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.

Creativity and individualism, and how education squelches it

Creativity is a huge subject for me; I think about how to inspire it in writers a lot of the time.

One of my ‘rules’ about inspiring writers is to encourage them and provide open doors, rather than closing doors by telling them what they cannot do, or criticising them.

I am rather adamantly against criticism for the sake of critcising. I can understand wanting to make something you’ve done better, but if all you’re really doing is telling someone they’re deficient according to your idea of perfection, could you keep that to yourself, please? Because all we do when we criticise someone is let them know about ourselves and our needs, rather than help them. This includes yourself. Let yourself off that hook, okay?

I’ve worked with far too many aspiring writers who tell me some version of, “When I was a child, my teacher/parent/friend told me it would be pointless to continue writing, that I didn’t have what it takes,” etc., largely because the person doing the criticising of your early efforts was caught up in the ancient paradigm of what I have learned to call the Divinely Inspired Author myth.

The individual who wants to write is too often challenged in this way, and therefore might never pick up her pen again, only to regret this choice later in life. Believing it to now be “too late,” she will give up on her dream of writing “someday.” If there’s something I don’t want to see people doing, it’s giving up on their dreams because one time when you were twelve, your English teacher gave you a ‘C’ on a paper you thought was pretty great—until you got that ‘C’, of course. Many years ago, I worked with one man in his 70s who never forgot the ‘C’ he received in high school; that’s how powerful authority figures are in our young lives.

I’d like for you to watch the following video, because Sir Kenneth Robinson, an English creativity expert, discusses the ways in which education discourages children from holding on to their creativity.

Why don’t we get the best out of people? Sir Ken Robinson argues that it’s because we’ve been educated to become good workers, rather than creative thinkers. Students with restless minds and bodies—far from being cultivated for their energy and curiosity—are ignored or even stigmatized, with terrible consequences. “We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson says.

This loss of one’s belief in their own creative ability is my primary concern as a writing coach, because my focus is on how to get adults to reconnect with the creativity they were once forced to abandon in favor of scholastic achievement.

In this talk, Sir Ken discusses the needed revolution in education; his perspective is that it’s time to reform educational practices so that people will learn to be themselves and do what they love, not what’s practical. We have to change our industrial model to an agricultural model, he says, and change the metaphor we use to create our concept of why we need an education from mechanistic, based on the needs of a bureaucratic society, to organic, based on the needs of the individual.

He thinks we’re obsessed with getting people to go to college, as though going to college now is the answer to everything, which isn’t true. I learned as an educational consultant and teacher that students too often attend college or university for someone else (usually their parents), and that it wasn’t the right choice for them. Sir Ken agrees that college isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone, and it isn’t something everyone has to do at any one given time (e.g. the moment you leave high school or secondary school, for those readers not in the States).

The purported link between creativity and madness

There is a strong social bias or prejudice in favor of believing that genius comes along with some form of psychosis. Depression, anxiety, even mania, are frequently associated with creative ability. Writers have often done little to dispel this myth; even psychologists who specialise in understanding and explaining human behavior seem to have a vested interest in maintaining this belief.

A study done in the late 80s (and reinforced by later studies on a similar theme) interviewed and followed 30 participants who had all been published writers and taught writing for at least 15 years at University of Iowa‘s writing workshop. The study indicated that 80% of these writers had some kind of affective illness. Now, the catch with studies like this (and this one in particular) is that it was conducted by one person, and none of the “evidence” was corroborated by peers. In other words, the author of the study, a psychologist, might be said to have found what she was looking for.

This is a problem for writers, this perception (reinforced by society, writers themselves, and the entire history of Western civilization going back to Plato, for crying out loud) that writing is a form of “madness,” that creativity is a gift, a divine inspiration given to us “by the gods” (thanks, Plato) and that we who write (or do any kind of creative act, really) are of necessity better at it when we’re looking for our muse at the bottom of the bottle, let’s say, or in the arms of our best friend’s wife, or some other such nonsense.

You can also take the time to make a list of all the writers you can think of who have been known to be in some way ‘crazy’ or suffering from some kind of affective disorder (to put it in the words of psychologists). I think you’ll find the list is long, indicating that writing is something we associate with various forms of mental illness. It’s entirely possible that since writing is a form of catharsis, the predominant writing that holds our collective attention is mostly that which has been shaped by difficulty, tragedy, or loss.

Click here for an excellent online resource for further research into this perplexing topic.

Unconventional ways of dealing with writer’s block and other writerly ills


Blooming Meditation, by Robin Urton


There are times when the quotidian simply doesn’t do it, and the writer is compelled to try something new and different to get the creative mind flowing. Although you can use tarot cards, with their diverse imagery, to answer personal questions, you can also use them to inspire new ways of thinking, to unlock parts of your creativity you might not have conscious access to.

After years of searching, I finally found someone who unashamedly uses tarot cards and other divination systems to inspire writing-related creativity. His book is called Write Starts: Prompts, Quotes, and Exercises to Jumpstart Your Creativity, by Hal Zina Bennett, New World Press, Novato, CA. 2010, and what he’s suggesting is very clever, in my opinion.

He uses the cards to:
Break through writer’s blocks
Develop characters for stories
Organize chapter outlines for books

For those familiar with tarot, these are not “what will happen to me?” Celtic or future-oriented spreads. Instead, he suggests that you pick out cards one at a time, after thinking about some aspect of your writing project that’s either blocking you or needs more explication or direction (such as your characters or plot).

Ask a question that the cards can answer (such as “what is preventing me from writing the next chapter/line/paragraph/book?” rather than a “what is wrong with me??” question. Those of us who use tarot are used to asking open-ended questions, but in this case, you have to be careful that your question is not too open-ended, as well as not being too negative (as in, “what is wrong with me that I have not yet become a famous writer??”).

When assessing the reasons for writer’s block, the first card picked represents the root cause of the issue, what has happened to make you feel blocked. The example he gives in his book is the Five of Swords from the standard Rider Waite deck, which is the first card he pulls. This becomes the Root Card, which will give you an idea of what has created the problem in the first place.

If you’re familiar with the Rider Waite deck, you know that their version of the Five of Swords is a pretty grim image depicting a scene of what I’ve come to associate with embarrassment, pyrrhic victory, and/or defeat. It’s the one card I automatically think of when I know I won’t get what I want. In a simple yes-no spread dealing with outcomes, for example, I associate the Six of Wands with victory, the Five of Swords with defeat. So his Root card speaks to a recent rejection he received just prior to experiencing his writer’s block.

The next card he chooses is called ‘Gain,’ and he says it asks us to think about what we gain from the previous card. In his case, the messages are pretty clear, since the next card he pulls is the Four of Pentacles. His inner knowing about what’s going on for him tells him that he’s clinging to a vision of himself and his work that lies in the past; he’s resting on his laurels. He asks himself if the rejection slip he received is triggering this rather negative Four of Pentacles response, since this card feels true to him.

The final card he pulls is in the position of Solution, which is intended to be a guide out of your dilemma. In his case, he chooses the Wheel of Fortune, a card that symbolises what goes up must come down to me, but to most people is about gain and winning. He interprets this card to mean that all will end well with this piece of writing if only he can get it written. All he has to do is get over the rejection and stop clinging to the past. I think it’s important to note at this point that your interpretations of the cards are what matters, not his or mine.

The point is to know the cards well enough to be able to interpret the messages you receive from their images. The only reality that matters is yours; if you can’t identify with the messages from the cards, it’s important to trust what you think, feel, and believe. Ideally, tarot (or any other intuition-building tool) will be the most useful when the images convey some inner reality that perhaps you’re not consciously aware of. The most important thing, however, is to break yourself out of the slogging rut you find yourself in when you’re having trouble writing.

Creative flow and the love of reading & writing

Okay, bear with me. This post has got some ridiculously long words, like: Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, which I have a hard time spelling, let alone pronouncing. However, he wrote a marvelous book about how creative flow works; it’s called, very simply, in contradistinction to his name, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial 1991), and I hope you read it. It’s significantly easier to get through than you might think.

The core of his argument lies in this concept: that the “key element of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself. Even if initially undertaken for other reasons, the activity that consumes us becomes intrinsically rewarding” (67). A “self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward,” is key to what Czikszentmihalyi refers to as an “autotelic” experience, meaning, a self-motivated goal or activity. Even the most painful or difficult experiences, he argues, can become rewarding if the person sticks with it long enough to have that proverbial lightbulb go on.

That means that if you’re not enjoying something actively, but you stick with it, the chances are much better that you will have that moment of inspiration or breakthrough that leads to the next place in your understanding, ability, or talent with something. The preparation is all. The amount of work, conscious or unconscious, that you put into something (like writing, obviously) can lead to greater insight and skill.

One of the things that makes sense is that writers must be readers, must immerse themselves in the printed, written, and spoken word. To enjoy writing… for it to flow for you, might not happen overnight. I doubt it happens for very many writers. It isn’t enough (in my experience, working with published writers as their editor) to get accolades, money, and fame, from your writing.

To love to write… this is part of the process, and it might not be obtainable in every minute of every writing day. But if you read Csikszentmihalyi, you will get a better idea of how it’s possible.