I spent 2015 as a red belt in Tang Soo Do, the martial art I practice with my younger son, David. During that time, I moved from 3rd Gup to 1st Gup, which is to say, by the very end of the year, I had reached the end of my Gup, or colored belt, training, and was ready to start preparing for my Cho Dan, or black belt, test. At 46, I find it all kinds of crazy to be at this point. I’ve been part of this school for the last four years, during which, I’ve worked harder, physically speaking, than I ever have before. In part, this is because, at this age, I have to attend class as often as I can, in order to maintain whatever health/fitness gains I’ve made. In part, too, it’s because Tang Soo Do is full of all manner of jumping kicks, and for some reason, I find this the most consistently challenging part of the art. I love doing it, though. My school (Triumph Karate) is run by great teachers who don’t take themselves too seriously–but who take what they’re teaching with the utmost seriousness. It avoids the quasi-cult atmosphere you can encounter in some martial arts schools. The student body skews towards the younger end of the spectrum, but there are enough other adults taking classes for me not to feel out of place. I have to thank Sa Bom Nim Rodney Batista, who runs the school, and his dedicated teaching staff, for their constant patience and encouragement; I also have to thank my family, especially my younger son, without whose support I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten this far.
Here’s a brief video of the two board breaks I had to do to earn this last promotion:
A few months ago, I was contacted by a guy reaching out to a few writers he had noticed also practiced a martial art. Would we be willing to write something, he wanted to know, about the relationship between our fiction and our martial art? Yes, I said, of course. I made a note of the invitation on my list of writing projects, and returned to the story I was working on.
Then I wrote the next story.
Then I started the story after that–which was when I remembered that I was supposed to have written about the connection between writing and Tang Soo Do. I searched my correspondence for the contact information for the guy who had e-mailed me and couldn’t find it. I could have let the matter drop, but I had been thinking about what relation my writing and martial art practice had, on and off, for a couple of months, and I wanted to record some of my thoughts. Since I also wanted to write about this past year in Tang Soo Do, I decided to combine the two into a single blog post. So:
Practicing a martial art will not make you a better writer. (Not directly, at least.)
What makes you a better writer is writing, consistently, and reading, consistently. What regular practice of Tang Soo Do or any martial art will do is maintain and hopefully improve your physical (and I think mental) health, which is no small thing. From a physical standpoint, writing is a pretty sedentary occupation, and that poses all kinds of long-term threats to your health. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t want some measure of success; it would be nice to be healthy enough to enjoy such success when it finally arrives. Not to mention, if you have a family, friends, pets, it would be nice to keep yourself in decent shape for them. The important thing is a decent amount of regular exercise; it doesn’t really matter what form it takes. And if you think it’s hard to start now, at whatever age you are, it’s only going to get harder as the years speed by. There’s no time like the present and all that.
(The mental benefits of regular exercise are harder for me to quantify, but there’s something to be said for spending a certain amount of time each day outside of your head, of whatever it is you’re obsessing over in your creative life. Let’s be honest, your self-esteem doesn’t hurt from knowing you’re exercising, either. And the endorphins are good, too.)
None of what I’ve written so far is anything other than obvious and ordinary. Sometimes, though, I find it useful to state such things, on the principle that, just because it’s obvious, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
To speak personally, Tang Soo Do has worked for me because it’s more than simple repetitious movement. I’ve never been one of those folks who can go to the gym and hamster-out–start running, or lifting weights, or whatever, and lose myself in glad animal movement. I find that, the more I run, or lift, or whatever–and especially as the exercise I’ve selected becomes harder, takes more and more out of me–the more I plunge into my own head, and not usually in a way that’s terribly productive. By giving me something to focus on, a growing body of moves, of different and increasingly elaborate combinations of moves, Tang Soo Do keeps my mind occupied, as well, with the end result that each class is a break from whatever else is going on in my life–especially the stressful stuff.
From what I can tell, every martial art is an amalgam, a combination of elements taken from numerous traditions (though you’d be amazed at how many insist on the absolute purity of their particular style…). In learning and practicing forms that go back to Okinawa, or Southern China, or Japan, or Korea, I’m in touch with traditions that extend back through the decades–in some cases, centuries. I find that connection grounding in a way I can’t quite articulate–maybe it has something to do with that Willa Cather quotation about the happiness that comes with losing yourself in something greater. Except I don’t quite lose myself, so maybe not; instead, what happens is a kind of meeting of that larger historical tradition with my individual expression of it. I see a parallel here to my writing practice, which as I conceive it involves me engaging prose forms that reach back to such writers as Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Robert E. Howard, and so on. As I see it, these kinds of traditions are inescapable, so I prefer to meet them in a self-aware fashion. What results, I hope, is a kind of hybrid: my use of the prose form revealing new aspects of it to the reader, even as it helps me to express my particular concerns, the personal and the historical twisting one into the other. Yes, it’s the whole yin-yang thing.
The biggest thing my practice of Tang Soo Do has taught me is patience, and that is something that I think has all sorts of applications outside the martial arts studio. To earn a back belt in this particular style takes between four and a half and five years, which is longer than some martial arts, not as long as others. Particularly as what I’ve been learning has grown more complex, and it’s taken me longer and longer to properly execute this or that particular move in a form, I’ve had to develop more and more patience with myself. There’s a tendency, in martial arts as in anything, for early success to go to your head, to give you an illusion of mastery that can ultimately hinder further growth. As an example, take the first tournament I competed in. I was still a white belt, my competition form the second basic form, which I was sure I had down cold. The other adult beginners at my school told me I looked great. At the end of my portion of the forms competition, however, I took the silver medal. Looking back on this now, I realize what an accomplishment that was, especially for someone who had been studying Tang Soo Do for a little over three months at that point. At the time, though, I was secretly disappointed, so sure had I been that I deserved the gold. Do I need to say that, with the benefit of what I’ve learned since then, I can see that my form wasn’t quite as good as I thought it was, that there was plenty for me to improve upon? When I do that same form now, I like to think I’m better at it than I was those years ago, but I recognize that there’s still room for improvement, that there will be for as long as I continue to practice Tang Soo Do.
And as long as I continue to write.