Does what you see really exist?
When someone posted on my facebook page that they were following the wabi-sabi way, I was intrigued. I hadn’t heard of it, and I definitely wanted to know more.
I asked the team to do some work, and this is the result.
In reality there is nothing in the universe which is completely perfect or completely still; it is only in the minds of men that such concepts exist. [Alan W. Watts]
I love the concept of imperfect — I strive for it and I encourage my authors to strive for it.
Because imperfection means action.
And it is in action that we will succeed. And wabi-sabi conceptualises this into a beautiful aesthetic philosophy that we can adopt in our everyday work.
The perfection of imperfection
So, what is wabi-sabi?
Ask a person well versed in the arts of traditional Japanese Taoist beliefs about wabi-sabi, and you might get a shrug. There are limits to classification and it’s something you have to experience (apparently). But let’s try to put it into words.
The perfection of imperfection is a far too simplistic way to define wabi-sabi, but it’s the best way we know how.
Emerging in the 15th century from Taoist traditions as a reaction to the prevailing lavishness, ornamentation and materiality of the modern world, wabi-sabi is often described as the art of finding beauty in imperfection and in the visual results of time and loneliness.
The beauty of a cracked pot that has been used and loved, for example.
However, the characters that make up the phrase are words for feelings, not physical appearance.
The term wabi-sabi is derived from two characters shared by Japanese and Chinese.
Originally, wabi 侘 means ‘despondence’, and sabi 寂 means ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’.
As Watts describes in the quote above, it’s not about finding beauty in imperfection, but rather, realising that beauty and perfection don’t necessarily exist outside of the fabricated constructions in our minds and language.
What matters is not ‘what is’, but how we experience it.
It may seem like a stretch, but this aesthetic philosophy when applied to writing, can have a huge impact on the way that you create and the way that you feel about your work.
And we all know that how we feel determines how we show up and how we perform.
Ultimately, adopting a wabi-sabi approach could help you write better and also help you become more visible because you will be getting more of your work into the world.
The wabi-sabi aesthetic
At first glance, the process of writing to get published seems to be in total contrast to the practice of wabi-sabi.
We write, we edit, we then go through a process of perfecting and re-perfecting, to edit some more and finally reach a stage where we, or our publisher, is satisfied. An end product.
The whole process of writing for publication is about taking the essential and using rigid rules of what is stylistically correct and what is accepted as beautiful, so that we can improve upon it.
But how many times have you written a thought down and re-worked it to the point that its original conception — that gem of an idea — is unrecognisable?
You chop and change your lines and move your pages around, and you never quite get back to the essence of what you wanted to say.
When you write an incomplete sentence that isn’t quite perfect, then your writing embodies that most human quality of all: imperfection.
To accept your writing as it is, is accepting humanity, without striving for a higher meaning.
Wabi-sabi for writers
So, how can you incorporate wabi-sabi in to your writing on an every day level? And in a way that enhances it without adding anything at all to it?
We’ve defined three principles to help you:
1. Express things as they are, not as they ‘should’ be
When you write about a thing, an object, or a theory, don’t embellish it to the point of it being unrecognisable in an attempt to portray it as stylistically ‘correct’.
Instead, pick the truest angle, or the most genuine frame possible, to best express your meaning.
A perfect example of this is André Kertész, the Hungarian born street photographer who was known as much for his unorthodox approach to composition as his poetic vision and tangibility of his photo essays.
Kertész famously said:
If you want to write you should learn the alphabet. You write and write and in the end you have a beautiful, perfect alphabet. But it isn’t the alphabet that is important. The important thing is what you are writing, what you are expressing.
This idea of message being key is something that often gets overlooked when your writing is edited to within an inch of its soul in search of perfection.
Perfection is elusive; search instead for expression.
2. Give yourself boundaries and limits; restriction creates art
The Japanese Haiku is a form of poetry that is at once simplistic and complex.
Not for nothing is it both the first form of poetry taught to school children, as well as one of the highest art forms in Japanese culture.
Not only does the form of a Haiku stretch you to be exceptionally precise with your choice of syllables, but it also forces you to pick the ‘perfect’ word – not necessarily because it sounds the best, or looks the best, merely because it fits. The word has to be accepted into the form.
Christine Stewart suggests using wabi-sabi to write the promise for your book as a Haiku. Take the short outline that embodies your book, just 25 words or so, and create it as a haiku.
The constraints of the form will make you search harder for the right words.
Contrast this with allowing the imperfection of the whole, and you will be able to express your message (or a version of your message) more quickly.
3. Accept your imperfections
Most important of all in adopting wabi-sabi is to accept, and even embrace, your imperfections.
Advice that is, perhaps, easier given than followed. Because, for those of us who spend a large portion of our time searching for ways to correct our imperfections, the idea of just accepting them may meet some resistance from that voice in our heads.
But it’s not just about seeing mistakes in your writing and leaving them be.
According to Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers,
The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.
Koren maintains that the greatness of work is found in the inconspicuous details that are ignored in Western concepts of enduring beauty and perfection.
Wabi-sabi doesn’t see the completion of your work as the end goal, but rather, sees your work as ongoing, impermanent and incomplete.
Finally, let go of control and the need for reward
Your work is never ‘finished’, so you have never done anything wrong. Keep this in mind when you work, and let go of your anxieties around delivering a perfect ‘final’ piece.
If nothing is final, then it never has to be perfect, and you can celebrate its simplicity without judgement.
Let go of your ego and accept your work for what it is: enjoy the process and release judgement.
And, by putting more of your work into the world and releasing the need for reward, you might even find some of that success you’ve been seeking!
Thanks for reading and I’d love to know what you think of this philosophy of imperfection. Come over and let us know on your favourite social media channel…