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First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process 

By Robert D. Richardson - University of Iowa Press

click to enlarge First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process - BY ROBERT D. RICHARDSON - UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
  • By Robert D. Richardson - University of Iowa Press
  • First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process

There are basically two kinds of books on how to write: those by writers who are better known for their books on writing than for their writing, and those by famous writers that tell you how to write just like them.

Maybe that's why Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most famous, oracular and inimitable American essayist, never wrote an essay on writing. Still, Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson extracted ideas and advice from Emerson's journals, letters, essays and lectures (as well as that big biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire) in this comfortably brief but inspiring book.

Each chapter covers a topic of active interest to writers: from "Keeping a Journal" (Emerson is a prodigious and practical if perhaps unique model) to words and sentences, metaphor, practical hints and relationships to nature, art and audience.

Writing was Emerson's passion and faith. "All that can be thought can be written." He championed original accounts, personal experience and the individual view. Yet writing is a skill and a continuum, and both require reading. "There is creative reading as well as creative writing... First we read, then we write."

Emerson's comments can be lofty ("Life is our dictionary") and sardonically practical ("The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say"). Some advice especially reflects his own work, yet is applicable to others: "Three or four stubborn necessary words are the pith and fate of the business... the rest is circumstance, satellite, and flourish."

He knew writing is hard, but he thought of it as heroic. "We need the power to write, but that is only the beginning. We also need the resilience to rebound from our setbacks, the willingness to finish what we start, and the strength to hold out for performance over intention."

The truth is that almost any writing book can be valuable, though it's often in oblique and personal ways, depending on when an aspiring writer happens upon it. But Emerson speaks in particular to a feature of this age.

Why, we may wonder, are there so many university writing courses and writing workshops even outside academia in an era of dwindling opportunities for writing careers, and apparently rampant illiteracy? Perhaps because as Emerson knew, there is unpredictable personal value to self-discoveries made in the process of writing, and ways of being in the world (and staying sane) made possible by the act of writing.

Yet writing is not meant to end in the self, even if the audience is illusory or uncertain. "Happy is he," says Emerson, "who always writes to an unknown friend."

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