Review: Wabi Sabi for Writers

This review was originally written for in 2006. I’m reposting it here to generate more interest.

Written by Richard Powell
Published by Adams Media
ISBN 1593375964

I was at one of my favorite book stores which also catered to the new age crowd a week ago. My friend, corie was in town and wanted me to drag her to all the hot-spots in Portland. She’s also a book freak and she must have purchased about 10 books on a shoe string budget during her stay here. We wandered in and out of the aisles looking at all the books, and knick-knacks when my eyes ran across Wabi Sabi for Writers, by Richard Powell. I also have on my shelf (and started to read a long time ago, but never finished) his other book, Wabi Sabi Simple. I was amused and amazed that here was a book on a subject that I am growing more and more interested in, encapsulated inside a well written, personal account on writing.

According to Powell, writing lends itself well to the ways of wabi sabi. For it is through exploration, simple natural elements, connecting and sharing with others the passion for writing, and the test of time that turns an item into something wabi sabi. The same can be said about writing. Good writing, has to have certain universal elements, explore some “element of nature” (natural or humankind), and withstand the test of time. Writers also need a reader, for without the act of sharing, the story cannot be complete. The rest of the book, then, uses inner dialog with the haiku poet, Basho; personal tales of experience that help to illustrate how one achieves points while being on the path of wabi sabi; and examples of writing, contemporary and canonical, that he considers wabi sabi to show writers how to apply this to their own works.

The book is broken down by topic chapters, these being: Wabi Sabi for Writers, Inspiration, Education, Wabi Sabi Beauty, Enlightenment, Motivation, Community, Wabi Sabi Elements, and Craft. Powell sets the theme of each topic with a small inner dialog question and answer session between himself (the writer) and the great haiku poet, Basho, who he questions about why these elements are important to both wabi sabi and a writer who desires to attain the idea of finding the truth through the craft of words. He then goes into the heart of each chapter discussing how writers can get more out of their daily and lifelong practice of writing if they applied these concepts and ideas to their work. While Powell focuses most of his examples around his love of haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, he says that any writers can benefit from the knowledge of wabi sabi.

And I agree with him. Already this book has awoken a new perspective in me. The chapter on Community, for example, discusses how we writers aren’t really meant to practice our craft in a vacuum, but rather share and get help from other writers. We are not meant to write alone. Only one half of the story gets told, the other half… unfolds when someone else reads and interprets our words. Not to mention all the writing groups (like NaNoWriMo) which encourage writing with partners, in groups and sharing ideas and pitfalls so that others can help us gain more insight into our own works.

The book also helps shape your words and your voice as you write. It’s a constant reminder that writing takes time to develop and uncover the right words to use for the right scene. It is okay to not get things down right the first time, that you can go back and add more complexity and layer more meaning onto the draft as time goes on. In the chapter on Wabi Sabi Elements, Powell suggests that instead of passing off time or seasons in your work, you should describe the world around your characters, the smells in the air, the way that leaves fall of trees or snow sprinkles to the ground to instill a sense of natural beauty and wonder into your written work.

It’s also given me a few other insights, as well. Take my wallet, for example. I own a rather “bland” but highly functional and very efficient jimi wallet, in smoke. Now I love this wallet because of it’s streamlined look and the fact that it holds everything I want to carry on me and nothing more. Well, last night, while reading the chapter on Wabi Sabi Beauty, Powell covers a topic known as jimi, or “the beauty in somber colors, traditional treatments, and correct style.” Had I never read this book, or had an interest in wabi sabi itself, I would have never guessed that my little wallet, which also has the same name as this Japanese aesthetic, also carries the lines, features and functionality that jimi represents. Nor would i have ever learned about mono no aware, being a concept of “sensitivity to things,” would also take on a new meaning as I listened to the industrial group who’s sound seemed to reflect the beauty and depth of pitting natural sounds in with caccophanic instruments. And having reflected on these topics, I have actually been able to write about them in a way that shares my epiphanies and revolutions.

I also like how Powell breaks down each chapter into smaller chunks and snippets of things we, writers, can do to add a greater dimension and spirituality to our works. We’re not just carefully crafting stories but we’re breathing real life into the works. It’s easier to break apart this large ambiguous concept into more concrete chunks and makes a lot more sense. Which could be one reason why I have never really finished Wabi Sabi Simple, even though I enjoyed reading it as well.

The book ends with a glossary of common Japanese terms and a small (but comprehensive) appendix of Suggested Reading which contains contemporary works, alongside some good books on haiku and history on Basho. The reading list alone is an added bonus to view works of wabi sabi writing in practice. I highly recommend this book for those who are into wabi sabi philosophy, writing haiku or just wanting to maybe add another layer of dimension onto your writing crafts and want to expand and explore new writing techniques.

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