Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Kōan for Your Book

Quote: “A monk asked Master Haryo, 'What is the way?' Haryo said, 'An open-eyed man falling into the well”
~Zen kōan quote

Yesterday I talked about have a list of ideas that interest you.

The other part of my list are questions. I am not going to call them themes exactly, although some of them could be, but questions that interest me.

An example of some:

*Why do people fall in and out of love? Why is it when you fall in love, you think, this is the one? And the next guy that comes along, he too, feels like “the one” Why is there just one? Does that make the one guy really special? Could he be really special even he wasn’t “the one”?

*What would happen if you could switch places with someone? Why would you? How would that help? Not just their job or standing, but their emotional experiences?

*Life is Beautiful: Why is it to really live sometimes you have to die? Why is it ironic, why do you have to give up your hair for a hair comb?

*Why is it sometimes the things we want hurt us the most? Is it the act of wanting it? Or the thing itself? Is it us? Our choices? Something we can’t control? Why do we intentionally make bad decisions, eat too much, drink too much, smoke, and hurt the ones we love. Why do we do that to ourselves? Why do we think it will fix? What do we think it will help?

*What is up with people hurting other people? How can someone be born without a conscious? Does that mean someone else can be born without empathy, without the ability to love? What then? Is that just a safe answer, so we don’t have to deal with an unpleasant truth that some people just like hurting other people, for no reason. Not because of their troubled childhood, their genes, their brain chemistry, but just because they like it?

As you can see, none of these are themes, per se. They are just questions, musings of mine I like to talk to people about over a cup of tea late at night in a diner. I especially enjoy deep discussions, and I usually find myself asking a question of similar nature while I am writing a book. It’s almost as if in the act of writing the book itself, I am looking for one possible answer to the question.

For example, one of the questions “Why do people fall in and out of love?” I have examined in several different books with different outcomes. Sometimes the lovers fight and never make up, sometimes they find someone new, sometimes they reconcile.

These questions are almost like a kōan for a book. A kōan is part of Zen Buddhism, and is frequently a story or dialogue the monk mediates on in order to reach enlightenment.

An example of a famous kōan is:
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?
— Hakuin Ekaku

" the beginning a monk first thinks a kōan is an inert object upon which to focus attention; after a long period of consecutive repetition, one realizes that the kōan is also a dynamic activity, the very activity of seeking an answer to the kōan. The kōan is both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a kōan, the self sees the self not directly but under the guise of the kōan...When one realizes ("makes real") this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the kōan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand." — G. Victor Sogen Hori, Translating the Zen Phrase Book

Here is a modern day kōan from The Tao of Programming:

A student was playing a handheld video game during a class.

The teacher called on the student and asked him what he was doing.

The student replied that he was trying to master the game.

The teacher said, "There exists a state in which you will not attempt to master the game, and the game will not attempt to master you."

The student asked, "What is this state?"

The teacher said, "Give me your video game, and I will show you."

The student gave him the game, and the teacher threw it to the ground, breaking it into pieces. The student was enlightened.

The purpose isn’t to find the one right answer to the question, but to expand your thinking. Finding an answer to the kōan required the monk to let go of conceptual thinking and logical way of looking at the world so, like creativity in art, the appropriate insight and response arises naturally and spontaneously in the mind.

I think of these questions as a kōan for my book. I am not looking to pigeonhole the book, but to find greater insight into the characters and the plot. For me, this question is the heart of the book. Every book I have ever finished had a burning question attached to it. I had to answer the question for myself, and the book wasn’t over until I found one possible answer. Every book I haven’t finished have no question attached. I am not going to say this question is the secret to finishing a book, but it helps.

Most of the time this question is bubbling under the surface. None of my characters ask or wonder it directly, it’s just something that I feel, an instinct.

In short, this question is the reason why I am bothering to write this story with these characters: I have to find out the answer to the question.

I could write three books with the same sort of question in mind, but the characters and plots are always different, so the question itself feels different, even if it’s very similar to a previous questions I asked. It’s the subtle difference between “Are you happy?” and “Are you excited?” There is a slight difference, but that difference could change everything.

And it often does.

You could decide that thinking about questions and themes for your book would mess up some of your process, and that’s fine. No two writing processes are the same, so what works for one doesn’t always work for the other.

But you’ve got to wonder at some point why you’re bothering. Why are you writing, not only in general, but this book with this character and this plot? Why not another idea?

Sometimes the answer is as simple as “because I love these characters” or “this is the only idea I have at the moment”. But even under those deceptively simple answers lies another layer. Why do you love those characters so much? What about them you find so compelling you are willing to spend months or years working with them?

Why is this the only idea you’ve seized upon? You have probably had other, half baked ideas that didn’t interest you at the time. What about THIS idea is so compelling?

I believe our motivation for why we do the things we do, and love the things we love is in our subconscious minds. Most of us aren’t Zen monks, so the self-awareness required to know why you like what you like is beyond us. That’s okay. Some things can stay subconscious.

But I also believe some our interests can be discerned, and when that awareness is applied to our writing, can yield many rewards. After I noticed what a difference having a question made in my writing, I made sure every book I started after that had one, and the razorlike precision I achieved was breathtaking. I haven’t started books yet because I don’t know exactly what the question is.

Finding that question is like putting a name on the passion that fuels the book for me.

So what you do think? Have you ever thought about writing as a way to seek answers? Do you know what themes interest you and why? Do you have any other insight to add?


  1. Those are great questions, and would make for great books if you can put them in your writing! Now when I write a chapter I ask myself, what is the most interesting thing about this chapter, and I try to bring that out.

    I don't know what one hand clapping would sound like?

  2. That's a great idea! I need to remember to think about the small scale as well as the large scale.

  3. I believe people exist who have no conscience, and no matter how they are raised, what their income, how much they are loved/beaten... they will never have a conscience. They exist only to bring chaos to the mechanism.