Robert D. Richardson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process

First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative ProcessFirst We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process by Robert D. Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure I got what I was supposed to from this book. Then again, this book argues for the right of readers to get whatever they need from their reading. It is self-help for writers, less a collection of technical recommendations than a set of inspiring reflections on why we bother and how good it feels when it goes right. Unless you have a soul of steel, you will need such books from time to time, and Emerson biographer Richardson’s short text works well in that genre. The quotations from Emerson, which take up much of the text and come as much from obscurer sources (his letters and journals) as from his very famous essays, are gratifyingly eloquent and energetic.

My favorite set of Emersonian reflections concerns the art of not reading. Emerson believed that we can read too much. An excess of reading will obscure our own insights and sensibilities. He also thought it did not matter much what we read as long as we read it with imaginative insight and intensity. He is sometimes credited with coining the phrase “creative writing,” but he did so in a passage contrasting it with “creative reading,” to the latter’s benefit. Richardson writes:

The logic behind Emerson’s apparent disparaging of reading is the logic of a person who expects his reading to be useful above all. “Do not attempt to be a great reader,” Emerson tells Woodbury. “And read for facts and not only by the bookful. You must know about ownership in facts. What another sees and tells you is not yours, but his.” The reader is take only what really suits him. Emerson tells Woodbury that 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.”

This is not scholarly advice (maybe it is American scholarly advice), but then the history of literature and thought probably supports Emerson’s provocation. I have sometimes noticed how little the great writers read of even their supposed sources. Joyce barely read Aquinas before getting an aesthetic theory out of him, and Borges’s learning was “literally encyclopedic,” which is to say that he got much of it out of encyclopedias (see here). Even among critics, scholars, or philosophers, Emerson’s recommendation may have the ring of truth. I have known distinguished commenters on literary theory and the like who have said things like, “I can’t read Heidegger,” or “Adorno means nothing to me,” even though they publish professionally on topics in those thinkers’ traditions. Nobody can read everything, and all of us have gathered knowledge and impressions from disparate sources. The aforementioned Borges compared Ulysses to a city, which one may know intimately even though one never visits certain of its streets.

It is difficult to imagine two more different thinkers who were also contemporaries, but Schopenhauer curiously agreed with Emerson on this topic; then Nietzsche, who may be regarded as the monstrous offspring of Emerson and Schopenhauer, cheerfully agreed with them both. While the disparagement of reading is slightly dangerous advice for a writer to give—nobody wants to defend ignorance, for one thing, and for another why should writers give readers any more excuses to ignore their works?—it is probably sound.

Richardson provides something more for the reader than Emerson’s edgy metaphysical cheerfulness, however. While this is a very short book and not at all an attempt at historical or social reflection, it indirectly reveals how much of what we take for granted when we discuss creative writing comes straight from Emerson.[1] The ethos of his double-sided belief in the practical and the transcendent, or in craft and experience as royal roads to the godhead, is second nature to the writing student today. So much of the pedagogy of creative writing is summed up in this book as Emerson’s wisdom:

—the emphasis on the writer as expressive being and the consequent demotion of tradition as a deciding factor in his or her education;

—the focus on the artistic process rather than the artistic product;

—the belief that the near-at-hand is more appropriate subject matter than the exotic (i.e., the advice to write about yourself and your times, rather than ancient Egypt or outer space);

—the aesthetic standard of authenticity, both of the writer’s personal experience and of the work, considered as the unfinished and unfinishable result of an undetermined process;

—the elevation of the sentence, rather than the paragraph, as the smallest indivisible constituent element of a literary composition;

—and the faith in the writer/reader transaction as a humanistic enterprise of sympathetic exchange.

Whether he meant to or not, Richardson has written an encrypted intellectual history of creative writing as an autonomous discipline, with Emerson as its founder. As such, his book may function as a blessedly brief and suggestive companion to the exhaustive scholarly version, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era—a book I have “read” only in Emersonian glances, but with which Emerson emboldens me to say I am nevertheless quite familiar.

There are very good arguments against the pragmatic/transcendental drive toward experience and away from tradition, made by writers as various as T. S. Eliot and Elif Batuman. These writers worry that the process-driven, learning-averse method of writing will issue in compositions of melodramatic banality that unknowingly repeat clichés. This pedagogy, with its focus on authenticity and personal experience, may moreover imply an irrationalist identity politics opposed to all forms of order, objectivity, or universalism. There may be a way to reconcile the two positions, as suggested in the works of Harold Bloom as well as his feminist redactors, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who see experience and tradition as dialectical; on this theory, part of the artist’s necessary apprenticeship is the processual experience of wandering in the wilds of tradition. This latter thesis makes the most sense to me; but Emerson’s rhetoric, in its visionary intensity, challenges all my presuppositions. Bloom, by the way, called Emerson “the mind of America.” I used to doubt that this could be true, but this interesting little book makes me think again.


[1] And from some of his predecessors and contemporaries too, such as Wordsworth, Thoreau, and Whitman.



  1. Hi. I like the depiction of the reader/writer relationship as a ‘humanistic enterprise of sympathetic exchange.’

  2. Interesting. I too like Emerson’s elevation of “skimming” books for facts, or for what it has to offer, without necessarily reading it from beginning to end. I do that so often myself. It seems fewer and fewer books these days offer enough to compel me to read every word.

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