Ralph Waldo Emerson never wrote an essay on writing. The closest he ever came to it was “The Poet,” a work that inspired Uncle Walt to write Leaves of Grass. However, Emerson was far from silent on the issue. Careful excavation of his works reveals numerous thoughts on the writing craft. But rather than combing through everything Emerson wrote, you might start with First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process. Robert D. Richardson’s new book excavates these gems of wisdom for any writer aspiring to refine their own art. And it wouldn’t hurt to learn from Richardson’s own crisp, erudite, and unfussy prose, a style sure to have met Emerson’s approval.
In “The Poet,” Emerson asserted that writers must be driven by the democratic impulse and therefore must draw from the vox populi. For this reason, we learn from Richardson, Emerson’s “democratic leanings were always inclining him toward plain, or as we might say, accessible, language.” Poets (Emerson called them sayers, namers, representers of beauty) must attune their ears to the rhythms, sounds, and subjects of “common” speech. However, while “language of the street” may have been Emerson’s “quarry,” he was in fact, “from the beginning, aiming at something else.” That aim, we learn from First We Read, Then We Write, may have been to write his own inspired scripture, his own Bible. While Richardson’s slim volume does not in any comprehensive way treat this topic (this is not its project anyway), it does fill a gap in Emerson’s oeuvre by compiling the famed essayist’s reflections, asides, margin jottings on the art and craft of writing.
Further debunking the myth that a successful writer’s ideas come fully-formed and flow easily on the page like so much honey, Richardson reveals that, for Emerson, “writing was often a desperate struggle,” and he considered “every day [as] the Day of Creation as well as the Day of Judgment. At day’s end he never felt he had done his best, never felt he had achieved adequate expression.” This idea is certainly heartening for anyone who’s gone snowblind staring at an empty page. Richardson’s book artfully infuses anecdotal material of Emerson’s struggles. In it, we learn that sentences, not paragraphs, or essays, were Emerson’s primary vehicle for creative expression. And this may be the reason why many of his sentences are taken as epigrams and aphorisms. Take for instance these: “Avoid adjectives. Let the noun do the work”; “The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say”; “Good writing and brilliant conversation are perpetual allegories”; “All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word”; “All that can be thought can be written”; “The maker of the sentence . . . launches into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night.”
First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process is less a primer but more a meditation on the nuts and bolts of Emerson’s writing, writing that drew inspiration from voracious reading, writing that improved through writing and writing more, writing attentive equally to the common and spoken language, writing attuned to nature as a “vehicle of thought,” and writing, in Emerson’s words, “full of disjointed dreams, audacities, unsystematic irresponsible lampoons and all manner of rambling reveries.” Richardson’s book succeeds not only in demystifying the writing process of an essayist some may consider merely “one of those stuffy transcendentalists,” but also, through practical advice on how to improve one’s writing while keeping an eye on nature and an ear to the hoi polloi.