Tag Archives: karate

How To Recycle Bottom-Drawer Stories

Thanksgiving was pretty amazing. It’s difficult to gather three generations in one house; but we managed it. The bourbon flowed freely, there was much wrestling, discussion of childhoods and future burials, and the revising of wills.

I had been editing a story on the flight there, and it was on my mind while I cleared out half of my belongings that my parents saved for me. Among these was a massive collection of trophies, medals and plaques. Of the three five-foot karate state championship trophies I tossed, I only regret the loss of one. It marked one moment of three big achievements for me: my first black belt competition, my first adult competition, and my first 1st place out of eleven, rather than four others. For weapons forms, no less… my true love.

Those items were a record of my achievements in music, in martial arts, and even (I had forgotten about this) science.

I once knew a brilliant sci-fi author who told me that if he doesn’t like his work, or fails to sell it, he deletes it.

Entire manuscripts — gone!

I couldn’t do that. I’m sure you can relate. Lots of writers have stories gathering dust in the depths of their desks and hard-drives. These are a mix of things we never finished, or failed to sell, or were too precious and fragile for anyone else’s eyes. I can give up trophies. The achievement matters more than the marble; but a story…?

Those physical and digital archives remind me of the stuff that piles up in warehouses and garages. You could chuck it to make room, certainly, but by eschewing materialism there’s also a great loss of one’s own history and context. The important thing is how we relate to that history and context, and how it informs who we become.

I had this story on my mind, remember. The reason it wasn’t working was because it was a literary meditation. Genre fiction hinges on stakes, conflict, and dynamic adventures. When I showed the draft to some other writers I know, I got lots of great thoughts on how to revise. Thing is, they’d all change the direction and crux of the story. It would lose its history and context. In essence, I’d be throwing it away. Or deleting it.

The other option is to pursue all options.

If you don’t want to throw anything away, then use the pieces at hand to build something new.

Think about an old story you have that isn’t working. Then see if you can find the notes and suggestions you got from others. Write all of those stories. Change the names. Change the climate. Before you throw something away, give it a good hard look. Don’t waste a chance to recycle.


“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”
— Jack London


“Look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”
— Tom Stoppard



The orange one.



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

Top ten reasons martial arts schools make your life better

I haven’t written about the katana side of katanapen in a while, so here’s a quick update in my martial arts life.

Yesterday I had to formally resign from my dojo due to inconvenient life-reasons. We parted on good terms; and I’m sure I’ll pick it up again when the situation is more conducive. It’s always painful losing a school, so instead of mourning I’m going to list the top ten ways being part of a dojo has made my life better. This is what I’ve learned from being in multiple schools, and multiple styles, over the past few decades.

1. Exercise – It’s healthy to be healthy. There’s a wide range of styles and dynamic movements, so even if you have chronic injuries you can work around them. If it isn’t fun, I don’t continue — and being able to train with my friends makes the most grueling workout bearable.

2. Self-discipline – You can accomplish anything you want to, if you put the work in. Being part of a dojo taught me how to adapt and problem-solve, no matter what I was trying to do.

3. Lasting Friendships – being part of a dojo has been the #1 best way for me to meet people I have something in common with. When you go through something intensely difficult, you bond with people who understand.

4. Second Family – The people you train with are your brothers and sisters. Period. if you need help, you have someone to go to. If someone needs help, you learn how to be there.

5. Community-building – you make friends, you perform at events. You participate in charities, marathons and fundraising. Some dojos can help you get things like first aid and CPR certifications, or host blood-donation events. The greatest teachers build relationships with other schools so we all learn from each other and promote good will outside the tournament circuit. There are dozens of ways good martial arts schools give back to their communities.

6. Hierarchy – You know where you stand, and where you want to go next. You constantly grow in mind, body and spirit.

7. Reciprocity – the key part of hierarchy. You defer to those above you so that they guide and help you on your path. You mentor those below you both to refine your own knowledge, and to help foster a community of upstanding citizens. That’s not just respect — that’s love.

8. Responsibility – I learned to own my mistakes, and also take pride in my accomplishments. I learned to help my brothers and sisters because their behavior reflects on me as much as mine reflects on them.

9. Identity – I’m always a martial artist, whether I’m wearing a uniform or not. I still see how I see, and move how I move. The lessons I learned in the dojo shape the way I live my life; with honor, justice and efficiency. I can be too serious at times; but when I do agree to something I do it whole-heartedly. It’s also great for kids and teens because you get a clear sense of how to be a good person in a secular context.

10. Outlet – I’ve always had a rotten temper, and when I don’t have a way to channel it, I lose my mind. The dojo was always a place to cut loose in a safe way — surrounded by other people who ‘got it.’ Training made me feel better. There’s always a sense of accomplishment; and the folks in your school are always there for you.

If your dojo isn’t giving you all the things I’ve mentioned; you’re in the wrong school.

You might notice that I said nothing about learning to harm human beings. I took that part out of the equation because learning to harm human beings has never helped me. What has helped are the peripheral skills — mental sharpness, preparedness and observation,  and most importantly, how to diffuse situations before they come to blows.

Anyone can learn to break things. It’s learning how to build ourselves up — build our community up — that makes being part of a dojo worthwhile.

For more information on how to choose a school and the benefits of martial arts practice, please check out Forrest E. Morgan’s book, Living the Martial Way. I had to write an essay on it a long time ago, and I find it’s still worth a re-read now and again.

Night training at Mt. Wudang

Night training at Mt. Wudang


An Oscar-Nominated Director Gets Real About How Women Are Treated in Hollywood

“When I was still fighting competitively [in world point fighting and karate], one of the best tournaments I ever attended was the Dacascos Open in Hamburg. They had a ranking system going on all year, but because I hadn’t attended any other tournaments within their organization, I was given “wildcard” status, which meant I had to fight everybody, while their top fighters are automatically placed in the semi-finals. If I lose, I am out.”

Some successes, some failures; and interesting points about why efforts to establish a baseline have fallen short. Quick and easy read.