With my third try for 3rd dan in kendo coming up in a little over a month, a lot of my time, energy and stress is going toward studying and training, leaving me with little left over for writing or blogging. That isn’t to say that I’m not thinking about my keyboard mashing. In fact, the more I train, the more I realize that the two pursuits are painfully similar.
10. Everything You Think You Know Is A Lie
Some time before you decide to start writing, each of your favorite authors is to you like some sort of superhuman word god. Such beauty, such incredible evocative power defies simple descriptors like skill, practice and back breaking perseverance. No, these people are just born great. Words flow from their fingertips effortlessly. Whole books are born from their minds in the span of a single night’s worth of dreaming. They transcend humanity. They make it look easy. In fact, they make it look so easy that you can do it yourself, right?
Wrong. Oh, so wrong.
Which isn’t to say that you can never reach that level of awesomeness, but rather what you see on the page isn’t an accurate representation of all the hours upon hours of work and struggle that went into just a single book. And then there’s what accumulated before that in toilet water manuscripts and rejections. Anyone can write a book these days, writing a good book can take years, even before that book is a twinkle of inspiration in the author’s eyes.
Similarly, do you know how long you have to wait to even attempt 8th dan in kendo? Ten years. The governing body of the sport requires you to train for at least ten years after achieving 7th dan before attempting the exam for the highest rank, and even then you are almost guaranteed to fail on your first try. Watching high ranking kenshi fight is like watching a bird fly. It’s so natural you wonder why they even bother to test at all. Then you attempt what they do and you move like an elephant with five feet. It should be easy! Jump forward and hit the other guy on the head. Nothing in the world could be simpler. But what you don’t know when you first start out is that each seemingly simple motion is dictated by a series of very precise, very complicated rules. It’s not as simple as just hitting someone on the head. The angle of every joint in your body, which part moves first, and where each part ends up all factor into determining whether or not that hit is valid. For a beginner, adapting to all these rules is a lot like fishing with a paper net which inevitably means…
9. You Will Rage Against The Rules Until You Understand Them
Almost every novice writer I know (myself included) has had a moment of, “they just don’t get me!” Whether it’s a staunch defense of adverbs or a passionate speech in favor of clichés, at one point or another we all want to justify something we have produced, even when it’s objectively terrible. Rules like “no head hopping” and “no Mary Sues” and “mercilessly destroy passive voice” start to feel like The Man trying to stifle your creativity. It’s art, it’s all about being special and unique and breaking the rules. If you want to write, “Jane woke up suddenly. She blinked her eyes lazily while scanning the room abstractly before happily barking, ‘It was all just a dream!'” then damnit, who are they to tell you you’re wrong?!
It takes effort to move past this egotistical stage. A lot of writers never do. Those who can suddenly find themselves in the equally difficult situation of finding fault in everything. All at once those heroes, those god-like writers who were once your idols now wear their stains of ignorance all over their once clean white shirts. How dare this award winning author change the point of view mid-scene?! It’s a cardinal sin of writing! You’ve been told as much on countless rejection slips! And this one here is choking the life out of the story with exposition. It’s interesting exposition, but the sin of exposition is still there! It’s unfathomable that these people are published and you are not!
The final stage of this, of course, is realizing that the rules are only there to help you understand the elements of good writing. They aren’t carved into stone tablets as the fifty (or more) commandments of writing. Some of them are more valid than others and what’s more, literature is a living, evolving beast. Styles and tastes differ between generations as much as they differ between editors. Gradually you begin to recognize that knowing how and when to break the rules is just as important as knowing the rules themselves, but one must come after the other.
When I first started kendo I had to re-learn how to move. They way we step and the way we swing our arms is so completely counter-intuitive to how usual, every day motion works that it’s like being reduced to an awkward toddler all over again. Teachers and senior kenshi bombard us from all sides with rules: feet parallel; heel to toe, one fist apart; heels off the ground–that’s too high–back straight, shoulders down, arms rounded and relaxed; legs straight, knees unlocked; now hold this stick in both hands a fist away from your belly button and shuffle forward without bobbing up and down. After two months of that it’s no wonder that half the people who start, quit. “I can’t move like that! My body doesn’t bend that way! If my legs are straight, how am I supposed to move forward?” The rules are endless, complicated and impossible to integrate in the first half a year of training. You start to wonder what’s the point of sticking to them when you can just as easily reach your target by leaning forward with your arms instead of crossing the distance from the hips.
And oh boy, when you first notice that one senior kenshi who fights with his left foot at a thirty degree angle, you can feel the rage build up, ready to blow out your ears in a comical gush of steam. You want nothing more than to pull that guy aside and correct him, as he has corrected you. You start to notice all the little ways people get around the rules and still end up making completely valid hits. That one guy who never has his shinai in the center manages to score against you every. Single. Time. What the bleeding F?! Obviously it’s time to ask around and try some of these things out for yourself. That’s when you discover…
8. It’s A Lot Of Painful Trial And Error
Having a stack of style guides, a shelf full of writing reference books and even a mentor is great, but until you put words on the page yourself, you’ll never know what you’re truly capable of. The unfortunate reality is that when you start out, what you’re capable of is mostly finger painting vague hieroglyphs in poop and poster paint on colorful construction paper. Alright, that was an exaggeration, but I challenge you to look back on your earliest writings and not feel that it’s not at least a little true. Having just established that writing rules are a bullshit road map, what you’re left with is discovering how to write on your own. Picture entering a pitch black room. Your goal is to reach the door on the other side, but there are walls and bottomless pits all over the place, god knows where, but they’re around somewhere. Occasionally, someone a little farther than you along the path lights a match and holds it aloft until it burns out. If you’re extremely lucky, there will be people stationed next to the worst traps who will paddle your ass and say, “That way stupid.” Aside from that, though, you get no other guidance. That’s what it’s like teaching yourself how to write.
Sometimes every word you lay down in a day feels like the most godawful thing to ever be aborted out of the English language. It can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and getting nowhere but deeper into the dung pile. Suddenly everyone around you is achieving overnight success and you can’t get your story past, “One day, Jack woke up.” You might sit at your desk and pull the words out one at a time with the same excruciating pain of waxing your entire body in sequential three inch squares. You’ve received your forty-ninth form rejection and your tears have literally been replaced with whiskey. Banging your head on the keyboard in despair creates a deeper literary masterpiece than the entirety of what you’ve accomplished to date.
It is torture.
But the more you fail the more you learn. After a while you start to prize the personalized rejections more than the acceptances. For every time you fall flat on your face, you learn to tie your shoe laces a little tighter. The criticism hurts and no one is ever going to tell you otherwise but you get a little better each time. Every critique that tears your work apart, every book you read critically, every time you analyze a passage that just isn’t working, you’re adding to your toolbox and eventual success, no matter how far in the distance that is. But it takes failing first. It takes writing something and throwing it to the wolves. It takes blood, sweat and tears.
Here are some fun stories from my eight years of practicing kendo: I once literally coughed blood into my face guard. I had my toe stomped on so hard that the nail split right down the center resulting in more blood than you’d think possible from a single digit. My entire right forearm turned black from the number of times it was hit. I’ve had strings of bruises trailing along my upper arm that looked as though I lost a fight with a tennis ball machine. My ribs have been purpled to such an extent that even “I fell down some stairs” wouldn’t be enough to explain them. They hurt, of course, but for each cluster of bruises I get, I learn to be more careful. I learn to move faster, to guard better, to block more effectively. Theory is great, practicing and muscle memory are wonderful, but until you actually fight someone you never know where you’re deficient. The bruises are physical reminders of where I need to improve. They’re badges of achievement along the way.
Oh, and if all those sound like off putting injuries to you, let me say that I’ve gotten off easily. One of the senior kenshi in my club broke his ankle at a tournament this year. In the past, a guy straight up died when an improperly maintained shinai splintered and stabbed him through the eye. We wear protection, but it’s by no means fool proof. Kendo is a semi-contact sport in which the entire premise is to hit the other guy with a flimsy piece of wood. Accidents happen, and when you’re trying to get an edge on an opponent or improve your technique, pushing yourself beyond the limits of your body is not an unheard of outcome. Especially when you consider that…
7. Fixing One Problem Collapses The Whole System
So you’ve been writing for a while now. You’re pretty comfortable with the rules, with style and with your burgeoning voice. You’ve even reached the point where you can identify some of the prominent problems in your own prose. Great! Congratulations. Now you have to fix them.
Around this time you’ll make the unhappy realization that not only does one plot hole cause your entire Jenga tower to wobble, but fixing it requires you to deconstruct the entire thing. There’s a lot to be said for simply sitting down and writing whatever comes to your mind. It’s a good way to get the ideas on the page without the nagging concerns of, “does this sound OK?” or “is this even English?” The problem with this technique is that you then have to decode it in the editing stage, which can be daunting when you read through your work and find gems like, ‘she knifed at him.’ (WTF, brain?) You’ll find that when you start making changes to one part of your story, it’ll necessitate changes in other parts, as though the entire thing is just a web woven by the world’s laziest spider. It’s maddening to have to go back over the entire thing with a fine toothed comb to make sure it all makes sense after an edit. What’s worse is when you start to get so familiar with your story that you either make changes in your head or skip over the mistakes altogether because the vision you have is perfect in your little thought bubble. Once you start editing what you thought was a solid story, you find that the whole thing is as unstable as a five year-old with a fist full of Pixy Stix.
In all the Japanese martial arts that I’ve practiced (three) the common saying between them is “fix one thing, break three” (or five, or ten, depending on how cynical the teacher is). As soon as you start to get comfortable with your own ability and all the new ways that you had to teach your body to move, someone will come along and give you a single correction. It could be as simple as adjusting the height of your arms or the tension in your belly. But that one correction will undo everything else you’ve worked for. Suddenly you’ve got two left feet, your arms don’t know how to arm anymore, and you’re trying to move your body like you’ve just received it for the first time. This, of course, leads to even more corrections of your suddenly flailing technique and before you know it you’re back to the very start, all over again. It has to be one of the most frustrating feelings in kendo, but it is an incredibly necessary one. “Back to basics” is what our teacher used to say. The continuous return to the fundamentals of the sport is what keeps our bodies, our minds and our techniques sharp. Once you understand that you realize…
6. The Most Valuable People Are The Ones Willing To Break You
If you want someone to praise your work, go ask your mom. (The exception being my own mother who told me that my latest story was boring and unoriginal. I love you, Mom.) The need for people to be objectively critical of our writing is key to our success. Sure, it feels great to be told that your story is incredible and that your prose is flawless and evocative, but you also need people to tell you that your characters are two dimensional and your conflict doesn’t go anywhere. You need people who will stab your work through the heart, bleed it out and then beat you over the head with its corpse. You need people with the guts to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Finding critiquers, beta readers and editors can be challenging because of the need to find that perfect individual who 1) can understand what you’re trying to do, 2) knows what the hell they’re on about and 3) will lay it out for you clearly and without mercy where your problems are. It takes a lot of searching to find the perfect fits. You’ll discover very quickly who is reliable and who isn’t and once you find that perfect reader, hold on and never let go. Shower them with gifts, kiss their feet, name your first child after them. One perfect critiquer is worth more than fifty praise-givers.
I have a bully in my kendo club. He mercilessly taunts and corrects me, doesn’t pull his hits, gives no quarter if I’m injured and won’t stop a fight until I land a good hit, even if I’m too tired to know which way is up or down. When we fight the tension between us is truly life or death.
He is my favorite person of all to practice with.
Fighting with the people who will go easy on me because I’m a woman, or because I’m a foreigner, or because I’m lower rank is a welcome relief at times, but I improve the most from people like my bully who push and push and push until I either break or get better. Despite how painful it is, I need the push. I need the sink or swim mentality. Being told, “You landed some good hits today” is wonderful, but what I really look forward to at the end of practice are the teachers who say, “Here is what you’re doing wrong.” But receiving criticism is only half the battle because…
5. Learning How To Deal With Blows Is Crucial
The cold fact of the matter is that the world is a cruel place, and having barfed a collection of words into it doesn’t automatically make you immune from cuts and jabs. After you’ve recovered from the hard truth as laid out by your fantastic beta readers, after you’ve fixed all that you can fix and there’s nothing more you can do for your word-baby, it must be sent out to be judged. To editors, in all likelihood your work is just another number in the pile. Having done slush reading in the past, I can say honestly that there’s no biased animosity toward authors who submit, even when it seems that the author took the term, ‘submission guidelines’ a little too loosely. Having received rejections in the past, I can say honestly that they feel like a slap in the face. Reading those infamous lines, “Sorry, we’re going to pass on this one” feels like the worst sort of personal attack. Clearly there is just something about your face that the editor didn’t like because the story is fine.
I don’t think any one of us who receives rejections has escaped the “But–Grrr–It’s not fair” reaction, and it’s perfectly understandable. It’s also one of those things best screamed into a pillow rather than violently ejected onto the Internet. It hurts, yes, but throwing a tantrum isn’t going to change anything other than damaging your professional credibility. It likewise isn’t helpful to dwell on how much rejections (and criticisms) hurt. Making mistakes, being called out on them and then most importantly learning from them is the only way to improve.
And in case you believe that self publishing gives you an easy out from these hits to the ego, let me say that reviewers–especially independent ones–are merciless. Editors at least have a professional obligation to be courteous in their rejections. Reviewers have no such leash and have every right to say whatever they damn well please about your writing. I think by this point it goes without saying that you should never, never, never contact a reviewer to dispute a review. Please, just don’t do it.
In kendo, all the bruises and bleeding don’t stop just because you improve a little. Senior kenshi and teachers just find more creative ways to whack you on the places with the least amount of protection. Eventually, you just stop feeling it when it happens. The nerves numb to the blows and you develop this curiously thick hide, like a layer of callous between your skin and your muscle. Even being hit on the elbow or the wrist joint doesn’t hurt enough to slow me down these days. It’s a combination of being used to the feeling and needing the uninterrupted focus to continue fighting that dulls the pain enough to reach my goal, even if that goal is just to keep going until the clock runs out. It’s a hard thing to teach yourself, to ignore the pain and continue. But when the hits are inevitable, the pain becomes a part of the experience and with practice, eventually it falls off the radar. The difficult thing, though is not throwing in the towel after the first dizzying blow, and that’s why…
4. Your First Success Will Always Be Not Quitting
My writing sucks. Why am I doing this? I’ll never be a writer. I should just quit now. Hands up those of you out there who have had some variation of this thought at some point throughout their professional career. I’m going to assume it’s most, if not all of you for the purpose of making this argument work, and also because my hypothetical readers always think exactly the same things that I do. A career in writing might be harder now than it has ever been. The rise of digital media and self publishing means that the pool of writers and their work is expanding faster than my waistline over Christmas vacation. Competition for contracts with agents and traditional publishers is fierce, and it seems like the goal posts for what is ‘in’ in the literary world are always changing. The temptation to throw your hands in the air and embark on a more lucrative occupation (like an alpaca farm) is high, but you know that old adage about outrunning a bear? How you don’t have to be faster than the bear, only faster than your poor friend who you trip in cold blood so that the bear has some other warm, screaming body to tear into while you get away without consequence? Writing is a lot like that, except that the bear is time. You don’t have to write a perfect literary masterpiece straight out the gate. You don’t have to get that six figure deal on the first try, or the second, or the third, or the tenth. You just have to outlast all the others who will give up before you. Time will wear down their resolve until you’re stepping over the corpses of broken dreams to reach for the top. Perseverance is the name of the game. And sure, some people have a longer road to walk than others, and it’s an exhausting, sometimes soul crushing journey but if you want it badly enough, you’ll get there. One small step at a time, you’ll get there. But there will be days when you have to convince yourself that it’s worth it first, and believe me, you are your own worst enemy.
I can’t tell you how many times in almost a decade of kendo that I’ve asked, Why do I do this to myself? exhausted, dripping with sweat, every muscle in my body screaming for rest, dizzy from dehydration and the inability to breathe. Sometimes the only answer to that question is “because,” but if that’s what it takes to get you up and fighting again, take hold of it and don’t let go. After every crash the desire to give up gets stronger. Every plateau in skill makes it harder to find a reason to keep fighting. Five kenshi in a row have beaten my ass so thoroughly that I wonder what I’ve been doing with my life for the past eight years. So why keep going? Because. Because this is what I do. Because this is what I enjoy. Because…
3. When It’s Bad, It’s Very, Very Bad, But When It’s Good, It’s Euphoric
Losing really sucks, even when the only other competitor in the race is yourself. Writing is a very solitary activity when it comes right down to it, and when you’re sitting there, staring at a blinking cursor reminding you like the impatient tap of a foot that you haven’t written a word in two hours it can feel like falling imperceptibly down a bottomless pit. If Facebook is to believed (why are you checking Facebook? Get back to writing!) all your friends are off skydiving, having orgies and experiencing life in fantastic ways that you can only dream of. Or not, since the quietly blank page in front of you is proof that you haven’t dreamed up one goddamn thing. Go ahead, bang your head against the desk, drink a seventh cup of coffee, make a house of cards. Nothing is going to break this writer’s block. You’re done. You’re finished. All the words you once had in you are gone. The well of ideas is dry. There’s nothing left to do but let yourself hollow out into a husk of has-been or never-was.
Then, one day you wake up and the words are falling like rain. Like champagne rain. The drought is over. Your fingers can’t keep up with all the wonderful new concepts and characters, bursting out of your skull like a double rainbow. You can’t remember why you were ever worried. Run out of ideas? Ha! The thought is laughable. See, you’ve written three thousand in an hour and a half. You’re unstoppable. Your genius is palpable. You’ve got a good feeling about this one. It’s going to go somewhere. It’s one to be proud of.
This roller-coaster of highs and lows is maddening. When you’re on top you can’t see the climb it took to get you there. You’re too pleased with occupying a creative high place to remember all the struggles that came before it. Conversely when you’re experiencing a down period, those moments when the words came easily feel utterly unobtainable. They must have been someone else’s memories implanted into your brain. Even, “I did this once, why can’t I do it again?!” isn’t very comforting.
Here in Japan, summer is my worst enemy. As a Canadian, I was born and conditioned in a cool climate. Summers back home are dry and don’t reach much higher than thirty-two degrees Celsius in an average year. In Japan, summer has made it its mission to destroy me. Temperatures in July and August soar up to thirty-seven degrees Celsius with humidity than can reach as high as seventy percent on a cloudless day. Under these conditions, life becomes a series of mad dashes to the next air conditioned location. Unfortunately for me, none of the places where I practice kendo have air conditioning. When things get really bad they open some windows and maybe turn on an electric fan. Even the venues that do have air conditioning aren’t sufficient when you’ve got upwards of five hundred people screaming and sweating within them. Clouds of perspiration become their own, indoor weather patterns.
In the five years that I have lived here, I’ve noticed a disturbingly consistent trend: In the fall and winter I’m unstoppable. My energy is high, my body moves the way I command it to, and I’ve got an endless reserve of spirit to keep me going. In the summer, however, I move like I’ve got an elephant on my back. My legs are rooted to the ground and my arms feel like they’ve got twenty pound weights attached to them. The air is so thick I feel like I’m drowning, and if I don’t drink at least three liters of water a day, I will have a hangover the next morning, even without the aid of alcohol. It is so disheartening to move like the wind one week, and like frozen molasses the next. What’s worse is that there’s nothing that can be done about it except to suck it up and pretend that you’re not suffering in your own personal hell. But if you can hold onto the feeling of bliss when everything else is falling apart you come to a point where you realize that…
2. The Struggle Is Real, But So Is The Pay Off
“We’re happy to inform you that your story has been accepted for publication.” Wait, you should read that again. Happy. Your story. Accepted. Publication. Oh sweet cinnamon, you did it! You finally got someone to buy your work. It took weeks and months and years. It took gaining twenty pounds and giving yourself carpal tunnel. It took forgetting what sleep and the kiss of your significant other feels like but damnit it was worth it! You’re going to be published! You! You never thought you’d see the day and yet here you stand, triumphant.
It’s in these moments that you forget everything that came before this point. All the tears and heartbreak, all the hours spent editing, all the previous rejections and stamps of NO GOOD you’ve seen in bright red on your manuscript. All that is behind you, and when you look back you realize that not only could you do it all again, but you will, because there is no greater feeling than the one you’re feeling now. The one where all your hard work has come to fruition. You are now a published author. Congratulations.
In kendo there are many little things that are big triumphs. The first time a teacher is legitimately surprised when you score a point on them, the first time (or really any time) you pass a test, even being invited on the team for a tournament is a big deal. Every little triumph pushes your ambition a little further toward that highest point, whatever that might be for you. Like writing, once you taste that instant of success, the difficulties you endured along the way suddenly seem insignificant. It’s alright to take a moment to revel in this small victory. Pat yourself on the back and raise a glass, and while we’re on the subject…
1. Everyone Is Drunk And You Will Be Too
Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac. Truman Capote, Edgar Allen Poe, Dorothy Parker, Dylan Thomas and O. Henry. Back in the day, all the great writers were alcoholics. So much so that a bottle was almost as important as a typewriter. Even today you’ll hear successful writers talk about their nightly drinking habits with the same casual tones as if they were describing the weather. What is it about alcohol that seems to drive the creative spirit? Honestly, I don’t know, but a shot after each rejection certainly helps get the ball rolling, I’m sure. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that alcohol (beer in particular) helps stimulate creativity. Because alcohol lowers your inhibitions and removes a lot of the pesky worries that can freeze a writer up, the brain has more power available to it to devote to building the foundations of a story. There’s also something to be said for putting yourself in an altered state of mind just to slap the brain awake from what might be a stagnant state. Now, I’m not about to advocate substance abuse here, but if a glass of red wine a night is healthy for your heart, certainly a pint of beer a day can give your brain a nice boost. Just, maybe don’t drink yourself to death.
I had done kendo for all of three months when I first learned that the actual hitting people with sticks part is only half of what kendo is. The other half is getting roaring drunk after practice (and secretly hoping the teachers pay). This comes largely from the drinking culture of Japan, where company men (and less frequently women) work long hours and then must wine and dine clients and colleagues until all hours of the night. Drinking in Japan is both an obligation and a pastime, and politeness demands that if you are invited for a drink your only excuse for declining is to be dead or dying. If it’s the latter you’re still obligated to take part in a single draft beer before crawling home to write out your Will.
Admittedly, an ice cold mug of beer is exceptionally wonderful after practice, and taking the time to laugh with and get to know the people you are routinely caned by goes a long way toward making the experience more enjoyable. During practice there isn’t a lot of time to chew the fat with other kenshi. Staring at your opponent through a heavy, metal grill doesn’t do much to put a human face on the people you’re practicing with either. But once again, beer comes to the rescue and shoos away those inhibitions until even the shiest of kenshi are cracking jokes. In fact, drinking is so integral to kendo life that at multiple dojo and in two different countries I have heard it referred to as “second practice.” We drink, have fun, compare bruises and then the next week we do it all again. This sport is great.