Warriorship, Writing, and Communication

I recently answered some questions for an upcoming group interview on  Booklife — a website supplementing Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name — about the effect of martial arts training on writing and vice versa.

In working on the questions, it occurred to me that one thing writing taught me about martial arts is that you can’t use inside jargon to describe techniques and principles about the art to other people. For example, in my story “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars” — available in the BVC anthology Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls (that’s a commercial) — I was faced with a fight scene.

In my mind, I described the scene as: “Jace is doing iriminage on Ane, but as he goes to throw her, she grabs his arm, takes a sacrifice fall, and sends him flying.” Which makes perfect sense, if you know how to do iriminage and a sacrifice fall. I can see it perfectly. But if you don’t train in Aikido, it isn’t going to mean anything to you. So here’s what I wrote (in this excerpt, “I” is Ane and “he” is Jace):

Now he spun me around, one hand tight on my neck, holding my head firmly against his body, the other loosely resting on my arm. I grabbed hold of the loose arm with both hands, and went with the backwards fall when he half picked me up with his hip and threw me.
And, just as in our first fight, I jerked his arm as I went, and he flew through the air.

Figuring out how to describe fight scenes in English is great training for a project I’m working on right now: a presentation at WisCon that incorporates Aikido, self defense, feminism, and fiction.

Not only do I have to make sure I can talk about Aikido principles and basic self defense in language that makes sense to those who have never trained in a martial art, but I also have to show why I consider these ideas to be integrated. The connections are all clear to me, but they’re embedded more in the right side of my brain; that is, I understand how these things fit together, but I haven’t put it into words.

One way I’m planning to approach it is to tell a couple of stories, because stories often convey a lot more than the most conscientiously detailed factual presentations. (You can read one of the stories I plan to tell here.)  I’m also planning to have people get up and move. It’s a lot easier to explain Aikido principles by having people walk through a couple of very basic (non-threatening) moves.

But I still have to make sure I don’t lapse into jargon or make leaps that are clear to me but not to someone who hasn’t been thinking about these connections for the past 15 years or so.

Communication. It’s really all about communication. And if your audience doesn’t understand you, you aren’t communicating.

That’s true of writing of any kind. It’s true of speaking and other public performance. Funny enough, it’s true of Aikido, too; the art is built on communication between attacker and defender, so that a conflict is resolved instead of escalating into something worse.

The interesting thing about communication — whether in stories or on the Aikido mat — is that the more you begin to understand it, the more avenues of misunderstanding you uncover.

But it’s a good path in life to take up challenging activities that always show you something more just when you think you’ve attained mastery.

By the way, if you’re coming to WisCon, the presentation is at 8:30 AM on Sunday in Senate A. Come by and see if I succeed in getting my points across.
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Nancy Jane’s novella, Changeling, is now being serialized on Book View Cafe. You can start at Chapter 1 here; a new chapter will be posted every Sunday. An e-book edition of the whole book will soon be available for a modest price.

You can still find 51 flash fictions and a few other stories on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of her stories are available through Powell’s.

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Warriorship, Writing, and Communication — 10 Comments

  1. Good post; I love your writing on Aikido. One of the things I try to remember when writing fight scenes or other scenes-with-mayhem, is the plasticity of time when you’re under stress. Car accidents, fights, even a sidewalk trip-and-fall can seem to take forever at the same time that they’re happening at light speed.

    I took stage combat training for four years and was (briefly) certified in various forms of Western combat–rapier, rapier-dagger, broadsword, quarterstaff, and hand-to-hand. There is a specific choreographic language (as there is for dance) that describes target points and maneuvers. When I have to write a fight, I write it out that way first (A cuts to 3, B parries 3, B retreats left, cuts overhead to 3, etc.) and then I try to turn it into an experiential slow-motion movie in my head, describing, as you do, the actual motions rather than the jargon. And I try to remember how fast it’s going for the participants, what a whirl of fear and speed and reaction-without-planning it is. Because my training is to know where the next blow is coming from, and my character won’t have that luxury.

  2. I know nothing of Aikado and your second example leaves me wondering about the significance of what they are doing.

  3. Mary, I hope that’s just because I dropped you in the middle of a fight scene without all the rest of the set up, and not because my efforts to describe what is clear to me are still falling short! In a nutshell, the two characters are fighting. Jace has managed to get behind Ane and take control of her by putting a hand on the side of her neck, with the objective of pivoting around backwards to get her off balance, and then throwing her. Ane, however, grabs his arm as he starts to throw her, takes the fall, and jerks on his arm, sending him flying over her head. (A sacrifice fall is when you fall on purpose to set up a move to throw the other person. It is, as the name implies, a bit dangerous, because if you don’t pull it off, you’re on the ground in a very vulnerable position.)

    Let me know if that doesn’t make things clearer. I’ve been writing about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill all week for my day job and I’m no longer sure anything I write makes sense!

    Mad, I always wanted to study stage combat. It would be such fun to choreograph fight scenes for movies or plays. I also tend to do a step by step plan of my fight scenes, though then I try to figure out where I can shorten it so not to bore people with too much detail or have it go on so long that it implies it lasted longer than the brief time most fights usually take. But I’m about fight scenes like Judith is about horses — I get really annoyed when people get the details wrong.

  4. You don’t (or maybe you do) want to go to a movie with fight scenes in it with me…I start muttering under my breath when people do stupid things (my biggest single pet peeve is the stupid 360° turn in sword fights: that’s right, turn your back on the guy with the sharp edge!)…

  5. As a girl, I was extremely fond of the Avengers episodes with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel; in fact, they probably inspired me to take up martial arts. Watching them with some years of martial arts training under my belt, I realized that Rigg had dreadful technique. However, she is such a talented actor that she was completely believable to anyone who didn’t know you’d break a wrist if you punched like that!

  6. I always thought that Emma Peel slew evil with the sheer wit of her punches–although (to defend Diana Rigg, who I still want to be when I grow up) her “technique” was pretty much like the technique used in most action-adventure TV at the time–I’ve been watching old Mission Impossible and Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes, and even the plain old punch-throwing is pretty feeble. Trying to tart things up with “judo chops” only made it worse.

  7. Oh, I’m still a huge Diana Rigg/Emma Peel fan, too. And I do think when it comes to movies, TV, theater, etc., that consummate acting can make up for technical flaws. I certainly bought it at the time.

    Mad, I remember that Mrs. Peel saved Steed most of the time in the Avengers episodes, though when I went back and watched later, it seemed as if they rather traded off the saving about 50/50. How do you remember it?

  8. About fifty-fifty, probably (we have a season’s worth of episodes–raising daughters, I thought it was very important for Emma Peel to be one of their formative influences*). Emma used the classic karate chop and lots of kicks; Steed often used his umbrella to great effect. We may have thought she did more fighting than she did because, up to that point, it was so rare to see a woman fighting matter-of-factly, as she did.

    *when she was eight my older daughter went as Emma Peel for Halloween. It was not a costume that translated well among the princesses and ninjas and monsters of her peers, but the parents adored it (particularly because she had a small purse in which she carried a toy gun and business cards that said “Mrs. Emma Peel, Talented Amateur).