Skip to Content

Writing the Wu Wei Way

January 7, 2022 by in On Writing

What if this New Year, we all made it our resolution to do nothing?

I don’t mean ‘stay-in-my-pajamas-all-day-and-binge-Netflix’ nothing. I mean a concept called wu wei found in Taoism.

Taoism is a philosophy that often addresses things in life we can’t control—not a bad thing to study when … oh, let’s say … you’re stuck in the middle of a pandemic and you realize the road to getting your fiction published is longer than anticipated.

Wu wei is about “effortless action” or “inaction” that is spontaneous, natural and “in the flow.” A frequent example is to be like the willow that bends in the wind or the water that diverts around rocks, either finding new paths or slowly eroding obstacles.  Conversely, it advises against raging at fate, worrying about the future and stewing about lost opportunities.

All easier said than done, of course.

This outlook appears to go against almost everything we’re taught here in the West and that I usually advocate: That success comes from working hard. That you should never give up. Instead, this philosophy literally encourages people to be “submissive and weak.”

Look deeper and what it’s really saying is that there’s strength in silence, in letting go of things you can’t control, in allowing others to “thrash” and “flail” after prizes that lose their value the moment they’re in your grasp.

If this all sounds too squishy or mystical, here are some concrete questions and advice from Taoism and wu wei that’ve helped me adjust my attitude, expectations, and enjoyment of writing:

What part of the writing process brings you the most joy? Start there.

Wu wei is about doing what comes naturally. Accomplishing at least part of your task will make what remains seem less daunting, and because you enjoyed it, you’ll be emotionally recharged and better able to tackle the messy stuff with more patience and good humor.

What part of the writing process drags you down the most? Look at why, what hole you’re trying to fill and how to let go.

For me, the worst part of writing is the rejection. When I look at why, it’s clear I’m seeking validation, someone to tell me my work is “good enough.” That’s natural, even healthy– until it isn’t.

I’ve learned to slow my submissions if I’m feeling particularly vulnerable. I’ve also developed practical solutions to take some of the emotion out of the process. For example, when I submit a short story to Magazine A, I also select the next publication I want to send it to after that one. When/if the rejection arrives, I already have a game plan and can hurry past the disappointment.  

More than anything else, however, I remind myself of the times that I’ve achieved success – won that award, gotten that raise – and how it never satisfied me like the work itself.  There’s nothing like a new project to raise my spirits.

Stop hitting your head against the wall.

I’m a stubborn, nose-to-the-grindstone creature of habit, which can unfortunately lead me into a pattern where I am working very hard but not necessarily very smart.

I’m slowly learning that when I hit a rock, I should go around it. Maybe I need to take a break– go for a run along the beach, play with my kids, read a fascinating book about the Florida Everglades (Moving Water by Amy Green). Not only do I come back refreshed, but sometimes those activities spark inspiration or some bit of understanding that helps me work through my creative dilemma. At very least, the time away from the story helps me view it with clearer eyes. As a result, I end up fixing problems faster than if I sat in front of the screen for hours just grinding it out.   

Failure is for winners.

Occasionally, taking a break or trying something new doesn’t cut it. Sometimes I must admit failure. This is not only OK, it’s inevitable, according to wu wei (or at least my beginner’s understanding of it.)  Accepting failure accomplishes two things:

  1. It allows you to learn from mistakes instead of just beating yourself up.

Last year, I spent months working on a short story that I loved in many ways but which I also slowly realized was too big – with too many characters, plot threads, etc. – to fit into 6,000 words. To do the story justice, I needed to turn it into a novel. But I just didn’t have the specialized knowledge, time to do research or burning passion to invest a year (or likely more) into the idea. So I abandoned it.

That choice hurt, but I don’t consider the story a waste because it taught me to spend more time upfront focusing my short stories on one or two characters with one major problem across only a handful of scenes. Naturally, I’d heard this advice before and knew it was true in my head, but it took learning it the hard way to get me to feel it in my gut.

 2. Seeing “losing” as inevitable allows you to relax, which improves your performance, which (irony alert) increases that chances of “winning” next time around.

Wu wei is a paradox. After convincing myself it was fine that I abandoned that story, I moved on with much lower expectations and decided to write a new one with a more limited scope. I enjoyed finishing it in record time, and because it certainly couldn’t go any worse than the last one, I had fun with the language and just let it rip, instead of what I usually do, which is question my every choice and bemoan everything I’m going to have to cut later.

No surprise, then, that this story has an energy and ease that the previous one lacked. I absolutely loved the process of writing it. And all this positivity made me realize I’m finally ready to start working on a new novel soon. I want to do so intentionally and for the joy of it, with something that fills me with excitement and nervous anticipation, rather than because I feel obligated to finish what I started or because I need to prove something.  

That’s progress!

Free Consultation

This slideout can include a call-to-action or a quick scroll back to the top.

Scroll to Top