If You Aren’t Writing: Six Authors on Writing & the Martial Arts

In the January 2011 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, novelist Walter Jon Williams, author of This Is Not a Game and Deep State, says that writing has taught him “that practice and diligence will bear fruit.”  It’s a lesson Williams brought from his writing life into the dojo.

“I worked at writing for years before I made a professional sale,” Williams adds.  “This taught me that working toward long-term goals is possible, and in the martial arts necessary.”

Below, six writer/martial artists add the importance of self-expression, the value of hands-on experience, and the need for mental and spiritual balance to the list of lessons learned from writing.

Steven Barnes is the author of the Great Sky Woman duology, and Lion’s Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate AmericaMegan Crewe is the author of the YA paranormal novels, Give Up the Ghost and The Way We FallGregory Frost is the author of the Shadowbridge novels, Fitcher’s Brides, Attack of the Jazz Giants, and other books.  Jon F. Merz writes the Lawson Vampire Series, Jake Thunder Adventures, and contributes to the Rogue Angle series under the housename Alex Archer.  Dave Smeds is the author of the War of Dragons duology, Piper in the Night, and other works of speculative fiction.  Mark T. Sullivan writes thrillers such as Labyrinth, The Serpent’s Kiss, and the recent Triple Cross.


What has writing taught you about the martial arts?


Steven Barnes:  Self expression. The importance of deciding what you, as an individual, want from the activity, and sticking close to that.


Dave Smeds:  It’s funny you should ask what has writing taught me about the martial arts. My flippant answer would be nuthin’ much.

But as I’ve tried different martial arts lately, after decades spent in the same system, and thereby have gone back to being a beginner of sorts, I have been struck by how much I’m a verbal learner. Some people learn martial arts visually. They see someone do something and they can imitate it. Some people learn martial arts tactilely. You practice moves, you try them out with a partner, and the repetition, pain, and the suggestions of the instructor cause the body to acquire a kinetic memory of what to do. But me? Not so much. I find that I don’t really absorb a new kata or set of techniques until I talk about it. I put it in words as I try to explain it to another beginner and suddenly the material makes sense. My brain retains the learning. Writing has become my means to advance my understanding of both the martial arts I’m now being exposed to, and the ones I have practiced for decades.

Gregory Frost:  The first thing writing ever taught me about martial arts is that you can’t learn martial arts by reading about it, by following the pictures in a book. No matter how well someone writes about a kata, a technique, you cannot correctly perform it based solely on instructions and pictorial representation.

Likewise, you can’t learn writing from how-to books. As with the martial arts “how to” books, they can be useful for review of what you know, but if you aren’t actually writing fiction, reading a book about how to write fiction is an abstraction at best. Hands-on is always better than secondary knowledge, for any martial art, any craft.

Megan Crewe:  Writing has taught me about taking critiques.  You can’t get very far as a writer without developing a thick skin, and being able to take criticism and advice as something constructive rather than an attack.  So while it’s never fun to find out that I’ve totally messed up some part of one of my forms, I’m able to listen to my instructor’s comments calmly, and not to let my ego get involved when trying to correct my mistakes.


Mark T. Sullivan:  Writing has to be practiced daily if you are to be any good at it. I’d already figured that out by the time I found Aikido, so it seemed natural and right that I train five to six days a week for years. Beyond that I ascribe to the ten thousand hour rule. By the time I published a book, I’d been writing for at least that many hours. The same was true of Aikido. When I reached fourth degree black belt — the level at which you are expected to have “embodied” the art, the level at which fighting becomes mindless and instinctual — more than a decade had passed and at least ten thousand hours of study and practice.


Jon F. Merz:  The mental and spiritual disciplines associated with the martial art I study also help keep me calm and objective when faced with an obstacle or problem. Learning to control certain aspects of yourself, working on faults (still), and more is just another way to improve not only as a martial artists and a writer, but also as a human being.


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.

2 thoughts on “If You Aren’t Writing: Six Authors on Writing & the Martial Arts

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention If You Aren’t Writing: Six Authors on Writing & the Martial Arts « Booklife -- Topsy.com

  2. “This taught me that working toward long-term goals is possible, and in the martial arts necessary.”

    My favorite part. Almost like poetry. Well done.

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