Friday, December 11, 2009

Good for that and good for nothing else - Emerson's advice for the writer.

"You must reform your life," Henry David Thoreau urges, and I take notice, having recently reformed my life, or some portion thereof.  Granted, another reasonable response is "Sez you, Hank.  Go hoe your beans."  But he has my attention.  As he did with Robert Louis Stevenson, Thoreau makes me nervous.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, though, is absolutely terrifying, at least the Emerson presented in Robert D. Richardson's First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (2009), an 85 page distillation of Emerson's advice to writers.  Or, really, to one writer, himself.  Is he ever hard on himself.  I know the feeling.

The single best bit of practical advice about writing Emerson ever gave - best because it is a cry from the heart, because it focuses on attitude not aptitude, and because it is as stirring as a rebel yell - is this: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent." (Richardson, 24)

Emerson goes Longfellow and Nannecoda one better.  The arrow that fell to earth he knew not where was not good enough.  Good writing requires complete commitment by the writer; complete commitment is impossible; therefore, well:

Can you distill rum by minding it at odd times?  Or analyse soils?  Or carry on the Suffolk Bank? [many more examples, some similarly dubious]  Or accomplish anything good or anything powerful in this manner?  Nothing whatever...  A writer must live and die by his writing.  Good for that and good for nothing else...  American writing can be written at odd minutes, - Unitarian writing, Congress speeches, railroad novels. (Richardson, 48, quoting Emerson in his journals)

That's all from Emerson's own journals.  That last sentence needs something to emphasize Emerson's contempt - maybe italicize "American" or "can."  Remember that Emerson is here arguing only with himself. 

Why should any of this worry me?  I'm not a writer.  See the little "About Me" on the right - says so right there.  Then, if I may ask, what's been going on at Wuthering Expectations?  What - nothing - American writing, written at odd minutes.

The real Emerson also knew that it required courage for anyone - but especially for a young person - to stand up and say publicly, "I will be a writer." He was well aware, perhaps increasingly aware as he grew older, that such a commitment had a steep cost. (Richardson, 84)

Hmm.  How young, exactly?  How steep?

Robert Richardson, also the author of an impressive biography of Thoreau that I'm reading now, is espoused to Annie Dillard, and I can't help but imagine the conversation at home.  "An advice book, huh? On writing, huh?  Think ya know something about writing, huh?"  "Oh no, dear, it's Emerson on writing, not me.  Everything I know I learned from you, dear.  Please let go of my ear."  Some of my assumptions about the character of Annie Dillard may be a little off.


  1. die geneigte LeserinDecember 11, 2009 at 3:01 PM

    That was Beckett's response to the question of why he wrote: "Bon qu'à ça," "No good for anything else!" But perhaps he was quoting Emerson? That would be funny.

  2. My imagined Annie Dillard could never be espoused to anyone, much less a mortal human male writer.

  3. But your imagined Annie Dillard talks like the moll in an old gangster movie, right?

    If I change the "huh" to "yeah" everywhere, she'll sound more like Edward G.Robinson. Maybe I'll fix that.

    "The writer studies literature, not the world, see? He is careful of what he reads, see? For that is what he will write, see? Is this the end of Rico?"

    - Annie "Little Caesar" Dillard, The Writing Life, 1989, p. 68.

  4. How young and how steep, indeed.

    There are worse things to destroy youth and beauty and quality of life on than writing. But maybe not much that is better. Bless those early 'Mericans, bless 'em.

  5. Anyone thinking about getting a PhD must, must, must read Colleen's account of how she finished her dissertation.

    I'm not saying the exact details are typical. They're not. But taken as metaphor, that's how it works.

  6. Oh this is wonderful! It made me laugh on this very quiet empty library afternoon.

  7. Stefanie, if you're not sick unto death of Emerson, you will get a lot out of this tiny book.

  8. I have a fond place in my heart for Emerson so will definitely have to look for this book!