First We Read, Then We Write

This incontrovertible statement is the title of a book I have just read about the work and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson – why is no one called Waldo anymore? – and a very fine book is it too, though it might not be to everybody’s taste, dwelling, as it does, on the concerns and obsessions that beset the writer going about the daily business of writing: a messy business, as a rule.

Robert D. Richardson clearly knows Emerson like no other; he swims with nimble strokes through the waterways of Emerson’s thought, and leaves you with a definite feeling for the measure of the man. I, for one, knew practically nothing of Emerson, and now, although I will find out more, my conception of him will always be coloured by the things I have learned from Richardson.

I suppose in many ways Emerson is the closest thing to an American Montaigne. Reading was his passion, but like many writers, he read ‘almost entirely in order to feed his writing’ – which is more or less the same thing as saying the two activities are contiguous upon each other: writing is simply an extension of reading, and vice versa. But reading needs to be conscious and creative: ‘Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought as completely as the inflections forced by external causes.’ The advice is to take only what one needs from reading, to stop as soon as it becomes a drudge or an obligation, and to read selectively, casting the dross aside.

He gave advice to many young writers on how best to keep up a journal, to be watchful and to process the material of the world like a tide mill ‘which thus engages the assistance of the moon, like a hired hand, to grind, and wind, and pump, and saw, and split stone, and roll iron.’

As for the planning of a work of fiction, his advice is right up my street: ‘You should start with no skeleton or plan. The natural one will grow as you work. Knock away the scaffolding. Neither have exordium or peroration.’

This is much what E.M. Forster meant, with the words: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’ Or Coleridge, with his appeal to ‘organic form’.

Writing should be a process of surprising oneself. If I had a plan, down to the last detail, of what my story will be, what would be the point of writing it? I mean, what is in it for me if I know precisely what is going to happen and what my characters are going to think and say and do? It would simply be a matter of typing.

So, Richardson says, ‘If Emerson’s writing does not always, or even usually, proceed in a straightforward, logical manner, it is not because he couldn’t write that way, but because he didn’t want to, and was after something different.’

Other grand quotes from Emerson:

Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.

Hitch your wagon to a star. (yeah, well, I thought it was Lee Marvin too)

People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad . . . Give me initiative, spermatic, prophesying, man-making words.

Every hero becomes a bore at last.

The maker of a sentence like the other artist launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and Old Night.

There is so much here that rings familiar: that we are essentially bound to nature and that all we touch and see is, at some profound level, a metaphor for ourselves. ‘The Universe is the externalisation of the soul’ – all stuff that would not have sounded odd coming from Blake. There’s a lot to take on board, which is how Emerson would have liked it. None of it is easy. Take it or leave it, but for me these writers, like Montaigne, de Quincey, Emerson, Stevenson, Proust, Borges, for whom writing was some kind of epic night journey, are almost always the most rewarding.

And what a motto (even if, like me, you have to look one of them up): Neither have exordium or peroration!





4 Comments on “First We Read, Then We Write

  1. Wonderful. Exordium? I was thinking of you today since I started reading Vila-Matas’ Dietario Voluble and now I want to read all of his books (Bartleby was not available neither in Eterna Cadencia nor in Crack-Up). I’m all lit up and taking notes and falling in love all over again with life, and of course books. I should be able to jump around the room while reading, but I am not. I never could. So thank you. Because it was you who talked about Vila-Matas when we were leaning over the rail at the Tigre Hotel’s empty gardens.


    • For me V-M is invaluable and unequaled. He is one of those writers who makes me want to write (which is actually what the publisher Charles Boyle said about the Giannuzzi translations I sent him – and which I am finishing off now). But it’s the most important gift any writer can give another writer. Glad you are in good spirits.


  2. Pingback: World Building with Wren Emerson « Quill Shiv

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