One of the ideas most pervasive in writing is that Writing is Hard, that it requires suffering. It absolutely does take dedication, showing up, study, all the things any discipline requires, but I would argue that it should not be consistently difficult. Sure you might have a hard day, a hard stretch of the book (I am always ready to throw out a book at approximately 85% of the way through the rough draft), but it should mostly be an engaging, energizing, maybe even thrilling process.
How? Ease up, relax into your body, your knowledge, the place where you are right now. Try a tai chi approach to the process.
A couple of years ago an old acquaintance of Christopher Robin invited him to the opening of his new tai chi studio, which led to our taking an introductory workshop. Three years later, we are still practicing.
We fell in love with the space first of all, a brick room paved with buttery wooden floors. Sifu Michael has an exactly perfect voice for his calling, a voice that makes it all seem so easy, and so non-threatening. ** He often says, as his students imitate him in our awkward and unawkward ways, “you can’t know what you don’t know,” and “just do it the best you can,” and “practice is how we learn.”
Tai chi is not well understood here in the west, where we are eager to turn everything into a competition (just can’t get over the idea of competitive yoga—um, you’re kidding, right?). Most of us have seen the slow, dance-like movements of the form, mostly performed by old people in parks in China.
I am still a beginner, feeling my way around the tippy tip of the vast iceberg of knowledge that the discipline encompasses–but here is what I know, and what I want to share in terms of writing: tai chi teaches ease. Ease in the body to begin with, then ease in movement, then ease in tapping into the energies of the earth so you don’t have to use up all of your own, then—if you so choose and you have some to worry about– ease of repelling enemies.
How does that relate to writing? Simple: writing should also be a practice of ease, starting from exactly where you are right now.
The first cornerstone is that you should be physically comfortably when you sit down (or stand up) to write. We speak of ergonomics as something apart, maybe something we will do when we have time or the money to arrange everything just so, but how can you possibly feel ease in the process of creating if your body is not at ease?
If you are sitting in your usual writing place, take a moment to really notice how your body feels. Is there anything that is uncomfortable? Neck, shoulders, arms? Back, hips, legs, feet? Are your arms completely relaxed, your hands able to reach the keys without reaching or contorting or holding an unnatural position? I have to keep a pillow under my feet to support the proper bend in my knees. My legs are long from hip to knee, but short from knee to ankle. Your body is probably different—which is something Sifu also says, over and over: all of us are living in a different body. Notice what yours needs. Notice when tightness or pain tell you that the position is incorrect. Find ease in your position at the keyboard.
Writing is an exciting and engaging pursuit for most of us because it cannot ever, ever, ever be mastered. It is a discipline that constantly reveals itself over time, from the first time we set ourselves on the path to the last sentence we write.
For that reason, writing is a practice, like a tai chi practice. It’s easier to think of it that way, isn’t it? If I am practicing, the pressure is off to be PERFECT. I can practice wherever I am today. At tai chi, that means I’m working on the sequence of movements, hoping to eventually be able to do them all without faltering. That means on a given day, I might work on the opening movements—just my hands moving up and down, over and over and over. Another day, it might be leaning into a turn, over and over and over, until my body feels it, knows it, understands it without my brain having to remember. I will still, as I practice the forms, aim to be present for every movement, staying focused on what I am doing right now. Now the next thing, present here, even if the last move was not perfect.
I am a beginner at tai chi, but a long time practitioner of writing. I know more about writing because I’ve been practicing nearly every day for decades. I don’t have to think about the cadence of my own sentences and paragraphs very often, because the sheer repetition daily over so much time means my brain knows how I break, what sounds good to me, what looks beautiful. That frees me to work on using those cadences to build better and better stories, to tackle more and more difficult challenges, in subject matter, perhaps, or genre, or clarity of thought, or even the poetry of a passage.
At the same time, I can only be present for this very sentence I am writing in this moment. I can only write this one. And then this one. I don’t have to think about the last sentence of this article because I’m not there yet. I don’t have to think about the sentences at the start of this piece because I have not yet come to the time when I will read it over and see if it works well.
What happens if you write just one sentence at a time? If you are present with your writing in small, easy moments. It doesn’t have to be a perfect sentence, just the best you can do today, right now. Sometimes when I am practicing tai chi, I’m tired or my shoulder hurts. I do the best I can within those limitations, but I still practice. The same should be true of your writing. Practice, show up, even if you didn’t have enough sleep or you had a fight with your boss. Write the sentence that you have to write and don’t worry about the others.
I didn’t know much about tai chi when I began, but last summer, I had a chance to see students working on the sword form, with real swords, and fell head over heels instantly. I must learn it.
But first, there are other things I need to do. I need to understand the main forms before I can move to an elaboration of that. I am where I am on the path, learning the main form. Like most adults, I have responsibilities that limit the amount of time I can devote to it. I can only take the next step and the next step.
I cannot learn all of it all at once.
So it is with writing. Many of us want to learn it all at once, to come out of the gate and write a great novel or brilliant memoir. But first we have to know the basics of what our genre or form requires. First we have to understand the cornerstones of character, of word choice, of structure, then we can take the next steps, probably by focusing on things that are not as strong as others. One step, and then the next, practicing, practicing, practicing.
Conversely, we can stand in one place, practicing the same thing over and over when it’s time to move on to the next thing. This shows up when you rewrite the same manuscript over and over again. There comes a time when it has taught you everything it can and you need to let the next project into your world. Where are you on the path? What is the next thing you need to learn? How can you take your skills to the next level? Maybe it’s time for a class, or a critique, or a new project.
Tai chi gives me ease by bringing me into my body and asking me to focus on the moment. Writing can feed the spirit in the same way if you reframe the way you look at it: each day in your writing practice, show up and do the best you can. Some times, you will write better. Someday you will know more than you know now. Someday, people might judge the work.
But what you can do today is show up and do your practice. Write the sentence you need to write, then the next one. Stay with it, day after day, and one day you will have mastery.
And then you can learn the next thing.
Get involved in the discussion:
Is writing with ease an idea you feel comfortable with? If so, what is the next step you will take—to be more at ease physically? Emotionally? If this is a challenging concept, what objections rose as you read? Share them—maybe others have the same concerns.
**If you want to check out the healing powers of the tai chi warm-up as taught by Sifu Michael (and a glimpse of the studio) watch this YouTube video: https://youtu.be/Xu9K-IJUy0E
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