I first started writing aphorisms in the early 1980s, when I was about 20. I practice the “spontaneous combustion” method of composition; that is, the aphorisms spontaneously occur in longer stretches of text.
This is in contrast to the “deliberate composition” method, whereby an author deliberately sits down to write aphorisms and consciously works on individual lines to that end.
Once an aphorism appears, I do revise and rework it, if necessary. But most of my aphorisms emerge pretty much complete and intact.
To get your own original Geary aphorism, on mugs and t-shirts, click here to go to my CafePress store »
Wisdom begins not with wonder, but with wondering.
Sometimes, you need a door slammed in your face before you can hear opportunity knock.
The greatest compositions incorporate into the score the sound of the musicians turning the sheet music.
To see clearly, one must very often squint.
Don’t celebrate when you finish something. Completion is just the first stage of collapse.
X + Y = You
Familiarity breeds complacency not contempt.
Sometimes, two goldfish in a bowl are enough.
Black humor suits a funeral as much as black suits.
The numinous is the nitty-gritty.
In the margin for error lies all our room for maneuver.
Poetry is the best turds in the best ordure.
Tears always appear at the extremes, greasing the joints between pleasure and pain.
Literature is the art of finding fresh new ways to say the same old things.
Eating is good because it gives you something to do. If you think too much, just order pizza.
Aphorisms are not drive-thru windows of the soul.
To get your foot in the door, first get it out of your mouth.
You can’t warm yourself at a distant fire.
You only really discover the strength of your spine when your back is against the wall.
“I am nothing,” the Buddha said. “I really do not exist. I am an open window. I am a bus stop.”
Image trumps information.
Rumination is the enemy of revolution.
The bar opens when the casket closes.
The laws of physics get you down.
There’s never nothing left to learn.
The long, lonely walk back to the drawing board concentrates the mind wonderfully.
Spring: When everything that died in winter gets a chance to rot.
Often, the smartest thing you can do is to play dumb.
You never know what you can do until you are tried.
What we do while doing nothing cannot be done in haste.
A smile looks a lot like a wince.
A manuscript that’s ready to be read by others is a feast the cook is no longer able to enjoy.
An infant’s smile is the universe’s seal of approval.
To see clearly, look askance.
Use sharpens a dull axe.
In a crisis, inspiration is better than consolation.
The art of writing is the art of knowing what to leave out.
The trouble with me is I’m not here.
Young people should picnic in active volcanoes.
Life: adjusting a necktie in a funhouse mirror.
The seen and the scene often disagree.
Preparing for something brings it about.
It’s getting dark. Let’s celebrate.
Who notices their feet unless there is a stone in their shoe?
Prepare for spontaneity — now.
People tend to salute anything unnaturally bright, at least until the shade from their hands reveals what it really is.
What inures is ignored.
Cliches are aphorisms that have become victims of their own success.
It’s hard to think clearly in someone’s arms.
You need the long form to form the long view.
More is achieved with finesse than with force.
A thread’s only strength is clinging.
Even what is nearest, most prolific, is invisible unless properly lit.
Rehearse the minor hurts enough and the major ones don’t hurt.
Dictionaries are, by definition, not definitive.
An animal must feel at least temporarily safe in order to really enjoy a meal.
You need a lot of dots to know where to draw the line.
The serenity that often comes with age consists primarily of the realization that we can’t do much about anything anyway.
I would rather be a voice in the desert than a face in the crowd.
Self-doubt is the beginning of wisdom.
Counting on things going wrong makes it easier to count your blessings when they don’t.
There are certain mistakes we enjoy so much that we are always willing to repeat them.
All thinking is wishful thinking.
Cultivate a certain distance from yourself, as one tends to avoid radiation.
If you are in danger then you are really alive, like a nun’s orgasm.
Big things are accomplished by accomplishing little things first.
People lose common sense when they gain dollars and cents.
It is hard not to become pushy when the wind is at your back.
At night, after the children have gone to sleep, we can hide their presents all over the house.
The Earth does not regret its orbit.
Not many people live in the desert.
Too many facts spoil the plot.
There is not much room for error in an eggshell.
Burn your ships at night and in the morning build bridges.
After a certain age, we are granted a new way of telling time: counting the people we know who have died.
Our mistakes make us interesting.
Never trust an animal — no matter how many legs it has.
Small stuff tells big stories.
Money is poor compensation for all the time we lose in making it.
When in doubt, remain in doubt.
The dark side retains its power by imposing a blackout.
Why I like juggling: The illusion of flight, deft mastery of falling’s art; because to have what you hold you have to throw it away as soon as it’s caught.
The best response to a great performance is not applause but silence.
Having a map doesn’t prevent you from making unexpected discoveries.
You can never look in the same mirror twice.
Advice is given freely because so much of it is worthless.
You can’t expect a change of scenery if you never veer from the beaten track.
Laughter blows away the dust from our eyes.
Following in other people’s footsteps is fine, as long as you are big enough to fill their shoes.
Open your hands and you open your heart.
Imagine their embarrassment when all the members of the orchestra arrived at the performance wearing the same outfit.
You must understand a thing completely before you can safely ignore it.
Never be serious in public.
Without the hole, a doughnut is just another form of sugared toast.
There is always time between beginnings to do the whole thing over again.
To inspire, first inflame.
Trying to consciously control your thoughts is like trying to install a faucet on Niagara Falls.
It is easy to get lost in the moment, and then to mistake that moment for eternity.
The trouble with me is I’m already there.
Thought begins where habit ends.
Dare to be unprepared.
Some of my aphoristic definitions appear in this anthology, compiled by Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley.
Volume 9, Number 2, Spring 2011
Three of my Assays appear in this issue of the literary journal, which is completely devoted to aphorisms. You can see a PDF of the Assays here.
A handful of my aphorisms appear in Zikison 65, a weekly journal of political satire, cartoons and humor published in the Balkans.
Some of my aphorisms are included in Het Grootste Citatenboek ter Wereld (The Biggest Quotation Book in the World), compiled by Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley. The book contains some 35,000 quotations from roughly 10,000 authors.
My Articles about Aphorisms
October 14, 2012
Where would we be without aphorisms, asks James Geary
Aphorisms are literature's hand luggage—no other type of writing does so much with so little.
Oct. 8, 2008
The Takeaway talks with James Geary about political aphorisms.
March 12–18, 2008
James Geary on those pithy little sayings that capture universal truths in a nutshell