I have taken Tai Chi for many years. It is properly called one of the martial arts – a “soft art” – and it has several forms, with many movements in each. There are, however, a few principles that apply to all of them. These principles can be applied to a lot of other things in life – gardening work, driving an automobile, painting a picture – and in my case – writing. Here are three that help me, and might be of use to you.
Concentrate, but be aware of what that really is. In Tai Chi, concentration does not imply stress. It is, instead, “relaxed focus.” If you find yourself tense and struggling to find the right words, you are perhaps trying too hard. Think about what it is, exactly, that you are writing about — and wander around in it a bit.
Sometimes I close my eyes when I am doing a Tai Chi form that I know very well. I don’t bother to check on where my feet are going or where my arms are. I rely on my muscle memory to complete the form.
I do the same with writing now and then. I happen to be a good touch typist (just a crazy aptitude, I guess), so if I am stuck in a story, I close my eyes and peck away. I wander around in the story, typing in a stream-of-consciousness kind of mode.
I don’t bother with capitals letters or other punctuation excepting periods. I just type away. After several paragraphs, I open my eyes. Sure enough, there are a ton of red marks from the word processor — but spell check is a wonderful invention. It takes care of many of them. After I clean up the rest, I am often amazed to find out how much this exercise has lent to the story. Sometimes it suggests a direction I hadn’t given much thought to before, but which I now intend to exploit.
2. Everything moves at once
In Tai Chi, you don’t, for instance, move your feet to a new position and then move your arms around to “catch up.” Everything moves at once. Your body parts – head, arms, legs, torso, — move in unison to go from one position to another.
So it must be with your writing. Nothing should lag behind. The plot doesn’t advance on its own without revealing something of the characters in the process, and the characters don’t engage in a lot of actions that don’t advance the plot in some way.
As you create your work, you lay down the logic of it. There are lots of guidelines for creative writing, but most of them follow more or less the same flow that has guided good writing for years. You can name these steps what you will. To put it very simply, you will open by introducing your characters and putting them in a situation – good, bad, humorous, etc. You will often introduce a conflict that they solve, succumb to, or ignore. You explain the consequences of the path they chose. And you wrap things up.
All through this, everything moves at once. Plot, characters and ideas move apace.
3. Balance and Power
Tai Chi is not a mere waving of arms, although it may look like that to someone not familiar with it. Most of what is happening revolves around the torso – the core of the body. With no core you have no balance and no power, other than the limited amount your legs and arms can provide.
Your story’s meaning is the core of your work – and you must always do things that will strengthen it – make it more powerful to your readers. Ask yourself all the time, “just what is the idea behind this story?” This is not the same as plot or character – they will carry and develop your story, but if the you find that you are having misgivings about where it is going, you are out of balance.
Go back to the idea that attracted you in the first place. It may have come from a newspaper article or something you saw on TV. Perhaps a street scene, or something in the supermarket caught your eye. It might have been a crisis in your own family. What about it made it so compelling that you wanted to write about it? Think, specifically, about your feelings at the time. Sadness? Hilarity? Puzzlement? Guilt?
It would be similar to an insight into a painting, that, perhaps not initially apparent, eventually captures us, and gives us that “Aha” moment. You have discovered how the artist uses objects in a painting to tell you what the painting means — the core of the painting. Consider “The Raft of the Medusa,” a well-known painting by Gericault. The painting portrays a raft of desperate ship-wrecked sailors, and a distant sail which marks a ship that may – or may not — have spotted them. Looking at it as merely a group of sailors a-drift and waiting for rescuers is like saying that Moby Dick is primarily a story about the big fish that got away. The meaning Gericault hopes to convey in his work — the meaning of the painting — is the spectrum between hope and despair – even death.
Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Road” describes a father and son wandering through a harrowing and dangerous post-apocalyptic world. The characters are not even named. The man tries desperately to find some sanctuary in this blasted land that can sustain the boy whom he knows will surely survive him. As one astute critic observed, though, it is essentially “a love story.” This is the core around which McCarthy builds his story.
There is a core in your story, also, and everything is balanced around it.