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