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March 07, 2006

Five Elements for Writers

I've been wanting to post some of my ideas about how to approach writing in this blog, so now's a good time to start. This particular piece about "the five elements of writing" has a particular impetus:

My friend Robin Jensen, also a writer, has recently completed her studies in Chinese medicine. She's developing a ... program? ... process? ... a something new to help writers who are blocked or stalled to get themselves more into balance so that they can work. I'm lucky enough to be her guinea pig.

Her process is based upon the five elements of traditional Chinese culture: wood, fire, earth, water and metal. Over the course of several sessions, she takes you (or me, in this case) through each of the elements, explaining their principles, doing body work with pressure points and oils, and showing you movements designed to activate the organs that correspond to those elements. The intention is to help you understand how each element operates in your life, and assist you in developing an approach to unlocking the energy of that element.

If you're starting to itch, just understand that I'm an atheist who doesn't believe in hocus-pocus. I've lived in California for several years, I drink Chardonnay, and I've tried yoga, but all with an ironic sneer. (Come to think of it, that's pretty San Francisco in itself, but whatever.) When I hear the word "spirituality", I reach for my Compleat Orwell. (Just kidding. There is no Compleat Orwell.)

On the other hand, "soul" isn't one of the big four -- along with mind, body, and heart -- because we're all dupes of the Vatican, Bob Jones grads, or Tom Cruise's latest impregnee. The spirit, whatever the fuck that means, needs tending, and it doesn't really matter how you do it ... or if you believe while you do it. You can be feeling indefinably shriveled (and cynical and atheist) and go and have someone put juniper oil on your ankle and take you on a trance-like journey through the glycerin-flooded basement of your subconscious to the sounds of a drum-circle --- and emerge feeling more refreshed than you have in months. What is that? Placebo effect? Who cares?

In any event, working through the five elements (and I'll write more about that when we've completed the course) reminded me of a writing lesson I developed a few years ago in my "teaching creative writing" class at San Francisco State. I later used this when I started teaching. The purpose of the five elements writing system is to break down the work of writing -- or just the work of writing a particular piece -- into a point-by-point system that will enable the writer to get past her euphoria/despair waltz and into the job of analyzing her piece with a serious eye. I used the five elements as a basis for workshopping: my students were not permitted to evaluate each other's work ("this is good", "this works", "this doesn't work", "I like", "I don't like", etc.). Instead I asked them to identify things in the piece that addressed each of these elements, locate the elements in the piece.

Here it is:


• FIRE is the power, energy or heat in a piece of writing, that which takes it from being inert language to being animate, or alive. This is the great indefinable. We all know what a living piece of writing is. It’s our task here to try to figure out where the Fire comes from, to offer it a conduit, to invite it in, let it spread to infuse the whole piece.

• EARTH is where the piece is grounded, the world of the piece. Earth is the physics and metaphysics, the setting (time and place) and culture of the piece. If the piece of writing is a game being played out, Earth is the playing field, the rules within which the game is played. It is up to the writer to determine these rules, to create this world. The writing must remain consistently on the same piece of Earth.

• METAL is the structure of the piece, built upon its Earth. It's the bones that create the shape of the piece's body, the steel girders that give it its form. In fiction this relates to the narrative arc, but not merely that. In poetry this may refer to a traditional form, but it may also mean where the piece chooses to reveal what, where the moment of opening out happens, etc. In playwriting, Metal is generally more apparent, but also refers to the internal structure of dialogue, beats, etc. Metal must be flexible but strong enough to hold the house up.

• WATER is the flow or progressive motion of the piece, its drive. Often in poetry, but also in prose and drama, it can take the form of a rhythm. Water moves the reader through the piece, keeps the reader reading. It can be the logical flow from one scene to the next – rising action – or the natural flow of conversation in a dialogue. It can be the reader wanting to know what happens next, following a trail of images, or riding on the coursing of fluent language.

• WOOD is the human element, what causes us to write, or theorize, or read, or gossip. Think of this not as the dead wood of planks and logs, but the sap-filled wood of a living tree. Wood is the spirit of inquiry about human life that is at the bottom of and rises up through every human endeavor. In a finished piece of writing it is called theme but it is not merely theme. It can be expressed as a question which the piece of writing seeks to answer.

As you can see from the diagram, these elements do not work discretely, but rather flow into one another in constructive and destructive cycles. This is somewhat perpendicular to the usual way we're taught to think about writing. Any one craft point draws from more than one element. Take narrative voice, for example. Which person (1st, 2nd or 3rd) you choose can be a metal (structural) issue if the change in person affects how the story is revealed, or a water (flow) issue if the change in person affects the flow of language or how the story is told. It can also be a wood (inquiry) issue, if your purpose is to experiment, for example, with second person.

The five elements succeeded in getting my students to, as Apple says, "think different", but the learning curve was too steep because none of them were familiar with the five elements. So first they had to learn the five elements system, then they had to learn what it meant. Not good. So I eventually got rid of the diagram and the Chinese elements and changed the system to "The LIMES System", LIMES being an easy-to-remember acronym of the renamed elements (especially once I got them to bite into a lime wedge in class), which were:

Life (fire)
Inquiry (wood)
Movement (water)
Earth (earth)
Structure (metal)

I was sad to lose the five Chinese elements, because, for those already familiar with the system, adding another layer onto it only created more resonance. As a writer, I love existing categorical and taxonomic systems. They're fascinating and reveal so much about how the culture that created them thinks about the world. They also contain a lot of wisdom about how to break down areas of thought to make it possible to think through them at a human scope. At some point I want to develop a characterization lesson based on the breakdown of twelve personality types represented by the zodiac -- and I'd like to differentiate (if possible) between the types of the Chinese zodiac and the Western one -- a project for another time, maybe.

Writers, please let me know what you think about all of this (if you've made it this far). And keep an eye out. As soon as Robin's website is up I'll be linking to it.


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I'm certainly interested in hearing more, and hearing how your process with Robin worked out. And I'm an atheist, too, but I think my poor spirit needs some tending, so please tell me more.

Meanwhile I ponder what you've said so far. 'Tis a tad complicated!

marrije, thanks for feedback! yeah, it's a bit complicated. i distrust simple methods of analyzing writing because i don't think they assist the writer in understanding (or creating) the complexity that makes good writing satisfying. this system takes some practice and getting used to. do you think it's too complicated?

Very interesting: you can't make good writing using ratiocination, and the five elements is a very pleasing - and beautiful - way of disengaging the logical brain and bringing the subconscious to bear.

I want Robin to come and rub juniper oil on my ankle, in other words!

You and Robin should get together and do a "The Artists Way" type handbook when you've worked some more on the system.

Claire: no, no, I don't think it's too complicated. I actually /like/ it that it's not a six-easy-steps thingie, but I do need some time to digest. My first impression is one of physicality and interconnectedness, almost like I could dance it some day.

OK, blabbering now, sorry! It's election night here in Holland, never a good time for sane comments. But as I said: looking forward to hearing more.


I find this immensely helpful. Bringing in different metaphors for classification/taxonomy helps, especially for those of us where the more commonly used methods don't resonate well. I'm not familiar much w/ the five elements and I have a similar cringe-tendency towards spirituality talk (although I label myself agnostic rather than atheist). But your taxonomy here helps me on two levels, helping my writing and helping me better understand these five elements of Chinese medicine that so many people use.

As for applying it, I'm very intrigued by METAL, EARTH and WATER. First the latter, I speak often of how Hip Hop has influenced my writing in its rhythm and poetry (similar to how Jazz influence(d) writers of a previous generation). However, some times the poetics flow (WATER) outside the structure of the piece (METAL), so much so that it finds itself rooted in nothing at all (EARTH). This categorical metaphor of the five elements will better help me edit my piece to make sure it is as fully formed as I would prefer my writing to be.


thanks adam! that's good to hear.

i'm assuming that you write poetry (although if it's prose, i really want to see how hip hop influences it!) i didn't get so much into this above, but the diagram shows the constructive and destructive cycles. the outer circle of arrows, moving clockwise around the elements, is the constructive cycle, where wood feeds fire, fire feeds earth, earth feeds metal, etc.

the arrows in the center connecting the elements into what looks like a satanist's pentagram are the destructive cycle, where water douses fire, fire destroys metal, metal destroys wood, wood breaks up earth, and earth clogs water.

the flow (not necessarily grounded in anything) is generative, especially in poetry. so producing ungrounded flow for rough drafts is fine. when going back in for revision, you might look at the cycles above and try grounding your piece in the particular world you're creating for it first. this will then feed the structure of the piece, which will promote the flow, rather than restrict it.

i've found that some students (both my own, beginning students and my fellow students in my mfa program) resist learning about structure for fear that it will restrict their flow so i try to get them over this fear by making the distinction between the generative phase of writing and the revision phase of writing. however, the best writing takes all elements into consideration at all times. (easier said than done!)

it's helpful to note that it's not structure (metal) that interferes with flow (water). it's rather earth, applied too directly to water, that clogs it. too much earth would be too much exposition, too much background, too much attitude, too much unstructured or unquestioning emotion.

it's also helpful to note that too much flow (water) is destructive not to the structure or the earth but to the fire, that is, the life of the piece. beginning writers tend to think the opposite: that the more free-flowing language they throw at a piece, the more alive the piece is -- whereas often the life of the piece is contained in a small, concise image that gets inundated by thoughtless language.

just thinking aloud ;)

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