My Aphorisms

I first started writing aphorisms in the early 1980s, when I was about 20. I practice the “spontaneous combustion” method of composition; that is, the aphorisms spontaneously occur in longer stretches of text.

This is in contrast to the “deliberate composition” method, whereby an author deliberately sits down to write aphorisms and consciously works on individual lines to that end.

Once an aphorism appears, I do revise and rework it, if necessary. But most of my aphorisms emerge pretty much complete and intact.

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The laws of physics get you down.

Small stuff tells big stories.

Rehearse the minor hurts enough and the major ones don’t hurt.

In the margin for error lies all our room for maneuver.

Aphorisms are not drive-thru windows of the soul.

You can never look in the same mirror twice.

You only really discover the strength of your spine when your back is against the wall.

Dictionaries are, by definition, not definitive.

A smile looks a lot like a wince.

Having a map doesn’t prevent you from making unexpected discoveries.

Never trust an animal — no matter how many legs it has.

Following in other people’s footsteps is fine, as long as you are big enough to fill their shoes.

There is not much room for error in an eggshell.

People tend to salute anything unnaturally bright, at least until the shade from their hands reveals what it really is.

Dare to be unprepared.

Eating is good because it gives you something to do. If you think too much, just order pizza.

All thinking is wishful thinking.

Familiarity breeds complacency not contempt.

Wisdom begins not with wonder, but with wondering.

You never know what you can do until you are tried.

X + Y = You

Big things are accomplished by accomplishing little things first.

Who notices their feet unless there is a stone in their shoe?

The serenity that often comes with age consists primarily of the realization that we can’t do much about anything anyway.

Tears always appear at the extremes, greasing the joints between pleasure and pain.

To inspire, first inflame.

To get your foot in the door, first get it out of your mouth.

Counting on things going wrong makes it easier to count your blessings when they don’t.

The dark side retains its power by imposing a blackout.

You need a lot of dots to know where to draw the line.

The best response to a great performance is not applause but silence.

Use sharpens a dull axe.

An infant’s smile is the universe’s seal of approval.

The trouble with me is I’m not here.

What inures is ignored.

Too many facts spoil the plot.

A thread’s only strength is clinging.

“I am nothing,” the Buddha said. “I really do not exist. I am an open window. I am a bus stop.”

The long, lonely walk back to the drawing board concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Life: adjusting a necktie in a funhouse mirror.

Without the hole, a doughnut is just another form of sugared toast.

It is easy to get lost in the moment, and then to mistake that moment for eternity.

At night, after the children have gone to sleep, we can hide their presents all over the house.

You need the long form to form the long view.

Prepare for spontaneity — now.

Young people should picnic in active volcanoes.

The Earth does not regret its orbit.

You must understand a thing completely before you can safely ignore it.

People lose common sense when they gain dollars and cents.

Never be serious in public.

Burn your ships at night and in the morning build bridges.

More is achieved with finesse than with force.

The seen and the scene often disagree.

The greatest compositions incorporate into the score the sound of the musicians turning the sheet music.

Cultivate a certain distance from yourself, as one tends to avoid radiation.

Sometimes, two goldfish in a bowl are enough.

Laughter blows away the dust from our eyes.

Our mistakes make us interesting.

Spring: When everything that died in winter gets a chance to rot.

Literature is the art of finding fresh new ways to say the same old things.

There’s never nothing left to learn.

An animal must feel at least temporarily safe in order to really enjoy a meal.

There is always time between beginnings to do the whole thing over again.

Money is poor compensation for all the time we lose in making it.

Don’t celebrate when you finish something. Completion is just the first stage of collapse.

Poetry is the best turds in the best ordure.

Not many people live in the desert.

I would rather be a voice in the desert than a face in the crowd.

If you are in danger then you are really alive, like a nun’s orgasm.

Cliches are aphorisms that have become victims of their own success.

To see clearly, one must very often squint.

Preparing for something brings it about.

After a certain age, we are granted a new way of telling time: counting the people we know who have died.

What we do while doing nothing cannot be done in haste.

Self-doubt is the beginning of wisdom.

The trouble with me is I’m already there.

To see clearly, look askance.

The art of writing is the art of knowing what to leave out.

Even what is nearest, most prolific, is invisible unless properly lit.

It’s getting dark. Let’s celebrate.

Image trumps information.

Why I like juggling: The illusion of flight, deft mastery of falling’s art; because to have what you hold you have to throw it away as soon as it’s caught.

Trying to consciously control your thoughts is like trying to install a faucet on Niagara Falls.

The bar opens when the casket closes.

In a crisis, inspiration is better than consolation.

Open your hands and you open your heart.

The numinous is the nitty-gritty.

Thought begins where habit ends.

Black humor suits a funeral as much as black suits.

Sometimes, you need a door slammed in your face before you can hear opportunity knock.

It’s hard to think clearly in someone’s arms.

Imagine their embarrassment when all the members of the orchestra arrived at the performance wearing the same outfit.

There are certain mistakes we enjoy so much that we are always willing to repeat them.

Advice is given freely because so much of it is worthless.

Often, the smartest thing you can do is to play dumb.

You can’t warm yourself at a distant fire.

When in doubt, remain in doubt.

Rumination is the enemy of revolution.

You can’t expect a change of scenery if you never veer from the beaten track.

A manuscript that’s ready to be read by others is a feast the cook is no longer able to enjoy.

It is hard not to become pushy when the wind is at your back.

A postcard, circa 1985, with one of my aphorisms on it, from Annex Productions


The Ultimate Dictionary of Wit and Wisdom

September 2012

The Ultimate Dictionary of Wit and Wisdom coverBased in USSome of my aphoristic definitions appear in this anthology, compiled by Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley.


Hotel Amerika

Volume 9, Number 2, Spring 2011

The Hotel Amerika coverBased in USThree of my Assays appear in this issue of the literary journal, which is completely devoted to aphorisms. You can see a PDF of the Assays here.

Het Groot Citatenboek van de 21ste Eeuw

October 2010

Buy the book OnlineBelgian publicationSome of my aphorisms appear in Het Groot Citatenboek van de 21ste Eeuw (The Big Quotation Book of the 21st Century), compiled by Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley.


Fall 2010, Issue 7 – September 2010

US EditionFour of my Assays, abbreviated aphoristic essays, appear in the Fall 2010 issue of this online journal dedicated to fragmentary writing, edited by Olivia Dresher.


September 2009

Serbian publicationA handful of my aphorisms appear in Zikison 65, a weekly journal of political satire, cartoons and humor published in the Balkans.

Het Grootste Citatenboek ter Wereld

August 2009

Buy the book OnlineBelgian publicationSome of my aphorisms are included in Het Grootste Citatenboek ter Wereld (The Biggest Quotation Book in the World), compiled by Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley. The book contains some 35,000 quotations from roughly 10,000 authors.

My Articles about Aphorisms

The Independent

October 14, 2012

The wit of the wise

Where would we be without aphorisms, asks James Geary

August 2009

Sudden Wisdom
Aphorisms are literature's hand luggage—no other type of writing does so much with so little.

The Takeaway

Oct. 8, 2008

The presidential campaigns and the war of witty words

The Takeaway talks with James Geary about political aphorisms.

Time Out London

Time Out LondonMarch 12–18, 2008
Slogan’s Run

James Geary on those pithy little sayings that capture universal truths in a nutshell

National Post (Canada)

Nov. 29, 2007
The Art of the Aphorism

The Huffington Post

The Huffington Post's site logoOctober 2, 2007
I’m a regular blogger for the Huffington Post. Check out: There Is an Aphorism for Everything

International Herald Tribune

June 23, 2006
Never Argue With An Aphorism