In high school, where I first started studying the Chinese language, I was introduced to Chinese poetry by my teacher Youming Che. I think it was my senior year that Mr. Che and my English teacher brought in the poet Sam Hamill for a workshop. One of the books I read to prepare for that was The Art of Writing by Lu Chi, translated by Sam Hamill.
I still have that book. It reminds me that the writing struggle is real. No writer is alone in it, because Lu Chi was writing about the struggle 2,000 years ago:
On starting out:
Eyes closed, we listen
to inner music,
lost in thought and question:
our spirits ride
to the eight corners of the universe,
mind soaring a thousand miles away;
Re: the eight corners of the universe: I have really vivid dreams. Mostly they are about my teeth falling out or forgetting to wear pants out in public but sometimes my mind comes up with brilliant material while I am fast asleep. The only problem is I can’t remember it after I wake up.
On choosing words:
It is like following a branch to find the trembling leaf,
like following a stream to find the spring.
Sometimes the words come freely;
sometimes we sit in silence, gnawing on a brush.
I often feel like I’m just sitting in silence, feeling the minutes tick by.
On revising work:
Even with the right reason, the words
will sometimes clang; sometimes the language flows,
though the ideas themselves remain trivial.
This reminded me that really there is nothing new under the sun. Sometimes someone else just says it better, or worse.
I worry that my ink well
may run dry,
that right words
cannot be found.
This reminded me of a workshop I was in last year with the poet Ellen Bass. She told a story of how in one of her poems she struggled for so long for the right word that she went out to friends for help. I like that idea. Maybe sometimes the right word will never be found on our own. Maybe it’s resting within community waiting to be handed over. I would love for these posts on writing to become some kind of resource for that in a way using the comment section.
The truth of the thing lies inside us,
but no power on earth can force it.
At first this had a “hopeless” ring to it but really it means as Lu Chi says in his own writing that we have to: search the depths of the soul for a spirit, beg, if need be, for a sign of life. Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird: If something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unlikes. Tell the truth as you understand it.
Through letters, there is no road too difficult to travel,
no idea too confusing
to be ordered.
It comes like rain from clouds;
it renews the vital spirit.
The whole reason I decided to start the writing prompts was to keep me accountable. If I write on a schedule each day it becomes easier and easier, like the machine is being maintained and oiled. It is a practice, and it takes practice, and not a whenever-I-feel-like-it practice. Here’s some advice from Stephen King in his book On Writing:
You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness or even despair – the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, read to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.
On oiling the machine:
Learn to recite the classics;
sing in the clear virtue of ancient masters;
explore the treasures of the classics
where form and content are born.
I read everything I can get my hands on. I take classes and attend readings. Always learning. Learning from the masters. Taking notes. Using the voice memo function on my phone to record observations while I’m driving.
So, today I started posting the daily writing prompts on Facebook. It starts at #6 because the first five were in the post on Friday. You can start today or write a week delayed using last week’s prompts. All you have to commit to is 10 minutes of writing a day. And I’ll tell you a very, very big secret I’ve learned to good writing: Turn off the TV.