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Do as Kenkō did

Sometimes our writing is not coherent.

It happens to me a lot.

Little insights come in snippets, and don’t matter how much I try; I can’t seem to connect those ideas into one coherent piece.

It frustrates me a lot.

However, over time I have learned to accept it.

One of my writing mentors once told me, “Writing is receiving. Receive as it comes.”

Then I learned about Yoshida Kenkō.

I first read about Yoshida Kenkō in Isabel Huggan’s memoir Belonging.

Isabel Huggan was trying to finish her memoir but was frustrated for not finding a way to organize her work.

In the last month of writing about her life, Huggan stayed in a friend’s house in Tasmania while her friend was away. She thought isolation might help her structure her book. But she kept on struggling for days, not getting any solution to string together a collection of stories from her life.

Then one night, she spotted a book in her host’s bookshelf — Tsurezuregusa (Essays In Idleness) by Yoshida Kenkō — and she found her answer.

Yoshida Kenkō was a Japanese writer and monk of the fourteenth century who wrote the most studied works of medieval Japanese literature.

While working on Tsurezuregusa, he wrote his thoughts in 243 fragments of varying lengths.

Kenkō desperately tried to connect those essays in some coherent manner.

When he couldn’t do that, he just pasted them on the wall of his cottage in frustration.

He followed a random model of the composition called ‘follow the brush’ — a form congenial to Japanese writers and readers who felt it was a “less dishonest” method to present their thought than trying to connect them using fictional elements.

Kenkō didn’t try to impose any pattern on his pure and honest experience. Neither did he try to transform reality. Instead, he left each thought as it is.

Something a relaxed reader finds more enjoyable to follow and appreciate. In moving from one subject to another, a reader can take joy in tracing subtle links between them.

Making patterns is left to the open-minded reader, allowing an infinite number of variations to occur.

“The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty, in everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one feeling there is room for growth and improvement. The impermanence of its state provides a moving framework towards appreciation, towards life.” — Kenkō

Isabel Huggan decided to abandon her futile attempt to connect her stories and follow Kenkō’s method.

Later that same night, awake because of the noise of wind and rain slapping against the glass, Huggan looked around for something else to read.

She found Promises, Promises, a book of essays on literature and psychoanalysis by Adam Phillips. And it confirmed what Kenkō suggested six centuries ago.

In a chapter on clutter, I read how a teenage boy dresses each morning by throwing his clothes in a pile behind him and then picking what he is going to wear with his eyes closed. Clutter invites us to make meaning in the absence of pattern. Clutter tantizes us, lures us into a relationship with material in a way that is far more seductive than discernible order. In clutter, you may not be able to find what you are looking for, but you may find something else instead. Clutter may not be about the way we hide things from ourselves but about the way we make ourselves look for things. It is as if a self-imposed hide-and-seek.

— Adam Phillips

Both authors reached the same conclusion.

Sometimes there is no way to put the pieces together.

“It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.” — Kenkō

Maybe this is what we need to do as well.

Photo by Joshua Medway on Unsplash

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