One of the best college classes I ever took was about Chinese philosophy. A visiting professor from Shanghai taught it, and it was exactly the sort of mind-stretching, thought-provoking courses one should have at college. I don’t remember much of it now, other than I wrote a paper about how Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do should rank with the Tao Te Ching as a seminal work in Eastern philosophy that didn’t exactly wow my professor.
The other thing that has stayed with me is the concept of wu wei. It is often translated as “knowing when to act and when not to act” or “natural action,” but I think a more helpful way of thinking about it is developing correct instincts. There is an implication of action that is spontaneous, natural, and effortless. Another philosopher, Chuang Tzu, calls it “purposeless wandering.”
Although it doesn’t have precisely the same connotations, I think the Greek concept of Areté falls along the same lines. Often defined as “excellence” or “virtue,” it’s more fully understood as the act of living up to one’s full potential. The famous Socratic paradox, “Virtue is knowledge,” is in Greek, “Areté is knowledge.”
This idea is represented in every aspect of life. Steve Nash hits ten shots in a row—he’s “in the zone.” Wu wei. Jimi Hendrix picks up a guitar and improves a jam like “Fire.” Teachers or parents improvising important lessons. Going on a date and impressing the person next to you on the roller coaster. All these “right actions” are a way of quantifying wu wei.
As much as anybody, a writer needs to develop their wu wei. Just having “ideas” doesn’t make you a writer. The “what” is less important than the “how.” You need to hone your craft, the same as anybody who creates things. Developing correct instincts is essential. There are many “how to write” books and blogs out there, but when it comes down to it there aren’t objective criteria as to what qualifies as good writing. Reading is important, and writing is just as important—like most things, it takes practice to hone your craft. Living a full life matters too—having life-changing experiences can inform your prose with an energy that cannot be replicated. But these are all aspects of something that cannot be truly seen.
You have to know without knowing. That sounds overly esoteric, but maybe life sometimes is overly esoteric. This doesn’t mean that no one should plan out their work—that in itself may be where having the correct instincts help. But it does mean that, in order to be a good writer, you need to read, write, and live enough that you develop good instincts. What to write is easy You need to know how to write, and for that you need to develop some pretty killer instincts.