Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Zen Challenge for Writers

The first time I read, as a child, Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If—' I loved it, but didn't fully understand it. Sure, some critics dismiss the poem as middle-brow corn, but not me. I admire stoicism and generosity of spirit, and the poem celebrates those things. But the real meaning of the lines, "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same" eluded me. Who the hell could ever equate triumph and disaster? Must be some metaphor in there that I'm missing.

When I learned that those two lines are inscribed above the players' entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon, I thought, there must be more to it than I think.

It was only after I studied Zen and other spiritual texts that I realized those lines of the poem are meant to be taken literally. Everything changes; everything passes. Therefore everything is the same; therefore everything is sublime.

It's a great lesson for writers, who tend to live and die by the opinions of others. You know:

Good review = happiness
Bad review = despair

Same holds for remarks from writing-group buddies. Same holds for rejection by an agent or an editor.
The more you write, the more material you put out there, the more you hear from critics. The Zen challenge of being a writer is to treat the one-stars and the five-stars just the same.

For real. For true freedom as a writer.

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[photo of arguably beautiful ruined building by ES]


  1. Right on. Like, why do you write? Is it to please others, or because it simply has to come out? The Triumph and Despair bring to mind the image of drama masks. Thought-provoking!

  2. Oops I meant Disaster, not Despair. But you knew that.

    1. Yeah, there's always the question of who you want to please. Certainly writers want to please readers, and praise is so seductive that a writer (or anybody) can throw integrity and peace of mind to the wind to chase it. To do that, or to rely on praise, is fatal.

  3. How about this interpretation:

    Both triumph and disaster are external influences in our lives, such as in the case of winning and losing (a game/or in life), and the up-and-down emotions associated with either of them can sometimes leave us exhausted and scattered.

    However, if we’re solid, grounded individuals at our core, having confidence and integrity for a backbone, then we can appreciate triumph and respect disaster but maintain a level head regardless of whether we encounter either of these at any given time.

    Then again, what about the extremes associated with passion or mania? Sometimes creativity stems best from such wild emotions.

    1. Good thoughts, Tabitha. Re: the extreme emotions, even the great spiritual teachers acknowledge that you can be in perfect harmony with your core and with everything around you, while being capable of strong passions, even violence as a response to something. Remember Jesus throwing the traders out of the temple. Also, we have as examples some terrific art from Zen masters; I'm thinking of some paintings of running horses I once saw, which flowed from the brush of a Zen master like furious water. But it was pure fury, so to speak, free of tension and fear. Then also as a lesson, one of my favorite words, zest. Zest is powerful and positive.

  4. so basically, as per ex of bad review = despair and good review= happiness, don't become too bummed or elated. treat them both, good or bad, as a push to elevate your writing and not get lost in the opinions and feelings of others. bc in the end you the writer have to be satisfied with what you wrote.

    when undergoing reviews/critiques, some negative and some good, I remember this qoute by JK Rowling, "In truth, I never consider the audience for whom I'm writing. I just write what I want to write."
    Afterwards, I work on what I know I need to work on, without trying to write something that's just not me. does that make any sense?

    1. Yes, your own good judgment is worthless unless you believe in it and refrain from second-guessing. Moreover, readers want authenticity, and sticking to your own true voice is the best way to give them that.


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