The Kung Fu of writing

A few years ago Jackie Chan and Jet Li made a movie together, Forbidden Kingdom. It’s a classically simple tale of good versus evil and a young hero coming of age and becoming what he is meant to be, even when he doesn’t believe himself capable of it.

One of the things I love about this movie is a little passage in the middle, where a character says, “Kung fu is hard work over time. A poet has kung fu, who writes words that make emperors weep. The butcher has kung fu, who cuts meat all day, his knife never touching bone.”

In my youth, when I was half the woman I am now (if you get my drift) I did combat sports. I learned to wrestle and box, among other things. I never studied the Asian martial arts, but I love that idea that kung fu is not about fighting, but about discipline and study and attention and skill.

In June I had a meeting with an agent, who subsequently wrote to me that she was “so encouraged by the way you treat writing as a craft to be learned and mastered”. (My immediate internal response was: how else would you treat it?)

Hard work over time usually means that your results are incremental, perhaps not even perceptible as they happen, until one day you look back and say, “How did I get here?” You’re remembering yourself as you were before that first step, and you forget how many steps you’ve taken along the way, because each one seems so small.

I have, if I say so myself, a fairly impressive list of short-story and poetry publications, and I have an agent interested in The Swan Harp. I’ve gained a couple of A-list clients, publications that, a few years ago, I found it hard to imagine myself writing for. (I can’t tell you what an incredible kick I get out of being a regular contributor to the Old Farmer’s Almanac website!)

It took five years to get here, more or less. I really started focusing on my writing in 2007. Each little step – the first story publication, the first poetry publication, the first time I placed on the short list in a contest, the first time I won – moved me a tiny bit farther along. I still think of myself in many ways as an emerging writer, because I know how much I still have to learn.

That’s probably kung fu, too – always travelling, never actually arriving. I’m okay with that.

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4 Responses to The Kung Fu of writing

  1. This is helpful.
    Would you say that whenever you concentrate on perfection in one area, such as in writing, you must drop that perfection in other areas, such as gardening or hospitatlity or housekeeping? Is all of life a search for which area of perfection to choose?

    • ecreith says:

      There’s perfection in housekeeping? I thought that the point of housekeeping was that it was never done and never good enough. I love Quentin Crisp’s observation that “After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.”

      Seriously, I don’t look for perfection in writing, or in anything. That way madness lies. I look for the best I can do with the time I can commit. So yes, you must choose where your time and energy go, and do the best you can with what you can give.

  2. It is easy to forget how many steps we’ve taken. Now matter how you look at it, it is the journey that matters.

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