Maya Angelou, the great American author and poet, was known for her award-winning autobiographies as well as for her numerous plays, scripts, poems, and essays.
Her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has sold millions upon millions of copies. It holds the record for the longest-running nonfiction New York Times best-seller (2 years). And in 2011, Time Magazine named it one of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923.
Angelou is widely known as a voice for women, especially black women, and her works have courageously covered themes of identity, racism, and family. During an interview with USA Today in 1988, Angelou said, “One isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
Maya Angelou’s Writing Routine
As you may expect, Angelou’s creative genius didn’t expose itself without hard work. She was a true master of habits, routines, and consistency.
Here’s how she described her writing habits in 1983 interview with Claudia Tate (as covered in Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals),
“I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband. He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine. I keep a hotel room in which I do my work—a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon. If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind. I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.”
Angelou’s routine and her willingness to sit down and do the work for at least five hours each day — even when it was going poorly — is just another indication that great artists don’t wait for inspiration.
Below, you’ll find a range of quotes from Angelou.
Quotes and Thoughts From Maya Angelou
“What I represent in fact, what I’m trying like hell to represent every time I go into that hotel room, is myself. That’s what I’m trying to do. And I miss most of the time on that: I do not represent blacks or tall women, or women or Sonomans or Californians or Americans. Or rather I hope I do, because I am all those things. But that is not all that I am. I am all of that and more and less. People often put labels on people so they don’t have to deal with the physical fact of those people. It’s easy to say, oh, that’s a honkie, that’s a Jew, that’s a junkie, or that’s a broad, or that’s a stud, or that’s a dude. So you don’t have to think: does this person long for Christmas? Is he afraid that the Easter bunny will become polluted? … I refuse that… I simply refuse to have my life narrowed and proscribed.” 1
“When I try to describe myself to God I say, “Lord, remember me? Black? Female? Six-foot tall? The writer?” And I almost always get God's attention.” 2
On dealing with difficulty…
“We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated.” 3
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” 4
“What you're supposed to do when you don't like a thing is change it. If you can't change it, change the way you think about it. Don't complain.” 5
On loving yourself…
“I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you.' … There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.” 6
“Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”
On finding your calling…
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass.”
On living life…
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 7
“I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.” 8
“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.” 9
“I’ve always had the feeling that life loves the liver of it. You must live and life will be good to you, give you experiences. They may not all be that pleasant, but nobody promised you a rose garden. But more than likely if you do dare, what you get are the marvelous returns.” 10
Masters of Habit is a series of mini-biographies on the rituals, routines, and mindsets of great athletes, artists, and leaders.
If you want more practical ideas for breaking bad habits and creating good habits, check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.
From a 1977 interview by journalist Judith Rich as mentioned in Brain Pickings.
From an NPR interview with Lynn Neary.
From an interview with The Paris Review
From Angelou’s New York Times best-seller, Letter to My Daughter
From yet another New York Times best-seller, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now
From a 1997 Weber State University lecture
From a 2012 interview with Beautifully Said Magazine
From a 2000 interview with Oprah
2011 quote from Angelou’s Facebook page.
From the book, Conversations with Maya Angelou