There’s a phrase I use a lot when I teach yoga — I let participants know we’re looking for the space between “easy” and “ouch.” You know that space. It’s not just in yoga. In anything we do, there’s a place where we’re challenging ourselves, but not setting ourselves up to fail. That’s the Edge, the line where we need to walk if we’re going to improve our skills at whatever we’re doing.
On the mat, it’s where we feel the muscles stretching and lengthening, gravity and our alignment assisting us into the pose. The easy is when we don’t feel the stretch; the ouch is when we go too far and all of a sudden we’re hobbling around for a day or two.
Off the mat, the easy is what we can do by rote. It applies to all areas of life, but I’ll stick to writing today. Sections of my rough drafts sometimes fall into this category because I’m just writing, not thinking about it. Easy is unconscious, muscle memory, implicit thought. Our definition of easy expands the more we practice because as we practice more skills, they become second nature; we can invoke them without thinking about it.
Once I have a handle on a character, dialogue is something for me that falls into the easy category. I can hear the characters in my head and out it comes. I can tell the tough scenes, the ones that require more, because I find myself thinking about who says what. The writing now comes from my conscious brain, involves learning, harnesses explicit thought — the opposite of easy.
One writing trick I picked up from Jesse Stern was layering dialogue. In Season 6 of NCIS (Semper Fi, episode 23), there’s a scene in Gibbs’ basement between him and SecNav. On the surface, SecNav is talking about NCIS Director Leon Vance when he refers to “brothers.” Given the events in that episode and the following one, the subtext is that SecNav is really talking about the Israelis when he mentions “brothers.” Two seasons later, we find out that in fact there was a third, deeper layer. SecNav was actually referring to a rogue NCIS agent that NCIS and Mossad were working to trap. The first two are readily apparent — we’re supposed to think that SecNav is talking about the Israelis even though he appears to be saying something else. The third, deeper, layer is where the skill comes in, where we start playing on the edge. It takes precise language and awareness of the big picture to construct a scene that can be read on three different levels like that. For me, those scenes still push me out on my Edge — I have to stretch each time to find the right words, the right action beats.
For a plotter, the edge might be sitting down to write without a plan in mind, just allowing the characters to lead the way. For the panster, sketching out a structure ahead of time might push for that edge. The plot-driven writers find their edge when they dip deep into a character’s life and motivations to find out what happens next; the character-driven writers put that into the easy column. Instead, they’re on the Edge when the plot is driving their stories. For all of us, the “ouch” comes when we force ourselves too far into any one direction, past the point where we’re challenging ourselves and into the point where we crash and burn.
Writing that taps into our deepest secrets and hurts can mean playing on the edge, finding that spot where we grab the emotion without ripping off the scabs. If we avoid it and go easy, our story is superficial. If we dig too deep, we tap into areas that are still raw and cause more damage.
When I get on the mat, I have favorite poses. I could hang out in Pigeon, Warrior II, Triangle and Wide-Legged Forward Fold all day. Other, I don’t like to do. My body isn’t as comfortable with them, so I tend to avoid them. And yet, the more I practice them, the more my body begins to open into them. Today, I’m going to include Cow-Faced Pose, Gorilla and Warrior I in my practice. And then I’m digging deep into some old memories to find the emotions I need for a rewrite of a chapter in my book. I’m walking on the Edge. Are you?