debate is a bit biased.
    I mean, using yourself as backup?

  41. Kelly McCullough on #

    I can’t imagine quoting from my own books, and I’d certainly get it wrong if I tried. That seems very odd.

  42. Nicholas Waller on #

    I’ve heard that some singer-songwriters have trouble remembering their own songs because they get brain interference from all the alternatives, false starts and rejected babies they toyed with at various stages. Cover singers only have to remember the finished article.

    As for a professor (@32 Rachel) assigning his or her own work to students – yes, it’s a bit self-aggrandising if it is the only book assigned, but perfectly reasonable if part of a wider reading list looking from all angles. After all, if the prof has researched and been thinking about the specific issue for years, then a written distillation would be useful and appropriate. If, though, the prof reckons that his or her work is the be-all-and-end-all of the matter, then no doubt that tends to stifle critical thinking and alternative arguments from students relying on that prof for marks.

  43. jonathan on #

    I can’t even finish writing a book, let alone start quoting it.

  44. Amber on #

    My favorite is E. Lockhart’s comment here. (The whole “not sure who wrote them” thing is pretty cool, and I think *fairly* common.)

    I acutally don’t know the opening to Uglies, but right now I don’t think I can quote anything. I am pretty sure most author’s don’t know their work. And honestly the first that came to my mind was about those who quote the Bible to prove a point about what they believe (which is, the Bible). That definitely does not work.

  45. J on #

    personally, i know certain lines because i use them for my signiture in my email and see it every day. ex:
    “No more cliff jumping, okay? You worry me sometimes.”
    “Don’t worry. Next time I’ll jump out of a plane.”
    ~Simon and Eva, Hidden

    But usually, i forget a line a day after i write it. people are like, i love how u wrote “….”
    and i’m like “i wrote that? okay, which book, and when?”
    i can’t quote my beginings. they change 2 much. i remember some quotes from Scott-la’s books
    i love him. i am obsessed.
    and other books i like, that were funny. but my own work… not so much, unless i have created a work of brilliance, which, sadly, doesn’t happen as often as i’d like

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