守破離(しゅはり)Shuhari

I was recently introduced to the Japanese process of going from being a student to becoming a master (shuhari). There are three stages.

The first stage is to “keep.” You watch the master and copy them exactly. Deviation is strictly prohibited. You are there to learn, and learning means doing what the master does. For example, in tea ceremony, the exact pattern of when to do each step, where each tool is set down, how each movement occurs, are all set. The teacher tells you how to do it, and you absolutely do not argue that doing it another way is better. It doesn’t matter. There’s a specific way it’s done, and that’s the end of it.

When it comes to something like tea ceremony, that makes perfect sense because it’s an art form. It’s not about efficiency (although, once you get the movement into muscle memory, you’ll find that most of them actually are quite efficient, while others prioritize beauty over ease). For something that’s less about the art form, perhaps something like carpentry, the arguments make even less sense because you’re learning how to build something. You don’t know what you’re talking about yet. Why would you know the best way to do something? You do what the teacher says because you don’t know the right way to do it.

I’d like to pause to make a point that arguing and questioning are different. Asking for reasoning why so you can understand what you’re being told to do is not the same thing as telling the master that they’re not doing it right. But also understand that talking back to your teacher when given an instruction is even more frowned upon in Eastern cultures than in Western.

This would be equivalent to the “apprentice” stage of learning a skill back in the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras, for my fellow history geeks.

The second stage is to “break.” You now have a basis of knowledge from which to work, and you’re free to experiment. Things that maybe you disagreed with during the first stage, now you can see if they, in fact, are better, or if you were wrong all along. Maybe you have new ideas now. Maybe you realize some of the arguments you had before are stupid now that you have more information. But the whole point of this stage is to take what you already know, and take your teacher’s guidance, and start building your own ability to do things on your own.

This would be the “journeyman” stage. You’re passable at what you do enough to charge money for it and make your own practice. You’re skilled, but not an authority among others who practice your craft.

I’m sure these stages make perfect sense to artists, especially those who draw or paint and the like. Everyone I know who can draw beautifully started out copying pictures as closely as possible. Then, they could modify the images they looked at to be more what they wanted them to be, but they still had a model. That then leads directly into the third stage.

To be “away.” No longer dependent on a master or teacher of any sort, you are your own authority. Anything you produce or do has come from you and you alone. Rather than copy models, you are the maker of models.

As to be expected, this would be the “master” stage.

This made sense to me on a very deep level. Long ago, I internalized a lesson about writing: to break the rules, you must first know them. While writing doesn’t exactly have the same process (directly copying written works is plagiarism and teaches you very little), it does have the same ideas. At first, there are writing “rules” that You Must Follow or your writing will be Bad. The reason is not because these are the Way Things Are Done, but because they’re, in fact, very easy to do badly. Breaking those rules is a master level feat because only masters know how to pull off those situations. When you don’t realize this reasoning behind the Writing Rules, it can be very frustrating to read books and see the very things you’re told not to do displayed on the page in front of you. Not just any page: a published page. But these are things you’re supposed to avoid, and yet they got published. Therefore, it must be fine to do them, after all.

But the writers thinking this are still in the “keep” stage. They’re still learning the rules. And they haven’t realized that, of course, it’s fine to break any and all of the rules, but you must do it well.

Now, that’s become something of a cliche in the writing world. Pretty much everyone has heard that if you do it well, you can do anything. But there’s a difference between knowing that, and knowing what it means. In recognizing it. In looking at your own work and seeing that you didn’t, actually, pull off what you wanted to achieve.

When writing, it’s important to recognize when you’re in which shuhari stage, but it’s more difficult than with a standard skill that’s more physical. Every writing teacher has something different to say, and writing is a solitary action, anyway. Unlike with martial arts or dancing, you don’t have a teacher standing over your shoulder telling you when you do something wrong. At best, you get an opinion from someone else about what worked or didn’t work, and that has a heavy personal bias almost always (there are cases when things are objectively Not Good, but for the sake of your confidence and drive to write, always assume there’s a bias or you’ll drive yourself nuts).

It’s also important to realize that reaching the “break” stage is when you start writing stories people want to read. In the “keep” stage, you’re writing things people have read a million times. Nobody cares about those stories, I’m sorry to say. They can read them anywhere, and they can often find them told better. Those are the stories agents say they find in their inboxes constantly and skim right on past.

What agents are looking for are “break” stage writers. Writers that have taken the foundation of skills they’ve learned from writing things everyone has read before, and changed them a little, put their own spin on it, made it their own. Agents don’t at all expect debut authors to be in the “away” stage, or they’d never get new clients.

The good news is, if you’re not getting responses from agents, it’s not that you’re a failure or a bad writer or can’t do this publishing thing. (I say this as an unpublished writer, by the way.) It’s that you’re still learning. Keep working toward that “break” stage. Once you’re there, it’s just a matter of time before the opportunity comes along if you keep trying. Because it isn’t a Talent that you either Have or Don’t. It’s shuhari. And you’ll get there.