Every Friday night when I’m in Albuquerque, I do something no sane person would do.
This isn’t light contact; it’s the real thing. Granted, we use protective gear (mouthpieces are my friends), but most of us don’t wear face masks. Sorry to say . . . I get nailed with embarrassing frequency.
So why do I do it?
First of all, I think it’s important to experience taking a punch — especially for women. It’s important to know what it feels like to have a man attack you. There’s also something incredibly powerful about getting clocked in the jaw or gut and realizing that you have to keep going. In three years, I’ve caught a fingernail to my cornea, sidekicks that have knocked the wind out of me, and at least four punches right in the nose. Sometimes I’ve learned from my mistakes in missing the blocks. Other times I haven’t. That’s not the point. The big lesson is that I’ve stood up and kept at it.
The second reason sparring is so important to me is that it’s both predictable and unpredictable, kind of like life. It’s guaranteed that every single person sparring on any given night is going to miss a block and get punched or kicked. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, how quick or agile. It happens to everyone. No exceptions. The unpredictability comes in because you never know who is going to really challenge you to be better that same night and who is going to make it too easy.
Sparring is also great practice for writers who want their work to be read by anyone other than friends/family. Because, you know what? It’s predictable that your writing is going to get slammed; it doesn’t matter how good or famous you are. There are going to be nasty critics out to get you. And, it’s just as unpredictable because you’re going to find confirmation in places you never expected.
The important thing is to know as a writer that you can — and must — keep going.
Rejections, bad reviews, snarky readers, misunderstood themes/messages, rotten buzz campaigns, insults, trolls . . . yeah, we’ve all caught at least some of these on the chin. But those of us who work on our protective blocks, who step up and learn how to counterpunch and kick . . .
We’ll survive no matter what.
Today, I’d love to learn about your own sparring experiences, your tests in life, that have made you more resilient, determined and strong.
Next Monday, Murderati alum Jeff Cohen is going to take the helm. He’s got a new book coming out. Please stop by and make him feel welcome. I know I will.
I’ve said it before but dance training is what made me resilient, both physically and mentally. You learn to take criticism in stride, as it were, when you’ve got a teacher with a big stick following you across the floor yelling at you to do it FASTER, FARTHER, BETTER and shouting specific corrections while you’re trying to keep everything else together. It’s real time and it’s your body as well as your interpretation.
But it works like a charm, and it makes any paper criticism pale in comparison.
I used to love sparring, especially when some cocky young dude would get overconfident and the old guy (me) would kick him clear off the mat(we were using chest pads and helmets).
Of course, it works the other way. Worst beating I ever took was from a cute young girl who came about up to my shoulder. Her kiai sounded like a cartoon character. But I quit laughing when she came up off the mat with a jump spin kick across the side of my head that rang my bells and laid me out. Damn ballet training came in handy for her, I guess.
In my style of karate, Sanchin-Ryu, we don’t spar so much, and don’t fight competitively, but we do kumite at higher ranks.
Anyway, when we started on this with Chief Grand Master Dearman, who developed the style, after the first go-round he commented that if there was anybody there who felt comfortable doing this, they might as well go home, there was nothing he could teach them. As he said, in a fight, you’re not supposed to feel comfortable, no matter how experienced you are.
Good advice for writing sometimes, I think.
Keeping the martial arts metaphor going…
I’ve studied a style called Ja-Shin-Do since I was a kid and have found the training tremendously helpful in my writing. More than anything, it puts writing challenges into perspective. I’ve had a 280 lb man kick me into a wall and a Jujitsu expert twist my neck back like it was a bobble head toy. What’s a little rejection letter going to do to me? But the martial arts also instill discipline that carries over to the writing life. If you want to perfect that kick or that punch or that hold, you’ve got to get off your ass and do the work. The same goes for writing… only you sit ON your ass and do the work.
Unfortunately, with the baby and day job and deadlines, I’ve become a weekend warrior at the dojang. My technique isn’t where I want it to be (neither is my cardio, damn it). But the lessons Ja-Shin-Do has taught me are still there and I’m grateful.
Alex,I can’t imagine any dance teacher following you around the floor with a big stick and anything else but praise.
(Speaking of which, I get to come to part of BCon!!!!! Can we finally go dancing?)
And I bet screenwriting also trained you to deal with those punches.
J.D.,That’s what I mean about the unpredictablity of it.
I’m not very good at sparring, but my kiai would scare the pants off of just about anyone. That in itself might buy me the time to get out of a bad situation.
“. . . you’re not supposed to feel comfortable, no matter how experienced you are.”
Oh, heck yeah! That’s so incredibly wise when applied to writing.
BTW: what is Kumite?
Mike,Great to see you here, especially with that baby . . .
I think you’ve hit it on the nose. I write about Tae Kwon Do from time to time because it amazes me how much it does for my overall life, how much I apply it to each day without realizing.
I wish I’d started it as a kid rather than someone who was facing her 50s. Now, I’m at the half-century mark and my agility/body just aren’t where I would have loved them to be. It would’ve been so much fun to get decent hang time with a flying kick . . .
Sobriety and getting clean of self-destructive behavior. Definitely one of the “self” defining challenges of my life. I’ve been sober 8 years this August 4.
Marriage and a son. I’ve got an 18-month-old boy. Having children has changed my outlook on the world, taught me more compassion and love.
I think there’s about four things driving me as a writer:
1) first job I ever had was a paper route (kept it from age 6 to 16). That planted the seed as much as anything.
2) My family. I came from a family of quite possibly the worst communicators on the planet, and the whole reason I made the choice to become a writer — the defining reason — was to improve my communication skills. Part of why I would like to publish with a major publisher is for confirmation that I succeeded at improving myself and my ability to communicate with others.
3) Second job I ever had was at a movie theater. Worked there from 16-18, and that’s where I learned that storytelling was big business in America.
4) Great books have a way of changing a culture — sometimes maybe of improving it, sanding off the rough edges, if you will. I think my greatest dream is to write something big, something that matters to people, something that changes things for the good. If I could make people more compassionate, I think I’d give up just about everything I am to make that happen.
Sorry if that’s a long-winded way of answering. It’s Monday. I have coffee.
My own test was one of self-confidence rather than grit and perseverance. It was that first time my flight instructor got out of the plane and said, “Go do three more take off and landings.” I felt like I’d just signed a suicide pact with myself.
Stacey,First of all, congratulations on that upcoming anniversary. It’s a hell of an accomplishment.
I think marriage and having children (and, for women, pregnancy and childbirth)make most of us stronger and change us intrinisically. They also force us to look at what’s important — or not — on a daily basis.
Louise,That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I bet it was terrifying and exhilarating at once.
I don’t take many physical challenges, prefer the cerebral. Like golf : )
But this topic relates directly to the challenges of my critique group. I’ve been having a tough time with this book. Over the weekend, I realized that because of my insidious travel schedule, I’ve only made group three times since I started it. Three times since January. I’m used to getting through at least the first half of my books with my group, and this time, I’m only up to pg. 70.
I’ve been suffering from no-critique-itis, and the book is suffering as well. No more of that. My every other Wednesday is going back into the sacred column.
And fabulous to see you, Mike MacLean!!!!!
Leave it to you, JT, to come up with that.
I’m curious, what has golf taught you about writing? Anything?
Honestly, Pari? I learned not to let my sex get in the way of my goals. Something I think is especially important when it comes to being a thriller writer.
I was the only girl on my high school golf team. There was no women’s golf, only the men’s team. We fought hard for me to be able to compete with them. When the school district finally acquiesced, it was a triumph. No red tees for me, I shot off the blues with the boys. And half the time, I beat them.
It taught me how to ignore a crowd, how to focus on my stroke and tune out the catcalls. And there was nothing more satisfying that hearing the derisive whispers turn to awe when I nailed one good.
I regret not taking a year and trying out for the LPGA Q school. I went to college instead, played for their women’s team, and hated every minute of it. Girls were just such… well… girls about competition. Drove me nuts. The boys weren’t thrilled to have me at first, but they accepted me once I proved myself. The girls golf? Backstabbing, biting and hair pulling, literally. It was ridiculous. I decided to let golf be my hobby instead of competing any more.
The mystery community has been a little easier to navigate. But not always. There’s competition, and bad feelings, and all that, just like in every facet of life. My theory? No excuses or apologies for who, and what, I am. I’m a girl who writes dark — male land. I use the same kind of navigation as high school.
I can still nail a good one, though : )
JT,Important lessons all.
I think you also learned to keep focused, to work hard for a goal and to know that sometimes you hit well and sometimes things go to pot.
All critical lessons for writing as well.
One last thing on that note:
I did learn that sometimes, it’s just not your day. You don’t quit, it just makes you try harder the next time.
I do something even harder than sparring. I watch my seven-year-old daughter spar. Weekly.
She’s the youngest in the class, and last Thursday she bested the leader, a big guy twice her age.
My big tests in life? Surviving sexual assault. Getting clean from compulsive and self-destructive behaviors. Finding a spouse and (starting down the road to) adopting a child. And, most recently, protracted and ugly court fight with a local government agency…I can’t say a whole lot about what’s been going on publicly at this point, but my nightly prayer these days is that the ugliness is behind us now and that the judge will continue to move things toward the resolution we hope for.
Some people think courage comes from being tough enough to best all comers, to bulldoze over others before they get that punch in. But I think courage comes from taking the punch, responding to it appropriately, and getting back to level ground again.
One more thought: I haven’t found it to be the case that life favors the mighty – at least not in the long term. In my experience, life favors the tenacious and the resilient. Writing, I’ve found, is much the same way.
Stephen,I know what you mean; it’s terribly difficult to watch our children take those punches. But I’m not sure if it’s more difficult than taking the punch oneself.;-)
Tammy,Two thought-provoking comments. Thank you.
As to the issue of the mightiest taking all; it’s hooey. JD’s comment reflected that.
I believe that it’s the ability to respond with flexibility, resiliency (as you point out) and to learn that makes one successful in life.
Pari, ‘kumite’ is Japanese for ‘sparring,’ though I think there’s another implication the English word doesn’t carry. Perhaps Naomi or someone else fluent in Japanese would tell us.
I think my martial arts training as a kid was a mistake. Not so much that I shouldn’t have done it. It’s more like the higher up I got in the ranks, I could see that the organization was more commercial. Black belts had to test at certain times, they HAD to compete in so many tournaments a year. If you were a trainee instructor, you had to become certified after a period of time. Why? All of these things brought in money. The organization even has it’s own MasterCard now. But I digress. The sparring classes though were great. They were taught by this guy Henry. He really gave definition to “Fighting Irish.”
What really made me persevere was the death of my fiance a few years back and when my father had both a heart attack and later a stroke. (He survived them both). Through both these ordeals, it was the writing that kept me going. But I would also have to say that I got more inspiration from my dad at this time. He survived both ordeals because he was strong and had the desire to keep living. And the greaqt thing about this is that he may have slowed down a bit, but there are no visible side effects from either his stroke or heart attack. That to me is inspiring.
Tom,Thanks. I could probably have waited to ask my Black-Belt hubby. He studied Karate.
Dear R.J.,Wow. Just wow. To have survived the death of your fiancee and then to have witnessed and lived through the two ordeals your father experienced . . .
I’m almost dumbstruck.
Of course, I’m rarely fully dumbstruck 😉
As to the commerciality of martial arts, I haven’t witnessed it in our school. There’s no pressure whatsoever for tournaments or when a person tests. I’ll be going for my Black Belt either in August or November. To me, it will symbolize accomplishment and perseverance . . . and then I’ll keep going.
Pari,it’s good to know that commercialism hasn’t touched all martial arts schools. And good luck on getting your black belt. That’s a sign of your dedication right there.
When I think about it, I feel like the black belt I got through said school didn’t mean as much. (Of course I looked at it differently when I was a kid). When I look back at it, I remember people I talked with saying it took them several years to finally earn that black belt. I got it in a year and a half. (Because of that mandatory testing thing)
R.J.,Really? A year and a half? Sheesh.
At our school, you wouldn’t even be eligible — if you tested every three months until your black tip — for a minimum of three years. This holds true for the kids who qualify for their junior black belt.
For them to get a black belt, they have to wait usually about another 2-3 years.
We adults have a minimum of 3 years. I’ve been at it for at least that long by now and have missed at least two or three testings. My hair is alot grayer than it was when I started.
Kumite (koo-muh-tay) is just Japanese for sparring. BUt since we don’t fight competitively it’s much less formal.
I hate to hear that anyone, ever, has had trouble with martial arts and commercialization. I came so close to taking Tae Kwon Do when I was in college, then I met a girl at Black Belt USA in Charlotte who gave me her opinion. BBUSA taught TKD and also Muay Thai. She told me one night that, while she truly loved TKD and probably got more out of it in terms of overall health (flexibility and such), if she were attacked she’d drop it in a second.
I asked her why, and she said, “It can be effective, but against someone truly bigger and stronger, they may just overpower your punches and kicks. But knees and elbows don’t rely on strength, because they’re rock hard all of the time.”
Now I’m a guy not a woman, but I wanted practical self-defense, and I was sold. And I’ve never seen Muay Thai go commercial, and I’ve never seen anyone, at any of the gyms where I’ve trained, be pushed or forced to compete, because we fight in the ring only, no belt-system, no points. I had to stop because the conditioning and deadening of the nerves in my shins and elbows brought my psoriasis out with a vengeance and I still can’t get it back under control. But man, I miss Thai. Although, Ms. Taichert, I know what you mean about taking it on the chin. I was the only guy close to our head trainer (6-2, 250lbs.) when I was 5-8 190. Guess who got to be his sparring partner? Guy’s legs were like louisville sluggers…ouch.
As far as tests, the toughest one for me–other than quitting smoking 12 years ago, the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do–was switching from being a defenseman in lacrosse to becoming a goalie. Imagine standing in front of a firing squad and praying they hit you if you can’t catch the bullet, so it doesn’t get by. Pitchers in baseball throw 95+ from 60 ft. away. Lax players shoot 90+ from about 8-12 yds, or 36 feet out, and the physics puts that at the quivalent of a pitcher throwing about 160mph or so.
I’ve cried twice on the lacrosse field in pain. Once when I missed one from a 4-yr. starter at Navy, and it hit me just above and to the left of my cup. No muscle, no fat, just nerve endings. The other was when my coach hit me in the throat with a shot, and I thought I was gonna die. Actually, that was more crying from fear than pain, but you get the idea. Both times I learned that no matter how badly it hurts, it can still be a teachable moment. I’m still here, and I know there will be more times I think I’m gonna die. But if I don’t, I will have another valuable memory to learn from.
I wish you all strength and hope, two things that can get you through a lot. And if you haven’t tried martial arts, I recommend it (with a little research to see what suits you best). It’s so wonderful and empowering to feel the independence of knowing you have a chance if you have to defend yourself.
Good night, and sorry for the overlong post.