Better Than Yesterday: Cordell, Grady, Merz & Reese on Writing & the Martial Arts

Right before my daughter was born I returned to the martial arts.  I’d have a child to protect, after all, and I wanted to be able to do so.  My first belt test had me rattled.  I hadn’t been tested physically for more than fifteen years.  I’d become increasingly bookish and sedentary since my teen years.  So I did what I do well, I read the manual over and over.  I studied.  I took notes.  I took notes and practiced and studied… and studied some more.

Even though there would be no written component, I studied for my belt test the same way I’d study for a history or science exam—read, memorize, recite, repeat.

Moments before the test began I ran through everything in my head.  Moments after I’d bowed in and the test had started, I forgot everything.  And I do mean everything—basic kicks, basic strikes, basic techniques.  At one point, I even blanked on my instructor’s name.  My brain simply emptied of everything except anxiety and fear.

In theory, I should’ve known everything in my muscles.  I should’ve been able to simply do what I needed to do.  Instead, during the test, I thought about what I needed to do and was rewarded with a terrifying blankness.

I was not present.  I was thinking about being present, thinking about kicking, thinking about blocking.  Or, in this case, trying to think about doing those things.  I was locked in my head, everywhere in time except where I needed to be, which was in the moment.

Below, four authors talk about being mindful, practicing hard, and about always delivering your best.  This is all basic advice that I’d heard some version of at the time of my first Kenpo test.  I’d heard it, but I hadn’t listened.  Instead I’d worried, studied, and been too scared to deliver my best for fear that it wouldn’t be good enough.  Classic test anxiety.

“Martial arts is a fantastic foundation for being a writer,” said novelist Jon F. Merz. “The discipline involved is directly transferable to the writing life. You have to keep pushing forward all the time, even on the days when you don’t feel like it. The bruises that you collect–whether they come from the dojo or the publishing industry–toughen you up. And that’s good. The writers I respect–like the martial artists I respect–are those who keep striving every single day to be better than they were yesterday.”

I agree with Merz, wholeheartedly.  With each belt test I improved—improved my technique and my ability to be in the moment.  By my fourth test, I actually started disappearing into the increasingly complex techniques and katas.  And now, for me, the challenge is to apply what I learned in the dojo to what I do in front of the keyboard. 

Bruce Cordell, James Grady, Jon F. Merz, and Jenn Reese are all martial artists and successful writers.  Bruce Cordell is a game designer and novelist.  He is the author of the recent Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy and the forthcoming Sword of the GodsJames Grady is a novelist and screenwriter.  His novels include the thriller Six Days of the Condor and the recent Mad DogsJon F. Merz is a freelance writer and action-adventure novelist.  He writes the Lawson Vampire Series, Jake Thunder Adventures, and contributes to the Rogue Angle series under the housename Alex Archer.  Jenn Reese is the author of Jade Tiger and Tales of the Chinese Zodiac.  Her Above World middle grade adventure series is due out next year.

And now, here’s what the masters have to say…


What has the study and practice of martial arts taught you about writing in general and fiction writing in particular?


James Grady:  What’s ironic about this question is that it goes to the heart of a long work I’ve been sketching out about the essential sameness of martial arts and writing.  I don’t want to reveal my epiphanies here (in part because I’m still working them through), but think of the importance of architecture, timing, clarity, directness and nailing the point in writing then playing out in some martial arts situation.  All those things influence the martial arts event and outcome.  Thus, the more mindful and practiced one is in those elements – stances, punch timing, seeing the whole opponent, going for the best neutralizing/destroying technique – the more likely one is to walk away whole from a martial arts encounter. 

And if you add into that matrix the element that what you’re writing about no more exists than does the opponent in a kata or the Taiji form, and even fuller marriage of martial arts and fiction writing appears.

Jenn Reese:  White Belt Mentality.  I’m not particularly athletic, and when I started martial arts, it was with no expectation of competency or talent. I felt open to learning everything, without expectation of success or previous bias…  This was not at all how I’d ever approached my writing. I’d been putting sentences together my whole life – we all have – so when I began writing fiction, I expected to be decent at it immediately.

It’s just words, right?

So, so wrong. Martial arts helped me to get back to basics with my writing, to understand that it’s an art and craft — just like martial arts – that requires focus, practice, and an open mind. You don’t start good, you earn it.

Bruce Cordell:  I took up martial arts as a lark. But as I learned more and more, I realized that the training had a concrete, real-world value for me as a writer: practicing martial arts could give me the tools to write better fight scenes in fantasy fiction. Especially fight scenes involving hand-to-hand fighters, since my greatest focus has been Muay Thai and jujutsu. That said, it’s easy to go overboard when trying to replicate a real world technique in fiction–luckily my editor knows to watch for danger signs. She knows to avoid so much detailed fight “choreography” that the reader’s eyes threaten to glaze over.

Jon F. Merz:  Martial arts has informed most of my life and due to the rigorous nature of the training, it’s taught me to see my goals through to the end and to never give up. Traditional publishing is a tough business. In many ways, there are distinct similarities to the pursuit of excellence in combative training. It’s not enough to simply throw something out there that’s, for lack of a better term, half-assed. The maxim I always follow in my martial arts study is I train how I would fight. That means that if I’m serious about being able to hold my own if the situation calls for it, then I have to work my butt off to ensure I have the skill to back that up. Likewise, with writing and fiction in particular, you have to work your butt off to make sure you’re delivering the best story you can to readers.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. 


3 thoughts on “Better Than Yesterday: Cordell, Grady, Merz & Reese on Writing & the Martial Arts

  1. Great article, Jeremy! Many thanks for including me in it. My next novel, The Kensei, focuses a lot on Lawson's pursuit of martial arts excellence in Japan. There are a lot more of my personal philosophies in it as it relates to the world at large.

    Thanks again and have a great day!


  2. Great article; thanks for posting this. It's always so interesting to read about how other arts and physical activities affect writing. I do taiko drumming, which has some connection to martial arts. (Certain warm up exercises and vocalizations are borrowed from martial arts). Through taiko, I often make connections to my writing. Taiko is musical as well as athletic, and non-combative, but I can certainly relate to what Jenn says about focus, practice, and open-mindedness. Also, doing exercises and drumming in a dojo, in what we treat as a sacred space, has carried over to my writing mentality. I now try to view my home office as a kind of dojo, and am (usually) able to be more focused from the moment I walk in.

    Diana Renn

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