Look! More stuff from out of my rather tired brain. Hopefully it makes sense. This week I'm thinking about how martial arts helps with Awareness.
I'm sure many have heard this term before. In martial arts, it's about how cognizant you are of yourself, your surroundings, other people, potential dangers etc. It's not necessarily something that all arts actually teach. At least, not consciously. But if you're a long-time practitioner, it creeps into your skillset, anyway.
You find yourself watching people, how they move, where they move, who they avoid, what they are watching. Your peripheral vision improves and you often bring up a hand or arm automatically to ward off a motion you hadn't consciously recognised yet. You pay attention to the 'gut feelings' you get about people and environments.
I was in a busy shopping centre the other day and my husband (whom I wasn't expecting) snuck up behind me and put a hand on my hip. But I didn't strike with an elbow, (as I normally would) in automatic response. As his fingers had touched me, I'd already become aware he was there - his familiarity, his scent, the tiniest glimpse of his sweater from the corner of my eye.
The point is, you become less oblivious to your surroundings and less focussed on your goal (eg: shopping). You see more, hear more, understand more. Not everything, of course. But more.
A writer often develops a similar open-ness to their surrounds. Not so much looking for potential threats, but just observing more. Looking for stories and people. Reading body language. Listening to interesting (or dull) dialogue. Watching character traits and tics; filing them away for future use.
Understanding people and how they behave as individuals and in groups is crucial for both writers and martial artists. But while martial artists are looking for people who might kill in real life, writers are looking for people to kill off in their stories.
Our way of thinking and behaving is not the only way. Nor necessarily the right way. Go out and people-watch. Don't just listen to dialogue, watch how they move, what they do with their hands, their bodies, their hair, their eyes. Try to work out what they're thinking based on their body language. Anticipate what they'll do next and see if you're right.
It's a good way to gain insight into both your characters, and people who might be a threat in the real world.
And so we proceed apace with my verbage on the parallels between martial arts and writing (or, indeed, any creative industry). As you can see by that opening sentence, I've been watching a lot of Shakespeare recently. Which has no connection at all, but I'm enjoying it.
Next point we come to is a tricky one: Co-operation/collaboration.
Writers are often wont to say writing is a solitary art. And it is, in part. We tend to spend long hours frowning over our papers or keyboards, attempting to wrestle recalcitrant characters, swearing at pedestrian plots, and ignoring our long-suffering partners/children/pets.
But after the first draft is done and polished into our best product, we need more than our own eyes and mind to get to the next step.
Similarly with most martial arts. A student can do a lot of solo training and practice. Many arts have kata (practice movements) that can be done alone. And they're great for training muscle-memory, which leads to quicker reactions without having to think.
But for mastery you need other people. You need help. Partners. Teachers. Students.
Aikido literally means "The Way of Peace and Harmony". Which is both about avoiding confrontation, and about harmonising one's movements with your opponent and using their momentum augment your power.
Many people look at aikido, especially, and complain that the uke (training partner) is too compliant. That they run at the shitae (person doing the technique) with a hand conveniently offered and never resist the technique being applied. So the resulting throw or lock looks too effortless and 'beautiful' to be effective and wouldn't work in real life, they say.
(Much like a mature writer's work often reads more fluidly and beautifully than a beginning writer's.)
And it's true that, in aikido, uke doesn't resist; that they sail through the air and fall gracefully; that they leap up and return for more without damage.
What the observer doesn't see is the countless hours spent by both partners learning to finely judge timing and force. Because each partner is different and each training session is spent in learning to read people's body language, gauge their skill level; and in reacting to those so as to apply the right technique in the right way. At the same time, uke is learning respond to the technique in such a way as to not get hurt.
To begin with, it hurts. You feel awkward and clumsy as either shitae or uke. The technique only works because someone is jumping at the right time. You suck and your technique sucks. It feels like you'll never throw or fall with beauty and grace and power.
But, eventually, after years or co-operative help and practice, you get it. The moments where it 'just works' effortlessly become more frequent. Throws become more powerful. Falls become less painful. Anticipating the next problem/attack becomes easier. The subtle nuances of locking a human body into organic origami become easier to see and achieve. Teaching others opens new understanding and you improve again.
It's never perfect, but it's a heck of a lot better than when you started. And you don't have to think about it much.
Similarly with writing. We first put pen to paper by drawing on the practiced knowledge drilled into us by patient schoolteachers and parents. Then, when we are braver, we reach out to mentors, other writers, friends, and ask for feedback, instruction, critiquing.
And man does that hurt to start with. Every sentence turns out to be clumsy and ugly. Plot holes abound and you wonder how you could have possibly missed them. You feel like you'll never be a decent writer. There are often tears and swearing.
But slowly, if you don't quit, you learn to incorporate the feedback into new stories from scratch. And the editing/critiquing becomes more about subtleties and nuance than big, clumsy mistakes. Reading and critiquing others' work helps develop your eye for flaws in your own.
Slowly, with the give-and-take of working with others, you approach mastery.
So seek out other writers. Don't shy away from good feedback and don't take without giving back. Be glad that someone is willing to help you and help them right back.
It's the fastest way to learn to create graceful, powerful writing and stories that work in harmony with the reader's imagination.
So continues my blathering about the transfer of skills and attitude from one part of my life to another. Whether it resonates with anyone else out there is questionable. Hopefully, yes. Otherwise, well, I'm just enjoying putting my thoughts into order, so bear with me.
One of the big things you learn by sticking with martial arts is how to take a few knocks. During my year of intensive training for my first blackbelt, my arms were so covered in bruises that I drew sidelong looks from people in shopping centres. But, to me, they were badges of honor. They hurt, but I'd earned every damned one.
In many ways, physical pain is actually easier to bear than emotional pain. Physical pain from bruising etc heals. Might seem obvious, but there are few things as painful in life as rejection of one sort or another. Emotional pain often leaves lifelong scars that stop you from progressing, due to fear of being hurt again.
But the act of being knocked down - either physically or emotionally - is one we all go through. Some more than others. And the resilience to get back up, again and again and again, is a learned skill. It does come more easily to some bloody-minded souls than others. But it can be learned by anyone.
Martial arts is good at showing you what you can handle. That you can absorb more blows than you thought you could. That you can learn to be better - as long as you don't give up when you aren't perfect the first time. Or the second.
I've mentioned before the gentle art of the hajime class in aikido. Two to three hours of unrelenting action, yelling, bruising, throwing, falling, getting up, falling, hurting, getting up. Part of the agony is not knowing how long the class will go on for. It's up to sensei to decide when it's over. Your job is to access your warrior spirit. To dig deep inside and find the reserves and sheer determination to keep getting up even when your legs are jelly, each breath is painful, and your head is spinning. It's astonishing how far you can push yourself, if you just decide you WILL NOT fucking give up.
We are, in our Western-world lives, far to easy on ourselves. We choose, too often, the simplest path. And we complain when things become hard to achieve. This is why 1 in 100 people who start a martial art (or writing a book) actually continue past the first month. 1 in 1000 of those who continue past a month make it though to one blackbelt (or one novel).
We praise our children for simply existing, for being genetically gifted in some way - beauty, speed, intelligence. In doing so, we do our children a vast disservice. We should praise their tenacity, their determination to learn a new skill, their persistence in gaining each step towards understanding. Not how easily it came to them. How impressive their ability to keep getting back up is. Not how easily they did it the first time.
We need to praise their resilience, not their existence.
Doing so grows adults who can weather hard times. Who can take a publisher's rejection without bitching that the story is 'misunderstood'. Who can logically weigh up a good editor's suggestions for improvement, instead of as a taking them as a disparagement of the writer's genetically-gifted talent for writing. Who can keep submitting, even after dozens of rejections. Keep working to improve their craft until the acceptances outweigh the rejections.
So find your determination. Find your warrior spirit. Keep getting up, even after your heart is bruised and your ego is mashed.
Instead of seeking recognition for unearned 'perfection', seek the will of the warrior-scholar. Seek to learn.
If you look hard enough, you can find life-lessons anywhere and apply them to anything. But sometimes we forget to do that. We pigeonhole Things I Learned from one passion and think they don't apply elsewhere. But my Yoshinkan Aikido sensei is all about living aikido, not just doing aikido. So I figured I'd do a series of short posts on the take-aways that can be seamlessly shoehorned into a writer's world.
We'll start with everyone's favourite: Discipline.
Not smack-on-the-wrist-go-to-your-room type discipline, mind you. Self-discipline and what it takes to start things you're afraid of and finish things that seem impossible.
Aikido is derived from samurai arts, and maintains many of the traditions of strict dojo etiquette. There is a lot of kneeling in seiza, bowing, shutting up, showing you've understood by saying 'osu'. People who lack discipline and are disrespectful of Sensei, other students, the art, or the dojo generally don't last long.
Writing is not dissimilar for the dedicated author. There are traditions to know, behaviors to avoid, shutting up to do, respect to show. All of those require a measure of self-discipline. The effort needed to learn the craft skills. The restraint required when the urge to rant at another author, or a reader, hits. The awareness required to know when you should shut the hell up and listen to what more experienced authors have to say. Mouthing off is easy. Shutting up is not.
It's all stuff that takes self-discipline to learn. (By the way, I'm not saying I'm perfect at it. We're all guilty of wanting validation, and of sounding like idiots sometimes.)
Then there's the daily self-discipline. In aikido, it takes an average of 3 years to get to the first black belt. And that's usually when your sensei smiles indulgently, and says "now you can begin to learn". Because then you're expected to suck up your ego, refine your technique and improve on what you know.
And it's not three years of one class per week. To get from brown to my first black, I trained around 19 classes a week, for a year. My arms were always purple and black with bruises. My ankles were often twisted and swollen (I have hyper-flexible ligaments). I went to sleep picturing techniques and practiced movements at work and at home.
Writing is similar. To complete a novel takes work. Every day, if possible. It takes the discipline to write when you don't feel like it. To write when it's not working. To write when people are telling you to go do something that sounds way more fun in the short term. Most people who start a novel, never finish it.
Just as most people who start in martial arts, never get to black belt.
And, when the novel is done, then the learning begins. Because you must put aside ego and send it off to experienced beta readers (not just your dad or mum). And, later, to an editor. Once you've shelved your resentment at their advice, that's when you start learning how to refine your technique as a writer.
There are many more parallels I could draw in the area of discipline, but I think you get the picture. Now go out and put fingers to keyboard and take the first - or the next - steps towards your writing blackbelt.
I know, it's a click-baity kind of title. But I found an old set of notes from a business seminar I attended and thought how utterly apt they were for this industry.
So here you go. Ten opportunities for regret, should you make the easy decision as a writer.
1. Choosing the pain of regret over the pain of discipline.
Want to write that book but can never seem to find the time? Want to finish writing that book, but you keep putting it aside and starting new ones? Lots of people want to write a book. A tiny percentage actually have the discipline to finish one, get painful feedback, learn, improve, and get it to publishable standard.
2. Choosing not to be brave.
As one of my characters (Kett, from the Kalima Chronicles) said: "Bravery doesn't mean being unafraid. Courage without thought is just recklessness. Brave people have just found something that matters more than fear."
Once you've written that story or that book, you'll have to be brave and get thoughtful critiques from people who know the craft. Your mum might love it, which is great. But to know if it's a good story - and to find out how to improve it - you have to put on your adulty pants and get some helpful critiquing. (NOTE: NOT Criticism, critique - there's a difference)
3. Choosing to say "I'll try" instead of "I WILL"
Don't get me wrong. It's important to set limits and guard your precious time so you're only undertaking projects that are important to you. It's ok to say No to things. But, if you're going to take something on, don't half-ass it. If you're going to be an author, learn the craft. No-one's perfect at writing - neither in their first book nor their 20th. But your 20th first draft should be a darned sight better than your first one if you're genuinely putting effort into learning the craft. So don't say 'I'll try to learn to write well.' Say 'I will learn to write well.' It's a slight shift in mind set, but you're a lot less likely to give up.
4. Choosing to try once or twice, instead of many times.
Rejections are inevitable - like death, and taxes, apparently. And almost as painful (well, maybe not quite). Many writers give up after a couple of rejections, unable to believe their work wasn't acceptable. We aren't trained for persistence. In the western world, especially, we coddle our kids by telling them they are exceptional and brilliant. It might be true, but it leads to a (false) belief that they should be perfect in the first attempt and are a failure if they're not. We'd be better off teaching persistence and the value of learning from mistakes. That gives resilience and the ability to get back up and try again. And again. And again.
5. Choosing comfort over discomfort.
Let's face it: a hot coffee, a couch, and Netflix is a lot more comfortable and relaxing at the end of a hard day, than facing a blank document awaiting your literary brilliance. But every time you choose the easy path over the harder one, you're treading water instead of making progress toward your dream of being a writer. By all means, take time off if you need it. Don't burn out. But do something more often than you do nothing.
6. Choosing not to apologise and grow
We all make mistakes. We all do the wrong thing - either to others or to ourselves. Don't wallow in self-hate over it. Acknowledge you did the wrong thing. Work out how you could do it differently next time. Talk it through with the person you hurt. Learn from it.
7. Choosing not to let go
Envy of other writers; bitterness over rejections; resentment for perceived or real slights. They're all pretty poisonous. If you can dial up the compassion - for both yourself and others - you may find a lot of these feelings fall away. If not, therapy does help. We all experience these emotions at some point, to varying degrees. But when they control your decisions and your thinking, you have a problem.
8. Choosing not to throw out your backup plans
Now, I'm the sort of person who likes to have backup plans because I always expect things to go wrong. So this is one I always struggle with. And sometimes it is necessary to have a backup. This advice is more about committing yourself to achieving your dream of being a writer. Given the crap financial incentives for being a writer these days, having a backup for daily income is a wise idea, not a bad one. Just don't let it shunt aside what you really love.
9. Choosing to be too proud/egotistical
Don't be so sensitive that you can't admit to fault. Laugh at yourself. Learn from your mistakes. Arrogant writers are often poor ones because they won't admit their writing needs improvement. Of course, it's also often a deep sense of insecurity and unworthiness (imposter syndrome), which is the other side of the arrogance coin. So some compassion for folks who come off as arrogant might be good, too. We're all struggling in different ways. We all want to be accepted.
10. Choosing not to care/Choosing to care too much
We all get emotionally attached to our stories, our characters, our dreams of being recognised. So rejection comes as a huge blow. And choosing to pretend we don't care is really just another face of caring too much. Feeling like a rejection of our work is a rejection of us as a person. People who choose not to care about something are deliberately cutting themselves off because they feel attacked. It's ok to care. It's ok to be upset when things don't go to plan. Just don't let it stop you trying again. If you cut yourself off from rejection, you also cut yourself off from the thrill of success and achievement.
That's my philosophical ranting for the day. Agree or disagree, it doesn't much bother me.
Have a good one.
One of the things I learned from doing Yoshinkan Aikido came from a class affectionately called a Hajime class. Hajime just means 'begin' in Japanese. And that's what it is - an hour, two, two and a half, three hours of beginning and never stopping. You do technique after technique as hard and as fast as you can. Over and over and over. No rests. No breaks.
The first time you do a class it's because you really don't know what to expect. You get prodded into it by sniggering classmates. It's an act of sheer willpower and spirit to get through to the end without collapsing or throwing up. (Many do throw up or collapse. Some come straight back onto the mat. Many quit.)
The second time you take a class because you DO know what's coming and you choose to do it anyway. That, to me, shows even greater spirit.
So, when I offered to help my writers group create a second anthology of short stories, it was the writing equivalent of a second Hajime class. I knew what I was getting in to: a year of stress, joy, frustration, excitement, exhaustion, and pride. There were times when I wanted to throw it all in. Helping 15 authors (from beginners to experienced writers) to develop stories to a polished, publishable level is not easy.
But it IS rewarding. Not only do I learn more each time about how stories work, I also learn more about how to help bring the best out in people. How to stretch them and find their strengths as writers. I'm sure the results aren't deathless prose or perfect - I'm not arrogant enough to think I know everything about writing stories - but they're pretty darned good.
What I like most of all is that I get to see the authors' glowing faces when they hold the book and see their name in print. There's nothing like knowing you've worked your arse off and produced something sixteen people are proud of. Nothing like knowing you've helped people you care about achieve their dream.
If you'd like to check out the result of all that hard work, you can pre-order here: ELEMENTAL
No, this isn't a blog about the fact that I'm weird - true though that is. This is a short story. Partly me experimenting (sorry) and partly just getting stuff out of my head about the baggage we all carry and how that holds us back. Well, me, anyway.
You carry fear and memory in suitcases. Some are heavier than others, but you cling to them all. They bind your hands and weigh down your heart. You stumble over them on every path to the future. Yet you refuse to let them go.
Even the earliest fears are there. A pink vinyl baby-bag, tucked into the linen cupboard of your thoughts, dusty beneath neatly-folded trivia.
You begin with trauma and it underpins your life. Remember? From warm, slumberous blackness you push forth into aching brilliance. You seek to return to the safe-dark of ignorance and parasitic security, for the world seems too big, too cold, to bewildering.
You can’t. There are too many cases to carry.
Recognise this tattered backpack, emblazoned with lovehearts in coloured pen and glitter? This one holds hallways echoing with the high-pitched chatter of small, unaware little people, the smell of paper and urine, the tolerant weariness in your teacher’s face. Tiny desks and uncooperative pencils. Sports-time sweat and lunchtime insecurity. The boy you want to impress in fifth grade, but who never sees you. The friend who forsakes you for someone more exciting. A thousand petty slights pile in until your backpack bulges with cherished false beliefs.
No, don’t let those go. You need those. They balance the broken pieces of your parents’ baggage you also carry, doled out like bitter, unbaked cookies, each time you go home to their unmet expectations.
But there’s another bag, isn’t there? What’s in the steel, sequinned purse encasing a slow-beating heart? Ah…It’s all sly, sweet glances and furtive kisses with hot, impatient breaths mingling. Bodies alive and sensitised, desperate and afraid, wanting. The potential for pain multiplies a hundredfold. Now we can be hurt in ways we don’t even understand yet. We’re exposed in body and soul. We’re sharing more than giggled secrets now; we’re sharing the sweetness of our Self. A Self not fully formed or understood; vulnerable to the knives of hateful words, thrown by a precise and angry tongue. Who would have thought the heart could ache so deeply for so long? Let’s snap a silver lock shut around that organ. We’re armoured now. Good.
So here we stand, holding our baby-bag, our backpack, our purse, our brokenness; longing for a life less ordinary, more magical. We haul our luggage along the comfortable path to and from work each day. We live for the weekend, for the relaxation, the precious time to suck up the energy needed to cope with next week’s stress. We watch the flickering screens at night, living vicariously through fictional figures, envying their imaginary lives.
Incremental world-wreckers in our cocoon, we hide the potential to save ourselves in complaints about others. We build walls with our baggage, seeking the safe-dark, keeping the world out.
Wishing, we ‘if only’ our life away.
If only I had time to write that story. If only I could quit work and live off my art. If only I could save the world, change the world, change myself…
But where do I start? Where I spend my time and money reveals my focus. I’m working eight hours and wasting the rest on nothings. Why? I’m afraid to commit myself to loving the world, pain and all. I’m so burdened I’ve stopped moving. These heavy bags have zipped away hurt and passion together.
But I am not my job. Not my pain. I am my creative soul. I am free. If I choose I can release these burdensome cases. I don’t need to quit work to be free. I don’t need to relive every trauma to be a loving adult. I can decide who I want to be, what I hold, what I release, and what I want to create. Then I just have to do it.
In fact, I will.
I leave my luggage to circle endlessly on the conveyor belt of others’ expectations and walk away. Now I have two hands free to embrace the world. My heart is weightless. The darkness is there but I push free of it and shed the cowl of fear hiding my future; face the light, brilliant and painful.
Life cannot be lived backwards
IBefore we start, transparency - this is an ongoing process. Not hating myself and my writing, I mean. Not sure I'll ever have it down pat.
I go through periods where things are going well and I'm on top of all the stuff that goes with being a writer - marketing, writing, editing etc. And I think 'yeah', I've *so* got this.
Then one night of bad sleep, or one evening of staring at words that that seem irrecoverably banal, or one three star review...and I'm back to square one.
Newsflash... I've always struggled with self-confidence.
Which may shock people who've met me. Apparently I come across as super-confident and always certain. It's all an illusion, my friends. Or perhaps a delusion on my part - not sure which.
What I am is a chronic over-achiever due to a pervasive and deep-seated fear of not being good enough. So I do things. Science degrees, opera training, multiple blackbelts, archery, knife-throwing, bellydancing, painting, playing instruments...yadayada.
But when I start, I'm also AFRAID to do those things. I'm scared I won't be good at them straight away. Or that people will criticise me and that HURTS, dammit. Fortunately, I'm also deeply bloody-minded and sometimes stubborn (ask my husband).
So I make myself do the things I'm scared of. Sounds weird, I know, but it works for me.
And who knows, it may work for you, too. Over the years, I've found the worst that can happen is I'm bad to start with, then I get better with study and practice.
Huh - who would have thought?
I'm never perfect, though. (Sigh) In a world of 15billion people, there's always someone willing to tell me I'm doing it wrong. So I may as well suck it up and stop being so easily-bruised.
Same goes with writing. My 80AD series, while wildly popular, is not my best writing. But it gave people 'the feels', so they liked it. The occasional mediocre reviews I got at first devastated me. Then I metaphorically slapped myself around the head and decided to learn how to write better - just as I'd decided how to play instruments, do martial arts, finish a couple of degrees.
And that's what it takes to stop hating yourself and your writing. Stop thinking you (and your writing) have to be perfect. Decide you're on a learning journey. Decide to take the criticisms (valid or not) in your stride and get better. Decide to accept the fear...and do it anyway.
Well, that was fun... Just got to spend an hour or so chatting with the very down-to-earth and fun Mercedes Lackey & Larry Dixon - authors extraordinaire. Hosted by the redoubtable Diane Morrison and joined by Stephanie Barr and Sarah Burman.
Hosted by the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Association (of America) on their YouTube channel, we talked about various aspects of what makes a story Fantasy and whether the genre divides are real, are useful or are just imposed on us by marketing forces. We also diverged into various other sidetracks, as happens when you get a bunch of authors together.
And we managed not to swear! Although we did agree to get it all out offscreen before the session started, so it's probably a good thing the camera's weren't recording at that point.
Suffice to say Larry and Mercedes were lovely and had some excellent ideas about what fantasy is and means to readers. Sarah and Stephanie and Diane also gave great insights. Hopefully this will keep you amused and or informed for a little while.
I used to write effortlessly, daily, with a slightly manic grin on my face and a bubble of excitement in my chest; with confidence about how GOOD the story was.
Then I published the 80AD Series. And that went nuts with hundreds of thousands of downloads and people of all ages emailing me from all over the world to say how much they enjoyed the series.
Weirdly, (or not, if you know me) that made me think: 'I should know how to write better, so I can re-edit/rewrite and do those stories justice. They aren't good enough as they are.'
So I learned stuff. Much stuff. How to structure a story correctly, character arcs, themes, plotting vs pantsing. Not all the things, but many of them. I'm sure I still have much to learn.
Now it's a horrible catch-22. Yep, undoubtedly my writing is clearer, more precise and evocative. I've been shortlisted for awards and had people who know more than me nod wisely and say nice things.
But writing is no longer the effortless joy it was a few years ago. Now I agonise over every damned word and fret over whether characters are put through the wringer enough, or whether the ending is foreshadowed properly, or too overtly. And, as a horrible side-effect, I can't watch a movie without a small part of my brain breaking down the story structure and predicting what will come next, or pointing out plot holes. During the movie. Not afterwards.
And there's the inevitable 'what do my peers think' creeping paralysis. I never had peers before. I was solitary, writing for my own enjoyment and throwing it up online to see if anyone else liked it. Now I've made some fabulous friends in the Australian writing scene. They're lovely people. Talented, interesting, smart, well-read. And I'm terrified to put my writing in front of them because it's never going to be as good as theirs.
The worst part is: there's no going back to the good old days of ignorance.
Which is also the best part.
So how do I move forward? How do I regain the fresh confidence in my work and still employ all the knowledge?
I have no idea. I probably need to find a middle ground between paralysing lack of self-belief and ignorant over-confidence.
Aiki Flinthart is the author of the highly successful YA Portal fantasy series, 80AD. Her latest release, Shadows Wake, is due out on the 25th March. Pre-order here: Shadows Wake.
I live in Australia - which tells you I have a sense of humour. We're a self-deprecating people, we Aussies. My aim is to, one day, vanish in a blinding flash of enlightenment. In the mean time, I'm doing my best to learn as many