A Dragon at the Core of Literature: 1,500-year-old writing advice from China

Wanglongsi zaoxiang
Wanglongsi zaoxiang (Via Wikipedia)

Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.

My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.

The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:

“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”

Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:

“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”

He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:

“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”

Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.

I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.

I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.

Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.

Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.

There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.

“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”

An Alphabet of Websites

ISO 9995-8 telephone keypad diagram.

In my browser, the address bar is so set up that I often have to only type the first couple of letters of the site I want to visit. My most frequently visited sites pop up automatically – it’s like predictive text for web addresses. This makes it quite easy to figure out my most used sites for each letter of the alphabet so … here goes …

A – Art of Narrative

This is a beautiful growing archive of book illustrations with lots of fairytale pictures. Lovely to disappear into for a while and indulge the imagination.

B – Blogger

The Google based and integrated blogging platform that I have used for many years and which hosts, most notably, my Stories from the Borders of Sleep. I guess this one is at the top of the pile because I check my stats far too often.

C – The Chiff and Fipple

A recent obsession with woodwind and especially flutes and whistles puts this at the top. This is THE go-to site for all things relating to the tin whistle/penny whistle. If it’s not covered here or in their forum, it’s not relevant.

D – Download Magnatune

Actually you need a password to access this part of the Magnatune site but this can be obtained for a nominal monthly subscription that gives generous access to all the material in their catalogue. In fact most of what I listen to these days comes from this site because they have a fantastic selection of Jazz, Folk, Ambient, New Age and Baroque music from international artists. For the monthly subscription you get a license to download as much as you want in various formats and permission to distribute up to three copies to friends. Win-win-win!

E – English Forums

It seems that I use this site more than I realise as, during the course of my editing work, I am constantly referring to the current debates in the world of grammar, style and usage.

F – Flickr

No surprises here. This is still THE social network for photography and visual stuff. On my photostream, there is a lot of analogue photography from my extensive collection of pre-digital cameras; although, since the cost of developing curbed my six-films-a-month habit, I have been putting my doodles up here.

G – Gutenberg

A huge collection of literary material in the public domain from the classics to obscure victorian histories. Most of the stuff I consider to be worth reading was written over a hundred years ago so this is where I go to get it for free.

H – Helpguide

Not sure why this comes up; I’ve only used it a couple of times. It is essentially an ad-free resource about all things health related. Articles are contributed by experts in their fields and cover Mental Health, Childhood, Aging and Diseases – anything to do with health.

I – iJourney

Again I’m not sure why this makes it right to the top as I’m not a frequent user of this site, but it is a tremendous source for mindfulness and spirituality, nonviolence and healing related articles, poetry and art. Sweet … need to check it out more often.

J – Jack Hatfield

Jack Hatfield is a mainstay of the international banjo playing fraternity, an educator and contributor to the Banjo Newsletter. Frankly, us banjo players need all the help we can get with our musical affliction.

K – Kayak

Cheap flights finder. I don’t think I’ve actually used them to buy a flight, yet, but I’ve obviously stumbled over there while daydreaming of travelling to faraway places.

L – Last FM

The streaming service and music-based social network that I couldn’t do without. Ad-free listening based on what you have listened to in the past and liked. Last FM streams music to you after figuring out what your taste is. It does not offer you much control over exactly what you listen to (unlike Spotify) but it still suits me a lot better than Spotify. I like a radio station that is tailored to my taste, that helps me to discover new artists and that doesn’t charge for ads-free listening.

M – Musescore

I have tried a lot of different musical notation software over the years and Musescore wins out for intuitive, speedy and flexible interfaces. The site also has a nice social networking element with people sharing music scores, original compositions and arrangements.

N – Noisetrade

Offering a massive catalogue of mainly Christian and indie artists on a free or pay-what-you-want sort of basis. I’ve downloaded a couple of nice things from this site and am particularly fond of the Nashville Film Composers album which totally rocks.

O – Oneworld Publications

As it’s name suggests, this publisher has an inclination towards books with a social consciousness and a current global perspective – philosophy, biography, investigative journalism, that sort of thing. There is a handful from their catalogue on my “to read” list.

P – Pinterest

Yes … well … obviously. Another social network keyed to sharing visual material. Although many people use it as a sort of “wish list” of things they want, it is also a great source of inspirational artwork and photography. I spend a lot of my coffee breaks here and my “pin” boards are at http://pinterest.com/seeingmore/

Q – Quick and Dirty Tips

The home of Mignon Fogarty’s “Grammar Girl” podcast – I don’t know how I’d get by without it. In fact this site is one of the most phenomenal resources of useful and educational material on the web in the form of numerous podcasts and articles.

R – Ron Block

An inspirational banjo player with Alison Krauss and Union Station, but also a deep-souled man of faith, Ron Block is one of my heroes. He is also a fellow George MacDonaldist. Sweet!

S – Seymour Writes

If you are reading this, you are probably on this website right now. This is my main personal blog that also serves as a shop window for my writing and editorial services.

T – The Session

Visited several times a week, this is a huge user-contributed collection of traditional tunes, jigs, reels, polkas, hornpipes, airs from the celtic tradition. I play in a ceilidh band and am somewhat obsessed with traditional music so this website is a lifeline.

U – Using English

I do a little bit of teaching English as a foreign language. I rely on this site a lot for lesson ideas and resources and the occasional grammar related query.

V – V&A Museum

The website for the Victoria and Albert Museum. Actually a really nicely put together and informative website detailing the current and up-coming exhibitions with plenty of little video clips and informative documentary material.

W – Wooden Flute Girls Blog

Not surprisingly, another woodwind resource makes it to the top of the “W”s. This is Christel Rice’s personal blog where she posts, among other things, lots of delicious tin whistle tunes. I have started visiting this site to train myself to learn new tunes by ear rather than from sheet music. She teaches at the New York Irish Center in Queens, NYC. Lots of great stuff for people who are geeky about simple blown instruments.

X – X Files

Iconic, cult viewing from the 90s – Mulder and Scully  … what’s not to love about it. Actually I used to be too scared to watch it and have only got into the series later in life when I am old enough not to be disturbed by the compelling mix of supernatural speculation and conspiracy that underpins it. I think the series treats some pretty profound themes, not least about doubt and faith, that make it well worth re-watching.

Y – YouTube

We unplugged our TV and didn’t bother renewing our licence about a year ago. If I need to collapse in front of a screen nowadays, it is to explore the weird and wonderful world of YouTube. The anarchic geekery is an endless source of fascination, but I don’t only watch people blowing up batteries and putting marshmallows in vaccums. I find it an invaluable source of music and making tutorials as well as news and views. Lately I have been rounding off the day by catching up on news according to Russia Today (quite the most satisfying world reportage available) and blowing my mind with TED talks.

Z – Zahndrew’s Blog  (Creatives)

Andrew Zahn is not an infrequent reader and commenter on this blog but I’m not sure I will ever be able to compete with his energetic and creative blogging habit which has resulted in his site becoming something of a hub for discussion on all things relating to creativity. He’s not just here because of the rarity of the first letter of his surname but because I do actually read most of what he posts and it never fails to inspire without overloading the mind.

Review: 3-2-1 Stop Running and Start Living by Lorilee Lippincott

321 Stop Running and Start Living 321 Stop Running and Start Living by Lorilee Lippincott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are anything like me you have a vague sense of desperation about how cluttered and busy your life is and an equally vague idea that at some point you will go about simplifying it. The problem is knowing where to start. I have found myself wishing that someone would just take me by the hand and lead me through each room in my house in turn and help me to rationalise and minimise. So, Lorilee Lippincott’s book 3-2-1 Stop came along at just the right moment.

In fact, Lori’s approach goes a lot deeper than just de-cluttering the material environment, she takes the reader by the hand through the attitudes and aspirations behind our desire for simplicity, too. This is not simplicity for its own sake but simplicity with purpose that is rooted in our dreams. It is about making emotional as well as physical space in your life.

I think it is Lori’s conversational style and her generous and candid revelations about her own journey that make this book such a pleasant trip. It is exciting, too, because right from the first page you catch her infectious expectation that things can and will change for you. Beginning with some ground rules about attitude, Lori tackles the problem of “stuff” in the first section of the book. She gets down to brass tacks within a few pages. It’s not rocket science, it’s not merely theory, it’s common sense seasoned by experience and practice. Most of her practical recommendations are things I have half-heartedly attempted at some point in the past but I have benefited from having someone saying, “do this” then “do that” – once again, small steps. She even makes you take a step back and think about furniture. She then goes on to look at some of the typically problematic areas for simplification, and this includes personal areas such as money and past regrets.

These words come from someone who has actually walked every step she takes you through and that makes them personable and authentic. This book has become my “manual” for spring cleaning this year (and beyond) and it has renewed my commitment to a minimalism that is liberating and intentional.

Visit the website for 3-2-1 Stop Running and Start Living. 

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Review: Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari

Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran's Most Notorious Prison Then They Came for Me: A Story of Injustice and Survival in Iran’s Most Notorious Prison by Maziar Bahari

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think everyone needs to read this book in order to get a better understanding of what is behind that tiny word, “Iran”, when the newsreader says it.

Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek journalist, was arrested following the Iranian election in 2009. Beatings and solitary confinement ensued as the regime attempted to extract a confession from him that he was a spy.

In spite of the agonising circumstances, he had been expecting to return to the side of his pregnant fiancée in London in a matter of days, Maziar writes with warmth and flashes of humour that betray enormous strength of soul. He comes from a family of dissidents whose love for their nation has forced them to defy three generations of tyranny. His father and his sister and numerous friends were incarcerated and tortured under successive regimes and Maziar uniquely weaves their story into an account of the recent history of Iran since the times of the last Shah.

This is not just a book about his imprisonment and eventual release, it is an insightful and authoritative analysis of the tensions within Iran and a snapshot of a generation that is ready for a change that was quite brutally denied them in the last election.

The author is at pains to bring a journalistic fairness to bear even on his captors and tormentors and the human elements of his relationship with his interrogator are poignantly told with a sense that the man who beats him is, himself, a puppet of the regime. This objectivity gives the author the moral high ground at every turn. The paranoia and ignorance of the authorities is starkly contrasted with his attempts to speak the truth. At one point he is interrogated about his relationship with the dead playwright Anton Checkhov, who they are convinced is another zionist spy.

The Iranians have a beautiful and ancient culture and many of the kindest and most well mannered people I have ever met are from Iran. It is tragic that this is not reflected in all the “bad news” that comes from that part of the globe and it is important that we do not respond with the same blindness that grips the current regime. Please read this book.

“Then They Came for Me” is published by Oneworld.

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Review: The Seven Deadly Chess Sins by Jonathan Rowson

The Seven Deadly Chess SinsThe Seven Deadly Chess Sins by Jonathan Rowson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating analysis of the seven “most common causes of disaster in chess”, Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson’s book, “The Seven Deadly Chess Sins” provides virtually inexhaustible material to provoke thought and study for the serious player.

As a beginner/improver whose ratings bumble around the 1000 mark and who rarely has the patience to play through worked examples, 50% of this book was beyond me. However, it will be returned to over and again in the future and there is enough to fascinate and provoke at any level. Rowson analyses both the psychological and practical outworking of each of the “sins”.

The book is divided into seven sections dealing with problems that are loosely tied to the traditional “Seven Deadly Sins” (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth).

Thinking – sometimes there is too much of this.

Blinking – lapses of attention that cost too dearly.

Wanting – being too focused on the result.

Materialism – thinking too much in terms of material.

Egoism – missing your opponent’s point of view.

Perfectionism – taking too much time.

Looseness – failing to maintain a grip on the game in front of you.

Each chapter begins with a discussion of the more conceptual and psychological aspects of the game. How does your personality affect your play? What do you see when you look at the board? Is it possible to be objective? How does the Chess Mind work? Are you too attached to certain lines? What is really going on? The discussion is delightfully buoyed up by quotes from Grandmasters and diverse sources such as Kierkegaard, Sartre, De Bono, and the I-Ching. There is a wonderful sense here that Chess is about life and who you are that has much wider implications. This is what really excites me about the game and it blew my mind open to new possibilities and taught me a lot about myself.

The second part of each chapter is given to the worked examples drawn from historic and lesser known matches of over 60 different players. Here Rowson’s encyclopedic breadth of detail guides the reader through the trips and turns that demonstrate each “sin” on the board.

Every chapter is worthy of at least a year’s study and application and it is small wonder it took me a few months to plough through it all. The reader never feels patronised or dictated to as the author has a way of presenting ideas in a way that encourages them to mature and stand on their own feet; to explore and develop through shedding the kind of formulaic mantras that all of us tend to have absorbed. It’s like coming under the tutelage of a Zen master.

This book will remain close to hand, a challenging resource for a lifetime of learning.

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Review: The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing LifeThe Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life by Julia Cameron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is well on its way to being a classic and an essential rite of passage for anyone who wants to write for pleasure or professionally.

Julia Cameron has set herself the mission of debunking the myth of “writers” being some special class of human being who must starve in a garret for the sake of their craft and uses her words to gently liberate and nurture the essential writer that she believes lies in every person.

The accumulated wisdom of her years as a working writer and a creative writing teacher is presented in a series of short essays (each just a few pages long) that finish with a practical “initiation tool” to bring the reader to the page with pen in hand.

This book can be approached either as a “writing course” to be worked through over a couple of months, but I suspect it will be of more value as something to dip into as an “unblocking tool” or when inspiration is flagging. If read from cover to cover, like a normal book, the author’s tendency to repeat the same themes tends to lessen their impact and there is no detectable unfolding of a journey that links the chapters; they stand alone. So, it is best considered a collection of essays that meditate upon Julia’s core convictions that the act of writing is for everyone to enjoy and it doesn’t need to be a chore.

Some of the essays really clicked with me, others didn’t seem to meet a felt need directly but may well do for another season. On this reading, I particularly enjoyed Julia’s affirmation of the writer as an observer of things that seem to enter the imagination from another source: the Divine, the Universe, something beyond ourselves. This certainly describes a dimension of my own experience.

Julia’s style is richly evocative of the senses. She always describes where she is as she is writing. She then seems to weave her message from her current experience or whatever is turning over in her mind at the time. Some of her lines have the potential to become proverbs and I found myself copying out numerous quotes into my journal. I did not attempt all of her initiation tools in any sort of disciplined way but used several over the last year and will return to them repeatedly.

The Right to Write has been a good companion over the last year and will bear returning to again, especially on those days when I feel that perhaps I should give up and get a proper job.

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