Odd Writing Advice 1: Emptiness

Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest swordsman in Japanese history, wrote, “Having attained a principle, one detaches from the principle; thus one has spontaneous independence in the science of martial arts and naturally attains marvels: discerning the rhythm when the time comes, one strikes spontaneously and naturally scores.”

In other words, once one has studied and practiced the martial arts extensively (or any other art), one can empty one’s self of all the specific elements of that training and allow the art itself to act through one’s body, no longer thinking at all about what one is doing. This is called sunyata or “emptiness,” and it’s what I strive for in writing.

Obviously, in order to achieve compositional emptiness, you have to spend years and years reading. This notion may strike you as self-evident, as a clear no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many would-be writers don’t read that much. I learned to read when I was four years old, and in the intervening 42 years, not a month has gone by that I have not read at least one (and usually four) books, of diverse genres and subject matter. You can’t scrimp on this, friends. Buckle down and read.

Not only should you read, you should analyze. What makes the stories, essays, poems you love the most work? Pull them apart. Scrutinize their constituent parts. It’s not like you’ll stop enjoying them … in fact, I find even greater pleasure in pieces once I’ve dismantled and reassembled them. Exposing yourself to different schools of literary criticism isn’t a bad idea at this point. A lot of it is pretentious nonsense, but you’ll learn valuable lessons about the role of text.

Think — at the end of the day, you want to write good stuff, don’t you? So understand why certain works click with you, and then spend all the rest of your free time writing.

At first it’s a chore. At first you’re deliberately imitating and failing miserably (or trying to be edgy/original and sucking at it). You’ve got thousands of words of substandard pablum to get out of your system, even though your ego insists that every sentence is beautiful. But with time, with continual and disciplined practice, you will become proficient. As cliché as it has become, Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule has real validity.

It’s important that you not forget, however, that you have to continue to live an interesting life during those long months and years. You have to experience the world, understand other human beings, expand your horizons. Proficient writing without empathy and knowledge is vacuous in the most negative sense.

But in the end, once you’ve mastered all the ends and outs of writing (from the basics of sentence construction to the meanders of effective plot development), you have to empty your mind of them, you have to stop consciously fixating on them and just … write. Let the skills you’ve hone simply move your mind and hand.

Here’s a poem on emptiness from my collection Shattering and Bricolage:

Emptiness

Thus taught the master:
Constant practice. Learn all forms.
Once they are mastered,
empty yourself of technique,
of desire to control.

Then, when the time comes,
art itself will move your hands
spontaneously,
your body a conduit
for the universe’s will.

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