Writing as a Martial Art

“This is a last-laugh business: If you can survive as people are kicking you in the head, eventually their leg will get tired, and they’ll want to start kicking someone else.  If you’re still there, and can pull yourself up to your feet, you get the last laugh.”

Billy Ray, professional screenwriter

When I heard the above quote, while watching TALES FROM THE SCRIPT, I realized how similar writing is to martial arts.

Persistence, determination and belief in oneself are needed to finish any script or novel.   Coincidentally, those qualities are also found in a martial artist.

Let’s compare the journeys:

1. Training:

MA: We train by repeating blocks, kicks and punches over and over until sweat drips from our bodies.

Writer: The first draft is never good enough, so we write it over and over, until our brain and fingers throb.

2. Fighting under pressure:

MA: Once you’ve trained hard enough, the moves become “muscle memory”.  When under the pressure of fighting, we need our moves to occur without thought.

Writer: When you’re under a deadline, you need your words to flow effortlessly.  That won’t happen if you spend your days procrastinating and not putting words down on paper (side note: the program Write or Die is fantastic at honing your writing-under-pressure skills).

3. Being tested by your Master:

MA: The test day for your next belt arrives.  If you’ve practiced, your Master will know it and reward you.  But if you haven’t, he can see it with one look into your eyes.   There’s no way to fake being ready.

Writer: Every time you send out your work, you’re being tested.  Are you prepared? Did you do as many drafts necessary to make it your best?  Will your work be viewed as amateur or professional?  Do you have the stamina to wait for, and then deal with, the feedback?  It’s a test.  It’s always a test.

4. Number one rule of fighting is to avoid a fight at all cost:

MA: Never, ever fight if you don’t have to.  Only fight if it’s absolutely necessary, and even then, just inflict enough injury to your opponent to give yourself time to get away.  Instead of looking for a fight, be aware of your surroundings.

Writer: Every new producer, agent or editor who reads your work is a new fight.   But, you can avoid the fight simply by being patient and make your work shine before you ever send it out.   If you send it too early, be ready to defend your work and choices.  Believe me, the blow from a premature submission can be just as bad as one dealt you by a black belt.

5. Humility:

MA: being humble in and out of the dojo is a must.  Simply put, its what earns you respect from your peers.  A Master or comrade might kick the crap out of you in the ring, but at the end of the fight, he’ll always shake your hand and bow.   It’s an honor to be in the ring with a warrior.  Take your lickings and learn from them. It’ll make you better, in and out of the ring.

Writer:  No one wants to hear a writer say how great her work is.  The work should speak for itself.  When you sit across the table from a producer or agent who has just ripped your work to shreds, be gracious and reach across the divide, shake their hand and thank them for their time and thoughts.   It is an honor to have gotten the chance to be in the ring with a professional.  Their criticism isn’t a personal attack; it’s a gift of perspective.  Feedback is THE most valuable asset a writer has.  Don’t run from it; embrace it.

The seven years I trained before becoming a black belt, my master always said, “It is the journey that matters, not the belt color.”  As writers, we’re so focused on becoming published or getting produced that we forget to enjoy the journey.  Every piece of work we put to paper is a chance to learn, grow and challenge ourselves, not just the ones that reach celluloid or book shelves.  Appreciate those early, horrible pieces of writing that will never see the light of day… and thank the heavens they won’t!  They taught you.  You cut your teeth on them.

Above all, don’t give up.  As writers, we need to be prepared to pull our half-broken and bleeding bodies off the floor and have the last laugh.  I know I intent to.

What have you learned from your other passions in life that have brought your writing to a different level?

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10 thoughts on “Writing as a Martial Art

  1. I especially like the part "When you’re under a deadline, you need your words to flow effortlessly. That won’t happen if you spend your days procrastinating and not putting words down on paper" Great post as always, you are many things, but first and foremost a writer!

  2. Wow! This is awesome!!! As a "Mommy Belt" in Tae Kwon Do, my kid is working on his Junior Black Belt this year. I'm the favorite coach at all the tournaments and in class sparring, but I still started out my writing career on the sour note of sending out 1 draft too early…

  3. Lavendartime, I imagine 99% of writers have been guilty of sending out the work too soon. They should have a viagra for drafts 🙂 Jamie, I broke almost every toe, my nose and even tore my ACL doing karate, but the scars on my ego from writing rejection hurt more. No matter what the injury though, I've definitely gotten better at taking the knocks and bouncing back. I'd be dead as a writer by now if I couldn't at least laugh at the mistakes I've made 😉

  4. Totally love this article. So true on many levels. It is about the journey – and just as we learn something each step of the way, the journey will become worthwhile. xo

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