It’s difficult to overestimate the influence that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” has had on subsequent creative minds.
For contemporary writers struggling to generate an original idea, Emerson’s advice to “learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across [your] mind from within” can still provide validation of their unique creative instincts.
According to “Self-Reliance,” you shouldn’t need validation from anyone else.
The crowd, it would seem, should have no bearing on how we understand the world: “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
For those striving to make an impact in our world’s rapidly expanding information networks, Emerson’s proposal that we treat the regard and opinions of our would-be audiences with indifference may come as a welcome (but silly) piece of advice.
How is someone supposed to create something that is entertaining or useful if she pays no attention to the interests or needs of her audience? To always please oneself first is certainly an appealing fantasy, but ignoring one’s readers’ concerns doesn’t seem like the best strategy for keeping them interested.
“Who cares if they’re interested,” Emerson seems to say. “Just be yourself.”
Emerson defines genius this way: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, – that is genius.”
Given the various dictionary definitions of “genius” I’ve just read, it seems the word is typically defined as a spirit, personified or not, that inclines an individual or group to take a particular action. This drive and capacity to act – to affect the world around you – is likely the basis for the more current usage of the term as a designator for people like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs.
In Emerson’s definition, genius is simply about recognizing the universal applicability of your specific experiences and understanding. According to him, what you think is inevitably linked to what everyone else is thinking about.
In other words, as long as you’re being honest about your understanding of the world, whatever you end up writing will inevitably connect with the sentiments and interests of the crowd – those people who have influenced you and those who you imagine reading your work. You are creating an “inner crowd” from all of those people who have influenced you, the ideas you have, and the way you express them.
Take this little gem for instance: “We first share the life by which things exist, and afterwards see them as appearances in nature, and forget that we have shared their cause. Here is the fountain of action and of thought.”
In these sentences, he’s zooming way out to take in all of existence, including the human community – all of your potential readers, all of those networks you’re hoping to integrate yourself into – and saying that, since you’re intimately connected to everything. Whatever you say, you’re speaking for everyone and everything.
If you share a cause with everything that exists, says Emerson, your point of view can’t fail to say something meaningful about the common circumstances that encompass all of us.
By these lights, the seemingly banal assertion that “if you just write and be yourself, you’ll succeed” is based on an infallible logic. Whenever you write, you write with the words of the crowd.
There is a great deal of comfort in this way of thinking. We might now say: “Hey, I can’t fail. I can write whatever I want, and all of it will be profound and interesting.”
However, there’s a part of us that knows that in practice, this is far from true.
Emerson knew this, too. In this hymn to the power of the individual’s genius, he inserts some caveats that are interesting for the way they qualify the high value he places on the individual’s creative impulses.
For example, at one point in the essay he speaks directly to the American artist, advising him to consider the desires and habits of his audience:
Beauty, convenience, grandeur of thought, and quaint expression are as near to us as to any, and if the American artist will study with hope and love the precise thing to be done by him, considering the climate, the soil, the length of the day, the wants of the people, the habit and form of the government, he will create a house in which all these will find themselves fitted, and taste and sentiment will be satisfied also.
So, in an essay that takes the Latin maxim “Ne te quaesiveris extra”—or “do not seek for things outside of yourself”— as its first epigraph, Emerson comes around to admitting that an author’s social context outside of herself necessarily informs and determines the success of her creative endeavours.
But this apparent paradox cannot make Emerson guilty of logical inconsistency.
His inner crowd (the universal life an artist shares with all existence) makes it possible for the writer to discover in herself what she has observed outside and internalized. Besides, Emerson says, “[a] foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”
Pursuing the idea of the power of individual intuition as the spring of creativity, the pre-Freudian Emerson appeals to the truth of personal intuition before again seeming to suggest that something outside the artist may positively impact the way her work is received:
“Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due. He may err in the expression of them, but he knows that these things are so, like day and night, not to be disputed.”
The possibility that the individual can make a mistake in the way they express themselves implies that there is an outside standard that determines the quality of their personal style of expression.
Emerson is pointing towards the problem that CYC Editor Melody Boggs discussed in her recent post, “You May Know What You’re Trying to Say, But Your Readers Likely Don’t.”
As Melody’s title asserts, an author typically understands her own thoughts – she “knows these things are so” – but she has often “err[ed] in the expression of them” by not paying attention to the standard means of communication dictated by the audience she speaks to.
However, if the notion of the inner crowd holds true, these standards of expression are already lying dormant and ready to be accessed within the author. She simply needs to find them.
Combined with his theory that “the fountain of action and thought” depends on the individual’s continuity with all others, Emerson’s caveats about the influence of others on the individual affirm his overall argument “that power is inborn.”
“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion….”
When we write, we’re inevitably imitating something. Words, syntax, and the conventions of our chosen genre always have some effect on the way we express ourselves. Emerson would probably admit this much, but he would likely be exasperated if his readers were satisfied with this simplified understanding of the creativity-killing tendency towards envious imitation, which he’s condemning.
In order to actively emulate someone else’s mode of thought and style, one must strive to thwart the idiosyncrasies that give his or her writing its unique voice and texture.
This is the act of creative suicide that must be avoided.
Nevertheless, some idiosyncratic ways of writing can impede our ability to make sense to our readers. To confront this problem, says Emerson, we should strive to hold on to our peculiarities, while working to make their value apparent to our audience.
In another of his inspirational essays, “The Poet”, he admonishes the author who struggles to make herself understood: “Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, ‘It is in me, and shall out.’ Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own….”
There is a comic quality to the figure of the author he paints here. As a person who likes to think of herself as extremely good with words, the writer will likely cringe at this picture of herself as struggling to find the right term, “stuttering and stammering.”
We all know how perennial and true-to-life the problem of finding the right term or phrasing is. This is the work of writing, but it’s also the labour of being yourself – of writing the thing you know you want to write.
In Emerson’s vision, the stammering poet is in a public forum, where she can be “hissed and hooted.”
For the writer at her desk, these derisive voices are present in the imagination as an abusively critical audience.
In the process of revision, this imaginary audience might even seem to take the form of the proofreader or editor who calls into question phrases or terms which seemed perfectly clear on your last readthrough.
While you know your proofreaders are trying to help you, sometimes it can feel like just the opposite: like they’re attacking your essential self.
However, this experience has the utility of forcing you to express yourself as clearly as possible; ultimately, your “rage [will] draw out of thee that dream-power [your inner self] which every night shows thee is thine own.”
Obviously, we don’t necessarily have to embrace Emerson’s view of individual exceptionalism and creativity.
By temperament and experience, I’m sceptical of anyone who sings the praises of originality and creativity while prefacing his assertions with epigraphs he’s borrowed from other authors.
In his enthusiasm for impressing his reader with the latent greatness of the individual reader, it often feels as if Emerson is glossing over the way that each individual is connected to and reliant on those around him.
Experience tells us that interesting ideas don’t just appear, they’re more often co-created. Imitative iteration often leads to unintentional errors that turn out to be incredibly beautiful or useful.
Some authors – Benjamin Franklin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Hunter Thompson – are said to have honed their craft by copying out word for word the work of great authors. By doing so they were able to study the structure of a good narrative and learn the nuances of striking the right tone.
It’s as if these aspiring authors accepted that the influences of others were inescapable, so they might as well embrace them. However, they must have also known that their own unique habits and circumstances would continue to shine through whatever writerly guise they provisionally adopted.
Very likely, applying oneself to master the works of others in order to improve your own writerly practice can only yield positive results in terms of one’s work ethic. The tenacity it would have taken Thompson to sit at his typewriter and re-type all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby demonstrates the persistence Emerson promotes in his admonition to the stammering poet.
It’s this type of tenacity – or will to persist – that I think Emerson is really getting at when he gestures to some nebulously defined, quasi-spiritual force within every person.
Take these lines from “Self-Reliance”: “He who knows that power is inborn, that he is weak because he has looked for good out of him and elsewhere, and so perceiving, throws himself unhesitatingly on his thought, instantly rights himself, stands in the erect position, commands his limbs, works miracles ….”
The terms “power” and “miracles” tend to mystify the common desire to thrive in all aspects of life that drives a person to bother trying to make themselves understood by others. However, the fact that language can impact others so profoundly – can make them want things and act in ways they hadn’t previously – does seem to manifest what ancient people might have understood as magic.
Many of Emerson’s essays read like secular sermons designed to stir up faith in oneself. They’re compelling in their rhetoric. They’re so compelling, in fact, that a few paragraphs into “Self-Reliance” I was struck by the inconsistency that, in order to follow Emerson’s advice to its most absurd conclusion, I would ultimately have to try to ignore it.
Of course this is impossible. Striving to be oneself as an author means accepting that you cannot help relying (if only unconsciously) on the crowd of great writers you’ve read.
So, follow Emerson’s paradoxical advice:
Don’t be yourself – acknowledge the inescapability of the inner crowd.
Also, be yourself – don’t be envious of other’s ideas, take criticism, and persist in expressing your unique synthesis of past reading and experience.
When he’s not refining prose and hunting down grammatical errors, Ben Barber reads paper books from brick libraries, traps Dungeness crab, brews beer, and stalks inspiration through temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. His graduate degrees in English Literature have honed his editorial eye, while teaching him the importance of respecting the author’s unique voice. Feel free to drop him a line if you’re interested in discussing the nuances of semicolon usage, the metaphysics of the late-Romantic poets, Spinoza’s third type of knowledge, or recipes for baby back ribs.