Nov 28 2008

Wu Li: Five-fold Path to a Story

I. My Way

Stories change their writers. They shape us as surely as we shape them. They set us on paths we never thought we’d follow. When I left home for college, I thought I was writing a quest novel. But the story was already changing, and so was mine.

I’d figured on an English degree, but within the first semester, I realized I needed more. My Western Civilization class had made me realize I’d only tasted an atom of the ocean. To build a world, I’d need far more than my paltry bit of knowledge. I’d need world history, because other civilizations are an excellent inspiration for alien cultures. I’d need geography, geology, and astronomy. I’d need comparative religion, because other worlds wouldn’t believe the same way we did.

Comparative religion led me to Nina Pearlmutter, one of the most incredible philosophy professors I’ve ever come across in my life. Eastern philosophy hadn’t even been on my radar before she gave me a sip of Buddhism. A Buddhist Jew? How the hell does that happen? She made me
realize there was a dramatic amount of knowledge out there I hadn’t even tasted.

Jim Bennett, who taught my geology course, hooked me on harder science with humor and simplicity. I’d meant to focus on English, but our English professors were, ah, decidedly not the caliber of my philosophy, science and history professors. Out on its ear went the English degree. Into Western Civilization II, Eastern Philosophy, and Physical Geography I went. This is what the story demanded. I could smith the words. What I needed was the raw knowledge to craft into something greater than the next Forgotten Realms ripoff.

II. Patterns of Organic Energy

Physical Geography led me to an uncomfortable realization: if I wanted to create a universe for my characters to live and breathe in, if I wanted to do this thing right, I’d have to delve into the hard sciences. I’d rather chosen fantasy to avoid that, but then I read far too many books where the “world” was just a blob of a continent with a few islands thrown in, or a map of Europe turned topsy-turvy. Nothing for it but to go for the really big stuff. Understand how things really worked.

But I figured I could avoid quantum physics. Einstein didn’t like it, I’d heard – good enough for me. All I needed, after all, was enough hard stuff to figure out how planets got here, right? No need to torture myself. I’d glanced at quantum mechanics – it looked horrible. No way.

Working at a book store throws you in contact with books you wouldn’t otherwise do more than glance at. I kept having to shelves this little book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters. A lot of people bought it. I had no idea why. Utterly ridiculous title, even worse cover illustration, it was labeled New Age, and it had the word “quantum” on the back cover. Noooo thank you.

I think a customer browbeat me into trying it, but I honestly don’t remember. I just know I ended up at home with it, staring at it was a chary eye. Opened it up. Started reading.

It was like mainlining heroin. So hooked. Physics had never been my friend. Neither had philosophy, especially Eastern, to be honest, despite Nina’s genius. This book brought the two together and made me fall hard for both.

Schroedinger’s Cat. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Patterns of organic energy. Far from being a cold, clinical thing, it turned out that physics was a warm, wonderful, weird thing. Outstanding. From there, I had no choice but to snap up Steven Hawking, Richard Feynman, Michio Kaku, and a myriad other tremendous writers on physics. I was an addict. I’d take it in any variety I could get it.

Marrying quantum mechanics to Eastern philosophy had blunted its terror for me. It was just “patterns of organic energy,” which is what the Chinese word for physics means. It was bizarre enough for a fantasy writer to really get her teeth in to. If I’d had something like this early on in school, I would’ve gotten into calculus, and I would’ve taken as much hard science as I could lay my hands upon. The stuff was phenominal.

III. I Clutch My Ideas

The story was starting to force me onto another path, but I still thought of it as fundamentally a quest story. And, while I was using all of the things I was learning to spice it up a bit, I wasn’t letting it expand out and become what it needed to become. I wasn’t letting either one of us really grow.

As a writer, you have to stop clutching your ideas eventually, or you’ll strangle them.

Gradually, the story and the learning I had to do for it began to loosen my grip. The Dancing Wu Li Masters had shattered my assumptions about physics and philosophy. All of those meanings of wu li came dancing through my mind. Something there, something important, but I still wasn’t seeing it. I’d been raised with certain Views, you see. It takes a while to let go of the parochial view of the world and let your mind wander free. It takes a long while before you can hear what your story really is.

IV. Nonsense

I finally let go of the quest motif. Wrote, rewrote, and one day looked on all I had written and found myself appalled.

Western ideas. Christian themes. I’d expanded my view of the world considerably, but obviously hadn’t internalized it. Everything sounded like every other novel written by people who never left the West – totally parochial.

This could not stand. That was not what the story wanted to be. I could sense its misery.

Off to the mythology shelves. Back into the weird world of quantum physics. And the themes of The Dancing Wu Li Masters started dancing before me. Shades of the Eastern Philosophy class I’d take arose. If I wanted a different way of seeing the world, brother, that was it.

I’d never been all that enamored of Eastern thought. I became so. Because when you really delve into it, when you study both quantum physics and Zen Buddhism, you’re struck at first by how bizarre it is. None of it makes sense to a parochial mind raised on Christianity and Newtonian mechanics. How can something be a wave and a particle at the same time? How can someone be enlightened merely by being told to go wash his bowl? Just what is it with all this nonsense?

Chinese thought may not have anticipated the wonderful weirdness of quantum physics in quite the same way as The Dancing Wu Li Masters implied, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are, on a fundamental level, similar. They both teach us to see the world in an entirely different way. If you try to apply your ordinary way of thinking to them, you’ll see nothing but nonsense. Once you begin to understand
them, you see that they’re not nonsense at all. And you will never see the world in quite the same way again, which is a fantastic gift for a fantasy author.

V. Enlightenment

When it comes to the story I’m telling over a series of books and short stories, yes, I’ve been enlightened. And I’ve been awakened to far more than that.

Zen Buddhism teaches a way of seeing wonder in the most mundane activity. Eating your meal and washing your bowl afterward are activities just as marvelous as a marathon meditation session. This moment is perfect, just as it is. This is where you find enlightenment. No doctrine, no dogma, can do it for you. Those things only get in the way.

Quantum physics and the hard sciences take none of the wonder from the world. They’re far more magical than magic could ever be. The chair I am sitting in feels solid, but it’s made of motion. On a subatomic level, it’s mostly empty space. That knowledge makes the mundane marvelous, just as much as Zen does.

SF writing is all about eliciting a sense of wonder. That used to seem like a very difficult thing to do, but now, I see the wonder has been there all along.

Standing outside my pointed-roof hut
Who’d guess how spacious it is inside
A galaxy of worlds is there
With room to spare for a zazen cushion.


Illustrations: Wu Li, Boat Trip on the River Underneath a Buddhist Temple; Chinese calligraphy spelling wu li.


  1. 1
    Jim Randolph

    See, I’d dismissed Dancing Wu too. I’ll take another look. Thanks for that.

  2. 2

    Awesome story of your inspirational path. So many cling to made-up stuff and call it inspiration, while the whole real universe passes them right on by…

  3. 3

    Wu Li's actual story is even more amazing. Take a look,http://yimcatholic.blogspot.com/2010/05/for-art-and-poetry-of-wu-li-sj-1632.html

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