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Writing and Martial Arts 3: On Mushin and Ignoring the Footwork


This is guest post by Donald Mead is part of the “Writing and the Martial Arts” series, in which other writer/martial artists talk about parallels between these two seemingly very different disciplines.

Donald Mead is a Writers of the Future winner, and his work has also appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Strange Horizons.

You may be interested in the two earlier posts in the series, both by black belt, professor of History and Philosophy, and fantasy novelist Steve Bein: “How Do You Like Your Chances?” and “Writing and Punching.”

In Japanese martial arts culture, the pen and sword exist together as equals. This contrasts with the Western adage: “the pen is mightier than the sword.” The historical roots of the Japanese view come from certain restrictions imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate and from Bushido, the philosophy of the warrior. Both of these topics are as dull as they sound.

I’ve found surprising similarities between martial arts and writing that are much more personal, in particular, the concept of mushin or empty mind.

Me? I have black belts in Shotokan karate, kendo, iaido and minor training in a variety of other arts. Thirty years of training in all, and I have to admit, I’m tired, but I’ve learned a few things.

One of those arts I mentioned is iaido, which is the Japanese sword art of drawing, cutting and returning the blade to its saya (scabbard). I’ve also had years of training in Shinkendo, which is an Americanized version of Japanese sword. Both of these arts make use of two-person exercises in which one person cuts at the defender, and the defender blocks. The number of cuts and blocks increases with the skill level of the students. Mind you, this isn’t kendo with its flexible bamboo swords and thick padding from head to toe. In this traditional art, the participants have no armor and use solid-wood bokken (wooden swords).

Once, we invited a Japanese instructor from California to lead a seminar. We learned a rather fast and dynamic two-person exercise–a series of cuts and blocks moving in a square. Step-cut, block, step-cut, block, cut and square up to your partner. Hard to describe–harder to do. There’s a lot to keep in mind in these types of exercises. The cut has to be aimed at the head or your partner has no reason to block. The block has to be at the correct height and angle or you’ll end up with a cracked noggin. And of course, there’s footwork. It’s a dance with consequences more serious than stepped-on toes.

After class, we treated Sensei to dinner and a couple of drinks. Someone asked about the footwork of the exercise and Sensei responded “Oh, there is no footwork in this art.”

This had all of us more than befuddled since Sensei had been pounding us about footwork for the past three hours. Here’s what he meant we eventually figured out. We learned a new exercise that required us to concentrate on technique: footwork, cutting angle, blocking, distancing and timing. We went slowly over the months, breaking down each move and smoothing out the bumps (figurative and literal). We celebrated small milestones like getting all the way through without tripping over ourselves. Later, we felt brave enough to speed up–not as fast as Sensei, but pretty good. Within a year, we were doing the exercise with no hesitation. There was no thought of our feet, or of getting

our fingers bashed or the effectiveness of the block. We were simply building and maintaining the energy of the exercise that flowed from one side to the other. That’s mushin–the mind doesn’t stop to think about technique or safety. That’s all built in now–instinctual. But you’re not empty-headed either. You have a partner, and you’re having a non-verbal conversation. To the participants the swords and footwork are gone, but the energy of the conversation is real and quite pleasant in most cases. That’s what Sensei meant when he said the art had no footwork. A student might begin with footwork, but at an advanced level, the footwork doesn’t matter at all.

I was a white belt when I started writing fiction. A beginner. I didn’t know that at the time; I thought I had all the tools I needed to write. I took one of my stories to a writers’ workshop at Chicon 2000 and had an eye-opening experience. I mean, what was this point of view thing the pros kept harping about? And what was wrong with my thirty adverbs per page? They didn’t even like my surprise ending where the main character wakes up, and it was all a dream. Yep, it was that bad.

I had to learn how to write step by step. Just like a martial arts student learning the cut, block and footwork, I had to learn the basics of prose, and that took concentration. My flabby verbiage had to go along with most of those adverbs and passive sentence structure. Then I had to think about my stilted

dialogue and how to smooth it out. Finally, I had to think of the story as a whole–the use of tension, the motivation of my characters, the believability of the fantasy element and a satisfying and logical ending.

You know that “million words” saying? I my case it applied; I wrote at least a million words before my writing noticeably improved and I started making sales. But by that millionth word, I wasn’t thinking about the prose anymore. All of those writing rules, the traditional ones and my personal ones, were all instinctive. I saw a picture of the story in my mind, and my hand moved over the paper. It wasn’t perfect mind you, a fact my critique group is quick to remind me, but the fundamentals were there now.

I bet you’ve been there–writing in the zone. When the story takes off and your hand can barely keep up. That’s mushin.

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Writing and Martial Arts 2: Writing and Punching

States of mind

This is the second post in the “Writing and the Martial Arts” series, this post from Steve Bein. For more on this series and on Steve, see the first post: “Writing and Martial Arts 1: How Do You Like Your Chances?”

Bruce Lee said that before he started martial arts, he thought a punch was just a punch.  Then, having begun his training, he realized a punch was not just a punch.  Then, having mastered the art, he understood a punch was just a punch.

Now you may say this sounds like advice from Yoda.  You may say it’s as inscrutable as a Zen koan.  And if you said that, you wouldn’t be far wrong; Bruce cribbed this from Zen Buddhism (in the Buddhist version it’s a mountain, not a punch, that needs to be understood), and as it happens, Yoda was first conceived as a Buddhist and Daoist master (Dagobah, where he lives, is the name of a Tibetan style of pagoda, a sacred structure in both Buddhism and Daoism).   But what I want to take from it here is a comparison with writing.

Before I started writing, I thought writing was just writing.  That is, I thought all you did was sit down and type, and then you’d have a story.  There’s an episode of Californication where Hank Moody’s childhood friend voices this view on writing: “I can’t believe you get paid to just sit around and make stuff up.”  The uninitiated in the martial arts have a similar view on punching: just ball up your fist and whack somebody with it.

They’re wrong about that.  I’ve told my martial arts students many times that if you spent a year working on nothing but your jab, it wouldn’t be a wasted year.  People who don’t want to waste time studying the punch end up breaking their hands.  Their punches are slow, sloppy, and without power.  They punch from the shoulder, not from the toes, and worse yet, they can’t even understand what it means to punch from the toes.

In my opinion, the same goes for sitting down to write without any sense of the art.  It’s an old adage that stories amount to interesting characters with difficulties.  But how do you invent an interesting character?  How do you find the difficulty that is hardest for this specific character, yet one that this specific character is best suited to solve?  How do you make a reader care about solving this difficulty?  For that matter, how do you get readers to flip to the next page so they’ll even find out what the difficulty is?

None of that stuff comes naturally.  Every writer must go through a phase in which writing is not just writing.  If that weren’t true, little kids’ stories would be interesting.  But they’re not—at least not to anybody but their parents.  Little kids’ stories go, “This happened and then this happened and then this happened.”  Good stories go, “This happened because this happened, and because of those, this happened.”  And when they say, “this happened,” what that really means is, “this difficult thing happened to this interesting person, and it turned that person’s world upside down, and now all of us really want to know how this person is going to set things right.”

A good story generates both tension and a sense of inevitability.  There is a causal connection between act two and act one, and enough suspense generated in act one to leave readers no choice but to read act two.  And that’s something we need to learn, and practice, and practice again until we get it right.

My process for this is a lot like my martial arts training.  In jiujitsu, for example, you’ve got strategy and tactics, you’ve got practice in technique, and you’ve got actual sparring.  Anyone who lacks the patience for the first two gets dominated in the third one.  At 170 pounds, I’ve tapped 400-pounders because they didn’t have technique and they didn’t have a game plan.

In writing, the strategic and tactical phase—for me, anyway—is a lot of free-form scribbling just to figure out what story I want to tell.  In the practice phase I create an outline for the story.  Sometimes this is short; other times it’s quite elaborate.  (My longest outline to date was 41 pages.)  The sparring phase is the actual writing itself, and then the editing, and then editing again, doing it over and over again until I’ve got it right—exactly like jiujitsu, or kickboxing for that matter, or any other art I’ve ever trained in.

In jiujitsu, sometimes technique fails me and I have to come up with something on the fly.  In writing, sometimes the outline fails me and I need to take it in a different direction.  In jiujitsu, when I get into a jam where the technique I learned isn’t working, I always want to get a technique that will work better.  In writing, when I get into a jam where the story I outlined is losing tension, I always want to start a new outline that ratchets up the tension again.  And both in jiujitsu and in writing, the most important phase is the first: understanding exactly what I want to achieve, so that my practice and my execution lead to the kind of results I want.

I’m a better kickboxer than a jiujitsu player.  Part of that is due to body type—I’m tall and lanky, and at my best when I can keep an opponent at a distance—but most of it is due to the fact that in jiujitsu I’m still at a point where I have to memorize techniques and apply them.  That hasn’t been true for me in kickboxing for years.  The fight just flows.  I know what it takes to make an opponent open his guard, and I know what it takes to keep him from advancing.  For me, kickboxing is just kickboxing.  There’s no memorization.  Show me something new even once and I can do it.  Jiujitsu is not just jiujitsu for me; show me something new and I need to practice it a dozen times right now, and then again at the beginning of the next class, or else I’m certain to lose it.

I’m not at a phase where writing is just writing either.  I used to believe that no writer can get there.  Now I believe otherwise.  In On Writing, Stephen King says he doesn’t outline at all, nor does he formulate a game plan in advance.  He just thinks of interesting characters and then watches what they do.  Harlan Ellison says he writes the same way.  If we take them at their word, then for them writing is just writing.

I am still looking for the magic formula that will allow me to do what they do.  I don’t particularly enjoy laboring over every story.  I don’t like doing all that free-form scribbling in advance just to throw it away and start anew.  I don’t like following an outline only for it to lead me to a dead end.  I also don’t like the process of memorizing one jiujitsu technique after another, just to get tapped because the technique came to mind a tenth of a second too late.

Here’s the bitch of it: there is no magic formula.  There is only time served.  There is only doing it, and doing it again, and doing it again.  Sooner or later I will either make myself a good jiujitsu player or I will get so old that my body can’t do it anymore.  And sooner or later I will either keel over dead or I will discover how to spontaneously create interesting characters, line by line tension, three act structure, and all the rest of it.

I wish I could tell you how.  I can’t.  For me writing is not just writing.  Not yet.

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Writing and Martial Arts 1: How Do You Like Your Chances?

States of mind

I know a small but fascinating group of people who are both successful writers and accomplished martial artists, and as these are both areas of great interest to me that I practice on a regular basis, I was very curious to know what connections some of these friends drew between the two disciplines.

The first post in this series comes from my good friend Steve Bein, who is a martial artist with 20 years of training, a professor of Philosophy and History at SUNY Geneseo, and an award-winning fiction writer. His first novel (a thriller about modern crime and samurai history) comes out in 2012.

Steve has this question for you: How do you like your chances?

I was told as I entered my Master’s degree program of a plan to streamline graduate education.  We could dispose of the GRE, of long hours spent walled in by stacks of books, of area exams and dissertation proposals and all the rest.  We could weed out everyone who needs weeding out by collecting all of the applicants to a given grad program, lock them all in a concrete room, and tell them to bash their heads against the wall.  The last one to quit gets a PhD.

As education reform goes, this plan isn’t half bad..  I like my chances in this system.  It certainly would be easier to get a PhD in this system than to get one the way I did, with all that old-fashioned writing and test-taking and such.  But then, I’ve been in the martial arts for about 20 years.  I learned some things along the way, things about physical and mental punishment, about perseverance, about sheer mule-headed stubbornness when perseverance gives out, and most of all about extinguishing the desire to quit.

Most writers could use some lessons on these counts too.  Show me a successful writer and I’ll show you someone who has learned these lessons already.

Writing will bring its share of mental and emotional punishment.  Count on it.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m escaping the frustrations I’m having in working out the plot to my next novel.  (Don’t worry.  I’m only allowing myself 20 minutes of escape.  Then I’ll go back to that for 20 minutes, then come back to this.  My sensei taught me not to quit, but tactically speaking, he and I both recognize the merit of retreating in order to launch a new attack from a different angle.)

There is good reason for a writer to feel frustrated..  99% of people who submit work never get published.  Of the 1% who do, less than half get a second publication.  Of those, only a handful make enough money from writing to make protein a regular part of their diet, and even they tend to collect more rejection letters than acceptance letters.

We have a similar formula in martial arts.  For every 10 students who begin a martial arts class, only one still comes a month later.  For every 10 of those, only one is still training a year later.  For every 10 of those, only one earns a black belt, and for every 10 black belts, only one goes on to teach the art.  A sensei is one in 10,000.  A writer who doesn’t need to hold a day job is more like one in a million.

The more I write, the more I learn that the pains of this art go beyond the mental and emotional.  I’ve developed neck problems and chronic eyestrain headaches.  Writing cost me my 20/20 vision.  I now need yoga exercises to be able to write for any length of time.  As it happens, it was martial arts that led me to yoga, but that’s not the important part.  It was martial arts that instilled in me the discipline to actually show up to yoga classes, to actually do the stretches every day, and to actually keep on writing even when it’s uncomfortable.

Charles Brown, the former editor of Locus, once shared some grim but sagacious advice with me (well, me and everyone else in that year’s Writers of the Future class).  He said if you’re a writer, one of three things is going to happen to you: you quit, you die, or you get published.  I thought, I like my chances.  I’m not going to quit.  My sensei drilled the quitter out of me.  That only leaves death and publication.

You can read more posts by Steve Bein on the multi-writer blog It’s the Story at

Photo by JimRiddle_Four

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