Friday, September 01, 2006

Getting out of the story's way

Somewhere between the Anything Goes If You Feel Good school of writing and the Obsessive Writer in Charge school lies a vast middle ground. I wandered there recently story in hand, while working on one of those revisions from hell. The kind that seems to be able to inflict nothing but damage. Each attempt seemed to add only layers of useless material.

A tai chi breather was in order. Just in time, Sifu Dug Corpolongo came up to our neck of the desert for a weekend workshop.

We spent two days examining the details of form, figuring out how to use intention to drive movement, learning to recognize the instincts buried in us, separating them from dysfunctional learned habits. Some of us were struck by how we could go through a small section of the form feeling the chi, knowing when the forearm moved it, or the elbow swept it into compactness. We could feel, tangibly, the point at which we lost that awareness. After that the form became reduced to function, no more. It lost something large and vital and interior. It became merely an exercise.

So it is with writing. I carried this idea home with me and began to apply it to a piece of fiction that is likewise threatening to peter out after the first 10 pages. I went back to the beginning looking for the energy that had set this work in motion. It worked. I could pinpoint the exact place where the piece emptied, lost its chi.

Now, in revising the work, I'll try each time to return to the early passages and push their energy forward through it. This rhythm, roundness, is what I need to pay attention to–not the logic or the ideas or where things connect, but how they feel and flow.

Teaching too is driven by its own inner rhythms. That's how you know when something is working, and resoundingly when it's not.