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First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process

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Writing was the central passion of Emerson’s life. While his thoughts on the craft are well developed in “The Poet,” “The American Scholar,” Nature , “Goethe,” and “Persian Poetry,” less well known are the many pages in his private journals devoted to the relationship between writing and reading. Here, for the first time, is the Concord Sage’s energetic, exuberant, and unconventional advice on the idea of writing, focused and distilled by the preeminent Emerson biographer at work today.

Emerson advised that “the way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.” First We Read, Then We Write contains numerous such surprises—from “every word we speak is million-faced” to “talent alone cannot make a writer”—but it is no mere collection of aphorisms and exhortations. Instead, in Robert Richardson’s hands, the biographical and historical context in which Emerson worked becomes clear. Emerson’s advice grew from his personal experience; in practically every moment of his adult life he was either preparing to write, trying to write, or writing. Richardson shows us an Emerson who is no granite bust but instead is a fully fleshed, creative person disarmingly willing to confront his own failures. Emerson urges his readers to try anything—strategies, tricks, makeshifts—speaking not only of the nuts and bolts of writing but also of the grain and sinew of his determination. Whether a writer by trade or a novice, every reader will find something to treasure in this volume. Fearlessly wrestling with “the birthing stage of art,” Emerson’s counsel on being a reader and writer will be read and reread for years to come.

112 pages, Hardcover

First published March 1, 2009

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About the author

Robert D. Richardson Jr.

19 books42 followers
The son of a Unitarian minister, Robert Dale Richardson III grew up in Massachusetts and earned his bachelor's and doctorate degrees in English at Harvard University. Richardson taught at a number of colleges, including the University of Denver and Wesleyan University.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews
Profile Image for Rachael Quinn.
484 reviews14 followers
July 23, 2012
This was one of those books that absolutely wowwed me. I took it up north with me for the weekend along with my next book because I was worried that it would be too dry for me and I wouldn't care for it. I started it late at night after a couple of beers and found myself wanted to talk to somebody about how wonderful it was but deciding to reserve judgement until the following morning. The next day it went on a boat with me and I passed a few pleasant hours on a lake with a lovely book.

I have always liked Emerson but I like him mostly in quotes. Whenever I have attempted to delve into his essays I end up feeling lost and disconnected from the text. Through First We Read, I have realized that the problem is that Emerson is just so much. Everything he wrote is completely loaded with thoughts and ideas that are brilliant. I find myself wanting to quote this sentence then that until the whole thing just feels too full for me to really take it in. Richardson makes Emerson more accessible to me. He uses Emerson's essays to form an essay of his own on how Emerson viewed the creative process.

I would suggest this book to any writer. Emerson is brimming with thoughts about art. It is about the process, he says, not the final product. Expression is a human need and the act is vital. At the end of this little volume I felt inspired and thoughtful and like I had found a new friend in writing.
Profile Image for Heather.
1,249 reviews53 followers
November 15, 2009
I skimmed over this book--it was interesting, but it seemed like the reader had to know and like Emerson in the first place in order to appreciate it. The author is a well-known biographer of Emerson, and I just couldn't share his passion without knowing much about Emerson myself. The ideas in the various chapters seemed a bit disjointed, too, as though the author was grasping for every tidbit from Emerson's journals and letters that might have to do with writing. I was hoping for a more gradual continuum of "this is how reading affects writing." Still, it had a few good points that stood out.

Some quotes I liked: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent" (Emerson)

"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better or worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given him to till. The power that resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried." (Emerson)

I also got a certain understanding from the idea derived from Emerson's book Representative Men Seven Lectures, that poets (and also writers in general), are representative of the average person, not unreachable hero-people. All artists have some qualities that all people can share. Richardson says that, "This representativeness of great people can fairly be called Emerson's central social and religious teaching." He points out the representativeness of God in the person of Jesus as an example of this phenomenon--Jesus is representative of the suffering of all people, thus we can identify with him. In the same way, a writer mustn't be focused on themselves--they have to have passion for describing the human condition. It is in that way that writers become elevated in people's eyes--not by being above other people, but by laying down their lives for their writing in the belief that there is someone out there who can identify with and benefit from reading them.
Profile Image for Sunny.
738 reviews36 followers
August 4, 2016
Reminded me of the magic of Emerson that I read in my 20s. The book is Emerson’s take on both reading and writing and the author (Richardson) takes us through some anecdotal advice that one of the brightest American minds ever ( in my opinion) has to give on these 2 important subjects. The book makes some interesting points:
• Emerson would read newspapers (unlike me) but also said that you shouldn’t read them in a great deal of depth. He never read them column by column and he realised that newspapers were meant for everybody so the information therein could certainly not be relevant for you in its totality. He advises the readers of newspapers to only get out of them what was meant and was relevant for you and to ignore the rest.
• He makes an interesting point about keeping a journal. First Emerson tried to subdivide his thoughts into specific headings and realised that he wasn’t able to populate all of them. He advocated the use of a journal where one could keep all their intricate and most in-depth thoughts and add to that at short notice and with simple ease. (Our iPhones could do this now I suppose). He then recommended that once you have put your thoughts in they will naturally start to form certain subdivisions on topic areas which you could turn into chapters for books. He suggested that we keep our note taking at the first instance and make it as natural as possible and only later should we apply some rigour to it by classification.
The book covered interesting and short chapters on topics such as reading, keeping a journal, practical hints to reading, nature, the language of the street, words, sentences, emblems, the audience, art and the writer him/herself. Very short book but worth a quick read.
Profile Image for Rose.
1,872 reviews1,055 followers
December 26, 2011
Robert D. Richardson provides an insightful look into Ralph Waldo Emerson's writing process in "First We Read, Then We Write." I think those who highly regard Emerson's work as well as those who want insight into literary/creative techniques will find this book inspiring, especially since it covers many topics of use to any writer wanting to develop their own craft as well as learn how Emerson approached his own writing.

This book resonated with me in particular because I took a few classes in my undergraduate years related to writing poetry, and I read a number of books/essays that were dedicated to literary theory and process that, for lack of better terms, shook me at my core in terms of my writing. For many years, it never occurred to me to actually look at the process of how I wrote, how I came up with ideas, how I chose to develop those ideas and why. Lo and behold, the amount of material that I read on several poets that I either knew and/or loved regarding their process gave another dimension to learning how to develop one's craft. Thus, I really like reading books on literary theory, where our creativity derives and the process for writers.

The organization and balance of Emerson's reflections that Richardson brings to this brief work is quite on point. On equal planes, "First We Read, Then We Write" is a biographical account as well as a loose writing guide. Not so much a how-to book as much as it is an examination into one writer's process that I think people could take notes about and perhaps examine their own methods from. It cites several of Emerson's own thoughts about his reading habits (his dislike of passive reading and his immersion in a wealth of topics, for example), the construction of his sentences, his mindfulness of his respective audience, among other subjects of valuable consideration for a writer.

In short, this work on Emerson's process is a gem, and one I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend.

Overall: 4.5/5

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley from the publisher University of Iowa Press.
Profile Image for Birgit.
Author 2 books9 followers
June 14, 2011
Don't ask me why this book has escaped my attention for so long, seeing how much I love Ralph Waldo Emerson's work. While I already knew him as a wonderful poet, I admittedly haven't been all that familiar with his person and life.
In First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson On The Creative Process Robert D. Richardson presents a marvelous and engaging little manual digging deep into the central passion of Emerson's life, who was literally in love and addicted to books. Mainly focusing on the important interconnection of reading and writing, it also thematizes the need to reflect on nature for language, the recommendation of keeping a journal or earning the attention of the audience. The reader gains not only an understanding of what fueled Emerson's creative process, but will learn a lot for own literary endeavors. This sophisticated and wonderfully engrossing book is filled with practical hints and speaks to the poet in each of us.
I recommend reading this book along with Emerson's The Poet which is one of the most significant works on expressionism in literature. Best enjoyed on a quiet afternoon with no distractions around, this is the kind of book you will want to dip in more than just once and it will reward you with new and deeper insights every time.
In short: A delightful little book on my own two passions - reading and writing - this is definitely a must-read for every author!
Profile Image for Karen.
433 reviews20 followers
April 26, 2022
I want to like Emerson. He has so many great pithy quotes. But I’ve tried to read his work, and now I’ve tried to read his words compiled specifically for a topic I care about — the creative process. But it just didn’t work. Maybe it’s because I don’t know enough about Emerson and his life, or maybe it’s because the biographer clearly loves Emerson and didn’t say a negative word about him. Whatever the reason, I was left feeling that Emerson held awfully strong opinions on everything related to reading and writing, and that he would brook no disagreement or difference of opinion.
Profile Image for Taylor.
133 reviews5 followers
July 8, 2014
Great book for the time invested. It's a quick biography of his reading and thinking... not too much about the events in his life. It is obviously very quotable, and is great to get a piece of the relaxed, natural, individually focused transcendental ideas that Emerson is known for.

One thing I thought was interesting was his seeming emphasis on reader centrism rather than author's purpose. I would like to delve into these areas more. It seems like he would want people to recognize what the author is saying, but then again it seems like he wants you to get something from the author or move on to the next. I like Emerson, but I also like trying to focus on the author's purpose. I bet depending on what angle you asked him from he would answer differently.

There's a lot of good quotes in here, but here are a few that I collected:

"Never read a book that is not a year old"

"If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs, or knives, crucibles or church organs than anybody else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

"now and then a man exquisitely made can and must live alone; but coop up most men, and you undo them."

On his relationship with Thomas Carlyle "Strict conversation with a friend is the magazine out of which all good writing is drawn"

On writing: "you should start with no skeleton or plan. the natural one will grow as you work. knock away all scaffolding."

"The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight, and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and no the history of theirs?"
Profile Image for Michelle Moloney.
Author 28 books5 followers
June 2, 2014
My review - taken from http://teachermoloneyking.com/2013/01...

This book will result in many paper-cuts; the words of Emerson are sinew and vascular, they fight to get up of the page and into the mind.

‘The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.’

Emerson may be recalled as a granite bust, but, this study revives and reveals him to be the flesh and bone reading candour and writing valour embodiment that he encompasses.

We are privy to the thoughts, some taken from private essays, of Emerson in relation to reading and writing. This book is not just for the cajoled writer but also the inquisitive and discerning reader.

Did you know that there are four types of readers? Emerson classed them as: the hourglass, the sponge, the jelly-bag, and the Golconda. Emerson held reading with respect saying that, ‘I expect a great man to be a great reader.’ His advice is to be a discerning reader; ‘There is a great secret in knowing what to keep out of the mind as well as what to put in.’

While I am sharing quotes I will share this also: ‘the first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.’

OK, just one more quote, ‘all that can be thought can be written.’

I lied; I have a few select quotes to share. ‘Language is fossil poetry,’ says Emerson, and the role of the poet is to re-attach things to nature. Genius is the activity which repairs the decay of things.’

Writers, let’s take Emerson’s advice, tense your string, ready the arrow and release it all at the mark. Readers, stay precious about the material you read.
Profile Image for Jade Eby.
Author 30 books270 followers
September 2, 2011
Originally published at my blog Chasing Empty Pavements

It was nice to break away from fiction for a bit and pick up something different. I thought maybe giving this book a try would relate to my writing classes I'm taking this semester. While not 100% as helpful as I would have liked, I did enjoy what Richardson was trying to get across. The cool thing about this book is that you learn almost as much about Ralph Waldo Emerson as you do the writing process. It's kind of amazing actually. When Richardson talks about how Emerson related nature to writing, I could totally understand where Emerson got his inspiration. It was nice to get writing advice that was a little different than I'm used to.

It's hard to rate this book because my grading scale doesn't really have the same standards that non-fictions has...so I'm just going to say that this was a great learning experience and I would highly recommend this book to any writers out there who enjoy Emerson, nature and learning about different writing processes.

*I received this book free from the publisher through www.netgalley.com. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Profile Image for Linda.
225 reviews44 followers
June 2, 2011
A slim volume, this book is both a look into Emerson’s writing as well as a tool for aspiring writers. There are many books out there that covering the art of writing and this one offers nothing in that regard. However, for writers that enjoy Emerson, this book would be a good gift. It attempts to help the author emulate Emerson’s style which allows for little freedom in the reader’s own writing. While that may perhaps be what the reader wants, I found that I often felt like I was being preached to and that I was being told “this is the only way to write”. Of course, that’s not the case as there are as many ways to write as there are books in the world. The Emerson quotes were wonderful, though, and at times the author’s analysis of them was helpful to inspire creative thought. Again, while some writers may find tidbits of help in this book, I think a reader needs to be both an Emerson fan AND an aspiring writer to get the most out of this book.
Profile Image for Jessie Turpin.
39 reviews
December 30, 2019
There are too many portions of this book I would like to quote. I have determined to read it again now that I have turned the last page on my first read-through. I knew buying this book was a good choice when the sales clerk had an ear-marked, highlighted, written-in, and heavily book-marked copy with her behind the counter. I was not disappointed! This little book is one of the best I’ve read in 2019. Written by a Ralph Waldo Emerson expert, on Emerson’s beliefs and practices found in his journals and letters.

“A man must teach himself,” he [Emerson] observed, “because he can only read according to his state...nothing of all he read save that which seemed to him an echo or a prophecy of his own state...for only that book can we read which relates to me something that is already in my mind.”
Profile Image for Jan Lynch.
298 reviews3 followers
January 24, 2020
Reading Richardson's work reminded me of Emerson's appeal, of why I found his ideas, and those of Thoreau and Whitman, so exciting as a teen. Emerson's wild optimism, his love of individual freedom, his trust in each person's ability to discriminate truth from falsehood and to delineate a spot of infinity for themselves--all of this makes for a thrilling brew. As a former English teacher and sometime writer, I enjoyed the focus on how Emerson viewed creativity, how he valued process over product. For any transcendentalist, writer, or fan of American literature curling up with this slim volume would be time well spent.
Profile Image for Susan.
662 reviews
December 27, 2021
Really enjoyed this short book. So many great insights and provocative comments from Emerson about reading and writing. I will be copying many into my own commonplace book! It does help to know a bit about Emerson and the Transcendentalists. I agree with other reviewers that the book’s structure could be tighter and better fulfill its title; however, I still found so much of interest here.
39 reviews1 follower
October 3, 2016
Only 85 pages long, but Richardson's Emerson challenges us as readers and writers on every page.
Profile Image for Kgatch.
4 reviews
May 27, 2022
Short book I borrowed from the library on Emerson's creative theories and processes that I read in conjunction with Richardson's biography of Emerson. Richardson took the pertinent information directly from the Emerson biography, as I see some overlap, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. In fact, if all you wanted to learn from Emerson's bio concerned his writing process or creative muses, this book would do just fine. I found the chapters on Reading, Metaphor, Sentences, and Emerson's Practical Hints interesting.

A few highlights:

Do not read when the mind is creative. And do not read thoroughly, column by column.
Remember they are made for everybody and don't try to get what isn't meant for you" Emerson's advice to Woodbury is not empty exhortation. He is describing his own reading habits. "Reading long at one time anything, no matter how it fascinates, destroys thought as completely as the inflections forced by external causes. Do not permit this. Stop if you find yourself becoming absorbed, at even the first paragraph."

"Do not attempt to be a great reader,"
Emerson tells Woodbury. "And read for facts and not by the bookful. You must know about ownership in facts. What another sees and tells you is not yours, but his." The reader is to take only what really suits him. Emerson tells Woodbury he ought to "learn to divine books, to feel those that you want without wasting much time over them. Remember you must know only the excellent of all that has been presented. But often a chapter is enough. The glance reveals what the gaze obscures."

"Keep a journal... for the habit of rendering account to yourself of yourself in some rigorous manner and at more certain intervals than mere conversation."

"There is no way to learn to write except by writing," he told Woodbury. Sometimes he would just sit down and start writing-anything-to see whether something would happen.

"The art of writing consists in putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse and cart. Then have we somewhat far more goodly and efficient than either."

Profile Image for Richard.
99 reviews63 followers
October 22, 2014
Emerson understood that the common man is capable of being a Shakespeare, a Milton, a Homer---this in keeping with the very American (Puritanical?) idea that a man makes his own greatness by self-discipline; that all of the inspiration and tools needed to make a destiny are out there, waiting to be claimed by inquisitive, diligent minds who will take the tools and inspiration and create acts of genius. (Whitman also championed the common man. And John Steinbeck. And Faulkner. That's always where the action is in American literature: where the common man does something uncommon and becomes great for a moment or else damned).

Emerson's self-discipline was an unremitting lifelong effort at sentence craft. He was a poet-philosopher, doling out terse one-liners of self-contained philosophy, making from words neat little parables in simple cardboard boxes that detonate once you fully digest them.

Like this gem of sentence:

"Nothing astonishes men so much as common sense and plain dealing."


I am inspired by E's dedication to sentence craft (like my father-in-law, a musician who daily practices endless variations on piano scales as way to create a "flow state" wherein technical knowledge and appreciation of life, aesthetic reality, are seamlessly in the performer and transferred to the listener).

The takeaway: grammar can influence the minds of the many and even change civilization, when used skillfully and truly.
Profile Image for Mary Anne Shew.
74 reviews4 followers
June 26, 2021
Despite not having read Ralph Waldo Emerson's works, I was intrigued enough by the title to borrow this book from the library. It's a short, thoughtful, and powerful distillation of the reading and writing wisdom Emerson developed over his prolific life.

There's enough wisdom in it to coach any writer through their own lifetime. It also contains beautiful examples of Emerson's own perfectly crafted sentences such as, "The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say." This hit me between the eyes, as I easily start out writing about one thing and finish up with a subject miles away from where I started.

Emerson's voluminous reading across many genres, magazines as well as books, was an important factor in his work. I especially like this Emerson fact unearthed by Richardson: "He generally took more books out of the library than he was able to read before they were due back." At least where that's concerned, Emerson and I are kindred spirits.

Richardson, this book's author, is no slouch either when it comes to his orderly thinking, his writing, and how he chose to tell the story that is Emerson.

If you love reading, writing, Emerson, or all three, this book will delight you. It's made me curious enough to put a book of his essays on hold at the library.

Profile Image for Charlie.
281 reviews3 followers
September 3, 2016
To listen to Emerson is to catch fire.
(Paraphrasing the author)

This is a short book and didn't take very long to read but it had such a wealth of knowledge contained in its pages that it was better than a lot of longer books. The ideas crammed in here are also so weighty that you'll probably need a nap afterward (or at least I did). Ideas such as:
- a book is only great because it talks directly to the greatness in the reader, or that
- the only thing that's important is that a reader reads that which she/he wants to regardless of genre, or that
- writing is always painful but the process is just as important as the finished article.

I'm also grateful to the author for introducing me to Emerson. I admit I have not had much contact with him before the extracts that were so judiciously chosen for this book. But now I've had a glimmer of what I've been missing and can't wait to read more.

Profile Image for Allison.
446 reviews1 follower
June 25, 2019
I enjoyed this book, a small compendium of Ralph Waldo Emerson's thoughts on writing, edited by one of Emerson's present-day biographers (and husband of author Annie Dillard).

I learned a lot about Emerson from reading this modest publication, as the author let Emerson speak for himself, rather than telling the reader what he said. I was very grateful for that.

The book has several chapters, some more practical than others. Some break down the actual structure of writing (there are chapters on "Words" and "Sentences," for example). My favorite chapter was on the discussion of "Audience," and it most certainly can be applied in a variety of situations.

There was more here than expected. A worthwhile read.
Profile Image for Tiffany.
68 reviews46 followers
February 11, 2012
A short book that packs a lot of information about writing and reading into a tiny package.

The book will probably be most fascinating to those who like a voyeristic look into how other writers do what they do best — How does Emerson read and write?

I am fascinated about learning how other writers view their craft and their practical advice for making it work, so this type of book is perfect for me. It also is short and sweet - instead of stretching the information into an academic article.

Not interested in the minutae of writers' habits and lives? Pass on this book. It's not a biography that tells a story about Emerson's life.
Profile Image for James.
1,106 reviews41 followers
November 25, 2009
A short book (really a long essay) on Ralph Waldo Emerson's approach to the writing process and product, culled from his journal, letters, and essays. As an Emerson fan and an aspiring writer, I found it motivational, inspiring and fascinating.

I discovered this book through John Banville's review in the New York Review of Books (link to a preview of the review but a paid subscription is required to view it in its entirety).
Profile Image for Nicki Markus.
Author 63 books264 followers
May 24, 2011
I found this an enjoyable short read with many thought-provoking points for a writer.
Robert D Richardson Jr. has done an excellent job of drawing together Emerson's views and philosophies and has presented them in a concise and interesting way.
This is not a general book that will appeal to just anyone because of its very particular subject matter, but I think it will be of interest of many writers for its comments and ideas about the creative process and the nature of writing.

I received this ebook as a free review copy from NetGalley.
Profile Image for Ed.
67 reviews4 followers
September 3, 2015
Really just an extended essay regarding Emerson's thoughts on reading and the creative writing process, but written by one of Emerson's best biographers and a fine writer himself. Explores Emerson's ideas on how writers should read, keeping a journal, and more regarding the practical and philosophical sides of writing. Easily read in an afternoon or two, but rich and rewarding,- whether you're reading Emerson or just interested in good writing in general.
Profile Image for Amy.
Author 5 books42 followers
August 9, 2016
This book made me go out and buy a copy of Emerson's collected essays and poems. Richardson, an Emerson scholar, does a beautiful job of collecting and commenting on Emerson's writings on writing. If you're a fan of essays or a writer or aspiring writer yourself, do yourself a favor and pick this up. It's short but supremely useful and also quirky and real--a good antidote to a lot of the tired pablums you tend to hear repeated about writing.
Profile Image for Claudia Turner.
Author 1 book38 followers
May 23, 2010
This is a simple introduction to Emerson the man becoming Emerson the writer. I recommend it for anyone endeavoring to seriously be an artist and/or writer, and not for commercial reasons but because they have always felt a need to "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things."
Profile Image for LemontreeLime.
3,203 reviews17 followers
June 13, 2014
Wow. Emerson has always been one of my heroes. I loved the way he thought. But I never really gave much thought to why or how he thought the way he thought, and this little book gives an in depth look at how he wrote. This was excellent, I foresee rereading it again in the next couple months. It hit all the right chords for me.
2 reviews
January 28, 2019
A Fine Meditation on Reading, Writing and Emerson

I’ve just read a bit of Emerson, knowing more famous quotes than his actual work. This brings Emerson to life and provides a lovely mediation on how reading fuels writing and the value that Emerson saw in each of us as thinking, creative minds.
Profile Image for Howard Mansfield.
Author 29 books34 followers
November 30, 2011
Richardson frees Emerson from the cliched mash people have made of him. This short book is as bracing as the best in Emerson. It will send you back to the famous essays and to Richardson’s fine biographies of Emerson and of Thoreau.

Displaying 1 - 30 of 62 reviews

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