Aphorisms from Harvard Summer School’s JOUR S-137 Feature Writing Class

The course description for JOUR S-137 Feature Writing, taught at the Harvard Summer School by Kansas City Star columnist and Nieman fellow, class or 2017, Jeneé Osterheldt, says the class will focus on reporting and writing techniques that “lead to stories that sing with rich detail and narrative style.” The aphorisms Jeneé’s students produced during my workshop with them demonstrate just how much rich detail and narrative panache can be compressed into a single, well-crafted sentence. Aphorisms in general—and these aphorisms in particular—read like abbreviated short stories. Just as in a journalistic feature, in an aphorism writers have to sketch in context and back story with a few quick, deft touches—a concise description here, a striking image there. From that small cluster of details, the reader becomes the accomplice of the writer in unspooling the narrative from its aphoristic core and constructing its meaning. That’s what make a good aphorism sing, and it’s what makes these aphorisms swing…


Annie Sandoli

A feeling is either the salt in the ocean or the sun in the rain.

The difference between a seed and a rock is potential.

Anne-Sophie Galli

You don’t need eyes to see.

A lack of time makes people creative.

Stephanie Hazelwood

Eating McDonald’s will satisfy your craving not your hunger.

Coffee without caffeine is wasted energy.

Karina Alexander

A caged lion cries at the thought of being free.

The greatest freedoms one can have are a pen and a strong opinion.

Kate Millar

A house in a neighborhood can only see the houses next door.

Every thread fears being unpicked.

John Glasfeld

Learn to swim before learning to sail.

There are times to swim and times to float.

Kimberly Rufen-Blanchette

Light shines brightest when impeded.

A prism of light starts small.

Madeleine Schaffer

When the last brick is laid, the building collapses.

Circles are squares in HD.

Mara Moettus

Summer needs winter to give it a name.

A haircut is the least painful measure of time.

Mindy Koyanis

Not every scene on screen is seen.

Use writer’s blocks for building.

Nate Swope

If nobody saw it, it never happened.

Bullets don’t discriminate.

Aphorisms by Francis Picabia

From the indefatigable aphorist and convener extraordinaire Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and genius loci of Tramp Freighter

I enjoy finding a good tiny book. One I picked up a few years ago: Yes No: Poems & Sayings by Francis Picabia, published by Hanuman Books (1990) and translated by Rémy Hall. It’s a red covered paperback measuring only 2.5” in width and about 4” in height. With gold titling and a picture of Picabia (Geary’s Guide, pp. 264–265) in his studio on its cover, it’s quite striking. Hanuman Books was itself a tiny operation publishing books by avant-garde writers out of the Chelsea Hotel.

Francis Picabia, early on associated with Dada, was one of those restless and quixotic artists who worked in many styles and used various materials, including text in his work. The book begins with short aphoristic poems, under the heading “Yes No,” and then his “Sayings.” What’s better than a beautiful tiny book full of fascinating aphorisms? (Note: Picabia apparently composed some of his sayings all in caps.) Here’s a sampling of Picabia’s sayings:


Art is the cult of error.

Beauty is relative to the amount of interest it arouses.

Paralysis is the first stage of wisdom.

Laws are against the exception, and I only like the exception.

Only useless things are indispensable.

Knowledge is ancient error reflecting on its youth.

Taste is tiring like good company.

Me, I disguise myself in order to be nothing.

For a man to be no longer interesting, it suffices not to look at him.

Men have more imagination for killing than for saving.

Desire fades away if you possess, don’t possess anything.

The justice of men is more criminal than the crime.



Mystical explanations are the most superficial.

My revolutionary friends, your ideas are as narrow as a small shopkeeper from Besançon.

Love-making is not modern; yet it is still the thing that I like best.


The most beautiful book would be that which would not be possible to consider as a book.

When art appears, life disappears.