Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was a poet, philosopher, lecturer, and essayist, certainly one of the most famous writers of the nineteenth century.
Here are some fantastic words of wisdom from Mr. Emerson to inspire your writing day!
1. He that writes to himself writes to an eternal public.
Look at this, a man who died nearly 140 years ago, and here’s a writing tip that’s still more relevant than ever!
Something that’s so hard to learn about writing, especially when you’re just starting out, is that in the long run you will actually have more success if you write for yourself than if you write for a specific kind of audience, for a specific kind of market.
You want to write a horror novel and you might find yourself trying to copy other horror novels of the last thirty years that were runaway blockbusters. You might try to write a similar kind of story and use similar kind of language.
The problem is that readers can sniff out a phony a mile away. A reader understands what authors are writing stories to express themselves and what authors are writing to try to make a quick buck.
The thing is that you will succeed in the long run if you write for yourself because readers will see the passion in the storytelling. They will see that only you could have written this particular tale, and they’ll want to go with you from now on wherever else you go.
2. The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.
It always boggles my mind to think of people who have the desire the write, and lots of great ideas that fill up their head, and then never write a single word of those ideas down.
Stephen King once said that part of the reason he became a writer was that there were just so many ideas cluttering up his mind and he needed to get them down on the page before he went clinically insane.
I feel that way a lot of the time. In the last ten years I’ve written twenty novels, and those are twenty novels that would still be bouncing around my brain today if I hadn’t done the right thing and written them down.
Whether or not these books make me riches is besides the point. They helped stretched my mind to new dimensions. They’ve made me the writer I am today. One that still has a lot to learn, but one who’s definitely grown a lot. Who’s seen through plenty of failure what kinds of stories I need to gravitate to more often and what stories I might want to leave behind for awhile.
It’s a good thing to be brimming with ideas, four or five or more that are just itching to be put down on the page. They help make you a smarter, more creative person each day you engage in the writing process!
3. The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.
This is one of my favorite writing quotes I’ve read in a long time. It’s sort of odd and goofy but also extremely wise.
What I believe Emerson is saying here is that when you write your latest story, you’re not always going to get the mark, especially when you’re pounding away at the keyboard on a first draft. I’ve messed up whole sections of my first drafts and have had to start all over months down the road.
In a sense the revision process is like trying to shoot the arrow at the mark, and, almost always, missing. But that’s okay. You have another draft to come. Another chance at shooting an arrow at the mark.
I recently completed the eleventh draft of my MFA thesis novel, a book I started working on in February 2017. That first day I started writing the novel, I had a clear idea in my head of what I wanted to accomplish, what mark I wanted to hit. I didn’t hit that mark the first time, or the second time. I didn’t even hit it the fifth time.
But by the tenth draft I finally started figuring it out, and now that the eleventh draft is complete, I’m finally starting to recognize that the story I’ve been passionate about for nearly three years now is finally coming together in a way I always hoped for.
Sure, not every chapter, every scene, in the book has exactly hit the mark. That’s where throwing your body at the mark comes into play. It’s in doing everything you possibly can to make the book its finest, even if it gets a little violent along the way, your fingers bleeding, your back in pain from all those hours you spent sitting before your laptop.
No matter how many months or years it takes, keep aiming for that mark any way you can.
4. Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.
And here’s one more insightful observation from Mr. Emerson that, like all these quotes, is still super relevant for writers today.
There’s so many things that make a writer successful. Sitting down every single day and doing the work is a good place to start. Persistence, just trying and failing seven days a week until you start getting better, until other people start recognizing your work, no matter how long that takes.
You also need to have the courage to tell the stories you want to tell, and you need to believe in the work that you do even when everyone around you is telling you you’re wasting your time.
And yes, talent, of course, is a huge part of the equation. If you have no talent for writing, even years of hard work might not get you very far. You don’t need to be super talented to find success as a writer, but some talent definitely helps. The talent of spinning a yarn, finding rhythm in your sentences, creating fascinating characters. Talent definitely helps.
But Mr. Emerson is absolutely right in that just talent itself is never enough. There needs to be a man behind the book, and what I think he means by that is that you need to live a life first and foremost. You can’t just spend every waking moment in the dark typing away on your keyboard. The more you live, the more you experience, the more you’ll ultimately have to say.
I’m guilty of spending too much of my time writing and reading books and watching movies rather than go out and experience life as much as I should. It’s something about me as a writer that’s definitely a work in progress.
The trick is to try to blend the two as much as you can. To write every day and give all your talent over to it, at the same time living your life and doing things often that scare you, that surprise you, that are new.
Keep writing, and keep living, and there’s no telling how far you will go in this wonderful profession, one that lifted the spirits of Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1800s… and that certainly lifts the spirits of all of us in 2019 and beyond!