I first blogged about Jay Friedenberg earlier this year and am doing so again because he’s just released Aphorisms From A to Z: A User’s Guide to Life, a collection of original aphorisms plus ruminations on the form and Q&As with some leading practitioners and connoisseurs.
There is an enlightening Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, author of the memoir An Open Book (2004) and of four collections of essays, including Readings (2000) and Classics for Pleasure (2007). Here is a particularly nice exchange:
JF: Have aphorisms influenced the way you interpret or write literature? Brevity is stressed in journalistic writing, so it seems natural that you might appreciate short form literature. Do you see other connections between aphorisms and journalism?
MD: Journalism requires writers to cut away the fat, and go directly for the facts. (Hey, that’s almost an aphorism.) At the same, reporters are always trying to get a bit of zing into their prose. I remember my former colleague Curt Suplee describing novelist John Irving, who was then very much into wrestling, as having “ a hard gym-like frame.” The description works on its own, but when you know Pater’s “hard gem-like flame,” it becomes brilliant.
JF: History is full of writers who became avid aphorists. What is it that separates these writers from the rest? Is there a particular type of personality that gravitates toward them?
MD: I suppose that an aphorist is a failed poet with the temperament of worldly philosopher. Beyond that, one must hate fuzziness in writing and aspire to clarity, conciseness and beauty.
JF: You teach a course on aphorisms at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What is the content of this course? How do you teach it? How do the students react?
SL: I teach the aphorism as part of a graduate course called Short Prose Forms. I ask each student to write an aphorism on an index card and pass the index card to the person on his left; we tweak, we tinker, we try to improve. A skeptical student objects: Can one write an aphorism by committee? “You inhabit another character’s imagination when you write a novel,” I answer. “So write an aphorism for a character who isn’t you.” But it always proves harder than it sounds. When the work is done, we spread the index cards out on a table and discover they resemble, not a page from Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, but a row of hospital beds. Sentence after ailing sentence: punctured paradoxes, sprained metaphors, hobbled clauses, a ward of amputees! Luckily, I love failure as much as I love the aphorism. Each time your aphorism lands with a thud, you come closer to understanding the form. The feelings of inferiority or humility that come along with the experience of writing a truly lousy aphorism are nothing—well, not nothing, but fiddlesticks—compared to a sharper understanding of how Dorothy Parker packs a big idea into a carry-on bag. The aphorism is, in essence, a crash course in
JF: What are your aphorisms like?
SL: Solitary, poor, nasty, funny, and short.
And then there are, of course, Jay Friedenberg’s own aphorisms, over 2,500 different ones on more than 600 topics, precisely observed sayings that manage to be both clinical and sympathetic. A small sampling…
Common sense is knowing how to act effectively in a situation for which you have not already prepared.
If you can’t live up to your expectations, lower them.
Grandchildren are a parent’s best revenge.
Deal with the biggest threats first.
There are many kinds of strength, some disguise themselves as weakness.