The Tao of Writing

For two decades, my family and friends have struggled to understand my need to tell stories, and to have those stories be recognized. They sometimes see it as just a need for approval, or praise, or fame. While praise does motivate me, what really drives me to write is much simpler: we who suffer from the writer’s disease are eternally lonely. We are trapped in our own minds, on islands of our own imagination, and the only way we know to truly connect to the outside world is through story. Through the written word, we share our view of life, in the hopes of someday making a mark, the proverbial 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 to my fellow human beings. And yet all of this, I am aware, must come across as egotistical.

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 self-centered 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 being known, 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 paradoxical enigmas in the writing profession. It is part of what I like to call the Tao of Writing. And, just like the Tao, nobody can teach you what it is to be a good writer, or offer up the secret to a great story; you simply have to find that on your own.

Publishers, editors and professors like to offer formulas for literary success, as if such a formula could be found after ten thousand years of trying, but the advice they give is often contradictory, if not inane. I fondly remember a story I wrote in my college days, Anna, now lost to a computer virus, which featured a nun who was 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 ended up a victim of random chance, that the demon could steal her away 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 not in English, but 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 my professor 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 but entertain a reader. Literature isn’t a science and 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 well, and I’ll show you a well beloved yarn 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 during these past three decades toiling at my keyboard, it’s that the only thing a writer need do is write. Writing is no different than any other art form. Nobody picks up a violin and starts playing beautifully from the onset, 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 puts forth in Outliers. Being a writer someone will pay to read also comes from living. Herman Melville could not have written Moby Dick without having worked on a ship. Mastering the literary arts is a lot like meditating on the meaning of the Tao. It takes time, dedication, and endless practice.

Lastly, how does one persevere, or as I like to phrase it, ridiculously persevere, without throwing in the towel? Writers often give so much of themselves for zero reward. What insane person spends thousands of hours working on a job, without ever knowing whether they’ll get paid for it, 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, J.K. Rowling. Some people have suggested that I simply “write for myself,” but again, this is a paradox. The act of writing is a form of communication, to transfer thoughts, feelings and ideas into the mind of another human being. I am forever conscious of the reader when hammering out a sentence, which is why, to attempt to tell a story without having a listener in mind simply doesn’t work. And yet, we all must strive toward the goal of being heard, even though we can never know, with any certainty, whether anyone will ever hear us. The only way I can see past this dilemma, is to write to communicate without ever expecting anyone to listen, which is, again, a 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. To simply write, in the present tense, without past or future in mind. This is the Tao of Writing.

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