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