I ended my last blog entry talking about Bruce Lee and finding one’s way as a writer. I would like to expand on that theme in this one. In that entry, I wrote a lot about what writing advice is not. In this one, I would like to examine what it is.

Consider, if you will, the following scene from Lee’s most famous movie, Enter The Dragon.

At the end of the scene, Lee says, “It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”

This quote, in my opinion, is the single greatest statement I’ve heard about teaching and learning. I’ve written about this quote on numerous occasions, including in papers for graduate school and for my second black belt essay, and used this quote in lessons I’ve given to students ranging from young martial artists to graduate students in English education. Every time I ask my students to interpret the quote, I receive similar responses. Most people talk about missing the forest for the trees. They focus on the phrase “don’t concentrate on the finger,” interpreting the “finger” as the minutia and the “heavenly glory” as the bigger picture. This, I believe is gross misreading of the quote, as a close reading of the line will reveal.

Let’s break down the sentence: “It,” Lee says, “is like a finger.” That simile is the core of the sentence. We will return to the “it” momentarily, but whatever “it” is, is like a finger. Later on, Lee says, “don’t concentrate on the finger,” which, I is section that trips people up.

Is the finger a ruse? Is it a trick to misdirect the student, to get him to look? Does its seeming significance in the sentence only set up a straw man, which the teacher will later undermine? I do not believe so. While it is true that Bruce Lee encouraged his students to break free from classical structures and seek their own truths, he still believed in the necessity of teaching and of the teacher. Why else would he work as a kung fu instructor? Why would he continue to teach even after he became a celebrity actor who was financially secure? Clearly, he saw some great value in the pedagogical process.

Moreover, the text itself undermines the notion that the finger is a misdirection. Let us return to the “it”, the pronoun that is subject of the sentence. What is the antecedent of “it”? While it is grammatically vague, the scene’s context necessitates that the “it” refers to the feeling the student felt at the moment Lee was satisfied with his technique. The student does achieve that plane without Lee’s guidance. He does not know that he had achieved it without Lee telling him what he’s achieved, and, perhaps most importantly, he does not understand the takeaway which Lee intends him to internalize until Lee, the teacher, explains it to him. In a broader sense, “it” is the lesson and/or the teacher—or even the pedagogical process of teaching and learning—which is the true antecedent of “it”.

The “it”, however, is not important in and of itself. The teacher merely points the finger. If the student had truly learned, if he is unable to apply the lesson in situations when he finds himself without his teacher there to guide him, he will not have gained anything. If he concentrates solely on the finger, he will, indeed, miss “all that heavenly glory.”

The finger, therefore, is both essential and not to be focused on. This seeming contradiction can be resolved by examining the most often overlooked phrase in the quote: “a way”. The finger does not merely point at the moon, rather it points “a way” to the moon, a path by which one can get there, a Tao, in the sense that my last post discussed. Through the lesson, the teacher shows the student how to follow “a way.” That is the function of the finger, the teacher, and the lesson. Without the finger, the student would not know where to look. Without the teacher, the student would be groping, blindly, on his own. The teacher cannot walk the path for the student, but the student is more likely to be successful with the guidance of the teacher.

This quote also encapsulates my theory about writing advice and writing models. When we concentrate on the “finger”, when we try to emulate exactly what a famous writer or writing teacher recommends, we set ourselves up for failure. I’ve seen many writers fail because they focus too much on the specific piece of advice rather than the path—or way—that it points toward. You are not Hemmingway, or Mamet, or Morrison, or Gaiman. Your path with differ from theirs. You must find your own Tao. Only then, will you be successful. You can make that search easier, however, by looking beyond the “finger”, looking beyond the narrow piece of advice—even if it’s stated as an absolute by your chosen teacher—and try to seek the larger idea to which it points. Only then, will you achieve your “heavenly glory.”

One of my favorite examples of looking where the finger is pointing is from the introduction to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. Rushdie writes of his debt to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens:

I have written and spoken elsewhere about my debt to the oral narrative traditions of India, and also to those great Indian novelists Jane Austen and Charles Dickens – Austen for her portraits of brilliant women caged by the social convention of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well; Dickens for his great, rotting, Bombay-like city, and his ability to root his larger-than-life characters and surrealist imagery in a sharply observed, almost hyperrealistic background, out of which the comic and fantastic elements of his work seem to grow organically, becoming intensifications of, and not escapes from, the real world.
 – Salman Rushdie

[From the Introduction to Midnight’s Children
Rushdie, Salman. Introduction. Midnight’s Children. By Rushdie. New York: Random House, 2006. eBook.

Rushdie’s writing does not resemble these authors in style or structure, but he saw certain things in their writing—Dickens’ description of a city and ability to incorporate surrealist imagery in a realist setting, and Austen’s portrayal of women caged by society—which were instructive to him in his own writing. He used their writing—their lessons—as fingers, pointing a way at something significant. He used their examples to find his own path toward success. I hope that you and I am can free our minds from the literal, narrow view of following writing advice and find out own Tao’s of writing. And, if the way that I—or any other writer—point toward is not your way, that is ok. Remember that the finger points “a way”, not necessarily “the way” to the moon. There are many paths to glory.

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