Not by the book

January 14th, 2008

You should look after water and grain with compassionate care, as though tending your own children without expecting any result or gain. – Dogen Zenji

Perhaps you have children. Remember when you were trying to conceive, and you thought it was only about getting pregnant? Or how about when you were pregnant, and it was only about having a baby? Then the baby was born and all your expectations were obliterated in the first week of terror and chaos. But I only wanted a baby, you might have inwardly wailed, as if you could straighten out a terribly mixed-up order. What you got was a life, a whole new wonderful awful horrible miserable magnificent life – yours– that you could never have imagined before.

We never quite arrive at the outcome that we have in mind, because nothing is quite what we think it is. It is so much more, and it keeps going!

Before too long we forget about the outcome and focus instead on tending the baby before us with compassionate care, and without expecting any result or gain. (I’m raising a daughter. We’re both happy I don’t think I’m raising a pianist.)

The book you’re thinking about? It’s not about the book. There might well be a book that surfaces some day, a couple hundred pages pressed between two cardboard ends, but writing a book isn’t about a book. The book is a word for your life, the vast, unknowable dynamic process of turns and trips and thumps, that transforms you as you go along, as you go along becoming more of yourself. Somewhere along this road, somewhere well after you begin and before you end, you might finally be born as a storyteller and a writer; you might arrive at an authentic voice, an enlivened heart. You might finally see, in the very light of your day and in the words on your screen, that you have something to say. And that only you could say it.

But if you think you know that before you start out, I will say with unwavering emphasis: You are wrong. It’s true that mechanistic and unartful things get written that way: by the book. And there are probably 99,000 mechanistic and unartful books published every year. But that’s not what you aim to write, do you? Leave that to the experts!

You stand before a stove with a soup pot and a spoon. What will you put in? Everything you’ve got. How will it taste? You’ll find out as you go along. How will you know what’s next? You’ll know it when you see it. How long will it take? Long past the time you get hungry but before you’re dead. How do I start? You already have.

If you happen to have read this far and you aren’t writing a book, know for a fact that you are. Everyone is writing a book. And the book is called your life. You are the writer and you are the reader, and – no flipping to the last page first! – you don’t know how it will end.


This week we’re talking about writing. Send me your questions, and we’ll turn them into something you can swallow.


  1. Beautiful and wise.

    Comment by Shelli — January 14, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

  2. My problem with writing a book is I was just barely seeing how helpful the Zen philosophies are when applied directly to motherhood and then BOOM you found me and I found your book and it filled me right up and eradicated my gumption, my need to get that info out; you said it all so well, so elegantly, and with authority. So now I keep writing, but I’m in search of my point. I just keep filling up my blog of a journal and wait for the light bulb moment. I can’t even narrow it down to fiction or non-fiction at this point…

    Comment by Mrs. B. Roth — January 14, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

  3. Brandy,
    I can see how I am your biggest problem! But do you know when I became the so-called “authority” you think I am? I decided to ordain as a priest while writing what became the book. Of course, up til then I didn’t want anyone to know I was a Buddhist. I didn’t feel comfortable broadcasting that about myself. I thought I was writing just another mommy book. I can already see where you have authority that few other women writers have. Do you see it? Can you be it? No one but you can.

    Comment by Karen — January 14, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

  4. I’ve always felt that I would write a book someday. And, I’ve always felt that when the book was “ready” to be written, I would know. Or, am I just lazy?

    Comment by Mama Zen — January 15, 2008 @ 12:06 am

  5. Already started. Still writing. Will write forever.

    Comment by marta — January 15, 2008 @ 12:33 am

  6. yes beautiful and wise …brilliant and perceptive. I am too eager to always know the ending.

    Comment by baby~amore' — January 15, 2008 @ 12:37 am

  7. For years I’ve answered the question “If you knew you had six months to live, what would you do” with “Write a book on how to live in a way that changes our world for the better.” But I’ve been busy living, and taking for granted that the six months is not upon me.

    However, I recently found out that roughly 100,000 books a year are published. I ask myself, what could possibly be added by another book?

    –Chris, who when he started sitting kept having the ideas for a science fiction novel (where in the trees on Earth are sentient but with a slower sense of time than we, and have just discovered that we are wiping them out, and are debating whether we merit non-violence and communication or whether they ought to release clouds of poisonous phages to wipe out humanity; some of the trees are Buddhist, but not all) pop into my mind. That and that I needed to send a certain email after sitting.

    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — January 15, 2008 @ 1:45 am

  8. Darn it! I love skipping to the end. I must know everything now!

    Comment by Mary P Jones (MPJ) — January 15, 2008 @ 3:44 am

  9. pure genius

    Comment by Wendy — January 15, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

  10. Mama Zen, I can verify that you are not lazy. If you are as much like me as your name appears, I’m sure you work hard, even harder than necessary!

    Comment by Karen — January 15, 2008 @ 10:07 pm

  11. i think it’s so hard to see the greater purpose…the life lessons amidst the diapers and cheerios…the book amidst the words, paragraphs, essays…seeing the forest for the trees so to speak…. your post is so big and powerful…

    Comment by Phyllis Sommer — January 16, 2008 @ 2:02 am

  12. perfect words for me to read today as I pull my hair out trying to eek out some words for a proposal. This humbled me..


    Comment by andrea scher — January 16, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

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