by Minnie Apolis
While spontaneity and naturalness are great qualities in general, getting to that level where the work does not show requires a great deal of dedication.
The topic of this non-fiction book by Edward Slingerland is the Chinese concept of "wu-wei" (pronounced ooo-way), a term that translates literally as "no trying" but describes the effortless performance of a difficult skill. That skill might anything from playing the piano, painting a masterpiece, navigating a tricky social situation, or even butchering an ox (an example given in the book).
Even though I was looking forward to reading this book, I found it difficult to keep slogging through to the end. While the author varies the material somewhat by drawing upon examples from ancient China (with stories about Confucius, Mencius and Laozi) to John McEnroe destroying an opponent's forehand by complimenting him on it as they changed sides, to Michelangelo declaring that "when given a commission, he simply waited until he found a piece of marble in which he could already see the sculpture. All he then had to do was cut away the stone that didn't belong."
This is all well and good, but I kept waiting for him to get into describing the years of training and preparation that go into reaching a level of performance where it all looks perfectly effortless and spontaneous. Musicians typically are said to need ten years to achieve competence at playing their instrument, and twenty years to achieve mastery of it. Quarterbacks are said to need to throw the ball ten thousand times before the mechanics of the act become automatic.
And dancers, painters and sculptors -- and even butchers -- need a similar course of hard work to become something special. Who can forget reading that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers spent a week just rehearsing the arm movements for a dance that lasted maybe two or three minutes on screen, a dance that seemed totally effortless as if they were making it up on the spot.
It seemed to take me a long time to get through this book since I was losing interest in the repetition of the basic theme. I kept hoping he was going to get into the dividing line between slaving away at mastering your basic skills and leaping into another level that went beyond mere technique. But Mr Slingerland never took me there. Perhaps he is saving that for another book?
TRYING NOT TO TRY, Edward Slingerland, Broadway Books (an imprint of Crown Publishing which in turn is a division of Random House), New York, 2014, 285 pages including notes and bibliography. ISBN 978-0770437633
[I was given a free copy of this book from Blogging For Books, in return for promising to post an online review of it.]