I studied Chinese kenpo karate for over 14 years, finally earning my Black Belt in 2007. I spent years doing drills, sparring, learning to punch and taking punches. Often, the drills were repetitious until my reactions became second nature. I left blood, sweat and tears on the mat. For better or worse, I often earned bruises, pulled muscles and injuries along the way.
And yet, I kept coming back to that community of martial artists, of people gathering to learn a skill which probably had no practical purpose in the real world. No punch stops a bullet. But facing my fears? Learning to control my body? To live in my body and more in the moment? Priceless.
When I earned my Black Belt, my sensei told me something I’ve always remembered: that being a Black Belt didn’t mean I was the best, for if that were the case there would only be a single Black Belt in the entire world at a time. Being a Black Belt meant the journey to mastery had only just begun.
I think of writing the same way.
So many people when they start any martial arts training often ask: how long until I’m a Black Belt?
So many people when they start writing often ask: how long until I get an agent? How long until I get published?
Does the answer really matter?
Yes, it does, you say! To paraphrase Veruca Salt from
“Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory:” I want to publish, and I want it now!
Some of my peers are millionaires and they’ve created TV shows or films you’ve probably watched. Others of us work just as hard, but have day jobs to pay the bills. Yet, the craft and the work remains the same.
Do martial artists learn their art to beat people up? Or do they do it because it gives expression to something deep within?
Do writers write solely to become rich? Or do they write because they love it?
I spent years honing my writing before I ever earned a single cent. I worked as an assistant in TV development reading scores of scripts, absorbing how television shows were structured and paced. I listened to writers who pitched their shows, and I saw which shows my bosses eventually bought, and the reasons why. I took screenwriting classes at UCLA Extension, turning in pages and taking critiques. And I was lucky to find a mentor who encouraged me when I was despondent (a writer’s frequent companion, I would learn).
Even today, I don’t show anyone my earlier work – the earlier work, which at the time I was convinced was excellent. I know now it wasn’t. But I do think of it as a necessary stepping stone, as I needed to write badly in order to grow.
And though I’m a published writer with two books WHAT LIES WITHIN and MELOPHOBIA, a writer with produced television episodes on my resume, and maybe to some a “Black Belt,” I am still learning. There is no Best. There is only persistence, patience, a willingness to learn, and especially the ability to take criticism. In the martial arts, that criticism is often immediate and painful. Oh, you think, I should’ve blocked that; in writing, the criticism comes from teachers or trusted readers who say: this part of the story doesn’t make sense.
In karate, we practiced what were sometimes dull drills, repeating them over and over. The same may be true of writing. Grammar itself is often dull! But it’s the building block for any sentence, which grows into a paragraph, which becomes a chapter, and then a story.
And I learned in karate that the most dangerous thing was never anything physical: it was the ego. The ego, which wants to fight over stupid words. The ego, which needs to defend itself against all sorts of meaningless threats.
The same goes for writing.
Yes, stay true to yourself. Stay true to your voice. But learn to listen, even to those scathing reviews. There might be the smallest seed of instruction hidden within.
Or maybe, just maybe, like the middle fingers flicked on the freeways, you take a deep breath, allow the moment to pass, and realize what’s important: getting back to the mat; getting back to the page, and practicing your art.