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.
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Use sharpens a dull axe.
To see clearly, look askance.
The long, lonely walk back to the drawing board concentrates the mind wonderfully.
You can’t expect a change of scenery if you never veer from the beaten track.
Advice is given freely because so much of it is worthless.
To get your foot in the door, first get it out of your mouth.
“I am nothing,” the Buddha said. “I really do not exist. I am an open window. I am a bus stop.”
A manuscript that’s ready to be read by others is a feast the cook is no longer able to enjoy.
When in doubt, remain in doubt.
Aphorisms are not drive-thru windows of the soul.
An animal must feel at least temporarily safe in order to really enjoy a meal.
Our mistakes make us interesting.
What we do while doing nothing cannot be done in haste.
Dare to be unprepared.
Often, the smartest thing you can do is to play dumb.
Following in other people’s footsteps is fine, as long as you are big enough to fill their shoes.
Sometimes, two goldfish in a bowl are enough.
Money is poor compensation for all the time we lose in making it.
Self-doubt is the beginning of wisdom.
There’s never nothing left to learn.
All thinking is wishful thinking.
People tend to salute anything unnaturally bright, at least until the shade from their hands reveals what it really is.
Thought begins where habit ends.
Prepare for spontaneity — now.
Counting on things going wrong makes it easier to count your blessings when they don’t.
Cultivate a certain distance from yourself, as one tends to avoid radiation.
Open your hands and you open your heart.
Tears always appear at the extremes, greasing the joints between pleasure and pain.
In the margin for error lies all our room for maneuver.
It is easy to get lost in the moment, and then to mistake that moment for eternity.
Wisdom begins not with wonder, but with wondering.
To inspire, first inflame.
It is hard not to become pushy when the wind is at your back.
Rumination is the enemy of revolution.
What inures is ignored.
Burn your ships at night and in the morning build bridges.
Without the hole, a doughnut is just another form of sugared toast.
The seen and the scene often disagree.
Never trust an animal — no matter how many legs it has.
Dictionaries are, by definition, not definitive.
The best response to a great performance is not applause but silence.
A smile looks a lot like a wince.
The bar opens when the casket closes.
Don’t celebrate when you finish something. Completion is just the first stage of collapse.
Imagine their embarrassment when all the members of the orchestra arrived at the performance wearing the same outfit.
To see clearly, one must very often squint.
Literature is the art of finding fresh new ways to say the same old things.
More is achieved with finesse than with force.
There is always time between beginnings to do the whole thing over again.
I would rather be a voice in the desert than a face in the crowd.
Having a map doesn’t prevent you from making unexpected discoveries.
Not many people live in the desert.
The serenity that often comes with age consists primarily of the realization that we can’t do much about anything anyway.
Never be serious in public.
Sometimes, you need a door slammed in your face before you can hear opportunity knock.
Who notices their feet unless there is a stone in their shoe?
Image trumps information.
A thread’s only strength is clinging.
You must understand a thing completely before you can safely ignore it.
It’s hard to think clearly in someone’s arms.
Spring: When everything that died in winter gets a chance to rot.
You never know what you can do until you are tried.
The art of writing is the art of knowing what to leave out.
In a crisis, inspiration is better than consolation.
You need the long form to form the long view.
At night, after the children have gone to sleep, we can hide their presents all over the house.
Eating is good because it gives you something to do. If you think too much, just order pizza.
People lose common sense when they gain dollars and cents.
The trouble with me is I’m already there.
Big things are accomplished by accomplishing little things first.
There are certain mistakes we enjoy so much that we are always willing to repeat them.
Too many facts spoil the plot.
It’s getting dark. Let’s celebrate.
You need a lot of dots to know where to draw the line.
Preparing for something brings it about.
After a certain age, we are granted a new way of telling time: counting the people we know who have died.
Small stuff tells big stories.
Cliches are aphorisms that have become victims of their own success.
You only really discover the strength of your spine when your back is against the wall.
There is not much room for error in an eggshell.
You can’t warm yourself at a distant fire.
Trying to consciously control your thoughts is like trying to install a faucet on Niagara Falls.
An infant’s smile is the universe’s seal of approval.
Rehearse the minor hurts enough and the major ones don’t hurt.
The dark side retains its power by imposing a blackout.
Young people should picnic in active volcanoes.
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.
X + Y = You
Poetry is the best turds in the best ordure.
The Earth does not regret its orbit.
Familiarity breeds complacency not contempt.
Laughter blows away the dust from our eyes.
The laws of physics get you down.
If you are in danger then you are really alive, like a nun’s orgasm.
Life: adjusting a necktie in a funhouse mirror.
Black humor suits a funeral as much as black suits.
You can never look in the same mirror twice.
Even what is nearest, most prolific, is invisible unless properly lit.
The numinous is the nitty-gritty.
The greatest compositions incorporate into the score the sound of the musicians turning the sheet music.
The trouble with me is I’m not here.
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