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Two excerpts on the process of creation

Liu Xie 劉勰 (ca. 465-522) on the process of writing:


As spiritual musing is set in motion, thousands of paths sprout all at once, forms yet to assume their positions, carving yet to define any shape. At the summit, imbuing the mountain with my emotions, and on the shore, filling the ocean to the brim with my thoughts, my talents in full measure shall gallop with the wind and cloud!—The moment [he] takes his brush, his zeal overwhelms words yet to come; by the time the work is brought to completion, the original conception is lost by half. Why? Thoughts dancing free work magic without effort; [yet] words making [them] concrete struggle to be just as artful.[2]

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) on the process of painting in her novel To the Lighthouse:

The jacmanna was bright violet; the wall staring white. She would not have considered it honest to tamper with the bright violet and the staring white, since she saw them like that, fashionable though it was, since Mr Paunceforte’s visit, to see everything pale, elegant, semi-transparent. Then beneath the colour there was the shape. She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself—struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: ‘But this is what I see; this is what I see’, and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her. [3]

[1] Liu Xie, Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍 (Sibu congkan chubian 四部叢刊初編 vol. 2058, Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1919), 6.1b:

[2] Alternative translations can be found in Liu Xie, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons, translated and annotated by Vincent Yu-chung Shih (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1983), 301, and Owen Stephen, Readings in Chinese Literary Thought (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992), 205-206.

[3] Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse, Edited with an Introduction and Notes by

David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

A man that appears to be looking for his words; detail of "Wenyuan tu" 文苑圖, attributed to Zhou Wenju 周文矩 (fl. 10th century)

Image credit: The Palace Museum, Beijing


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