Tag Archives: humility

A Martial Artist’s Approach to Critique Groups

The dojo taught us many things, not the least of which was how to get the most out of a group. We knew ourselves and the people we trained with very well. We knew who excelled at which techniques, and made sure to position ourselves and each other so that each of us could train to greatest advantage. I like to joke that in the world of martial arts, abuse is love.  If someone throws a rock at you, it’s because they want to play. We’re rough on each other, but only so that we improve. Our petty cruelties are built on a foundation of trust.

I trust that you’re strong enough to take this.

I trust that you’ll tap out when you’re not.

I trust you to know your limits, even while you fight to surpass them.

Training for my first black belt was one of the roughest and most gratifying periods of my life. There were six of us in that group. We were within a rank of each other, within a year of each other, and at that golden age when you’re just old enough to have some independence; but young enough to have no real humility. Late teens.

Each of us had a buddy who balanced us out. A shy person paired with an assertive person. A strong person paired with a fast person. My brother and I were paired off because his incredible talent and goofiness offset my crueler, harder intellect. He had a whip-chain and I had a chokuto if that helps illustrate our personality differences any further.

I’ve chilled out a lot since then, especially because of his influence, but I digress.

One afternoon, we were all released from teaching to do our own training and got to work on our forms off to the side. Each of us did a kata called Bassai Dai. When each person performed, we sat around them in a square and prepared to give critique, just as we did with the lower ranks and younger students. When we finished, we had to stand there and listen to the others pick apart our timing, stance, execution, the works. That day was the first time we had done so for each other at this rank.

As each person went up, we found that we had less and less to say. We were all at about the same level of understanding and fitness. We started to see not what the others were doing wrong, but what the others were doing differently, based on their natural movements, attitude, and body-type. A slender boy was the fastest. The tall, slightly chubby one was the strongest. “You could just flow around the mat all day,” the most senior said to me. In that group, I was the most graceful.

The best way to learn, our sensei said, was to teach. That’s because your students will force you to find the answer to questions you’ve never thought of. You start to see the technical elements. You train your perception to identify why something works, and when, and how. In a rigorously disciplined setting like a dojo, when a senior rank tells you to correct your movements, your understanding, or your attitude — you do it. Take it, and grow.

Writers, like any artists, have some part of their ego wrapped up in their work, much like that group of teenagers. For the most part, writing groups and critique groups will level out to have the same level of understanding and skill. The biggest variable is where the strengths and weaknesses are. Someone in your group is more knowledgeable of current social issues. Someone in your group is a better world-builder than the rest. Someone in your group is more attuned to emotional resonance.

I like to joke that in the world of crit, abuse is love. If someone says this section isn’t working, it’s because they want it to work. We’re rough on each other, but only so that we improve; and our petty cruelties are built on a foundation of trust.

I trust that you’re strong enough to take this.

I trust that you’ll ask questions when you’re not, or suggest we move on to the next section.

I trust you to know your limits, what you can use in your story, and what you can’t.

I’m not kind with feedback, but my group knows that if I yell at them it’s because I care. I know my strengths, and I’m discovering new weaknesses every day; but I remember those days in the dojo. I remember the bonds we built by practicing until it hurt, and then through and beyond the pain. I remember the beautiful moment when the ache transformed into understanding.

Choose your critique group wisely. Then, when they correct you, take it and grow.

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
― Aristotle
“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
― Sylvia Plath


The Unbreakable Strength of Humility

What would you like to do?

There are a million bazillion writers out there, it’s true. It’s an intimidating thought, but it doesn’t have to be. The reason for this fear is a sense that we won’t be able to distinguish ourselves. Fact is, there’s something you have to say, in a particular way, that no one else can. Your writing (like all your other life choices) are influenced by your experiences and perception. That’s entirely yours. One way to mitigate this fear is to think of your end game. What would you like to do?

In your wildest most whimsical fantasies, what would you like to do? What kind of stories do you want to tell, and what kind of reader would you like to reach?

This is a marketing question also, but that aspect is for another day over another beverage.

This is the time to consider what you’re immersing yourself in. What are you reading? What kind of feedback are you getting? Are you enjoying yourself? Most importantly, are you challenging yourself, learning and growing?

Echo-chambers, whether they’re full of encouragement or full of disdain, don’t really serve you. The truth and reality of your skill is as valuable as the “you are here” sticker on a map. It sucks at first, but the value is immeasurable. Look at yourself and your abilities. Look how far you’ve come. Now look where you want to go. The only way to get there is to keep an eye on the goal. To use the parlance of the earthy, holistic practitioners I’ve been hanging out with lately: The quality of what you consume affects the quality of crap you produce.

You consume your environment. Not just the location; but the weather, the people and the energy there.

The right environment and access to the tools you need are smack-dab at the intersection of luck and boldness. Sending out query letters isn’t the only brave thing you have to do. You have to seek out new stories, and other writers. Listen to short-story podcasts in your genre. Sign up for Duotrope and see what else is out there. Blog. Get on Google+. Look for those you want to emulate. You’ll find a lot of material that’s much better than yours.

That’s what you want. Seek it out with sincerity.

Read. Study. Ask. When you encounter something you like, find out how it was made. Ask to see more. Acknowledging the gulf between your talent and theirs is only the beginning. It doesn’t end there. Lift your eyes. It’s much easier to build a bridge across that span if you can see the other side – and even easier if you have a buddy over there to catch the first rope.


It is much more valuable to look for the strength in others. You can gain nothing by criticizing their imperfections.”

― Daisaku Ikeda


In the land where excellence is commended, not envied, where weakness is aided, not mocked, there is no question as to how its inhabitants are all superhuman.”

― Criss Jami