Sunday, March 14, 2021

Wu Wei

For the last couple weeks I've been reading Derek Lin's translation of the Tao Te Ching. I'm not exactly zipping through it. I'll read two or three pages at a time, then kind of sit and stare into space and think about things for a while. There's a lot to think about.

Headshot of Derek Lin, facing camera, in a black shirt and suit jacket
Derek Lin

One of the things I like about Lin's translation so much are the heavy annotations. Sometimes they'll be twice as long as the chapter, breaking it down line by line and giving some necessary context. One of his notes this week Arabbed my attention and helped me straighten a few things out. It was a note on Chapter 48, which goes like this:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss

Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action*
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do

Take the world by constantly applying noninterference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world

 Lin's note (one of many, but the only one I'm copying here) was this:

*The principle of wu wei is very powerful. By focusing on the process instead of the end result, we allow things to progress naturally and minimize our tendency to meddle. The net effect is that the difficult becomes easy, and we struggle less but accomplish more.

I don't know if that does anything for you. What rattled my cage may only strike you as a piece of gentle advice. The thing is, I've been questioning my own writing process these last few weeks. Not the writing so much as the not writing. I've had a hard time letting myself just sit and think about the story I'm telling, what I want to say, and how I want to say it.

At the start of this year I said I wanted to focus on “productivity,” in the sense that I want to write a lot of bad shit to make sure I write more good shit. And that goal hasn't changed—I'm still with Ted Orland on this one.

But all that focus on the end result means I've spent the last ten weeks pushing to hit word counts. It means if I have an hour to write, then by god I'm going to spend that whole hour typing. What I've lost in all this is the process. I've given up the time that I should spend in thought.

It doesn't help I'm at home all day. Gone are the morning commutes, the walks to the office, the trips to get coffee. I underestimated how necessary a part of the process it is to spend time being idle and bored. I've focused on typing at the expense of just thinking, even though they're both part of writing.

So what's a guy to do? Stop focusing on the end result; stop looking at the word count as the benchmark of success. I need to accept that sometimes staring at the wall is work that's just as valid as typing. Because it's not just about the result of a stack of typed pages. It's about the process it takes to get there.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...