Friday, October 21, 2011

Yoga and Writing

By Susan

I've been working way too hard on my revisions and edits lately.

Say there is no such thing? I've over-thought plot, underdeveloped character, overwritten description and sidestepped themes. I've dreamed of my manuscript--a river, an abbey, and my characters: mouths moving but without voices. So last week, I wanted to give my mind a break while moving my body. I wasn't moving forward anymore--only spinning my wheels.

I work out regularly at the gym, with a personal trainer named Stephen who has been my guy for almost five years. I know how to squat, bench, curl, and press, and the curve of my shoulders can prove it. I like to carry my own fifty-pound bag of dog food, as I tell my daughters. I'm a firm believer that you need to haul your own luggage in the airport, I say, because nobody else is going to carry it for you. And I've moved through my manuscript this way too, lately. All power, all force, carrying it all by myself.

Yet lately, I've needed a change, both in my workout routine and in my manuscript. I've taken yoga since 1992. Over the past nineteen years, I've studied and developed my practice and, even though I may not stretch every day, my body still knows a full sun salutation by heart. Over the past few weeks of struggling with my manuscript, I realized it didn't need more muscle. It needed to stretch and breathe.

And so last Monday I started a Bikram yoga class, which is a ninety-minute yoga class in a 105 degree room.


I went five days straight. Sweat poured from my body like a spigot. My hip flexors and hamstrings, tight from years of power lifting, cried out as I forced them to lengthen. I struggled to find my center of balance on the first day, but by day five it had come back to me. At the end of each daily class, as I lay in quiet shavasana, my mind wandered back to the manuscript. I'd been bullying my plot around for weeks, I realized. I'd forced my prose onto paper, punching the keys and boxing with words. And then it hit me right back: It wasn't working.

Sometimes, you need a little finesse. A little stretching and reaching. It still takes a lot of sweat, but with the power of a dance instead of the brute force of a bench press.

After a week of daily Bikram practice, I sat down at my keyboard with peace. What was I trying to say? What picture did I want to paint for my readers? It wasn't about forcing the door open to my own creativity with a crowbar. It was simply allowing the words that were already there to form themselves on paper. I couldn't have done it with muscle. I had to do it with breath.

I've rearranged my first twenty pages of the manuscript with the heart of a yogi, not the muscle of The Terminator.

On Wednesday I had lunch with Pamela. Still full of doubt about the new words, the scene placement, and my own insecurities, I printed the pages and spread them out on the table. I told her my worries and then sat quietly while she read (as any writer knows, this is not an easy thing to do). She had suggestions. She scribbled in the margins. And this morning--48 hours later, I've pieced it all back together like a jigsaw puzzle.

And guess what? It works. Sometimes, perhaps, we muscle through sections like a body builder. Yet at other times, we must remember the flow of words and the lyrics to the song.

This week, I did just that. And it's a better story because I stopped to breathe.


  1. Cindy Keeling23 October, 2011

    Great post, Susan. This is also true of taking time off between the story time to breathe and stretch.
    Best of luck with your ms!

  2. If you want another set of eyes, feel free to send it my way, Susan.

  3. This is such a helpful post, Susan! It's just what I needed to hear, since I've been on a massive "sprint" with my WIP for a couple of months now, but started getting stuck about 10 days ago. You're right that we can't always attack every problem with force, and I think that's what I'd been doing, to the point that I'm exhausted and burnt out. I'm thinking of taking this week to "breathe" like you. Take my mind away from it and write other things, like poetry, to take me back to my roots. Thanks for a great reminder!


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