Here are some relatively unorganized thoughts on aphorisms and my process as it relates to my latest book One Kind of Recording.
Religion and literature are both in the wisdom business. Maybe religion is the parent of literature. Maybe it’s the other way around. I’m also thinking they’re twins who were born out of empathy and language. In any case, in a nutshell (which is where an aphorism lives), an aphorism is memorable linguistic evidence of condensed wisdom and beauty. They exist in all wisdom traditions.
About 10 years ago, as a professor of English in Chicago, I began drawing single panel cartoons that included a character I called Tex. He had a voice similar to those in Texas Sayings or Cowboy Wisdom collections you see here and there in tourists shops in Texas airports. You know, like “Don’t Squat with Your Spurs On.” A brief statement that contains advice, smart-aleck remarks, or an enjoyable pun. So, I began to draw these cartoons because this imagined character Tex would often speak to me or, more accurately, comment on something I read or noticed or experienced. His was a voice that became very real in my life, a mentor, my Sage of the sage, my Ten Gallon Muse, and when I would ask myself, “What would Tex say?”
I would hear him answer. And these moments became these cartoons that I shared with friends and family and colleagues at work and posted on Facebook and posted in a blog I called Texosophy.com and eventually collected into little self-published chapbooks of cartoons.
Then I came upon James Geary’s work on metaphor and aphorisms, and I discovered that there was a name for what Tex was saying to me, the aphorism. Aphorisms are generally understood to be memorable statements of truth, maxims, or condensed bits of wordplay. The chiasmus is a good example. The point here is that I discovered a name for what I was doing: writing in a new genre called aphorism. Geary does a historical survey of aphorisms that include the meditations of Confucius, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Bierce, Dr. Seuss, and Nietzche to name a few.
Stephen Dobyns in his Best Words, Best Order, a book I’ve used in an advanced creative writing course, uses examples of aphorisms translated into English by W.S. Merwin to demonstrate lyrical tension of surprise in poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a collection of aphorisms titled Aids to Reflection. Here are more examples on Wikipedia. And of course, now the Internet is filled with Instagram and Facebook posts of aphorism memes. The micro-genre of Twitter posts is another good example.
For my collection One Kind of Recording, I began extracting the aphorisms from the cartoons and then writing aphorisms directly without illustration. Currently, I contribute to the stream of web aphorism memes on my own Instagram and Facebook posts.
Anyway, that’s a brief overview of this boiled down genre and how I came to understand the name for the condensed linguistic expression I was producing.
As for my process, I think about two questions.
- How was my receptiveness to aphorisms developed? In other words, how was my linguistic/poetic landscape prepared so that the aphorism would find itself welcomed into my imagination and craft?
- What is the practice I’ve developed for composing aphorisms?
The first question might also be something like “Why do I enjoy what aphorisms offer?” The second, “Why do I need to create them?” Or another way to put it, “What’s the inhale and exhale like?”
I think the ground was prepared in a number of ways, including the play of language that went on in my wisecracking family. Also, my primary reading material when I was a teenager was Mad Magazine and Reader’s Digest quotes and jokes. On my way to college, my father gave me his copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, and when I wrote my college essays, I always plucked a pithy statement from this volume to use as a related epigraph. It was also in college that I was introduced to Walden, and I remember being fascinated with the amount of wisdom contained sentence by sentence. I began to snip out my favorite citations and record them in my journal. I see now that those were aphorisms. When I read and found passages I needed to underline or copy, I was highlighting aphoristic statements, nuggets of truth. These experiences led me to become an English major and practice poetry with the desire to reflect on and make sense of my experience with the mirror and machine of poetry; that is, the truths I wanted to capture and communicate required a different genre, though still quite condensed. So I poked around in poetry for many years more or less inconsistently with a journal publication every few years, while my teaching and administrative positions ate up most of my time.
But then Tex arrived one day when I was struggling at work with a new computer application the administration had decided I needed to learn. He chewed up a good piece of tobacco and let go a long splat of juice, accompanied by a short grunt and his first words: “The cutting edge can be a bloody mess.”
Given my time constraints, it made sense to focus on brief linguistic displays like this.
It’s no secret that reflection is the introvert’s companion. And after more than a half of century on the job collecting and ruminating on my thoughts, I suppose it became time for Tex to start prying them out of me. When these ideas make themselves known up between the ears somewhere, I don’t always know if they are the beginning of something else, like a poem, a joke, or just another wisecrack or a bit of interesting handiwork in ten words or less. In most cases, I bring out my phone and type it or speak it into the Notes app, like this one from September 5, 2017: “Just because you don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean it can’t be understood.” An aphorism makes you stop and think. And ultimately, the aphorism shares that power with all literature, a call from the page to the reader saying to slow the hell down and pay attention, a practice in focus and awareness so that joy, beauty, and understanding can enter. And so we get in the practice of looking for joy, beauty, and understanding in every experience, on the page and off. The aphorism is a firecracker, a sharp pop in a little package. An elbow in the ribcage. The way you place your hand on your forehead to keep your brain from bursting in surprise. It can be the littlest thing. And lately, these aphorisms have taken another turn in their expression. Lately, I’ve combined photos of the sky out here in West Texas with aphorisms, like the following.
No telling what the next sky and aphorism will look like.