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|Publisher:||Schaffner Press, Inc.|
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Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wicked Wit
By James Lough, Alex Stein
Schaffner PressCopyright © 2016 Schaffner Press
All rights reserved.
In 1993, I was looking in Montaigne for help with an essay to be called "On Likeness." A footnote sent me to the maxims of La Rochefoucauld, which I read not only with delight but with something like ricochet. "Wait, that's not right," I'd mutter, or "That's not all," scribbling some correction or analogue or sequel to one of his insights. My response often felt like a flipping or twisting of the Duc's sentences, a spatial skill not dissimilar from those involved in making metaphors, doing math and solving various small household problems.
Actually I should have said "my responses," since often I'd end up with many slightly different versions of the same aphorism. They came so quickly that it felt more like reading than writing. Good Taste would later have to choose which version worked. I thought of them as isomers -- chemical compounds which have the same formula but may differ utterly in their properties because they are different shapes.
No one will ever write a novel by accident. A poem, too, takes time. But if I say "Pick a word" and you say one, where did it come from? You certainly don't say you "wrote it" or "created it" -- more like you chose it, or it chose you. One-liners must be in the middle of that spectrum, as much accident as composition. Almost all Proverbs and most of the jokes that make the rounds are anonymous: who came up with them, and how? I feel that way about some of my aphorisms, as if couldn't claim authorship. I do anyway, but I have a soft spot for the ones that sound most like proverbs written by no one, short and unsophisticated, their reference restricted to nature and household:
Snakes cannot back up.
Nothing dirtier than old soap.
All stones are broken stones.
Probably in looking back I've exaggerated the automatism and impersonality of the form, but it is really true that "I" seem to me the greatest danger to my work.
Still, some aphorisms I claim not only as mine but as me. "All work is the avoidance of harder work" and "The best time is stolen time" are something like personal mottoes, and I also think of them privately as about writing aphorisms. What has by now become hundreds of aphorisms feels to me like a long procrastination, a parenthesis in that essay on metaphor that I started writing in 1993 ... and still haven't finished.
The road reaches every place, the short cut only one.
Of all the ways to avoid living, perfect discipline is the most admired.
If you're Larkin or Bishop, one book a decade is enough. If you're not? More than enough.
The will is weak. Good thing, or we'd succeed in governing our lives with our stupid ideas!
Once it's gone, how easy to say it was mine.
In clearing out files, ideas, hopes, throw away a little too much. Pruning only dead wood will not encourage growth.
God help my neighbors if I loved them as I love myself.
You can't pretend you're just watching the actors. Someone a little further away will see you acting the part of a watcher.
Success repeats itself until it is failure.
Despair says It's all the same. Happiness can distinguish a thousand Despairs.
Those who are too slow to be intelligent deserve our patience, those who are too quick, our pity.
Think of all the smart people made stupid by flaws of character. The finest watch isn't fine long when used as a hammer.
The first abuse of power is not realizing that you have it.
Only the dead have discovered what they cannot live without.
Even at the movies, we laugh together, we weep alone.
If the saints are perfect and unwavering we are excused from trying to imitate them. Also if they are not.
Everyone loves the Revolution. We only disagree on whether it has occurred.
No price fluctuates so wildly as that of time.
To be sincere is one thing. To practice Sincerity is to burden everyone else with believing you.
No matter how fast you travel, life walks.
The future is pure luck. But once it arrives it begins to seem explainable. Not long afterwards, it could hardly have happened otherwise.
A tornado can't stack two dimes.
Water deepens where it has to wait.
It's amazing that I sit at my job all day and no one sees me clearly enough to say What is that boy doing behind a desk?
Who breaks the thread, the one who pulls, the one who holds on?
There are only three subjects: death, love and justice. All of them are depicted as blind.
There are silences harder to take back than words.
For one who needs it, praise is pity.
Ax built the house but sleeps in the shed.
The road you do not take you will have to cross.
As with bacteria, so with troubles. They evolve resistance to our cures.
The water cannot talk without the rocks.
I was 25 till I was 40, 40 till I was 50. But now my age is like the speedometer. If I don't pay attention it drifts, 60, 70, 80 ...
A beginning ends what an end begins.
Each lock makes two prisons.
The world is not what anyone wished for, it's what everyone wished for.
Wind cannot blow the wind away, nor water wash away the water.
We do not love money. But once we have it, it is not money – it is ours.
The ruts are deepest in the middle of the road.
The first abuse of power is not realizing that you have it.
Money and love both say they are all you need.
I sell my time to get enough money to buy it back.
Beware of knowing your virtues; you may lose them. Beware of knowing your vices; you may forgive them.
Debts of a certain immensity demand betrayal.
If you say All is well, I believe you. If I say All is well, I'm abbreviating.
Experience is being a little surer of what won't ever happen.
We are never so aware of how we look to others as when we have a great secret. Vanity always thinks it has a great secret.
The ambitious: those who have to work longer to find a place where it seems safe to stop.
Minds go from intuition to articulation to self-defense, which is what they die of.
Believe in everything a little. The credulous know things the skeptical do not.
The hardest thing to allow my child is my mistakes.CHAPTER 2
Form is "timing" — the exact amount of silence necessary between words and images to make them meaningful. The stand-up comedians know all about that.
If I make everything at the same time a joke and a serious matter, it's because I honor the eternal conflict between life and art, the absolute and the relative, the brain and the belly, etc. ... No philosophy is good enough to overcome a toothache ... that sort of thing.
I'd like to show readers that the most familiar things that surround them are unintelligible. Form is not a "shape" but an "image," the way in which my inwardness seeks visibility.
How to communicate consciousness ... the present moment lived intensely that language locked in the temporal order of the sentence cannot reproduce?
Metaphor offers the opportunity for my inwardness to connect itself with the world out there.
All things are related, and that knowledge resides in my unconscious.
What a mess! I believe in images of transcendence, but I don't believe in God!
The inventor of the modern metaphor, Arthur Rimbaud, regarded himself as a seer. He saws that the secret ambition of a radical metaphor is metaphysical. It could open new worlds. It could touch the absolute. He gave up poetry when he began to doubt that truth.
Truth is known at precisely that point in time when nobody gives a shit.
Everything of course is a mirror if you look at it long enough.
To be an exception to the rule is my sole ambition.
Anywhere conformity is an ideal, poetry is not welcome.
I don't believe in God but I'm afraid of opening an umbrella in the house.
The attentive eye begins to hear.
Imagination equals Eros.
How do we know the other? By being madly in love.
Every poetic image asks why there is something rather than nothing.
Intense experience eludes language.
The beauty of a fleeting moment is eternal.
The farther the injustice, the louder the outrage.
He who cannot howl will not find his pack.
Serenity is the outside appearance of lucidity.
Silence is the only language God speaks.
Awe is my religion and mystery its church.
The snow grows whiter after a crow has flown over it.
The kindness of one human being to another in times of mass hatred and violence deserves more respect than the preaching of all the churches since the beginning of time.
Religion: Turning the mystery of Being into a figure who resembles our grandfather sitting on the potty.
The new American Dream is to get to be very rich and still be regarded as a victim.
Every nation is scared of the truth of what they have done to others.
The chief role of a free press in democracy is to conceal that the country is ruled by a few.
The soul is a shadow cast by the light of consciousness. In the meantime, I can feel a sneeze coming.
The servants of the rich and powerful are convinced that the rest of us envy them their servitude.
The imagination has moments when it knows what the word "infinity" means.
Beware of synchronicity -- "the meaningful coincidence of an external event with an inner motive." That way madness lies.
Being is not an idea in philosophy, but a wordless experience we have from time to time.
One mad idea after another let loose upon the world as if they were soap bubbles and we small children running after them.
Finally a just war; all the innocents killed in it can regard themselves as lucky.
He reads the papers with mounting satisfaction that everything is going to hell, just as he predicted.
Another century in which anyone who thought deeply found himself alone and speechless.
My insomnia: an iceberg split from infinity's Pole.
He could read the mind of a lit match as it entered a dark room.
In the village church the saints have forgotten all about God and are watching the snow fall.
The infinite riches of an empty room.
Eternity is the insomnia of Time.CHAPTER 3
It would be nice to say I took to writing aphorisms because I felt like I had something to say, something sinewy and deep that would lodge itself in readers' minds and open up their lives. It would also be nice to say I was a natural wit like Oscar Wilde, scandalizing high society's dinner table with subversive apercus over aperitifs.
The truth is I took up aphorisms because of a broken condom. My wife and I had one more kid than we planned, then two more kids (call us irresponsible). On top of that, a new and demanding teaching job was feeding me stacks of 80 papers to grade every few weeks. With two male toddlers trundling into my office, crawling over my desk as I tried to mark run-on-sentences -- not to mention a baby girl on the way -- I just didn't have time. The longer forms I used to work in -- stories, essays, novels -- required me to sit and concentrate at the computer for hours at a stretch.
"There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall," wrote Cyril Connolly. When I was a childless free agent, his aphorism delighted me as much as it now irks. My only revenge is to say that Connolly, the bachelor, never managed to write the great novel he felt destined to. It's a lukewarm touché.
Nevertheless, short on time to write, I had to write short. While I loved poetry, I had never felt the talent or tug to "tell it slant". My aim was to lunge straight at the subject, like a philosopher swinging a butterfly net at insights fanning their wings through mind's blue sky, then pinning them down to examine. I had always kept a little notepad in my pocket for scribbling ideas, fragments, and impressions -- bits I might later slip into longer works to flesh them out. Now those ideas, fragments and impressions have become the final products.
* * *
Aphorism: a little window with a big view.
Buddhism: Much ado about nothingness.
Death: The night at the end of the tunnel.
Intelligence: the ability in other people to see things your way.
Perfection: a fleeting byproduct of miraculous luck. The more one reaches for it, the farther it recedes.
Religion: a dead monument to a living truth.
Virtue: a practice that keeps you out of debt, prison, and country clubs.
A clenched fist in flowing water – that is what we are.
Nothing is as earnest as unhappiness.
It's all relative? Absolutely.
He doesn't need imagination -- he's got money.
We say knowledge is power, we celebrate charisma as power, but both perform poorly next to the power of money.
We rankle at the opinions we most recently outgrew.
The insomniac ponders death. At least I'd get some rest.
Should we wonder why our kids are confused? In the car we tell them to sit down and buckle up. At school we tell them to sit up and buckle down.
If God is everything and everywhere, then even God must occasionally doubt He exists.
In life, as in bicycling, pedal when you have to, coast when you can.
Next time get it right the first time.
Time is money, but only one of them is sure to run out.
Few of us want to be elitists – but we're okay with being elites.
Misery is never getting what you want. There are two ways around this – setting out to get it all, or limiting your wants. One is futile, the other hopeless.
Blame the limits of language? First check the limits of the writer.
What a romantic calls an outrage, a realist sees as more of the same.
It travels at the speed of lies.
There's no truth in I was just asking and no point to I'm just saying.
The ultimate power, the power beyond all powers, is the power of indifference.
Another day, another dolor.
It's easy to be a sadist. Now being a masochist, that takes balls.
To get your way, you must finesse your foes. Your friends you can force.
The portal, the door, the sewage hole to the Infinite.
Finding where you fit in, you no longer need to stand out.
It's safer to dislike something than admit you don't understand it.
Ah, the innocence of children! Even their cruelty is innocent.
We're doing the best we can. That's the problem.
If effing is short for fucking, does ineffable mean it can't be fucked?
Get with the program, they say. Which really means Get with the programming.
In the USA, the idea that we use only 10% of our brains means we could be 90% richer.
Someone who is whole is not pure. Someone who is pure is not whole. You get to decide.
Foodies and the homeless have one thing in common: it's all about the next meal.
Excess opportunities morph into obstacles – wishes fulfilled become obligations.
The more stuff you have, the more stuff you have to do.
Inspirational messages always say Dream. What if they said Work?
No fair spreading Miracle-Gro on the lilies of the field.
The most grandiose, sophisticated moral theories are all variations on a simple theme: do no harm.
Our periodic table lays out 118 elements. But the chemists ignore my letters and won't add the element of surprise.
It's not the heat, it's the humanity.
I'm anxiously awaiting the response to a text message I haven't yet sent.
How to love your enemies: first make enemies.
Grandparents and grandchildren get along so well because they share a common enemy.
That's why God gave us satire.CHAPTER 4
I can't pack light; I bring too many sweaters.
I can't cook light either. Last week I invited one person to dinner and made three entrees.
It's also true, as the slow warm-up of this sentence suggests, that I can't tell a story quickly. ("Too many prefaces!" say friends.) Recently my husband, who was driving us downtown, seemed, all at once, to require warning about an oncoming vehicle. I panicked, shunning the brief, effective, time-honored shout – "Look out!" –in favor of something along the lines of,
"I could be wrong about this, but ..." By the time I finished my sentence, he had averted the accident and eaten up another mile of the road.
Excerpted from Short Flights by James Lough, Alex Stein. Copyright © 2016 Schaffner Press. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents5 – Preface by Alex Stein,
7 – Introduction, "Varieties of Aphoristic Experience: A Breviary of the Briefest Genre," by James Lough,
19 – James Richardson,
29 – Charles Simic,
37 – James Lough,
47 – Sara Levine,
51 – Sharon Dolin,
60 – H.L. Hix,
67 – Ashleigh Brilliant,
74 – Yahia Lababidi,
82 – Brian Jay Stanley,
88 – Dan Liebert,
94 – David Shields,
99 – Richard Kostel,
106 – Ann Lauinger,
111 – Holly Woodward,
116 – Steven Carter,
123 – George Murray,
133 – Alex Stein,
141 – Hart Pomerantz,
146 – James Guida,
151 – Lily Akerman,
158 – Charles Bernstein,
168 – Olivia Dresher,
173 – Irena Karafilly,
178 – Christopher Cokinos,
182 – Michael Theune,
188 – Stephen Dobyns,
196 – Alfred Corn,
205 – Eric Nelson,
211 – James Geary,
216 – Thomas Farber,
221 – Kevin Griffith,
228 – John Bradley,
233 – Afterword, "When Very Little is Required in the Classroom: On Teaching the Long-Winded Writer to Write Short," by Sara Levine,
241 – Author Bios,