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First We Read: Then We Write

May 11, 2010 | No Comments

I’ve discovered the most marvelous book about the writer’s craft: First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson and the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson (published by University of Iowa Press in 2009). Richardson, who has written a highly respected biography of Emerson (The Mind on Fire, 1995), sifted the most inspirational and concrete advice about the importance of reading and the process of writing from the Concord Sage’s extensive papers, which he then distilled into less than ninety perfect pages. “Throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent,” is perhaps Emerson’s best known comment on creativity, (and I love the bravado recklessness this implies and because, as Richardson writes, it focuses on “attitude not aptitude“), but Richardson goes far beyond hitching wagons to stars. He clarifies Emerson’s ideas about craft, (some of which I’ve often pondered in a similar way but as though through a glass darkly), rendering them finely illuminated, and thereby useful.

– On the importance of reading broadly because each book is merely one word in the larger, on-going human dialogue: “No book has worth by itself, but by the relation to what you have from many other books. It weighs.”
– On the critical need of specificity: “the poet is not so much a maker as a namer.”
– On the power of the sentence: “Words are the writer’s clay; the sentence is the writer’s brick-mold.”
– On not assuming that your audience cares what you have to say, but that you must fight for, capture and hold their attention: “(write) always to the unknown friend.”
– On the potential universality of each character: “each of us is emblematic of the whole, that all of history is to be explained by each life.”
– On approaching writing as process not product: “Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from the past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf.”

Being in the midst of a struggle to combine writing with motherhood, I downed Richardson’s book in a single gulp. It was just the shot I needed, a dram whose brevity utterly belies it’s heft.


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