Jade Splinters

Cover of "The Art of Writing: Teachings o...

The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters

I used The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters while writing my dissertation about why people feel uncomfortable thinking of themselves as writers. My thesis is that writers are taught by society to think of themselves as writers (or not), and that society’s definitions of what a writer is or is not are constructed by our collective values.

Western writers can access this book most easily through terminology used in the poems, which refer to writer’s block, revision, inspiration, and other subjects of concern to all writers everywhere. Rather than be told what to think, though, each of the inspirational poems illustrate the principle of the writer’s concern, a Taoist approach to writing.

You are being guided, rather than pushed, in other words. To understand how to write, or how to write a poem, for that matter, you are being shown ancient Chinese poems. Then you sit with them, meditate upon them, and find that, instead of being taught in the style you’re accustomed to, which is based on agonistic beliefs of how writing ‘ought’ to be taught, you discover your writing. It’s a gentler, less aggressive way of thinking about writing, one where writer’s block is more about emotional stagnancy than painful avoidance: “…when the six emotions are stagnant/the will travels yet spirit stays put.” (The ‘six emotions’ referred to are sorrow, joy, hate, love, pleasure, and anger.)

If there is a how-to guide in this book, it is to be found in the section called “The Twenty Four Styles of Poetry.” Its twenty four poems illustrate a special style of writing that would have been considered important for the student to know: how to write in the elegant style; the masculine; the potent; the Ancient Heavenly style, and many others that were considered a poet’s highest attainment at the time.  Each of the twenty four styles uses language that illustrates its style, e.g.:

The Flowing Style
It takes in like a water mill
and turns like a pearl marble.
It is beyond words
and these are clumsy metaphors.
Earth spins on a hidden axis
and the universe rolls slowly around its hub.
If you search out the origin
you’ll find a corresponding motion.
Climb high into spiritual light.
Then dive deep into dark nothing.
All things for thousands of years
are caught up in the flow.

This is the essence of poetry, isn’t it? To reify itself within the lines of the poem? Think of Chinese poetry almost like a calligram, and I think you’ll start to realise why this slim volume is so effective. The section called “Jade Splinters” is truly where a new paradigm about writing began for me. The Chinese compared writing to “jade splinters,” meaning that their writings were attempts, only “splinters” left as they carved a gem. Don’t you prefer a metaphor that envisions writing as a process of carving a gemstone, rather than the metaphor of writing as a struggle (the metaphor we’ve learned from the Greeks)? I know I do.

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On Writing Well

This list should be added to from time to time, but today’s suggested writing how-to is by William Zinsser (On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, reprinted over and over again, is now in its 30th anniversary edition, 336 pp., and is published by Collins).

I first read Zinsser a very long time ago, and I have recently rediscovered his very simple, brief, easy-to-read discussion about how one’s writing benefits from 1) being spare with words, and the tip I’ve used with students throughout the years, 2) reading one’s work aloud, because that’s the fastest way to catch your errors, although I’ve found that having someone else read your work aloud is better. Another person will trip over things you’ve said badly faster and more reliably than you will, since you know what you intended to say, but the other person does not.

There are some crucial things beginning writers, indeed, experienced writers, can learn from his approach. One of them is to cut down on the excess verbiage. This is so obvious, and taught so often, we take this idea for granted nowadays. But if you remember the term “purple prose,” or if you’ve ever read something from the 1700s, let’s say, a particularly flowery time in literary history, you know what Zinsser means. He wants to see clear, direct, and purposeful writing. This is a particular problem now that we often (mostly?) compose on computers, because there are studies that show what you already suspect, which is that it’s far too easy to type too many words, and to be verbose, when online. It’s just simply easier to write on a computer, which leads to prose that usually needs to be tightened and shortened.

If you are a technical writer, or work in the sciences, this book will warm the cockles of your heart, because he focuses on focusing. You need to know what he knows, because his perspective is not influenced as much by the expressivists who write creative fiction, as it is by the idea that if you have something to say, you should say it as directly and simply as possible. This means reducing the use of unnecessary adverbs, cutting out tired or useless verbs, and creating writing that appeals because it’s easy to read and understand.

Zinsser holds up well. Whereas many writing “how-tos” are based almost solely on getting fiction published, Zinsser could be read by any student in virtually any field, such as the sciences, medical writing, or business. Zinsser’s approach can be adapted to almost any writing situation, because most writing, after all, is non-fiction. “On Writing Well” is simply the best basic “how-to” for any writer, at any stage in their ability. It’s great for published writers as well, because it’s always good to go back and remind yourself of the simple stuff you might have forgotten, or perhaps never learned.