How I Learned to Stop Writing

Sportswriter Red Smith is generally credited with saying that writing is easy; you just open a vein and bleed. Whether or not he actually said it – and there is some debate about that – Smith’s sentiments will resonate with many writers. The problem, however, is not that writers must bleed in order to write. Most, I suspect, would be happy to shed a little blood if it would guarantee even a steady trickle of words. The problem arises when you open a vein, and nothing flows.

Why does this happen? Writers, like most people, are bedeviled by an imaginary friend called “me” who thinks ihe or she is in charge of your life. This imaginary friend is imaginary because it doesn’t really exist and because it is not really your friend. This latter point becomes clear whenever you try to write. The self suffers from the delusion that it is the author of the words that alight in the mind whenever inspiration strikes. It then feels justified in doing whatever it likes with them, which often is to strangle the life out of them with vicious editorial judgments. With the self in charge, the act of writing can quickly devolve into an exercise in self-hatred.

I, too, once thought I was author of the words that alight in the mind. Eventually, however, I realized the words were more like a gift I had received from an anonymous benefactor, and that has made all the difference. The words are mine only in the sense that they are mine to use and do not belong to anyone else. Others may judge me by them, but I do not regard them in any way as a judgment on me. I am merely grateful for what I have received.

Taoists have a term that neatly describes the process of writing as I understand it. It is wu wei, which is usually translated as “without action” and is often used in the phrase wei wu wei, meaning “action without effort.” When a writer or anyone else is aligned with the natural flow of the universe, everything seems to get done in its own good time with no strain or struggle. After all, the wind does not need to rack its brain deciding which way to blow. The cock does not need to ask if it is time to crow when the sun comes up. And a writer does not need to open a vein to get the words to flow.

I came across the concept of wu wei long after I had more or less mastered the art of it, at least as far as writing is concerned. The words wu wei popped into my head as I was waking up one morning, and I scribbled them down on the notepad I keep by my bed. I dimly recalled that wu wei had something to do with Taoism but little else. So I did some research, which I then set aside, waiting for inspiration to strike. The topic was hardly original; indeed, there is a book out on the subject entitled The Tao of Writing, which I have not read. I realized the only way I could address the topic was to come up with a fresh angle. In such situations I am often guided by advice from the writer Susan Cheever: “Only write what only you can write.” That usually means writing something out of your own experience – another way, I suppose, of opening a vein.

I eventually decided to back into the topic by talking about writer’s block, something almost all writers can relate to. And then, as if on cue, a title suddenly dropped down from the ether, a gift: “How I Learned to Stop Writing.” In addition to being a nice reversal on “How I Learned to Write,” this title begs the question, “How can you write about how you stopped writing?” The answer to that question, of course, would be the substance of the piece.

The quotation from Red Smith did not drop down from the ether. It is just one of many bits of miscellany that are tucked away in my brain and that, if I am fortunate, get dislodged when I need to make a point – or, in this case, two points. The first, which was Smith’s, is that writing can be a painful struggle (“…just open a vein and bleed”). The second, which after a bit of tinkering was mine, introduces the subject of writer’s block (…open a vein, and nothing flows”).

Flow is the essence of Taoism, and water is its chief metaphor. Water moves effortlessly, without intention, sliding around every obstacle and filling every space. For a writer, the aim is get words to flow. This is not done by an act of will but in calm expectation. The words will come if there is an open channel to receive them. They may arrive in a trickle rather than a torrent; no matter. If the words do not flow, wait patiently. If need be, find something else to do. The words will arrive in their own good time, perhaps in the shower or when you are out running errands. There is no sense in racking your brain. Do not try to write when the well is dry. There is no try in this business. Either the words come, or they do not. If you are ever tempted to try, here’s my advice: just stop.

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