The Writing Room: George Leonard and the Tao of Writing

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I’ve thought of George Leonard often over the years. And when I read in the New York Times last month that he had died on January 6 at the age of 86, I thought of him yet again.

George and I knew each other in New York at Look magazine , where we both worked during the 1960s.

That is to say, we were aware of each other at Look – I more aware of George than he of me.

I was a very young editorial secretary – and not a very good one. (My bosses were people like Betty Rollin, Jack Shepherd and Pat Carbine.) He was a Look writer and a star. He was documenting – no, inspiring – the youth and human potential movements that were fermenting in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time.

George went on to write a number of books, including Education and Ecstasy, The Way of Aikido, Mastery and The Ultimate Athlete. He was a long-time influence at the Esalen Institute. And he was as formidable physically as he was intellectually; he took up aikido at mid-life and earned a fifth-degree black belt.

Though he barely knew me, George was kind enough to meet with me when I first moved from New York to San Francisco in 1969. During that conversation, he gave me some advice I’ve kept pasted to the inside of my forehead ever since.

We were talking about story ideas, and I told him I had one I thought was pretty hot, but I didn’t want to reveal it to him. At Look, story ideas were gold, we treated them like state secrets. If we didn’t keep them under wraps, our competition – Life magazine – might get wind of them and scoop us. We hoarded our ideas.

George’s response took me by surprise. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Ideas are not in finite supply. The more you give away, the more you generate. That’s the way the universe works.”

Those aren’t George’s exact words. But they are the way I’ve remembered, interpreted and reinterpreted them over the years.

Following George’s advice has been a useful practice. I’ve learned over time that the more willing I am to help out other writers and share my ideas and (hard-won) expertise with them – the more thoughts, ideas, inspirations and writing tricks (hot ones all!) pop into my mind.

I think of it as the Tao of writing.

Thanks, George. I’m going to keep on thinking about you.


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