There’s a great quote by martial artist, actor, and philosopher Bruce Lee that always resonated with me.
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
To me, this quote can be interpreted in different ways. From the perspective of a warrior, being like water means adjusting to your opponent’s attack. From a metaphysical standpoint it can be seen as a way to adjust to the chaotic universe around us. And from a creative view it can be taken to mean that we shouldn’t force art, but instead let it lead us to where it wants to go.
When writing fiction I’ve occasionally found myself trying to make a story go in a certain direction. I have a specific path in mind, I want to have a specific arc, have my character grow or change in a specific way, but the story has other plans. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t make it work the way I want it to, so I have to retreat a few steps, take a breath, and let the story lead me like a meandering creek.
I’ll admit, it can be difficult to let go. Writing a story imbues the me with a certain amount of power. God-like, in a way. I can create characters and kill them off. I can build worlds, even a universe, then snuff it out with a single click of the ‘delete’ key. So when the story resists my direction, I feel annoyed and frustrated.
If my story is resisting my attempts to steer it, then I need to stop being assertive and let the story guide me. There have been many occasions when I followed his advice with my fiction and suddenly discovered an entirely new direction I’d never considered. A better direction. As the poet, Robert Frost, once wrote – no surprised for the writer, no surprises for the reader. When the story takes me in a new direction and shows me new possibilities, I get excited. And when that happens I know the reader will feel the same way.
The next time you sit down to write, be like water. Be relaxed, fluid, allow the story to lead you on a new and winding path. You’ll be surprised and where you end up.