Words of Wisdom From Ralph Waldo Emerson That Writers (and All Human Beings) Can Benefit From

Dawn Bevier

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”


Image by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Ralph Waldo Emerson was both poet and philosopher. One of his most famous essays was entitled “Self Reliance.” It contains ideas on how an individual should live his life authentically and boldly. It is a celebration of the individual and the greatness each of us holds within.

His words of genius are my personal manifesto, my credo for how to live my own life. I will make sure that I read his words to my daughter, to the adolescents I teach, and to anyone in life whose happiness matters to me.

I have tried to tailor his philosophy to make points that apply to a writer’s life, but I encourage you to read and apply his ideas to your whole existence. I have no doubt you will leave his words feeling emboldened and uninhibited and you will indeed see that “[you] are your own star” if only you will listen to the greatness inside you.

Emerson’s first rule: Trust yourself.

As struggling writers in a sea of literary genius, we often doubt ourselves and our ideas. Emerson cautions us against this and urges us to honor our own thoughts and inspiration.

He says that “a man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages” and that we should “abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

If we do not act on our own genius, he forewarns us of the results saying that “to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

How many times have we had a great idea germinating in our minds, and refused to give that idea birth? Perhaps it was a story topic that you felt would truly reach an audience? Perhaps it was a life experience that you felt needed to be penned so that others could learn from your strengths or weaknesses. Perhaps it was a plot for a new novel that you believed was creative and unique.

Soon after, we see our great thoughts written by another, one who was bold enough to recognize the merit of his ideas, courageous enough to brook the ever-present body of naysayers that tag along for each and every spark of brilliance lain down in the written word.

We scold ourselves for our inability to unleash the greatness of our thoughts and watch miserably as another enjoys the rewards that we could have claimed if only we had trusted our ideas enough to put them into motion.

The result?

Emerson’s Second Rule: Let your experiences be your muse.

Emerson also comments that each thought we have, each situation we face, is there for a reason. He states that “the eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half-express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents.”

Think about all the vast experiences you have had as a human being. Why was “[your] eye placed where one [observation or experience] should [unfold]”?

Emerson would say that God put that experience in your life’s journey for a reason. Perhaps your experience with tragedy was the impetus for your life’s work as a writer. Perhaps it was there to provoke you to “testify” of that experience in writing so that others who have suffered the same fate can find solace and understanding. Perhaps your experience was there so that you can use your words to enlighten others who are ignorant to a situation or to the necessity of action in response to that situation.

Trust that your experiences have a reason and use your writings to honor that experience, even if doing so brings pain or fear. Emerson says that “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards,” and as writers, we must be brave enough to tell our stories so that we can fulfill an essential part of a writer’s work: to inspire thought, feeling, and action in others through the power of our ability of expression.

Emerson’s Third Rule: Do not conform to other’s standards.

Emerson says that there is “ a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance and that imitation is suicide.”

As writers, we can only get so far riding the coattails of others; if you look at his ideas mentioned previously, his reasoning becomes clear. Other writers’ experiences are their own, not yours. Trying to mold your thoughts to a framework of another’s mind is denying your own authenticity and special gifts.

Emerson says that we should fashion our actions after children who speak freely “[cumbering themselves] never about consequences…[giving] independent, genuine verdicts.” He elaborates on this idea, saying that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

As writers, we should hearken to Emerson’s suggestion that “[we] ought to go upright and vital and speak the rude truth in all ways.”

In other words, we should not censor our writing to appeal to the status quo or the majority, but we must be bold enough to write what we think regardless of the censure it may gain from others. He says that this one trait of non-conformity “serves for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness” or, in other words, the difference between great writing and common writing.

He explains that “conforming to usages” scatters our force and, if we relate this to writing, it means that censoring our writing based on what we think others may think annihilates the passion and honesty that make a piece of writing seductive.

The Bottom Line:

As writers, we can use Emerson’s words to inspire us to remain confident in our own ideas and their value. He can help us remember that the only way to create writings that matter is to write boldly from our hearts and follow our own paths instead of other writers’ roadmaps.

Even if we are not writers, we can use Emerson’s words. After all, each human life is a book, a tale of cowardice or bravery, of self-belief or self-destruction, a plot created by the masses or a masterpiece invented by the individual. Which do you want your life to be?

I know which I prefer, and I bet you do too.

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Sanford, NC

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