The Art of Writing

It is like being adrift
in a heavenly lake
or diving to the depths of seas.

Lu Chi's Wen Fu

In his “The Art of Writing” [Wen fu]”, Lu Chi (261-303 CE) created a an essay in rhyming prose about poetry. It deals with the personal imagination and its activity in the process of composition, treating literature as a calling, as a craft, and as a means to truth. In it, Lu Chi provides an unusual insight into how a professional writer goes about the creative task and gives an account of the intricacies of composition.

In the preface Lu Chi writes:

I am therefore writing this essay on literature to tell of the glorious accomplishments of past men of letters, and to comment on the causes of failure and success in writing. Perhaps some day the secret of this most intricate art may be entirely mastered. In making an axe handle by cutting wood with an axe, the model is indeed near at hand. But the adaptability of the hand to the ever-changing circumstances and impulses in the process of literary creation is such as words can hardly explain. What follows is only what can be said in words.


When studying the work of the masters,
    I watch the working of their minds.

Surely, facility with language
    and the charging of the word with energy

are effects which can be achieved
    by various means.

Still, the beautiful can be distinguished
    from the common,
    the good from the mediocre.

Only through writing and then revising
    and revising
    may one gain the necessary insight.

We worry whether our ideas
    may fall short of their subjects,
    whether form and content rhyme.

This may be easy to know,
    but it is difficult
_     to put into practice.

I have composed this rhymed prose
    on the art of Writing
    to introduce

past masterpieces
    as models for an examination
    of the good and the bad in writing.

Perhaps it will one day be said
    that I have written
    something of substance,

something useful,
    that I have entered
    the Mystery.

When cutting an axe handle with an axe,
    surely the model is at hand.

Each writer finds a new entrance
    into the Mystery,
    and it is difficult to explain.

Nonetheless, I have set down my thinking
    as clearly as I can.

Sam Hamill