On the Useful and the Useless

I’ve often written in this space about the influence that Bruce Lee has had on me, both in my life, and on the way I approach writing. As I think about the reality of the world in which we have lived for the past year, a Bruce Lee quote is, once again, at the forefront of my mind:” Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” I’ve written about this quote in the past, but recently I’ve been considering it in a new light.

Bruce Lee, famously, discarded much of the classical teaching he had learned about martial arts when he invented his system, Jeet Kune Do. He took concepts and techniques he found to be successful in other styles and synthesized them with his own martial knowledge to create a new system that he felt was superior to any of those from which he drew its various parts.

He also discarded many of the traditional practices associated with these older systems, which included set forms, or kata, and structured drills, which he felt restricted a martial artist’s growth and ability to express themselves fully. Pattens were prisons which shackled the mind to the styles of the old masters, and which hindered an artist’s growth. Students should do their own research, he thought, and critically evaluate the traditional approaches so that they could grow, reach their full potential, and express themselves fully.

I have long valued this critical approach, and, as I wrote in my earlier piece, I hope that my readers will follow my example and evaluate the plethora of writing advice out there—including my own—critically. Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, and make something truly your own.

And yet…

As I evaluate my martial practice during this time of pandemic, I question the wisdom of the second part of that tripartite advice. During the pandemic, I have been unable to attend martial arts classes. Social distancing requirements have kept my school closed for much of the last year, and, even if it were to reopen for some form of modified, in person training, I would, most likely, hesitate longer than most before returning, as I have a number of health issues that put me at a higher risk for Covid 19. As such, I have needed to modify my training. My mook jong (wing chun wooden dummy) and vo-ball have become primary training tools for me to continue my practice, and I have begun taking online classes and participating in video lessons with a range of instructors from various styles.

One of the online classes I have been taking is in sword technique and choreography with Adrian Paul (of Highlander fame. Through his Sword Experience company, Mr. Paul has been teaching via video lesson, and has been offering personalized feedback where once-a-month, patrons can upload videos for him to critique. The instruction, thus far, has been excellent, and the critiques thorough.

One thing I did notice, however, is that Paul is teaching a kata. It is a kata he designed, but it is a kata nonetheless. My Jeet Kune Do-trained brain rebelled against the idea at first. This was an idea which I was supposed to discard. I hadn’t practice kata in many years (since I began studying JKD 10 years ago), and I struggled with learning this new one. Even when I took a martial art that focused more heavily on forms as a youth, patterns were never my strong suit. I was always much better in a “live” drill or sparring.

In the absence of a training partner, however, what other choice was there? Through sending videos of the kata, and receiving critiques about them, I improved my sword work in very real and noticeable ways. I began to feel more comfortable in the system, and, clearly, I was making progress in the art. Now, of course, to become truly proficient, I would need to do partner drills, work in a less structured way, and eventually actually spar or fence with an opponent, but that just isn’t an option right now. Given the circumstances, kata became not only useful, but necessary.

This experience has caused me to think back to the traditional forms against which Lee rebelled. Many of these forms come from styles that were outlawed throughout history, either by the Qing dynasty or by the modern Communist Chinese government. (Many of the Chinese systems use Ming symbolism in their salute/bow, and have historical connections to Ming patriots and rebels), and therefore, they had to be practiced in secret. Students may have had to practice alone for much of the time, apart from their masters, and the forms provided a catalogue of techniques in a way that was easy to remember and systematic to practice. Of course, the forms had to be supplemented by live training when possible, but I imagine that for many, it was not often possible to find a training partner.

Bruce Lee, in America, had the freedom and platform to test his system against martial artists from a variety of schools. During his life, there was no shortage of people who wished to train with him. Many of his students—and their students—have had similar luxuries. And yet, today, in the middle of the pandemic, we find ourselves isolated, training on our own, often without the guidance of a teacher or master. We need our kata. What was discarded has become useful again.

Thus, utility is not a fixed state. Our situation constantly changes as we go through life, and we must decide what is useful to us in each moment. We should be careful of what we outright discard lest we need it at some point in the future.

Rather than discard, we should store—put away for later. We never know when something we discarded might become useful again.

This advice applies not only to martial arts, but to writing as well. From time to time, we should revisit older exercises and techniques, even those we had previously discarded. When we perform our critical analysis, we should consider not only whether we feel an exercise is useful to us in our present situation, but why another teacher or author might have found it useful in the first place. What was their situation, and could we envision a time when we, too, may face a parallel situation. Don’t discard, store. You never know when life will throw you a curveball and you’ll need to dig deep into the files of your mind and dust off some nearly forgotten bit of knowledge.

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Tao of Writing, Part II: A Finger Pointing A Way To The Moon

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.