Ralph Waldo Emerson stands as one of America’s great thinkers and mystics. Credited with giving voice to Transcendentalism, he drew his lectures from extensive private journals. His famous speeches include one that especially inspires me as a writer: “The Poet.”
Who is a writer? Instead of someone who is producing a certain number of words or someone who is getting good at Beat Sheets and queries, Emerson defines a writer (and a poet in particular) as one who has
never ceased to explore the . . . meaning of every sensuous fact.”
Sensory objects and sensory experiences are not just stimulants for writers; we explore their meaning or even meanings. For Emerson, physical objects are “externizations” of a soul, ideas that have traveled from the thought realm into manifestation. And the writer who examines objects, people, and situations is discovering expressions of universal truth. If Emerson is right, then we are not merely relating stories in our novels; we are mapping out the meaning of human experience.
What does a writer do? Emerson says,
[The writer] apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”
Again, Emerson points to the writer as revealing insights about not only the personal, but the global. The writer’s words explore not just a main character, but the human condition. A plot line leaves the reader with life lessons; a heart line nudges the reader toward the same wisdom that the character wins.
Do we need writers? Emerson says yes! Writers interpret this crazy world and add to our communal understanding. Memoir writers, especially, come to mind when Emerson says,
“[H]e will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer.”
As readers we find ourselves not only transported to interesting times and places with great books, but spoken to on a deep level. We leave the page with expanded self-knowledge. Emerson and I haven’t read all the same books, but he describes my feeling upon finishing a good book exactly:
We are persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles, and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods.”
Gods? This is heady stuff, and I don’t think about it when I’m in my sandbox of sentences. Or when I’m immersed in a scene. In fact, it’s only right that I’m unaware, at that stage, of what larger purpose the story serves or what insights a reader will take away. But when I emerge from the workshop, I do look for validation — not that every word I write is good (would that it were so!) — but that the very act of writing serves a purpose.
When I’m wondering if writing takes too much time from my parenting, my teaching, or even leisure activities (What are those?!), I go back to Emerson. He reminds every writer,
This is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee.”
The meaning here is two-fold: that real things/situations/objects will yield up their ideal underpinnings/patterns/souls and that ideals/insights/truths will manifest through the writing. If true, our writing time is time is well spent.