Musing About Martial Arts (and Writing)

tenaknThere’s a reasonable amount of overlap between martial artists and science fiction writers. I’m not sure why, except that possibly people who spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer need a good physical activity to balance out their lives and martial arts training includes a whiff of adventure that goes along well with some kinds of stories.

Something else the two things have in common: people who aren’t involved in those activities are often clueless about them.

Case in point: I get in a conversation with a stranger about martial arts. (This usually comes up when I’m carrying the bag containing my wooden sword and staff – my weapons bag – and someone asks what it is.) When he (it’s almost always he) finds out I train, he says, “Ooh. I won’t mess with you then.”

This is wrong on so many levels. First off, a serious martial artist is the least likely person to cause you any trouble. There are exceptions, but on the whole, martial artists don’t go around attacking people.

Second, it implies that this person might want to cause trouble, but won’t because of who I am. That is, it implies that he’s a bad guy. Which he’s probably not.

And thirdly, he doesn’t really mean it, at least when he’s talking to me. When a guy says he’s afraid to mess with me because I must be the Big Bad, I always get the feeling that he doesn’t take my skill seriously. Which would be a mistake.

I may look like an old lady and limp around, and I will be oh, so grateful if you help me with my heavy suitcase, but I have trained in martial arts for over thirty-five years. I know a few things.

There is another kind of response. That’s the person who’s going to tell you all about martial arts in general and your art in particular because he took a couple of years of classes back when he was in high school. This is mansplaining at its finest, though I suspect some male martial artists run into it, too, especially if they aren’t young and don’t look much like a tough guy.

Martial artists both male and female who’ve been training awhile rarely look much like the popular idea of someone tough. They come in all shapes and sizes, they might be of slight build or they might be getting a little fat, and some of them are definitely getting up in years.

The one thing they have in common is their presence. If you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that they’re aware of what’s going on around them and claiming their space in the world. You can see this kind of presence even in martial artists using a cane or a walker or a wheelchair.

That presence is the real clue that you don’t want to mess with these people. And you know what? People don’t, much. I ran into a lot of harassment when I was young, but over the years, it stopped happening. I put it down to getting old and being tall, but it also happens – or rather, doesn’t happen – because I look like I’d be too much trouble.

Most of my training is in Aikido, but I’ve been using the term martial artist here for a reason. I got motivated to write about martial arts this week because I saw a “my art’s better than your art” crack on Facebook. That always annoys me.

I trained in Okinawan karate before I took up Aikido, and I’ve been studying some T’ai Chi in recent years. One thing I’m sure of: at the upper levels of martial arts, in the hands of the serious masters, there’s not much difference among the different styles. You can develop that presence, that awareness, that ability to handle a situation either physically or maybe without lifting a hand, by studying any martial art.

Yes, there are bad schools of martial arts – we can argue about the percentages, but the basic principle of Sturgeon’s Law applies here, too. Too many people want to be “Sensei” and start teaching before they’re ready. Too many people stop learning new things and become content with being better than the beginners. And too many people want to make a living and do things to attract more students than they can handle.

It’s a human practice, and humans sometimes do things badly. But the line between good and bad doesn’t run between arts so much as within them, and we’d be well-advised to remember that fact when we’re tempted to make fun of another art.

The same thing could be said when discussing fiction. Some writers are geniuses. Some are hacks. Some are just boring. I haven’t found any genre in which everyone’s good, or one in which everyone’s bad. I suspect there are some geniuses writing porn (though I’m not going to check them out) and I know there are some hacks writing literary fiction.

We should all feel free to criticize the things that don’t work, whether we’re talking about fighting techniques or words on the page. But it’s long past time for us to get over condemning a whole art form because we don’t like some practitioners of it.



Musing About Martial Arts (and Writing) — 4 Comments

  1. Another good thing about martial arts is the calming and centering, so to speak, of the martial artist. My spouse has studied martial arts for decades. He is the calmest and most centered of men. The few years I studied, I noticed that about the senior people at the dojo.

    My son was beaten badly by a bunch of hopped up creeps at a party, after which he began to study martial arts first to get back at them, then to be able to defend himself, and finally because he loves the art. These several years later, he knows how to get young punks to back down before anyone gets hurt, and so far it has worked.

    Relating that to writing . . . I guess the insight that comes from experience?

    • I’d say people stick with both writing and martial arts because of the joy that comes with getting better at doing those things. And all those times when the pieces come together and the training or the writing just flows.

      Very cool about your son. I’d say that’s the path of a lot of martial artists. Neither revenge nor self defense are enough to sustain a lifetime of training, but people get hooked and can do amazing things (and I don’t mean the tricks you see in the movies).

  2. You know, you may have clarified something to me about horse people, too. Real longtime horse trainers and riders tend not to get harassed, and for the same reasons as martial artists. We’re aware. We’re used to interacting with large, powerful flight animals who can kill us if we slip even slightly. There’s a balance both physically and mentally, in how we move, think, observe. And lots of us are older, gimpier, and not so thin (and often have quite interesting scars).

    • That makes sense. I think there are a lot of ways to develop presence and awareness. That’s why I don’t like the “my art is better than your art” dynamic.

      Physical interaction does seem to be an important part of the process, though, which might be important to think about in this day of virtual everything. Balance.