How Tai Chi Improved My Writing

LC, founder of eFrog Press, hosts the Take the Leap blog and regularly blogs about all things ebook! This week she reflects on her new tai chi practice and how it influences her writing.

Black and white symbol for Yin and YangAfter years of teaching writing, writing articles, editing, working with authors, and meeting in writing groups; I get it. Writing is a process. My former high school students would toss off one draft and be ready to turn it in. “I’m done!” they would announce.

“But you need to revise,” I would remind them.

“You mean you want me to copy it over?” they would whine.

“No, read it aloud to your group, listen to their suggestions, and then revise. Revision is the key. Break the word into two: re and vision. See your writing again with new eyes (my favorite definition for revision courtesy of Frank Barone, retired teacher and active poet).”

To be honest, I have struggled with the concept of revision myself. After reading my sixth draft of my doctoral dissertation, my chair said to me, “I think you left some of this in your head. You need to make the connections for your reader. Get the rest down on paper.”

After a first revision, a writer goes back through the process yet again. When asked in an interview how much rewriting he does, Ernest Hemingway replied, “It depends. I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

Thirty-nine drafts! Certainly aspiring authors should relax when their first draft is not yet a work of art. It takes revision, revision, and more revision.  Writing is neither for the faint of heart nor for anyone who lacks persistence.

When I work with authors on developmental editing, I help them identify and develop the strongest elements in their manuscript. When you are so close to your own writing, you are in danger of cutting the good parts—the sections that sing to the reader. It is also helpful to have an editor point out the areas that are unclear—parts of your manuscript that you may have left in your head as my dissertation chair would say. Perhaps most important, and most difficult, a good editor will never muffle your voice or stifle the uniqueness of your style.

When I began my tai chi journey last fall, I was focused on product, not process. As we lined up in front of mirrors behind our teacher, I was struck by the contrast between her flowing motions and my jerky, uneven attempts to follow her. Our teacher’s name is Faith and she definitely had faith in us.  She would say:

“You are doing fine.”

“That is just where you should be.”

“Don’t worry about your hands. Just try to get the foot work and shift your weight.”

Both tai chi and writing are a process.

First we learn the elements. For writing we learn the alphabet, words, grammar, and organizational structure. For tai chi we learn hand position, breathing, body movement, forms, and sequence.

Stringing it all together does not necessarily result in poetry—even when all the elements are correct.

When I first saw a video of Dr. Paul Lam performing the Sun Style 73, my eyes filled with tears at the sheer beauty. I wasn’t sure I could learn the form, but decided to travel to his annual workshop to try.

I have the same emotional response to a powerful piece of writing. However, I know from years of teaching, working with writers, and practicing writing that just knowing the alphabet, the rules of usage, and plot structure does not make one a great writer. To develop fluency, writers need to write and write and write some more.  As those writer muscles develop, the process of writing becomes more natural and frees your mind to focus on your ideas, find your voice, and develop your style.

So at this summer’s workshop when I found myself stumbling through Fair Lady Working at the Shuttles, a move I had “learned” just hours before, I reminded myself that tai chi too is a process. It would take hours and hours and years and years of practice before my tai chi might approach the fluidity and grace of my two instructors.  And I pledged to give myself years and years to deepen my practice and learn to breathe deeply and let the energy direct my arms.

Because it was the tenth anniversary of the USA Tai Chi for Health Annual Workshop and because Sun Style was at the heart of the Tai Chi for Arthritis Program, Dr. Lam announced that he would lead us in the form on the final afternoon. We trooped outside into the hot, moist Mississippi air and lined up on the grass beside a pond and beneath a large shade tree. Master trainers were in the first row, advanced students in the second, beginners (me included) tucked in next, followed by intermediates, and then everyone else attending who knew Sun Style 73. There I was safely surrounded by others who had mastered the form. No matter which direction we turned, I could eyeball someone who was confidently moving in the correct direction. As the breeze touched my hair, I breathed deeply and relaxed into the uniform movement of the group and joy filled my being.

Home now, I am still struggling to learn the new form and my focus is more on the sequence. But I know someday my tai chi will become more fluid and my mind will be free to focus on elements like my breathing and spiraling energy.

I am reminded that writing is a process, too. After all, I have been writing since I was five years old and I still have days when I struggle with fluency, stumble over usage, and wrestle with awkward phrasing. As I send my draft through yet another revision, I know that if I persist I will eventually fine tune it into a manuscript I am ready to publish.

So, after much practice, both writing and tai chi can result in a product we can deeply enjoy and be willing to share.

Do you participate in an activity that parallels or contributes to your writing? Are you learning tai chi or developing as a writer? Please share your thoughts.

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4 Responses to “How Tai Chi Improved My Writing”

  1. Lee Says:

    Well said LC! Tai chi and writing are a process. I know this as a student of tai chi and a poor writer. It takes regular practice to encourage the the energy to flow and for your skills to evolve. I try to relax into the process and find joy in my practice because this is how we become better at what we do.

  2. LC Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Lee. Tai chi is still new for me. I am trying to relax into the process but still struggle with the new form.

  3. Gurney Bolster Says:

    I like your correlations between writing and doing tai chi. Yes, Tai Chi requires many revisions. Patience and perseverance!!! We need both for writing as well as learning tai chi. I thought it funny when I realized that I was always saying that we don’t count “reps” in tai chi class like we do in fitness classes. So, I never say how many times we do repeat a movement. We just don’t count!! Tradition has it that we must repeat a movement 10,000 times before we are good at it. I don’t say that until students realize that tai chi isn’t as easy as they think. Then we just go over the material again, and again. Hopefully enjoying it each time, and more and more with each additional practice. In tai chi there are no deadlines, which makes the learning process less stressful than the process of revising writing.

  4. admin Says:

    10,000 times! That is more revision than Hemingway. Glad you enjoyed the correlations and thanks for sharing your insights. You are further along on your tai chi journey.

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