First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson, is a slim and enjoyable little book. I think, however, to really enjoy it, the reader needs to be either a) a fan of Emerson; b) looking for writing advice or inspiration; c) both. For myself, I am a fan of Emerson.
Emerson never really wrote at length about how to be a good writer. Richardson pulls together snips from various essays, journal entries and letters to create the illusion of a consistent whole. He does it very well, so well that he makes Emerson sound like a proto-Elements of Style guide:
Writers should avoid abstractions and Latinisms and use short, concrete Anglo-Saxon or Germanic words. They should be wary of overused words. “If I made laws for Shaers or a School,” said Emerson, “I should gazette [forbid] every Saturday all the words they were wont to use in reporting religious experience as as ‘Spiritual Life,’ ‘God,’ ‘soul,’ ‘cross,’ etc and if they could not find new ones next week they might remain silent.” Elsewhere in his journal he drew up a list of gazetted terms: “‘after all,’ ‘Kindred Spirit,’ ‘yes, to a certain extent,’ ‘as a general thing,’ and ‘quite a number.'”
The basic structure of writing for Emerson was the sentence. It is the foundation upon which all his essays are built. For better or worse it is why his writing is so aphoristic and why so many of his sentences have made it into common usage. All you writers out there, if you are struggling with how to write a good sentence, you couldn't do much better than to study Emerson's. Try some of these on for size:
Literature is a heap of nouns and verbs enclosing an intuition or two.
The maker of a sentence like the other artist launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night.
The way to write is to throw our body at the mark when your arrows are spent.
The first rule of of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.
And those are just odd selections on writing quoted in this book. If you really want a taste of Emerson’s gorgeous sentences, you must read his essays.
The disappointing thing about the book was the reading portion. It is very short and does not much more than tantalize. “There is creative reading as well as creative writing,” says Emerson. But either Emerson never wrote much about the hows of reading or Richardson found it difficult to put this beginning section together, I don’t know. There is not much about creative reading at all, only bits of advice that Emerson offers on books and reading in general. There is not much of a connection made between Emerson the reader and Emerson the writer. Unfortunate since Emerson was a voracious and deep reader and used books and his reading to stimulate his brain and inspire his writing.
Nonetheless, I found the book was pleasant reading and I found myself thinking that when I am finished with school next spring once and for all I just might start meandering my way through Emerson’s essays again.
I leave you with this marvelous Emerson thought, written to his friend Sam Ward when Emerson sent him a copy of Augustine’s Confessions:
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.