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!”

Going Public with Thomas Carlyle: “Know Thy Work”

Thomas Carlyle

I like Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). He’s one of my rugged 19th Century romantic existentialist individualists. I don’t buy the whole package of his thought (women never seem to get a mention, for instance), but he can be forgiven for being a man of his time as much as I will need to be if any of my thoughts survive me.

Apart from anything else, Carlyle wrote 21 volumes of the history of Freidrich II of Prussia; and he didn’t even have the Internet! This suggests that he had one thing nailed: he knew how to knuckle down and get on with his work – probably because he didn’t have the Internet.

So, as my contribution this week to the #GoingPublic audio project, here is an excerpt from Book III of  Carlyle’s “Past and Present” that gives us a clue about the root of his productivity, his attitude to work. It amuses me, the way he dismisses “Know Thyself” with a disdainful sweep of his hand and then goes on to expound “Know Thy Work” with increasingly dizzy conceits. But I also find it invigorating. How about you?

The full text is available here.

Check out a wealth of other great audio clips from the Going Public Project.

C.S. Lewis’ Advice on Writing

I’m currently reading C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children – a collection of the personal letters he wrote in reply to numerous young fans who wrote to him between 1944 and 1963.  It’s an uncut little gem of a book. I’m struck by the trouble Lewis took over his correspondence. It was a daily discipline that took a few hours every morning after her rose at 7.15. The other thing that strikes me (with my copy editor’s hat on) is Lewis fast and loose approach to grammar. Of course, in letters, one is less careful of grammatical niceties, but these words to a young fan are revealing, too:

… Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was! What really matters is:–

1. Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.

2. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.

3. Never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do. If you mean “More people died” don’t say “Mortality rose.”

4. In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.”

5. Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Freelancing: a Time Management System that Works for Me

As a natural procrastinator and date-phobe, deadlines do nothing to lower my blood pressure. In the last two years of trying to get established as a freelancer I have tried every single time management strategy available. I have probably spent as much time re-structuring my diary and prioritising to-do lists as I have spent actually working. More recently, my growing workload has made it an imperative that I get this thing nailed down – pinned down, to be precise.

All my experimentation and money spent on index cards and software has not been in vain. I’m going to share with you the system that I have evolved to suit my way of working in the hope that it might help other freelancers like me.

You will need

  • A large cork board
  • A large assortment of different coloured pins (I have about 50 of each colour)
  • A marker
  • Some labels
  • Possibly some coloured tape or sticky notes that are the same colours as your pins (these are to indicate deadlines)

    It should start to look something like this.
  1. Take the marker and divide the board into eight rows (for days of the week and a label) and as many columns as you can fit across it.
  2. Label the bottom seven rows Monday to Sunday (or Monday to Friday if you strictly don’t work weekends …  as if!)
  3. Use the top row to add labels for each coming week. These will need to be removable so you can update it with fresh weeks every so often.
  4. You are ready to go.

How to use it

There are a few simple principles to grasp:

  1. Each pin represents an hour’s work. When you take on a new job you need to estimate how many hours it is going to take you and set aside that number of pins (I write at about 500 words an hour and copy edit at about 1,500 words an hour).
  2. Use different coloured pins for different clients or jobs.
  3. Populate the “calendar” with the pins, showing when you are going to do each hour’s work. Each of my days has space for nine pins (nine working hours). Loosely, the first pin is 8am-9am and the last pin is 5pm-6pm (with an hour off for lunch).
  4. Use a specific colour (I use white) to block out days when you are not available and hours when you have appointments or non-work commitments during the normal working day.
  5. Indicate your deadlines with a piece of tape (or even a dedicated pin) in the colour for that job.
  6. You can play with the pins as much as you like but there is one rule: red pins can’t go past the red deadline, and so on.

Advantages

This system works for me because there is something about physically moving pins around that really helps me to understand how my time is distributed in a way that paper or a computer screen never does. I can tell at a glance if someone phones me up and says “can you do it by Tuesday?” If a job takes less time than I expected I can just subtract a few pins. For each hour of work completed, that pin gets removed and put to the side so progress towards completion can be seen instantly (and taking a pin out is a nice feeling). If something else needs to be slotted in, it is very easy to arrange the pins around it.

Handy tip: take a photo of the board with your phone camera and set it as your screensaver/background so you can carry it around with you.

There is lots of flexibility and scope for creative variation, but here are the basics.

It is not until you start using it that you realise the elegance of the system. Give it a go!

Linguistic Peeves: “A Big Thank You”

A female African Bush Elephant raises her trun...

I like well modulated grammar. I appreciate the clarity and accuracy that comes from applying the rules. I also enjoy seeing those rules creatively and consciously broken. Language lives; usage comes and goes and I embrace innovation. But (and, yes, these days it is fine to start a sentence with “but”), there are some things up with which I will not put:

A BIG THANK YOU

A big thank you” what? It hangs there like “a wrinkly elephant”.

Okay so, “A big thank you to all our supporters …” from whom? What are people trying to do with this phrase? It is so passive that the wonderful verb of thanking someone has become a wrinkly elephant of a noun that nobody will claim to own.

Fine, then, “We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters.” Better, but that’s still a bit like saying, “we’d like to say a wrinkly elephant to all our supporters.” And why the conditional? Is there a problem?

“We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters, but it sounds silly.” I agree with that.

Maybe if the big thank you is what you want to say then it should be in quotation marks? “We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters.” That doesn’t make sense either, it just adds a dollop of sarcasm.

I’m reminded of the parson in church, “Lord, we pray for all the people in the world and we especially pray for the widows and orphans.” That’s not praying, that’s just telling God that you are praying – WHAT do you pray for the orphans?

Maybe expressing the wish to issue “a big thank you” is a way of avoiding actually thanking anyone in the same way that the parson who prays for widows and orphans never actually prays for them.

Well, I just want to say “a big wrinkly elephant” to all who read this blog.

Thank you for reading it, thank you for commenting and interacting with me. I’m grateful to you all and I just wanted to express that somehow.

Alexander Technique and the Semisupine Position

I have been interested in Alexander Technique for a few years now and have read a great deal about it, although sadly I have not quite been able to afford the experience of 1-1 teaching that is so essential to really progressing with it.

Frederick Alexander is one of the heroes of what I have called “the experimental approach to life“. His thorough exploration of his own body’s habits lead him to discover that the feedback our senses give us about how we are moving (or not moving) is not always accurate. From this he went on to develop the educational method known as Alexander Technique that is unlike any other physical therapy and which has applications to every area of life. It is so powerful I think it should be on every school curriculum because of its effectiveness in preventing chronic spinal injury alone.

I’d like to blog more about the things I have learned in this area but, for now, here is one of the simplest and most effective practices to ‘take home’ from it. Fifteen to Twenty minutes of “semisupine” a day will make a huge difference.

Put Your Knees Up!

The way that you lie down and get up again – yes the actual act of lying down and getting up again as well as the position you lie in when you are down can really make a difference. Active Rest is a practice of Alexander Technique that realigns and relaxes the spine, improving posture and awareness of the space the body occupies. Doing it for as little as 15 minutes a day makes a noticeable difference but you will enjoy it so much you will undoubtedly find more time for this simple practice.

During active rest also known as the !”semi-supine” position you lie on your back and bend your legs so that your knees are above your hips, this has the effect of rotating the pelvis and stretching the spine, counteracting the accumulated compacting effect of gravity on your body.

Traditionally, in Alexander Technique, the head is rested on a book or two to achieve a comfortable alignment in the semi-supine position. You will need to initially experiment with getting this right for you. Too many books and your neck will be forced upwards, too few and your head will tilt back – you are aiming for your natural line of sight to be perpendicular to the floor and ceiling.

To experience the benefits of active rest you can’t just fling yourself into position but need to think carefully about getting down and up again in the right way.

1. First place your books on the floor at your feet and stand facing them. Take two paces back and one to the side.

2. Go down onto one knee as if you were about to propose. Lean forward onto your arms, keeping your back straight and bringing the other knee down to put yourself in the crawling position like a baby.

3. Gently roll over by putting your backside on the floor in front of the books and allowing the rest of your body to follow so that you end up on your back with your knees up and hopefully your head resting on the books.

4. Place your feet on the floor, keeping your legs bent.

You are now in the semi-supine position so relax and enjoy it. You can put your arms out to the side with palms flat or rest your hands on your midriff with your elbows touching the floor. It may be an unusual sensation but it should be comfortable. You will notice your back elongating and may need to move your hips away from you in order to keep your head on the books. Don’t fiddle with the books or move your head if possible, rather adjust your hips if you need to.

During active rest you can do what you like but it is really helpful to imagine yourself melting down into the floor, feeling heavy, and letting all your weight go down through the points at which your body is touching the ground. You can focus on your breathing, feeling your diaphragm rise and fall and slow down. Just take the time to become aware of yourself and the space you occupy, the sounds you can hear and the sensations you can feel.

Try it for fifteen minutes. When you are ready to get back up, it is important not to rush things. You will be reversing each step you used to get down. If you hurry this you can easily undo all the good you have done so roll over onto one side and then onto your front on all fours. Bring one knee up and straighten your body before standing up in a gentle fluid movement.

Active rest takes practice but once you incorporate it into your routine you will begin to look forward to it and enjoy the improved sense of balance and posture through the day. Use it to restore yourself in the middle of the day.

Alexander Technique has variously been described as an educational method and even a state of mind. It works primarily in very subtle ways by allowing your body to rediscover the suppleness and grace you had as a child before you were told to “sit up straight” and “keep still” or picked up the bad postural habits we all carry through life and think are normal. If you are interested in learning more then it is recommended that you find an Alexander teacher near you or explore the numerous resources available on the Internet.