The Tao of Writing

“A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.” – Lao Tzu

Ancient drawing of Lao Tzu riding the ox

In practice, relying on intuition to guide your writing can lead you badly astray in ways that are hard to fix. (Image: public domain.)

In my experience, following your intuition can lead to poorly organized works of unwieldy size. Doesn’t that remind you of the movie, “The Princess Bride”? You know, the part in the fire swamp with the ROUS or “rodents of unusual size.” Big rats, in other words. Anyway, I started my first fantasy novel (still unfinished!) in the mid-nineties. I decided to write “off the cuff” (no outline, no plan – I was really big on Taoism in those days) and set myself the goal of writing six pages every evening. The pace was too much for me, yet three months or so later, I had 200 pages of prose on my trusty Macintosh Classic II (with the deluxe 40 MEGAbyte hard drive – quaint, yes?).

Hooray for me! I had written a novel length work. Unfortunately, there was trouble in my writing paradise. Only a single day had gone by in the story! One lousy day. Less than a day in fact, since I had opened in the evening and it was now some time after breakfast. Yeah, I did get that in. I remember something about bacon – oh yeah, and smiling faces. Mind you, I had kept my characters up all night running around with flaming torches in these really cool secret tunnels and immense caverns. But even that was a problem because I had no idea why those tunnels and caverns existed. I kept hoping it would come to me as I went along. It never did. No wonder they were smiling over the bacon.

It gets better. I decided to put some druids in the story. Sounds great, right? Druids, secret tunnels. I mean, they go together like ham and eggs. (Is that breakfast again?) Then it dawned on me that druids like trees, oak trees to be specific, and my story – wait for it – was carefully set on a mountain – above the treeline. So I invented some oak leaf amulets. Just to get something oaky into the story. You’d think I would have had the sense to back away from the druids, but that never occurred to me.

All those who have found themselves in a similar boat raise your hands. Come on, ‘fess up.

On the other hand, maybe you belong in the Orson Scott Card camp. After years spent writing short stories, he set out to write a novel spanning ten thousand years – and ended up with a book that was only one hundred pages long! I feel better when I think about a writer of Card’s stature having such problems.

My point here (you had a hunch there was one, right?) is that intuition is not always the best guide. It may seem like the simplest way to go about things, but as you can see from my struggles, that simplicity may be there in the method, yet utterly absent from the confused and snarled-up work it generates. I gave up on intuitive writing and switched over to creating an outline.

Many successful writers work intuitively. If you are able to work this way, more power to you. I often wish I had the gift. However, if you find your intuitive writing gets you into hot water, consider the possibility that, like me, you may not be suited to the technique. Perhaps it is not Tao you need but some good old-fashioned thinking.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

3 thoughts on “The Tao of Writing”

  1. My driving instructor is a taoist, and every lesson he tells me to drive wherever my intuition wants to go. Except, of course, when intuition takes us in front of an oncoming bus. He also enjoys spouting Lao Tzu quotes as I drive, which can be quite distracting. I like him very much, in the space of few lessons he has become a sort of father figure to me. I’m also liking this way of thinking that can be applied to everything from driving to writing a novel. Thanks for the insight.

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