The Writer's I Ching

Wisdom for the Creative Life


By Jessica Morrell

By Elaura Niles

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The writing life is solitary and challenging, and it takes far more than creativity to become a commercial success. The Writer’s I Ching uses the ancient Chinese divination system to provide writers with help mastering the business of writing and choosing the most propitious times to take action. Because writing educators created the book, it also teaches the storyteller and non-fiction craft with lessons suitable for both beginners and seasoned professionals. This unique presentation of the I Ching features a complete deck of 64 cards bound into the book itself. The writer poses a question about how to proceed on a specific fiction or non-fiction project, negotiation, or business matter. He draws an I Ching card and turns to the proper page for the interpretation of that card. Many cases of writer’s block have been cured and flashes of insight gained through this simple technique. The I Ching dates back to before Christ and counts among its devotees Confucius, Albert Einstein, and Bob Dylan.


The Writer’s I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life

The Writer’s I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life

Jessica Page Morrell





Books are never wr itten without help.
Many thanks to Stephanie Kip Rostan, Jennifer Kasius and
Deb Grandinetti for guiding it along,
and to the many resources wr itten about the I Ching.

Also, war m thanks to Bonnie and Mark Kittleson
for the loan of their beach house
where the ideas for this book came into being.




To the sages who brought the I Ching to light
and the sages who now walk among us

Everything changes, everything stays the same.

—The Teachings of Buddha


In Carl Jung’s introduction to Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching, he explained that he’d never traveled to China and did not speak Chinese. I echo his admission, as well as his confession that he often found Eastern philosophies obscure and difficult to understand. But like Jung and many others through the centuries, in the I Ching I have found profound wisdom—and perhaps a friend.

I teach writers, coach writers, edit the work of writers, and am a writer. I juggle to keep many projects afloat, to inspire students, and to deliver the goods for clients. In all of these tasks and roles there are times when interactions, deadlines, or projects cause nerve-jangling anxiety or uncertainty. I have found that when I turn to the I Ching for guidance, it never lets me down and always provides some insight that I would not arrive at on my own.

I’ve been using tarot cards for about twenty-five years now and I’ve known Feng Shui masters, astrology wizards, and seers. Besides my use of the tarot, I’ve essentially been a dabbler in these other traditions, intimidated by the complexity of Eastern approaches or the mathematics of the stars. Instead, I learned how fiction and nonfiction works, and how to explain what I know to other writers. So it was with deep gratitude and surprise that I began using the I Ching. I cannot describe it in any other way except to say that it deeply, simply, and clearly speaks to me. And when I listen, I am calmed and strengthened by what I learn.

Jessica Morrell

One: Connecting

For me, writing is discovery.

—James Miller

If writing were easy, everyone would be doing it. The fact is, writing is difficult. It means finding the courage to commit your thoughts, emotions, and insights to the page, hoping to connect with readers, yet secretly fearing your reader’s reactions and often doubting your ability to say what needs to be said. This fear is why so many writers disguise memoirs, buried dreams, obsessions, and failed relationships with fiction’s closet of costumes.

Another reason that writing is difficult is that at any given moment a writer’s mind is jumbled with images, memories, and dreams. The story in front of him presents a dizzying array of possibilities. Choices and decisions erupt at each turn: how to bring his protagonist to life while differentiating her from the rest of the cast of characters; how to illustrate the underlying theme of the novel and connect it to the premise. On a smaller scale, every word on every page must be weighed so that it is perfect, succinct, and evocative. In fact, at every juncture a writer analyzes and questions the words, images, and techniques he’s using, and wonders if he’s chosen wisely.

Meanwhile, emotions, like storm fronts, skitter across his or her mind, ranging from elation to despair. Delusions surface and are battled. Doubts and fears threaten to sabotage the project. As the story progresses, mysteriously, energy can falter.

Yet despite these difficulties, writing is not all suffering. It also brings connection and happiness, even moments of elation and giddiness, because writing is a process of discovery. Writers are like the early explorers who traveled afar, discovered new worlds, and then brought the wonders of these places home. But those daring steps into the unknown cannot be accomplished while holding your breath or waging a battle within. They are accomplished with your heart open, your mind focused, and your emotions calmed.

And as any explorer knows, it’s easy to get lost.

But there is a way to work despite this storm, this cacophony of inner voices that sometimes drowns out the story that you’re trying to write. You see, a writer must work from a place of calm, but at the same time, her mind needs permission to roam. To imagine what it’s like to be a character living in another century or what the future is like on Mars. Or to simply slip into the past of her childhood and remember that world, recall the acute joys and pains of the child within.

So how is this accomplished?

Enter the I Ching, with its elegant solutions, uncanny accuracy, and ancient wisdom. Developed over centuries, it can serve as a compass, revealing not only fresh insights and practical advice, but also a new world. The way is shown and light is shed on current conditions, past events, and upcoming possibilities.

Enter next into the picture a writer living in Portland, Oregon. As I studied the I Ching and applied its jewel-like answers to everyday life, I began to see a connection between it and the process of writing. The next step seemed a natural one: to commingle the I Ching with the writing life. With practice, I discovered that it could be applied to a range of issues plaguing writers no matter the genre they’re writing in. Thus, The Writer’s I Ching came into being.

Like the original, it is a powerful tool. I’ve harnessed wisdom that was honed over centuries to solve problems, find balance, and understand ourselves better. Because understanding of the words on the page begins with knowing the self and working from a place of calm.

Two: The Sages Speak

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In gover ning, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present..

—Tao Le Ching

Ever since the beginning of humankind, we have tried to understand and explain the world around us. The West defined the world according to increasingly sophisticated science, data, and complicated reasoning. The Western mind-set leans toward logic, reason, and analysis. The Chinese, on the other hand, saw the world simply, drawing insights from nature and basic elements. Instead of reason, they used intuition and looked inward. Their emphasis was on finding balance, as water finds its resting place. Over the centuries, an Eastern philosophy emerged that was aimed at finding peace, balance, and purpose.

Many of the messages found in the I Ching (pronounced Ee Jing) are subtle, and refer to decidedly non-Western ways of dealing with life such as yielding, reflecting, or biding your time. At the heart of the philosophy is the understanding that there is an inherent energy in all things, especially in nature. The I Ching teaches us that wisdom is evolving, a living thing—that change is part of everything.

Most often, the I Ching is referred to as “the book of changes,” with the title suggesting how this wisdom works. It is based on the natural world: its seasons, cycles, energies, and contradictions. The inspiration for its teachings comes from observing water, weather, stars, tides, animals, and plants. It also draws on basic elements such as fire and thunder, wood and metal. This understanding is elemental, grounded, and yet sophisticated because the forces found in nature are subtle, ever changing, and continuous.

The observations are also based on interactions among people—lovers, families, coworkers, and governments. It covers the most basic questions: how to be virtuous, generous, and honest. How to achieve ambitions and how to resolve conflicts. How to live with a peaceful heart. Or, how to remain courageous or focused when the odds are stacked against success.

History of the I Ching

Societies have always used methods of prophecy, with traditions such as astrology dating back to the beginnings of human existence. The origins of the I Ching are obscured by time, so there is both a historical and mythical interpretation of how it came about. No one knows the exact date it began because it was first an oral tradition. Early records of divination practices in ancient China depict heating animal bones in a fire and then examining the cracks that form to determine meaning. Tortoise shells were also heated, creating patterns that the inquirer would interpret. At some point, ancient questioners started carving symbols into the shells to record what had been asked and revealed. Methods of divination were used for all sorts of reasons—to ask if a prince would be born, to question the wisdom of a marriage, or to solve political issues.

During the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 BCE) priests in the court predicted the future by applying hot metal pokers to discarded tortoise shells and then reading the cracks. From this practice evolved the I Ching, which is a sacred text credited to the “four sage theory,” meaning that four of China’s greatest minds were involved in its creation. It began with Fu Hsi, the king of China who lived sometime in third millennium BCE. According to legend, he was sitting near a river meditating on the meaning of life when a tortoise emerged from the water. Based on markings on its shell, he developed mathematical patterns called trigrams.

Centuries later, the next sage who influenced the I Ching was Wen Wang, king of the Chou, who was imprisoned by the Shang emperor. While captive around 1140 BCE, he meditated on the trigrams and wrote essays that depicted them as 64 hexagrams. These essays were said to have been written on prison walls, expanding the philosophy. He was eventually freed by his son, the Duke of Chou (1004 BCE), who began the new Chou dynasty. The Duke of Chou finished his father’s work by writing further on the six lines within each hexagram.

It is said that Confucius (551– 479 BCE) studied the text and added commentary to it. Some scholars question this theory and claim that the philosopher Lao-tzu compiled the text in the sixth century. Although its authorship has been lost to antiquity, what is known is that it influenced many Chinese philosophers and that Confucius and imperial scholars wrote the Ten Wings, a collection of commentaries about using the oracle to understand the world.

Over time the yarrow stalk, a common plant, was introduced as a means to ask and interpret questions, replacing bones and tortoise shells. Fifty yarrow stalks were drawn to form mathematical patterns that could be interpreted by consulting the corresponding hexagram. The yarrow stalks, which were readily available in China, made working with the I Ching easier and more accessible to more people.

By 500 BCE, after the Chou dynasty collapsed, we know that commoners were consulting the oracle. Now, the I Ching was the province not only of the emperor or royal court, but of anyone who could read. This was also a time of political upheaval and turmoil; the texts were collected into a book and diviners would travel the countryside carrying them. In about 221 BCE the new rulers, the Ch’in Dynasty, came into power and ordered all books burned. However, because of the I Ching’s practical value, copies of it were spared. The Han dynasty followed and in its more stable and peaceful society, the I Ching became a revered object of scholarly study and was gradually expanded.

A number of contemporary people have also contributed to our knowledge of the I Ching. Richard Wilhelm, who lived in China for twenty years, translated it into German in 1931. The first sentence of his translation begins: “The Book of Changes—I Ching in Chinese—is unquestionably one of the most important books in the world’s literature.” During his years in China he studied with the sage and scholar Lao Nai-hsuan. After returning to Europe, Wilhelm became friends with Carl Jung, who was said to have studied the oracle for thirty years. Jung wrote the introductions to Wilhelm’s I Ching and also Secret of the Golden Flower, which offered modern readers a deeper understanding of its teachings. Many contemporary books on the subject are based on Wilhelm’s translations.

The I Ching meets the writing life

What does the I Ching bring to the writing process?

Counsel. We all have doubts. And writers, who need to constantly assess, analyze, and question their work, need to overcome these doubts. But before you can wrestle with doubt or with a specific problem, you must first recognize it. Your next step is deciding how to deal with it. Life, and especially the writing life, is slippery, sometimes overwhelming, and you constantly need to make adjustments. Luckily, the I Ching helps you focus and nudges you toward solutions using your innate understanding. With this knowledge, the weight of indecision is lifted and you can take action.

Peace of mind. The wisdom needed for a given situation is always available, but first you must discern if it lies within or can be found in the knowledge of experts. Part of the problem with finding solutions is that there is so much information about writing these days and sometimes it is contradictory. One expert claims to avoid using flashbacks in your novel, while another advises that flashbacks are an appropriate means to shed light on a character’s motivation. And all the knowledge that you’ve gleaned in a lifetime or is available in the larger world doesn’t necessarily answer every question. You need a method to match your many questions with appropriate answers. The traditional I Ching and The Writer’s I Ching serve as a spotlight, illuminating or pairing answers with questions. Once you realize that solutions are available, your fears and quandaries fade.

Confidence. Many times, a voice from within whispers instructions for your next steps, suggesting, for example, solutions to plot problems or your protagonist’s secrets. But it’s also nice to have a bit of reinforcement. The Writer’s I Ching helps you listen to your intuition and pay attention to the quietest suggestions. This clarity keeps you on course.

Three: The Way

The universe is one great kindergarten for man.
Everything that exists has brought with it
its own peculiar lesson.
The mountain teaches stability and grandeur;
the ocean immensity and change.
Forests, lakes, and rivers, clouds and winds,
stars and flowers, stupendous glaciers and
crystal snowflakes-every form of animate
or inanimate existence,
leaves its impress upon the soul of man.

—Orison Swett Marden

Understanding that life is change and coping with change are at the heart of the I Ching philosophy, comforting every writer who has ever struggled with his craft. The universe and the conditions in your life are constantly forming, transforming, and reforming. The ancient Chinese sought a path that led through these changes, a way of moving in the world that was fluid and yielding—they called this path the Tao.

The Tao (pronounced dow), or the way, has been translated and studied extensively because it speaks in whispers with both simplicity and complexity. It encourages you to live in wonder, noticing the world slipping from day to night, season to season, an ever-changing miracle. And this sort of awareness and wonder is a huge asset to writers.

In nature, the Tao is made visible—in flowing rivers, mystical waterfalls, brilliant starlight, and the flight of birds. The Tao also suggests that there is a duality in nature and in all things, along with ceaseless movement, ebb and flow. If your circumstances are now bad, be patient, because the other side of fortune will return. Morning always arrives after night, spring after a hard winter. It is all change and the I Ching teaches you to be a partner with change.

Yin and Yang

Yin and yang are the primary dual forces of nature and are the starting point for the teachings of the I Ching. They are not opposites, but complementary. Yin is earth; yang is sky. Yin is dark; yang is light.

Yin is the force that is related to the moon, the female, water, even numbers, night, soft, cold, wet, winter, and shadows. Yin yields and is relaxed. It also represents things that are moist, secretive, withdrawn, and receptive. Yin influences you to respond and says that the wise person pays attention to his inner voice and seeks stability. The power of yin comes from using your intuition, common sense, and instincts.

Yang is related to heaven, sun, the male, odd numbers, creativity, light, day, dry, summer, and sun. Yang is resistant, tense, and hard. Its energy is hot, bright, bold, and active. Yang influences push you outward, demanding physical release, effort, and activity. Yang helps you channel energy outward and into goals you want to accomplish.

The Eight Energies

Once you understand yin and yang as essential energies found in the world, then you can begin expanding your understanding of how they work in your own life and are the foundations for the I Ching. Formed from aspects of yin and yang, the Eight Energies are the building blocks of the I Ching.These eight symbols, first seen on a tortoise’s shell thousands of years ago, are called trigrams because each is composed of three lines, either solid or broken . The solid lines represent yang, while the broken lines represent yin. In the trigrams, combinations of yin and yang energies or principles create all that happens in the universe. The yang lines refer to qualities that are strong, firm, unyielding, persistent, and enduring. The yin lines suggest suppleness, flexibility, adaptability, and yielding. Because these energies are found in nature, they are easy to understand and memorize.

Archetype Associations Tao Principles Flow Chinese Name Symbol
Wind Penetrating, Often soft and gentle Early Summer, Northwest Support and grow things to maturity Yin Sun
Fire Sun, Quick, Cling together, Summer, South See and understand Yin Li
Lake Open waters, Serene, Freedom from restraint, Autumn,West Exchange ideas Yin Tui
Earth Receptive grounded womb, nourishing, Early Autumn, Southwest Make thoughts visible, Bring forth Yin K’un
Mountain Keeping still, Bound Early Spring Northeast Understand what you know Yang Ken
Water Rushing water, Momentum taking risks,Winter, North Focus Confront, Move forward Yang K’an
Thunder Exciting, Arousing Volatile, Spring, East Strength to handle difficulties Yang Chen
Heaven Creative, Dynamic, Dragon, Shape changer, Early Winter, Northwest Creativity coupled with strength Yang Chi’en

The three lines that make up each trigram have symbols, associations, and elements of nature that reveal their essence. Next, let’s look at the qualities that are found in these energies so that you can understand their influences in our daily lives. The eight energies are heaven, lake, fire, thunder, wind, water, mountain, and earth. It is easy to see how the ancient Chinese would have observed them in the natural world and reached conclusions about how these forces influence humankind.

Ch’ien: Heaven

Heaven stands for the strongest yang energy and connotes dragon power, dynamic energy, and authority. Heaven is infinite, an amazing source of creativity. It also stands for strength, steadiness, power, force, and good luck. In issues relating to politics, power struggles, or business, it can also refer to decisions, authority, and rules that can be oppressive or unfair. However, since heaven has an amazing influence on your earthly life, this trigram chiefly stands for potency. Contemplate new goals and directions under its influence and call on your inner resources to achieve them. Consider also challenging authority at this time, especially when regulations are unjust or constricting.

Associations: Father, northwest, winter

Tui: Lake

Some I Ching interpretations call this trigram open water, wetland, or marsh. It is yin and relates to the moon and its potent and often mysterious influences. The lake is a nurturing environment, a place where you can experience openness, happiness, pleasure, and even excess. There is a great sociability in the lake, a mingling with friends, an ease of belonging, and an easy exchange of ideas. Although the lake is a friendly, nurturing place, when it is opposed you tend toward antisocial behaviors—withdrawal, exile, moodiness, and distancing. The lake reminds you to use its nurturing waters to refresh and bolster the spirit, to feel energized by its depths.


On Sale
Aug 17, 2007
Page Count
224 pages
Running Press

Jessica Morrell

About the Author

Jessica Morell‘s online writing class at was acclaimed by Writer’s Digest as one of the best sites online for writers. She has been a writing teacher for over a dozen years. Morell lives in Portland, Oregon.

Elaura Niles works for the thirty-five-year-old nonprofit writer’s organization, Williamette Writers. She is the author of Zeus and His Mighty Nine Iron. Niles lives in Boring, Oregon.

Learn more about this author