The Tao of Writing


Over the years, family and friends have struggled to understand my need to not only write, but be recognized. They see it as a need for approval, or praise, or fame. While these things do serve as motivation, what really drives me is much simpler: we who suffer from the writer’s disease are a lonely group. We are trapped on islands of our own making, and our only means of contact is through story. Through art, we share our unique view of life, and hopefully, make our mark before we go—that hand print on the wall that screams, “I was here! Once I existed!” If anything, blogging purges my brain of ideas. At best, it is my way of reaching out and making a connection.

There are so many things I would love to share about my writing experiences, from techniques I’ve learned to things writers should do to avoid heartache. But since I have yet to prove myself to a publisher, the idea seems a bit vain. Now that I am seeking professional representation, I have to be extra careful about the things I post. I have often been criticized for egotism and have since done my best to achieve a kind of Buddhist like selflessness. But a selfless writer is a paradox. How can a writer not be even a little egotistical when he must come to believe, at some point, that his voice should be heard over the din of the masses? That his experiences are worth more than another’s and must be recorded for future generations? This contradiction, between the need for humility and the need for confidence, has plagued me for the past six years since failing in my self-publishing ventures. Just like the famous koan that asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” there are many such enigmas in the writing profession. It is part of what I like to call the Tao of Writing.

Typically, an editor or publisher will give advice on grammar or try to offer some formula for what makes good fiction, as if such a formula could be found after ten thousand years of trying. I fondly remember one of my favorite stories, Anna, now lost to a computer virus, about a nun dragged to Hell by a demon. My second year professor, the one with the PhD on his wall, kept insisting what Anna should do. He didn’t like that she was a victim of random chance, that the demon could take her despite her innocence. He recommended, of all things, that Anna be guilty of masturbation—which would have turned the story into a medieval morality play (not surprisingly, his PhD was in religious studies). Everyone in my class thoroughly enjoyed Anna, however; they understood that the story had nothing to do with morality and everything to do with the futility of fear. I changed the story for a better grade, but he didn’t like it any better and neither did I. To this day, if anyone uses the word should on me, I’ll likely punch him in the face. A story shouldn’t do anything. There is no formula for success. 1 + 1 does not equal 2. Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, once not-so-famously said, and I paraphrase, “In this business, nobody knows anything,” and I couldn’t agree more. Give me a story that does something good and I’ll show you a good story that doesn’t do it. Do all good stories need engaging, interesting characters? Not if you ask H.P. Lovecraft. Do all good stories need a well defined conflict? Not if you ask Joseph Heller, or Albert Camus or J.D. Salinger. If I’ve learned anything these past three decades, it’s that the only thing a writer should do is write. Writing is no different than any other art form. Nobody picks up a violin and starts playing beautifully, no matter how many rules and guidelines they may have studied beforehand. Becoming a good writer comes from a lot of hard work, from the 10,000 hour rule Malcolm Gladwell so brilliantly postulates in Outliers. Being a good writer also comes from living. Herman Melville could not have written Moby Dick without having worked on a ship. Mastering the craft is like learning the Tao. A monk cannot teach you the Tao, you just have to find it on your own.

Lastly, how does one persevere, or as I like to put it, ridiculously persevere, without throwing in the towel? Writers often give so much of themselves and receive zero benefit. What insane person spends thousands of hours working on a job without ever knowing whether they’ll get paid or whether they’ll even be recognized? I think this explains why so many of us suffer from depression, from Edgar Allen Poe to John Kennedy Toole to yes, even J.K. Rowling. The only way I see past this dilemma is to write to communicate without ever expecting anyone to listen, which is, again, another paradox.

Buddhists have been known to spend days creating beautiful murals (called mandalas) out of colored sand. Once the mandalas are complete, they wipe the sand clear, instantly destroying days or weeks of work. It seems like a crazy thing to do, but that is part of Buddhist meditation, the learning to let go of desire and permanence, to achieve without wanting. This is now what I must teach myself. This is the Tao of Writing.

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