Aphorisms by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Just finished reading First We Read, Then We Write by Robert D. Richardson, reflections on the creative writing process gleaned from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and journals. Richardson, who has written fantastic biographies of both Emerson and Thoreau (and William James), does a magnificent job of curating these Emerson quotes. Emerson is a great aphorist (Geary’s Guide, pp. 83-85) and in these observations and analyses he gets at the heart of what it’s like to write and to read…

Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.

The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.

Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories.

All that can be thought can be written.

There is creative reading as well as creative writing.

First we eat, then we beget; first we read, then we write.

[While you are reading] you are the book’s book.

It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other; and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterwards in the hope of being in Paradise again.

For only that book can we read which relates to me something that is already in my mind.

There is a great secret in knowing what to keep out of the mind as well as what to put in.

The glance reveals what the gaze obscures.

What we are, that only can we see.

The way to write is to throw your entire body at the target after all your arrows are spent.

Words are signs of natural facts. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts. Nature is the symbol of spirit. The whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.

Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work.

It is the best part of each writer which has nothing private in it.

Language should aim to describe the fact, and not merely suggest it.

Art lies not in making your object prominent, but in choosing objects that are prominent.

[Good style:] Nothing can be added to it, neither can anything be taken from it.

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

If you desire to arrest attention, to surprise, do not give me the facts in the order of cause and effect, but drop one or two links in the chain, and give me a cause and an effect two or three times removed.

The moment you putty and plaster your expressions to make them hang together, you have begun a weakening process. Take it for granted that the truths will harmonize; and as for the falsities and mistakes, they will speedily die of themselves. If you must be contradictory, let it be clean and sharp as the two blades of scissors meet.

The power to detach and to magnify by detaching, is the essence of rhetoric in the hands of the orator and poet.

Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes.

I lose days determining how hours should be spent.

The best part … of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unpossessed before him. His firm recorded knowledge soon loses all interest for him, but this dancing chorus of thoughts and hopes is the quarry of his future, is his possibility.

Always that work is more pleasant to the imagination which is not now required.

Our moods do not believe in each other.

Life is our dictionary.

Skill in writing consists in making every word cover a thing.

You must never lose sight of the purpose of helping a particular person in every word you say.

The art of writing consists in putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse and cart. Then have we somewhat far more goodly and efficient than either.

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics.

You shall not tell me that your house is of importance in the commercial world. You shall not tell me that you have learned to know men. You shall make me feel that. Else your saying so unsays it.

Art is the path of the creator to his work.

All things are engaged in writing their history. The planet, the pebble, goes attended by his shadow. The rolling rock leaves its scratches on the mountain.