Organizing Our Books

I’ve been thinking lately about organizing our books. Alberto Manguel, in an excerpt from his forthcoming book Packing My Library on the Paris Review blog, writes about the experience of reshelving the books of one’s personal library:

“In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order.”

The last time we moved, eight years ago, we had 900 books. The packing and unpacking was undoubtedly a gruelling exercise, but it was so long ago that now I can only think fondly of the experience and wish to do it again. Not the move, of course, but the opportunity to make our books seem new again.

A few of our shelves

A few of our shelves.

Our books have occupied the same space almost since we moved in: a series of self-assembled bookshelves that line all three walls of the open room we call the office. Not counting the sundry volumes scattered about on desks, coffee tables, nightstands. We’ve had significant turnover in the ranks over the years – we gave away or exchanged some 300 books and bought another 600, leaving us now with 1200 books. (I keep a nearly-meticulous catalogue of our book collection.)

That might seem like a lot of books, but Alberto Manguel dealt with 35,000 volumes when moving from a house in France to an apartment in Manhattan. I can’t imagine ever owning that many books. That is, I can, but I shouldn’t.

I do have some book collector in my genes (my mother is on a quest to own the complete Airmont Mass Paperback Classics and Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading, for reasons I still don’t understand; but I can’t really make fun of her because she took me to the used book stores where my personal library was first begun), but I also have allergies and not a large home and aspirations to minimalism and a devotion to the public library system. The number of books in our house will surely continue to grow, but I hope to keep it with reasonable bounds. (What counts as reasonable is subject, of course, to whim.)

Our bookshelves are in a kind of order, part careful and part random. Nothing is in alphabetical order or sorted by colour. We have books by (and about) our favourite authors shelved together (Austen, Baker, Davis, Dillard, Eliot, Powell, Pym, Pynchon, Markson, Moore, Murakami, Sayers, Strand, Wallace, and the list goes on), but there many exceptions. We have some rough genre categories: poetry, books about writing, English classics, graphic novels, my growing collection of self-help/spiritual/business books. The New York Review of Books books have their own shelf. The various Penguin classics paperback editions stay together. Large hardcovers live in the oversize bottom shelves. Art books and box sets like Proust and Harry Potter and Tolkien and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy live on top of the bookshelves.

Establishing a new order

We’ve reorganized the books in bits and pieces over the years, collapsing and expanding groups, keeping the favourites at eye level and the lesser volumes close to the ground. The books we like the most live on the shelves behind our desk chairs. The ones we like the least live in the far corner, almost inaccessible behind unhung art in dusty frames and an old lamp.

But bits and pieces aren’t enough. What I’m looking for is stacks on the floor, on the dining room table, on the kitchen counters. What I’m looking for is that clarifying excitement of handling each book, one by one, off the shelves into stacks, then off the stacks and onto the shelves.

Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting” (pdf), Manguel writes:

“Unpacking … is essentially an expansive and untidy activity. Freed from their bounds, the books spill onto the floor or pile up in unsteady columns, waiting for the places that will later be assigned to them. In this waiting period, before the new order has been established, they exist in a tangle of synchronicities and remembrances, forming sudden and unexpected alliances or parting from each other incongruously.”

I’m looking for a new world order in our land of books. It would be such a new world, such a sea change, that it would be impossible to choose an organizational principle or style in advance. The occasion would require a complete rethinking of what order even means.

Writing a library into existence

I like the connection Walter Benjamin draws between writers and book collectors:

“Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing, himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book-fair catalogues; after all, he could not afford to buy them. Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”

(If you, like me, have no idea who Schoolmaster Wutz is, he’s a character in a short work of 18th century German literature.)

I’m lucky enough to own the works whose titles interest me and whose contents satisfy me, while also daring to try to write the books that I wish were listed in book-fair catalogues.

Further reading

Alberto Manguel is the author of many books about books, including A Reader on Reading, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading, and The Library at Night. (I have not yet read a single one of them, which seems ridiculous.) More recently he was appointed director of the National Library of Argentina (a role held by Jorge Luis Borges), where his doings have become a subject of contention.

Reading Widely, Deeply, and Not At All

Reflecting on the books I’ve read gets me thinking about why I read so much. There are plenty of people who read much more than I do and plenty of people who couldn’t care less about books. But I’m perhaps a bit greedy. I spend so much time reading books, reading about books, and wishing I were reading a book instead of whatever else it is I’m doing. I can’t seem to get enough.

Recently I’ve been a bit more selective of what books I start and finish because I realized that, in addition to having a large backlog, every year I find more books to read than I can possibly get through in a year. I will definitely die before I can get to all the books I’d like to read (and reread), so I need to make the most of the time I have left. And I wonder about other ways of being a reader, about the virtues of perhaps not reading widely.

Reading widely (1)

An example of my excesses, after a trip to the library.

Reading widely

Why do I read so much? So many reasons. I love being surprised or thrilled by a turn of events or a turn of phrase. Being taken into another time and place, a different person’s head. Learning about things I never would have known or understood otherwise. I love the deep exploration of character and motivation and conflict and resolution. I love that books make me think about things I never think about on my own.

But there are other reasons. Reading is a way to do something “productive” and “good” while avoiding other things that are perhaps hard and perhaps more worthwhile. It’s an escape, in more ways than one. I read because I want to write, although that makes no sense because after a certain point, only more writing can help you get better at writing, not more reading.

Maybe one day, if I read enough books, I’ll finally decide that I don’t need to write anything after all. That anything I have to say has already been said by others who said it better than I could. The time I free up by not writing might be enough to one day get to all the books.

Reading widely (2)

Another example of my excesses, before going on vacation.

Reading deeply

In “The Case Against Reading Everything” at The Walrus, Jason Guriel shares a refreshingly contrary perspective on the notion of reading widely, specifically for aspiring writers:

“The real problem with telling young writers to fan out across genres and forms is that it doesn’t help them find a voice. If anything, it’s antivoice. Learning the craft of writing isn’t about hopping texts like hyperlinks. It’s about devotion and obsession. It’s about lingering too long in some beloved book’s language, about steeping yourself in someone else’s style until your consciousness changes colour. … It’s going embarrassingly, unfashionably all in.”

But there’s more to do it than the development of a voice, Guriel argues. There’s also an apparent problem with the quality of the work that’s out there:

“The call to ‘read widely’ is a failure to make judgments. It disperses our attention across an ever-increasing black hole of mostly undeserving books. Whatever else you do, you should not be reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction that will be vying for your attention over the next year or so out of some obligation to submit your ear to a variety of voices.”

I feel bad for young readers and writers who are expected to decide what is worthy of their attention. How do you know? I don’t know. Is he just talking about not reading Fifty Shades of Grey or self-help books? Relying on the opinions of critics and friends and reviewers isn’t enough. How does a reader separate the “undeserving” from the “worthwhile”?

A post at Anecdotal Evidence gives some practical advice for reading deeply. The notion is that choosing the ten best books you’ve read and rereading them carefully and thoroughly, to the exclusion of all other books, will teach you what is good, develop your taste, and make you a better reader. That list of ten books will vary hugely for everyone — at least I hope it does.

Picking ten best books for myself seems like an impossible task, but perhaps the point is really that any ten books would do the trick.

Reading variety

There is a sour point in avoiding the “variety of voices.” There are political implications of reading only what you like or only the work of people like you. Guriel addresses the issue in this way:

“Most people urging you to read widely probably have a hard time ranging outside their comfort zones. There’s no doubt that, in the political realm, we need more connection with those we disagree with. But for the most part, ‘read widely’ belongs to a class of expression that’s good to be heard saying. … In my experience, only a minority of writers like to chase their Leslie Jamison with some Conrad Black, or their Yvor Winters with some Roxane Gay.”

If many writers don’t follow a piece of advice, it doesn’t follow that the advice is bad. Doesn’t everyone have a hard time going outside their comfort zone? And “connection with those we disagree with” is not necessarily more influential than what we read (and consume, TV and film especially) in relation to how we see the world and what we think of people who aren’t like us. It’s a bit facile to dismiss the political importance of what we (and aspiring writers) read.

I appreciate how Jana Marie expressed the point in a recent Sunday letter:

“I’m not here to tell you to read more … No, my suggestion would be to read the same amount as you do now, but just to read more widely. To wander into an unfamiliar section of the bookstore. To get your news from other sites. To follow those whose voices are unrepresented (or under-represented) in your feed.”

Reading a variety of voices and opinions is important. Moving beyond what school or popular culture tells us is good and being open to writers and settings and ideas that might seem foreign. And learning how to make up our own minds about it all.

Reading anything

I belong to a couple of large Facebook writing groups. It’s kind of alarming how many times aspiring writers ask questions that make me wonder if they even read books. Do publishers accept books written in the first person? Will my manuscript get rejected if my character has [some random trait]? Can I alternate points of view between two characters?

I hold back from joining these conversations (and am increasingly wondering why I submit myself to them at all) because there are many other people who jump in and quote Stephen King at them.

(Most people like the If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot“ quote, but I prefer If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” See also.)

What I want to say, though, is: read 5 books in your genre of choice and then answer your own damn question.

I’m clearly a horrible and unhelpful person. But why do people who don’t read books want to write one? Why would you write a book that you expect people to buy if you won’t even borrow a few from your local library?

It’s quite possible that the people asking these questions are Russian bots or trolls who hate writers. I really can’t rule out those possibilities, so I should just ignore them and move on, right? The internet is made of things that should be ignored.

Not reading at all

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading The Artist’s Way. One of the practices Julia Cameron recommends is a week of reading deprivation. No reading? No reading.

“For most blocked creatives, Cameron says, “reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own. Ouch. That hits close to home, and I don’t really consider myself blocked.

So what does reading deprivation achieve?

“It is a paradox that by emptying lives our lives of distractions we are actually filling the well. Without distractions, we are once again thrust into the sensory world. … We are cast into our inner silence. Our reward will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings, will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely.” 

I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t read anything for a week. There’s so much I could do, so much I would want to do, but in reality I would binge watch Netflix and listen to podcasts and paint my nails and spend hours and hours and hours on Instagram. I’m not sure I know how not to consume something. But Cameron warns against this precise problem:

“Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some of us begin to immediately fill with new words — long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist’s inspiration, above the static. In practicing reading deprivation, we need to cast a watchful eye on these other pollutants. They poison the well.” 

I almost achieved reading deprivation on vacation last year, unintentionally, but I don’t think that’s what Cameron means. For me, the highlight of taking vacation is having more time to read. The highlight of my weekends is having more time to read. So not reading at all? For a single week? It seems impossible, which makes the challenge even more intriguing.

The Artist’s Way in Daily Doses

I’m reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I started and abandoned it years ago after reading just the first section on Morning Pages, which is a daily practice of writing three longhand pages first thing in the morning. The point is basically to dump the contents of your brain on paper. They are a fundamental part of the creative journey that is The Artist’s Way. At the time, however, that first chapter was enough for me.

It took me a while to start, but now I’ve been doing Morning Pages for nearly two years, although I only do one page, not three. It’s a shame I didn’t stick with the book long enough back then to read about the other key practice: the weekly Artist Date (time alone to do something you enjoy, just for you, like visiting an art gallery, exploring an antique shop, or going to a concert). So many hours of quality time with my inner creative, forever lost!

The book is written as a 12-week course, with exercises and tasks every week, but I’m not using the book that way. (Not unlike how I love reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but I’ve never actually tidied up in the way Marie Kondo prescribes.) The Artist’s Way is full of valuable ideas, insights, resources, quotations, and a not unhefty dose of spirituality. It’s a solid read in the genre of creativity and writing manuals even if you’re not interested in a course of “creative recovery” modelled on recovery from addiction.

The Artist's Way Every Day by Julia CameronWhat convinced me to pick up the book again was The Artist’s Way Every Day, which I borrowed at random from the library. I was looking for something else, noticed it, and thought I would give it a try. After enjoying A Year with Thomas Merton earlier in the year, I was up for another day-at-a-time kind of book.

But I’m not good at reading books a day at a time. You start this kind of book thinking you’ll read the day’s entry in bed at the end of the day as a tonic before falling immediately and blissfully to sleep, but it rarely turns out like that. Instead I binge several days’ worth at once and feel a little ill afterward.

When I manage to avoid such self-destructive behaviour, I use my lunch break to consume a handful of page-a-day snippets at a time. I can only read so many pages while waiting for food and/or eating it within my half hour break, so I often reach my capacity for page-a-day wisdom at just the moment I finish eating, which works out well for all involved.

Here are some of the passages that convinced me to give The Artist’s Way another chance. Just a taste, mind you, not enough to make you feel ill (I hope).

Obsessions with time and perfection

On accepting that you will spend a lot of time writing badly:

“We all have time to write. We have time to write the minute we are willing to write badly, to chase a dead end, to scribble a few words, to write for the hell of it instead of for the perfect and polished result. The obsession with time is really an obsession with perfection. We want enough time to write perfectly. We want to write with a net under ourselves, a net that says we are not foolish spending our time doing something that might not pay off.”

On making use of whatever time you have to write:

“One of the biggest myths around writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time. Speaking for myself, I have never had such silken bolts of time. The myth that we must have ‘time’ — more time — in order to create is a myth that keeps us from using the time we do have. If we are forever yearning for ‘more,’ we are forever discounting what is offered.”

On avoiding perfectionism:

“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop — an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole. Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.’”

Working always

On not waiting for inspiration (this is something that comes up again and again and again):

“We often make the mistake of thinking that we ‘have’ to be the ‘right’ mood to write. The truth is, any mood can be used for writing. Any mood is a good writing mood. The trick is to simply enter whatever mood like a room and sit down and write from there.”

On the importance of consistency as the one thing we can control:

“As artists, we wish we could always work well, but we must settle for working always. The ‘always’ we can control. The ‘well’ we cannot control. For this reason, we do well to simply serve, to focus more on the process of doing our work than on the ‘product’ of work produced.”

On having compassion for our imperfections:

“Who says (besides our Inner Perfectionist, who is always doing sit-ups) that we have to feel calm and centered to write out a piece of music? Maybe we can feel and be a wreck and do it anyway. Maybe we can do it and do it wrong and fix it later. Maybe we do not have to be or perform perfectly. Maybe we are allowed to have a learning curve. Maybe part of what we need to learn is a little compassion.”

The bit about sit-ups was a rare moment when Julia Cameron made me laugh. Personally, my Inner Perfectionist does squats and lunges!

Honesty and attention

On the importance of telling the truth:

“Writing is about honesty. It is almost impossible to be honest and boring at the same time. Being honest may be many other things — risky, scary, difficult, frightening, embarrassing, and hard to do — but it is not boring. Whenever I am stuck in a piece of writing, I ask myself, ‘Am I failing to tell the truth? Is there something I am afraid to say?’ Telling the truth on the page, like telling the truth in a relationship, always takes you deeper.”

But telling the truth is hard:

“As artists, we are perpetually seeking to penetrate the veil of cultural prescriptions and arrive at personal truth. In order to do this, we need to be brave enough with — and open enough to — our own internal territory that our art can express it. In other words, we must be able to face down shame and choose self-disclosure. This takes courage.”

It takes hard work and attention:

“It takes an effort to be clear about things. It is easier and much sadder to be muddy, to never take the time to clarify our thoughts and connect our own perceptions. The act of paying attention is what brings us peace.”

The artist and her trainer

I love this idea of a writer having to be both artist and trainer:

“In order to succeed as an artist we must have two well-developed functions: our artist and its trainer. The trainer is steady and adult. It keeps its eye on the course and the long run. It coaxes, wheedles, begs, cajoles, and occasionally disciplines our artist which, childlike, proceeds in spurts and sometimes not at all. The trick is setting the jumps low enough that our artist can be lured into action. If I am writing nonfiction, I set my goal at a modest three pages. Almost anyone can write three pages of something and my artists knows that. If we set our jumps low enough, our artist can be lured into cooperation.”

This applies to many things in life, not just creating (like, oh, eating well, exercising, saving money, getting out of bed). You need to allow for two very different sides of yourself to exist simultaneously. You need more than one way to talk to yourself and think about the work you have done or need to do.

Forward motion

The important thing is to keep moving forward, keep working at it:

“Writing is the act of motion. Writing is the commitment to move forward, not to stew in our own juices, to become whatever it is that we are becoming. Writing is both the boat and the wind in the sails. Even on the days when the winds of inspiration seem slight, there is some forward motion, some progress made.”

Further reading

Similar themes about writing in Still Writing by Dani Shapiro. “The Artist’s Way in an Age of Self-Promotion” in The New Yorker. Changing your life and overcoming writer’s block with The Artist’s Way. Letters from an artist working through the program. Brain Pickings has a post about it and the Books of Titans podcast has an episode about it. Julia Cameron herself has a website with about a million related works in book and video format.

My Favourite Books of 2017

The end of the year is upon us, accompanied by the necessary reflection on the books read over the last revolution around the sun, in particular the favourite books of the year. It was a good reading year for me. I read as voraciously as I did last year: just about the same number of books, but fewer pages. (Thank you Goodreads for keeping track of these things, via my 2017 in books and annual statistics.)

Some of my favourite books from 2017

Some of them


My 17 favourite books this year

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne, Sarah Bakewell. An exploration of the life, times, and literary afterlife of Michel de Montaigne, the original essayist.This is first on the list because I spent more time with it than any other book on this list. Partway through I finally splurged and bought the complete essays, which I may or may not start working through in 2018.

A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland. Part memoir, part academic-ish study of silence and solitude. Arguably, this book was the one that really kicked off my current fascination with books on this subject.

Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton. This is kind of mostly about gardening but it was still a wonderful read about seeking time alone.

Eat Sleep Sit, Kaoru Nonomura. A memoir of one year at a strict Zen temple in Japan. It removed all romanticism from how I thought of monks and the ascetic way of life.

Upstream, Mary Oliver. Wonderful essays about poetry, nature, writing, and life.

The Hate U GiveAngie Thomas. A wonderful YA novel about a young black woman who sees her best friend shot to death by the police. It’s emotional and funny and political and heartbreaking.

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, Haemin Sunim. Normally a book I would never admit to liking, this was a case of the right book at the right time.

Hourglass, Dani Shapiro. A kind of inexplicable memoir about, like the cover says, marriage and time. Beautifully written.

Outline, Rachel Cusk. A novel told in conversations, strangely compelling and fascinating.

Transit, Rachel Cusk. The follow-up to Outline, which I read very shortly afterward and which did not disappoint.

SapiensYuval Noah Harari. A fascinating exploration of how homo sapiens made it.

All Grown Up, Jami Attenberg. A novel told in vignettes about a woman alone, without partner or child, coming to terms with herself. It took me by surprise.

American PrimitiveMary Oliver. Poems about nature, humanity, and the universe.

300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso. A tiny but smart book. Essays distilled down to their barest essence.

Delights and Shadows, Ted Kooser. More poetry. I read a lot of poetry this year (for me).

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro. Lots of thoughts here.

One Hundred Days of Solitude, Jane Dobisz. I read this very quickly over 24 hours around Christmas, and I thought it was so lovely. I’m not sure how much that was because it was so much better than a similar book I’d finished a few days before, Consolations of the Forestwhich was not what I’d hoped.

Some random notes

Because I can’t limit myself to just favourite books, whatever exactly that means. I enjoyed some really fun novels this year: StartupPublic Relations, Grace and the Fever, Kissing Ted Callahan, SourdoughMade for Love was also fun but in a totally zany way. In a Lonely Place was moody and dark and perfect. I was sorry that both Commonwealth and Swimming Lessons featured the tired story of the young woman giving up her life to an older male writer. I read a lot of poetry. I re-read several favourite books: a few Barbara Pyms, The Hating Game, The Restraint of Beasts, The Writing LifeBearMansfield Park. I read a lot more about religion and spirituality this year, which is unusual for me. I read several great books about writing, in addition to Still WritingThe Art of Fiction, Reading Like a Writer, Draft No. 4, Six Memos for the Next MillenniumI also finally got to a few books that have been on my reading list for a long time: Someone at a DistanceHigh Rising, All Passion Spent, The House of Mirth.

Isn’t it wonderful that everyone doesn’t have the same favourite books? Isn’t it great that everyone loves different things?

For the last month the internet has been full of year-end reading lists, none of which look anything like mine (that’s a good thing). Here are some I enjoyed the most: Chicago Review of Book’s best fiction listLiterary Hub’s mega-listAustin Kleon’s reading year, and The Millions Year in Reading series. The one thing we will never ever have to worry about is running out of things to read.

New Life in the Void: Poet Lu Ji on the Art of Writing

Lu Ji was a prolific writer in early China (261-303) whose best known work is The Art of Writing (originally Wen Fu, also translated as Essay on Literature), an essay of literary criticism composed of both poetry and prose.

But calling it literary criticism doesn’t do it justice. It’s a collection of eleven poems on what it means to write, to read, and to put your faith in the power of the written word, whether by long-gone ancestors or future generations. 

Chinese text of The Art of Writing by Lu Ji

Excerpt from the Chinese text of Wen Fu (Source)

Lu writes in the preface: “Through my own efforts I know how hard it is to write, since I always worry that my ideas fail to express their subject and my words are even further removed from their insufficient ideas. The problem is easy to understand; the solution is more difficult.” I don’t think Lu finds the solution (has anyone?), but he faces the difficulty and seeks out answers in these eleven poems.

The Impulse

In “The Impulse,” reading the classics inspires the poet to write. It begins with a beautiful description of the poet’s position:

A poet stands between heaven and earth
And watches the dark mystery.

And continues with the source of his inspiration:

I roam the classics through a forest of treasures
And love their elegant balance of style and substance.
Inspired, I lay down the book I was reading
And let words pour out from my brush.


A wonderfully metaphysical description of what it’s like to write something that feels as though it’s been waiting for you to find the words: 

Sometimes words come hard, they resist me
till I pluck them from deep water like hooked fish;
sometimes they are birds soaring out of a cloud
that fall right into place, shot with arrows,
and I harvest lines neglected for a hundred generations,
rhymes underheard for a thousand years.
I won’t touch a flower already in morning bloom
but quicken the unopened evening buds.
In a blink I see today and the past,
put out my hand and touch all the seas.


On continuing to work at it even when you may not feel like you’re making progress: 

Some words belong together
and other don’t join, like jagged teeth,
but when you’re clear and calm
your spirit finds true words.
With heaven and earth contained in your head
Nothing escapes the pen in your hand.

It’s hard to get started at first,
painful like talking with cracked lips,
but words will flow with ink in the end.

The Joy of Words

On the beauty of being able to create something from nothing:

A writer makes new life in the void,
knocks on silence to make a sound,
binds space and time on a sheet of silk
and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.

You can read the whole of “The Joy of Words” on Instagram here.


The poem “Inspiration” is about the “traffic laws on writing’s path,” describing what it is like to be possessed with the urge to write and the knowledge, for once, of what to write about:

When instinct is swift as a horse
no tangle of thoughts will hold it back:
a thought wind rises in your chest,
a river of words pours out from your mouth,
and so many burgeoning leaves sprout
on the silk from your brush,
that colors brim out of your eyes
and music echoes in your ears.

Writer’s Block

Lu describes that dreaded condition as when “the will travels but the spirit stays put.” His solution?

You must excavate your own soul,
search yourself until your spirit is refreshed.

It’s not so easy, however:

The mind gets darker and darker
and you must pull ideas like silk from their cocoon.

But perhaps the work will pay off:

Sometimes you labor hard and build regrets 
then dash off a flawless gem.

That impossible flawless gem! But the appearance of the gem, never mind the defeat of writer’s block, is inexplicable:

Though this thing comes out of me,
I can’t master it with strength.
I often stroke my empty chest and sigh:
what blocks and what opens this road?

The Power of a Poem

In the last poem of the essay, Lu takes the long view, looking behind him at the work of his ancestors and looking ahead to the work of those who were and are still to come, and showing his faith in what literature can accomplish.

The function of literature is
to express the nature of nature.
It can’t be barred as it travels space
and boats across one hundred million years.
Gazing to the fore, I leave models for people to come;
looking aft, I learn from my ancestors.
It can save teetering governments and weak armies;
it gives voice to the dying wind of human virtue.
No matter how far, this road will take you there;
it will express the subtlest point.
It waters the heart like clouds and rain,
and shifts form like a changeable spirit.
Inscribed on metal and stone, it spreads virtue.
Flowing with pipes and strings, each day the poem is new.

The Anchor of Chinese PoetryI found The Art of Writing in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, but many other translations exist, some of which you can read herehere, and here.

The editors of The Anchor Book note how complex the work is to translate and how many multiple meanings are possible in each line, such that the notes on the translation would far exceed the length of the piece itself.

Yet the essence of the work shines through in its multiple translations. Although written some seventeen hundred years ago, The Art of Writing still speaks to us today. The joy and pain, the dullness and ecstasy of writing haven’t changed, not across centuries or cultures.