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Off the Shelf: Writers on Writing

May 18, 2009 |  8:32 am

"First we eat, then we beget," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. "First we read, then we write." Emerson was an essayist of the first order, but he never sat down to write specifically about writing. His thoughts on the matter have been culled from his letters and essays by scholar Robert D. Richardson and collected in the slim volume, "First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process" from the University of Iowa Press.

The best single bit of practical advice about writing Emerson ever gave -- best because it is a cry from the heart, because it focuses on attitude not aptitude, and because it is as stirring as a rebel yell -- is this: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."

Author Tod Goldberg doesn't sling arrows so much as dodge griffins in his essay on being an adult writer revisiting the storytelling enabler of his childhood: Dungeons and Dragons.

As a child, I played for a very specific reason: I loved to tell stories, but because of my severe dyslexia I couldn't do it very well on the page. Every time I sat down to write, my thoughts would overwhelm my pen, and when I was done scribbling my story out, huge sections would be missing.

It wasn't until high school that I was actually able to write. But I spent years -- first with Army men, later with "Star Wars" action figures and later still, with these role-playing games -- creating stories. And if none of my childhood friends wanted to play with dolls (because let's be honest: Army men and "Star Wars" action figures are dolls) or in my dungeon, I would sit in my bedroom and create these stories by myself...

It's the latest in our new weekly series Off the Shelf: writers on writing, which debuted during the Festival of Books with a piece on writers block by Art Spiegelman. We've also had Taylor Antrim on the hazards of the second novel and Nahid Rachlin on writing at home in Iran.

What's next? Check back: A new essay in the Off the Shelf series posts every Friday.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Left photo: A Ralph Waldo Emerson daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes. Credit: George Eastman House / Hulton Archive / Getty Images.

Right photo: An Art Spiegelman image.