October 16, 2012

Writer's Emptiness

The term writer's block calls to mind the cement road blocks set up to stop traffic. They are heavy and non-descript. Lately, I've decided to rename and reframe this concept. It time to refresh the language. "Writer's block" is a cliché.  Likewise, we make comparisons between being unable to write and a well going dry. It's overdone. The trouble with clichés is that they don't awaken us the way that fresh images and metaphor can.

Instead, I reach for other images. The farmer's fields yield more if there are seasons when they lie fallow. The writer might allow his or her fields to rest and replenish.  The concept of emptiness would then be understood as cyclical. Fields are empty during winter.  After seeds are planted, they only seem empty before the seedlings emerge. After harvest, the ground is turned over. We irrigate and fertilize. We seed and re-seed. We make and mend fences. Do you do this for the fields of your mind?

After the intense flows of words, it's only natural to hold silence. Writer's emptiness is to be embraced, as in the Tao:

Tao Te Ching: Chapter 11
translation by Yasuhiko Genku Kimura (2004)
Thirty spokes share a hub;
The usefulness of the cart
            lies in the space where there is nothing.
Clay is kneaded into a vessel;
The usefulness of the vessel
            lies in the space where there is nothing.
A room is created by cutting out doors and windows;
The usefulness of the room
            lies in the space where there is nothing.
The benefit of things lies in the usefulness of nothing.

In other words, trust that you also are the hub of a wheel, the vessel, or the room.  Be glad for the usefulness of silence. Practice solitude, mindfulness, and acceptance.  Protect emptiness --  it is the place where new creative work begins.

more translations of this and other Taoist thoughts at

October 3, 2012

The Craft that Defies Craftsmanship

Narrative Poetry

Recently, I've compared narrative techniques across genres, from poetry to fiction to essay. What are the basic elements?  A character, an action, a voice.  In a poem, the images and sounds flash and beckon.  In a story the energy, spark and flint, comes from the interaction between two characters. In essays, narration is freed from plot and can enter free-falls of association.  Action frames the essay, but the action occurs on more than one level.  Maybe poetry and essay are more closely related, or maybe the demarcations of all three genres are completely artificial.  

Advice about writing abounds, and yet hardly any formula serves me at my desk. Don't get me wrong, I love to read the rules. These are the first five from Jack Kerouac's Rules for Spontaneous Prose:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form

In these lines are the thrill of driving lines far into the night, accelerating, inebriated, exhausted. Poets also might nod agreement.  And here are five from Kurt Vonnegut:

1.  Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.  Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3.  Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4.  Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5.  Start as close to the end as possible.
Empathy and desire, essential. We can all agree on the sensible nature of this advice. All writers should follow it, but these rules may not work.

Zadie Smith said, "...writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship."  Style, she says, derives from personal necessity. It is how the writer tells the truth.

Kerouac's rules worked for Kerouac, Vonnegut's for Vonnegut.  The rules that work for you will be discovered in the midst of your writing, and may change the next time you sit down to write a new work.

Writers are better without formulas. And yet I will venture my rules:

1.  Images visit and insist. Pay attention.
2.  A rhythm comes. So does the landscape. Wait.
3.  Bring it as far as you can, then push further.
4. Wild distraction may not be irrelevant.
5.  Go back, go deeper, connect.  Find context.
6.  Mine: in the sense of test-drill and excavate.

I like the advice of Zadie Smith.  Seek a "refinement of consciousness," like Aristotle's concept of the education of the emotions.

What rules are yours?


Find Kerouac and Vonnegut's advice, along with several other writers, at this website:

Smith, Zadie. "Fail Better." The Guardian. January 13, 2007. c2007. London, UK. Accessed October
       3, 2011.  http://faculty.sunydutchess.edu/oneill/failbetter.htm