Where Words, Wit, and Juggling Meet: James Geary’s Juggling Aphorisms and Mixing Metaphors – Amanda Zarni

Anyone who knows John F Kennedy’s famous words, “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, or Alexander Pope’s, “to err is human, to forgive, divine”, knows an aphorism. According to author and aphorist James Geary, everyone knows at least one aphorism, because these brief, provoking, statements of truth and philosophy are used every day, in every culture. Geary delivered an informative, but amusingly entertaining, talk on this favorite subject of his this past Thursday night, at Grolier Poetry, in Cambridge. A quaint and cozy book shop right next door to the beacon of intellect, Harvard University, the intimate venue was the perfect place to host Geary’s presentation— a brilliant combination of lecture, group discussion, and performance. The show was given in honor of the recent publication of Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, which contains some of Geary’s own aphorisms.

Despite everyone knowing of an aphorism, many might not know what an aphorism actually is. Therefore, Geary started his discussion there, with a brief origin story of aphorisms. He explained how the literary devices are used for a variety of purposes, from moral instruction, to sharing philosophy, to highlighting important truths, or even to merely display wit. The intent of an aphorism when heard, according to Geary, is not “[to] make you feel good about yourself…[but to] provoke you”. An aphorism is supposed to make you think, to argue, to question. Aphorisms require just as much intelligence and creativity from their listeners as they do their creators. They demand wit.

Not only do aphorisms require wit, however, they also need metaphors. Or, perhaps, we are simply incapable of creating any statement without them, aphorism or not. Geary says “we think in metaphors”, an undeniable statement once one acknowledges how illogical half the things we say are if taken literally— instead of metaphorically. On average, Geary told us, people “utter six metaphors a minute”, and to help prove his declaration he had us, his rapt audience, count out the number of metaphors in a single introduction to a news article. 33 words, 9 metaphors. Keep in mind, these metaphors were not all like the type of one was expected to find in a grade school English class, the conspicuous kind that make simple comparisons. Like aphorisms, metaphors can be made using wit too. Mixed metaphors especially, Geary says, are “a great testimony of [the speaker’s] wit”.

But what does Geary mean by “wit”. Today we would assume if something is witty, it must be clever and funny. Although not necessarily wrong, however, wit is more than this. It is, Geary clarifies, actually the skill of “taking what you have and making something out of it… seeing a possibility”. Something that is witty does not have to be funny, or merely funny, as is assumed today, but must be quick, clever, and creative. Wit is a show of intellect, of a fast and innovative mind.

To finish off the night’s discussion, Geary gave us a show by juggling while listing his five laws of aphorisms. Number five was why aphorisms are like jokes:

So, what’s your favorite aphorism?

If you have one, share it in the comments!


BIO: Described as a “playful and profound spirit”, James Geary is a contributor to the recently published Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit, as well as author of Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists and I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. He has performed variations of his Juggling Aphorisms and Mixing Metaphors show at TED (see below), along with numerous other venues across the country. A former editor of the European edition of Time magazine, Geary is currently the deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University here in Massachusetts.

WHY APHORISMS: At one point in the night, during what had rapidly devolved into something more akin to a Socratic seminar than a lecture, one of the guests asked when, where, and what had peaked Geary’s interest in aphorisms. He replied with a story of how, growing up, the main source of literature in his house was Reader’s Digest. Geary explained that, at 8 yrs old, he became obsessed with the literary magazine’s “Quotable Quotes” section and began collecting his favorite aphorisms on the backs of the music posters hanging in his room. His first aphorism, he told us, was, “the difference between a rut and a grave, is the depth”. It truly highlights how “aphorisms are witty, but not always funny”.

To learn more about Geary and his work, click here, or check out the links at the bottom of the page.

*If you are interested in seeing James Geary in person, he is giving another talk on aphorisms February 26th at 7:00pm in Brookline.

Can’t Wait Until February? Here’s His TED Talk to Hold You Over:

James Geary, Metaphorically Speaking




The “S” Word- Olivia Brooks

IMG_3593IMG_3596 PEN

        Sex and sexuality in literature are  often considered as the “elephant in the room”, well, that is at least how one of the authors from Monday night’s Beyond Lolita discussion described it. A few authors, even our very own Amy Monticello was amongst them, came together at Porter Square Books in Cambridge to discuss sex and sexuality in all forms of literature. Seems like a touchy subject, huh? Well, these authors made it evident that it really should not be. All of the speakers that night made it clear that there is not enough serious discussions about sex and sexuality. It tends to just be overlooked or whispered about. Benoit Denizet-Lewis, an author for the New York Times magazine, discussed how limited he is when it comes to writing about sex. He emphasized how there are so many words that he cannot use. Where is our freedom of speech? These days we all have to live in such fear of offending someone with what we say or what we write, despite how we may really feel. Professor Monticello made an excellent point, why can the media and literature express violence without any limitation but not sex? Violence has such a negative connotation, while sex and sexuality usually does not. Yet, the expression of sex and sexuality is so shunned upon! This part really was an eye opener for me because I never thought of it in this way, and I assume that most people have not.

Author Jaclyn Friedman insisted that our literature world needs more women who are not afraid to speak up about sex. And she is so right. Women are usually degraded or mocked if they express their sexuality, and that is just plain wrong. No person should be judged based off of what they read or even what they write. Expression is a beautiful thing, let it live. As I sat and listened to each author speak, my mind kept referring back to Brittany Means’ “Books You Needed”. Means explained how this generation needs more influential books, more books that will teach them sacred life lessons. The Beyond Lolita panel certainly agreed with Means.There are not enough books these days that can teach you about sexuality and or gender roles. But instead, you can enjoy a beloved fairy tale that teaches young women to wait for her prince charming to save her. When will we have a book that teaches young women that they can be their own hero? We need to teach them to save themselves! Friedman explained that a woman who writes about sex will certainly make a lot of people mad. Who cares! Boundaries need to be broken sometimes, especially when talking about sexuality. I wouldn’t say that I am a diehard feminist, but I do believe that everyone has the right to voice their opinions, and to not be shamed for it. Author Anna March insists on writing sexuality from a feminism perspective because it is so rarely addressed. I think that is one of the greatest issues in literature today. We need more female powerhouses to address the issues that everyone is too nervous to talk about. This event really changed my perspective on sex and sexuality in literature. I don’t think that I have ever really seen it as an issue, but after listening to all of these fascinating and passionate authors talk, I really realized that we need to change our literary world.

Helen Klein Ross “What Was Mine”

Morgan Robb

Helen Klein Ross’ most recent novel, What Was Mine, is a compelling, suspenseful novel that has no secrets and is told from the point of view of 15 different characters. The story is about a woman named Lucy who had faced infertility who ends up taking a baby from an IKEA store. She raises this baby for 21 years, and it is at that point that the girl finds out her true identity and confronts Lucy and goes off to find her birth mother. This summary caught my interest immediately and made me eager to go to see Helen Klein Ross.

The discussion at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA. was between Claire Messud, a New York Times bestselling author, and of course Helen Klein Ross. Helen started off by talking about how she learned to write and gave some lessons that I think can be helpful to all writers.

Her first words were, “A lot about writing I learned from reading.” To me this makes sense because reading is a way of teaching, we can see how others do things to decide how we are or are not going to do something. She also said that she never really understood how many people go into writing a novel and now appreciates that, because all of the people that helped her with the book offered different views and judgments. Helen said the biggest lesson she learned through telling a story was to “listen to the character.” Advice I’m sure any fictional or even non-fictional writer should take.

This story is unique in the sense that it is not a mystery, we know that Lucy took the baby so there is no surprise, like life the only question is how people will react. As Claire pointed out the novel is like life where there is no clear cut villain and hero. Lucy is not a bad person and Marilyn, the baby’s mother, is not a saint. Helen points out that through the story and by seeing the events unfold slowly from Lucy’s eyes, we as readers sympathize with her, almost forgetting that what she did was completely twisted. Helen points out that the “act was one of craziness, but its believable, and the character was not crazy.”

When asked how she came up with the idea for the novel from originally a short story, Helen explained that she had to “build a story world…where this was believable.” So she set it in 1990, before technology, and told the story from multiple points of view, “where the reader could justifiably sympathize” with each character. And to make the story relatable, and understandable she shows the psychological movement of the characters throughout the story.

Helen firmly believes that “almost all of us are capable of almost anything” and she wanted to show that through Lucy. However, she also believes that as humans, we are strong enough to overcome even the most tragic thing and can move on with our lives, which is how she metaphorically granted Marilyn “Grace” as described by Claire. A belief that I am not sure I follow, because as a daughter who is so close to my own mother, I doubt that any sane, loving mother would be able to fully recover from losing a child.

Despite that disagreement, I did find Helen to be very real and in-tune to real life, which is why this novel should be a success and I certainly learned a lot from her. She believes that we “only have one story to tell,” and she believes her’s is motherhood, and feels accomplished with this novel. She encouraged to “write what you know” because fiction is a conduit of truth, and if we do that, then we can all be successful.image1

Event: From the Living to the Telling

Join bestselling memoirists Alysia Abbott (Fairyland) and Howard Axelrod (The Point of Vanishing) for a free discussion on writing about lived experience. All book sales at this event courtesy of More Than Words, a Waltham-based nonprofit that challenges youth to build business skills by running a bookstore and cafe.

This event is co-sponspored by GrubStreet, Boston Public Library, Boston Athenaeum, Boston Book Festival, Emerson College, Suffolk University, and The Drum Literary Magazine, and co-Presented by Old South Meeting House and the Boston Literary District.

Event will take place on at 5:30-7:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 28th, at the Old South Meeting House!

Beyond Lolita: Literary Writers on Sex and Sexuality

Join authors Daniel Jones, Cathi Hanauer, Benoit Denizet-Lewis, Marjan Kamali, Amy Monticello, and Jaclyn Friedman for a moderated panel discussion on the writing and teaching of sex and sexuality in contemporary literature.

This event will take place at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, January 25, at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA.


This event series is sponsored by PEN USA to benefit the Emergency Writers’ Fund.

Panelist bios:

Daniel Jones is the editor of the New York Times‘ Modern Love column.

Cathi Hanauer is the author of three novels, Gone, Sweet Ruin, and My Sister’s Bones, and the editor of the bestselling essay collection The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood and Marriage.

Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a magazine writer, bestselling author (Travels With Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country), professor, and film producer.

Jaclyn Friedman is the author of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and What You Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety.

Anna March’s essays, fiction, reviews, reading lists, interviews, poetry, playlists, diaries and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of publications.

Marjan Kamali’s is the author of the novel Together Tea, which was selected as a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award and is a Must Read for the Commonwealth. It has been translated into German, Italian, Norwegian, Czech, and Slovak. Her short fiction has been a top finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Asian American Short Story contest. Her work has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in the anthologies Tremors and Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been. She lives with her husband and two children and teaches writing at Boston University.

Amy Monticello, the author of Close Quarters, is an essayist, lecturer, and nonfiction writer. She is the recipient of the S.I. Newhouse School Prize in Nonfiction, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A contributing writer at Role/Reboot, she is currently an Assistant Professor at Suffolk University in Boston.


Welcome to the class blog of Suffolk University’s Creativity and Innovation Honors course on Literary Citizenship. This course is part of the core curriculum at Suffolk, and operates as a problem-solving studio with a myriad of themes and questions driving innovations that rely on the creative process. We believe that creativity is a learned skill, essential to students who will one day enter a world with problems yet to be defined.

Creativity Is

Our particular section of CI will attempt to answer questions about the importance and function of artistic community using literary publishing as a lens through which to see how the fine arts rely not only on the quality of art-making itself, but on the collaboration, cross-promotion, and collective enthusiasm of artists and consumers of art. We will immerse ourselves in the world of small presses, literary journals, story slams, blogging circles, and independent bookstores and libraries to learn how words quite literally get out in a culture that struggles to value and sustain writers. We recognize that we must first value and sustain ourselves.

Author and creative writing professor Cathy Day offers these thoughts as a working definition of literary citizenship:

Lately, I’ve started thinking that maybe the reason I teach creative writing isn’t just to create writers, but also to create a populace that cares about reading. There are many ways to lead a literary life, and I try to show my students simple ways that they can practice what I call “literary citizenship.” I wish more aspiring writers would contribute to, not just expect things from, that world they want so much to be a part of.

This blog will serve as the collaboration of 30 students who will each write posts about the literary communities of the Boston area, including those of Suffolk University, the Boston Public Library system, and the Boston Literary District. We will cover literary events, review books by local authors, interview area writers, teachers, booksellers, editors, and agents, and share what we learn about the words written here in this city of deep literary history. We will update the blog weekly, and though we know we will never be able to read, hear, and see it all, we will do our small part to elevate and amplify the literary voices we love.

This class is taught by Suffolk University assistant professor Amy Monticello, author of the essay collection Close Quarters, which was published by the independent press, Sweet Publications. She holds an MFA from The Ohio State University, and has been published in BrevityUpstreetThe Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart prizes. She is a contributing writer at Role/Reboot, and currently at work on a memoir about grief, pregnancy, and itinerant living called A New and Magical Life.