Swans Commentary » swans.com January 11, 2010  



First We Read, Then We Write


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Richardson, Robert D.: First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process, University of Iowa Press, 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1-58729-793-9, Hardcover, 112 pages.

(Swans - January 11, 2010)   For those of us who devote most of our lives to writing, there is little time to stop and analyze the complex nature of our profession. We are too busy delivering copy and meeting deadlines to overly concern ourselves with the criteria that govern our art form. Happily we can turn to authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was profoundly concerned with the nature of language and devoted long stretches of his life trying to determine where those impulses came from and how they produced the written word.

In his essays Emerson often discussed the origin of language using language to edify and provoke thought. "The poets made all the words," says Emerson "and therefore language is the archives of history. And if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first, a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for a moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer, The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. It is the poet's, the writer's job to reattach things to nature -- Genius is the activity which repairs the decay of things."

Robert D. Richardson's First We Read, Then We Write acts as a kind of MRI of Ralph Waldo Emerson's foray into the nature of language. For Emerson the secrets of good writing were synonymous with comprehending the most salient aspects of life itself. One wrote in order to explain the inexplicable. He produced books of essays and poetry, all of which dealt with questions such as why are we here and how can we discover ways to ease our journeys and tune in forces that are simultaneously self-evident and, at the same time, impenetrable. In other words, the Big Questions that paradoxically ceded only the smallest of answers, the value being primarily in the quest of them.

"Consistency," wrote Emerson famously, "is the hobgoblin of little minds" and in that single aphorism one can divine what made Emerson such a masterful stylist. He sensed that writing is not so much a "stream of consciousness" as it is a flood of thoughts that carry with it a wide variety of cargo and that the writer must divine from a multiplicity of impulses which are those appropriate for his literary purposes. "For the best part...of every mind is not that which he knows," wrote Emerson, "but that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing unprocessed before him. His firm recorded knowledge soon loses all interest for him. But his dancing chorus of thoughts and hopes is the quarry of his future, is his possibility."

This sounds almost like André Breton's campaign for "automatic writing," which was part of the foundation of the Surrealist movement. It toys with the idea that there is a part of human sensibility that is wiser than the logical-positivist procedure of deliberate and consciously revised writing. "The moment you putty and plaster your expressions to make them hang together," says Emerson, "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 a scissors meet."

How different this is to most writing, which "outlines" itself before pen is put to paper (or font on to computer screen) and proceeds to "illustrate" premeditated thoughts on prescribed topics. It is those "hobgoblins" that Emerson described which are responsible for the dry, repetitive, collegiate style of writing that emanates regularly from academia, producing a language often decipherable only to those who have been weaned on theses and dissertations.

It is Emerson's transcendentalism that motivates his theories on writing, but this is no subtle hucksterism for a particular cause but an attitude towards living that enlivens everything he ever wrote. Like Thoreau, he was articulating an attitude to life that enabled him to find parallels in his work to those of his religion. In the cases of both men, they were foraging into their deepest instincts in order to unravel the mysteries of the times in which they were living. For Thoreau, the obsession was nature in all its diversity; for Emerson it was morality and social intercourse. He dealt concretely with abstractions and it must be remembered that Emerson's outlet was the public lecture platform and so he was obliged to hold the attention of ordinary citizens whose temperament were very different from his own. By all accounts, he did so magnificently.

So fecund is Richardson's treatise that one is tempted to quote salient passages from his book rather than try to condense its virtues. Here are some of the Emersonian nuggets liberally sprinkled throughout the work -- some familiar, some not so.

"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."

"An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man."

"The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."

And the old familiar: "If you write a better book or preach a better sermon or build a better mousetrap than your neighbor, the world will make a beaten path to your door."

The book was gulped down in one sitting over a period of three hours not because I am such an adept reader but because it contains less than 100 pages and pursues an argument that whizzes like a hare through a wilderness lit by brilliant sunshine. Richardson is also the author of the definitive biography of Emerson entitled Emerson: The Mind on Fire; a major work that won the Francis Parkman Prize, the Melzer Book Award and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award -- so this is an excavation of familiar territory for the author but an aspect of it, which will be invaluable to every writer or would-be writer that ever tangled with the mysteries and pitfalls of literary composition.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 11, 2010