Jessica Morrell is the author of several books on writing, and here she’s branched out to create an I Ching for writers, specifically applying its imagery to their concerns.
The book’s first few short chapters are introductory material. In a nutshell, this contains much insight into divination, interspersed with the occasional factual muddle (like the I Ching being consulted with tortoise shells, or the water of kan being yin). She offers a good description of how the I Ching can help writers (or anyone), with ‘counsel’, ‘peace of mind’ and ‘confidence’. Her chapter on trigrams gives a strongly individual sense of each one as an elemental influence acting within people. Chapter four offers general advice for writers, and then comes her advice for divination – what, why, and how – which is possibly my favourite part of the book.
“The I Ching is for people who are proactive, interested in shaping their own destiny. It helps you to observe patterns in your life and know yourself better, as well as avoid danger, affirm a direction or act on an opportunity.”
All good stuff.
Then we enter into the main body of the book, the hexagram commentary, which takes up most of its 224 text-packed pages. And after an introduction that spoke so strongly of the value of archetypal stories and the layers of meaning in symbol, I feel let down. There is no translation here, and no moving lines. No tigers, no horses, no dragons taking flight: no voice of Change. Instead, for each hexagram you get a quotation about writing, a mention for the component trigrams, general outline, and advice for each of three kinds of enquiry: questions about writing fiction, about writing non-fiction, and ‘the writer’s path’ in general.
Consulting with the Writer’s I Ching is simply a matter of selecting a single hexagram. You tear out the 16 perforated sheets of cards from the back of the book (it’s possible to keep them intact if you’re careful), divide them up into a deck of 64 cards, and shuffle away.
In other words, you will find neither the words nor the structures of the I Ching here. The ‘Writer’s I Ching’ is writerly, but not the I Ching.
It does come with 64 attractive hexagram cards, though. The card is just strong enough for shuffling, and the photos themselves are vivid, colourful and attractive. They’re also usually relevant to the hexagram in question, though in a variety of different ways. Some pick up on the name of the hexagram itself: ‘The Cauldron’ is taken literally, Hexagram 3 has an unfurling seedling, Hexagram 14 has ears of ripe wheat against the sky. (It’s called ‘Great Harvest’, following Alfred Huang – which would have been less confusing if they hadn’t called Hexagram 55 ‘Harvest’.) Some draw on the trigrams: there’s a mountain cataract for 4, a mountain reflected in a lake for 31. And a few are odd, such as the woman standing on top of a misty hillock for 25 (‘Appropriateness’), or the dandelion seedhead for 49.
Since a book review is something to write, I drew myself a card for the occasion. It reads ‘Hexagram 59: Easing’, with a photograph of a Buddha statue amidst sunlit trees. I’d count this as one of the ‘odd’ choices for both imagery and hexagram name. ‘Easing’ conveys some of the meaning of Dispersing, but also misses much. (That’s not an uncommon problem: calling Hexagram 54 ‘Subordinate Role’, for instance, captures the marrying maiden’s immediate experience, but doesn’t so much as hint at her future potential.)
So I look up Hexagram 59 in the book. First, the quotation, from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”
Which is a wonderful quotation, but not very connected with Dispersing, or even with Easing. (Perhaps it would sit well with Hexagram 43.)
Then the overview, which begins,
“The wind is blowing over the soft waters, creating turbulence and shaking things up for the good of all. In long-ago China this hexagram was illustrated by the emperor entering the ancestral hall to offer respect and prayers, asking for protection for his people. This gesture brought luck and good omens.
Under the auspices of Hexagram 59, it’s a powerful time to start new projects and overcome writer’s block. Jump in with a strong sense of purpose and focus on the big picture. Pay homage to ancient wisdom, myths and symbols, and notice how they inspire you and others. Remember your responsibility to society at large.”
Then comes advice to resolve disagreements and restore harmony.
The ‘Fiction Question’ section follows, offering advice on storytelling: learn to write with a beginning, middle and end; include descriptive detail, but not just for the sake of it; don’t write plots with coincidences; beware needless flashbacks; don’t include nameless or needless characters; don’t end with a car chase or earthquake unless you’re writing a thriller, but “instead, write an ending that the reader cannot see coming, but at the same time is the perfect wrap-up for the story.”
Now the ‘Nonfiction Question’, which – like most of these non-fiction sections in the book – is basically about autobiography. For ‘Easing’ it suggests reading through your personal journals in search of larger patterns and themes. Finally, ‘The Writer’s Path’ warns against perfectionism.
There’s no bad advice here, but nor do I get any sense at all of a pervasive theme. Parts, like the warning against perfectionism, fit the hexagram well; parts, like the hugely long string of stringent imperatives under ‘Fiction Question’, really don’t.
Actually, having looked through the rest of the book, I think that I unfortunately drew the card for one of its weakest moments. Most of it’s better than this. For instance, for Hexagram 50 the ‘fiction’ section talks about the ‘crucible’ within which you contain your characters and heat up their situation, and the non-fiction talks about a writer’s branding, which is an interesting take on the Vessel that contains and transforms. Likewise, many of the substitute hexagram names aren’t bad: 41 and 42 as ‘Low Tide’ and ‘High Tide’, for instance, or 44 as ‘Making Contact’. It’s apparent that Jessica Morrell has done considerable I Ching homework: there isn’t a bibliography, but I can see traces of reading in Huang and Karcher as well as Wilhelm.
Hexagram 38, for instance -
“The original translation of this hexagram was ‘eyes do not look at each other.’ Since fire extends upwards and the lake descends downwards, situations can deteriorate. People see things differently, and while this causes difficulty it also adds diversity to a situation. Opposition and contradictions can take many forms now.”
That’s a good summary, I think, that goes to the core of the thing. And the fiction question goes on talk about visiting both external and internal conflict on your characters, which is fair enough. (Though in her place I might just have quoted Eluard, ‘The world is blue like an orange,’ and left it at that. Now he could see differently!)
In sum, I’d describe this as a book of 64 essays on writing, written by an expert on the subject who also has a good relationship with the I Ching, and prompted by her associations with each hexagram. As such, it no doubt provides many useful rules and reminders for the fledgling author. But does that make it the best ‘Writer’s I Ching’?
I’m not a writer, just a lover of words and stories, so I’m not particularly qualified to answer that. As I said, this book isn’t the I Ching: all the structure, all the poetry, all the stories and almost all the imagery have been taken away. This is something often done out of a desire (wrong-headed, in my view) to create a ‘simplified version’. But a writer’s version? Are writers incapable of responding to myth and poetry? (I thought they were meant to like that kind of thing?)
I can imagine what an extraordinary inspiration the I Ching could be for writers. (And I remember that Jessica spoke of the I Ching offering counsel, peace of mind and confidence, but not inspiration.) Only think of Hexagram 59 in its original glory as advice for someone writing fiction.
‘Dispersing, creating success.
The king assumes his temple.
Harvest in crossing the great river,
Harvest in constancy.’
Dispersing is like melting. What’s frozen? In the name of the hexagram, someone is looking around sharply. How far can you see? What boundaries are in the way?
Can you enter the holy space where you connect with your ancestors and receive their blessing?
With this new strength, can you go beyond familiar territory? If there were no boundaries left, how far beyond might you go? (What if you wrote with no punctuation? No nouns?)
And you could do the same for non-fiction writers without too much difficulty, even for the reviewers of books:
‘Wind moves above the stream. Dispersing.
The ancient kings made offerings to the Highest to establish the temples.’
You imagine temples are made of rock; Yi says they’re made of wind, water and offerings. You might imagine your essay is made of introduction, exposition and conclusion, or that your writing is made of words. But what are these things made of? Where is the essential offering that makes it all real?
And come to that, I imagine that Yi is made of gua and words. What might these be made of? Ah – that would be the king entering his temple: individuals making the connection. I’m sure that Jessica Morrell has done so herself, but not so sure that her book is the best help for others to do the same.