Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Writing is Like Getting Punched in the Face

Your Sensei-ism of the Day

by Bethany Maines

A member of my writer’s group, who is at the relative beginning of her writing journey, recently turned in a story for critique and my response was that clearly the middle sucked and it needed to be totally restructured, but other than that the story was great. Or at least, that’s probably what I sounded like to her. She understood that I wasn’t trying to be mean, but, as another member of our group pointed out, she probably hadn’t been expecting a critique of that magnitude, and was probably more hoping for a stamp of approval, with maybe a “just change a few lines here or there.”  And then I had a sharp memory that I used to feel the same way (and occasionally I still do).

One of the other things I study, besides writing, is karate. Now, the first thing everyone asks is, “What belt are you?”  So let’s just get this out of the way now. I’m a third degree black belt. Most people have no idea what that means, but it sounds impressive, so they give enthusiastic nods. (Or if you’re that dillhole trying to date a black belt, you make an ineffectual grab and say, “What would you do if I did this?”  Um…. Throw you on the floor and then watch how you never call again?  Right, that’s what I thought.)  There are many belts between white (absolute beginner) and black, and each one is an achievement that is worthy of being bragged about. Sadly for poor karate students talking to random acquaintances, if it ain’t black, it ain’t nothin’.  So if you know a karate student and they say “green,” congratulate them on their hard work and, unless they’re six, please don’t ask them to show you anything. If they’re six, then ask away, because that’s just plain adorable. But, word to the wise, if you’re a dude protect your crotch (unless you’ve got the video camera rolling and want to win $10,000 on America’s Funniest Home Videos), because we all know how coordinated your average six year old is.

Anyway, back to the point (why does everyone always doubt I have one?). I’ve been a sensei (teacher) for long enough that I’ve started to see trends or traits in the course of a karate student’s journey. One of the most common beginner traits is that once a student has learned a technique, say reverse punch, they consider it complete. Why would we revisit the topic? And then I have to break it to them that I’ve been learning my reverse punch for about eleven years now. And I’ll learn some more about it tonight when I go into the dojo. Each time I cross the threshold and bow to the dojo, whether or not I’m teaching the class, I’m there to learn.

But when you’re a white belt, you’d really just like to get your reverse punch signed off so you can test for the next belt. Being told to go back and do it again can be very disheartening, but from the black belt perspective it can also be very freeing. I’m free to get the first one wrong (and the third, and the fifth, and the twenty-fifth) because I’m going to do it again.  With karate, and with writing, there is always the opportunity to go back the next day and do it again.

I know that when I started writing, I didn’t want to edit.  And then I rewrote my first novel 9.5 times.  And believe me, I wanted to stop at about 6.  But after awhile, I started to think that a novel is a fluid thing with endless permutations of how it can be put together. I can’t be hamstrung by the idea that the first draft has to be the finished draft; by accepting that I’m going to be wrong I free myself to create something better.

They say there are very few masters in karate, but many students – meaning that, while some may be more advanced, we are all still learning.  I believe the same can be said of writing. 


  1. Brilliant, Bethany. The connection between karate and writing is great! I look at my earlier novels and still want to revise them but I always chalked that up to being an editor as well as a writer. Now I know I'm not crazy and for that, I thank you, oh wise one. Maggie

  2. Mr. Miyagi says you're welcome. ;)

  3. I'm with Maggie...this is brilliant, Bethany! I never would have thought karate was anything like writing, but it's such an apt comparison. You are never completely "done" and you've never mastered any technique so well that you can't improve upon it or learn something new. I will remember, too, not to ask you to show me anything when I finally meet you. I asked Dana Cameron to show me a krav maga choke-hold once years ago, and my throat has never been the same since.

  4. Well, most of us can't do back flips like Jackie Chan, so our "party tricks" aren't really socially acceptable. For some reason people don't like being kicked in the head. Go figure.

  5. Fun post, Bethany! I can totally relate. I don't have, but I've paid for a 2nd degree Black Belt in Taekwando, which belongs to my son! (He can round-kick you any day!?!) You bring your point around very nicely as well! I bet she was expecting a tweak here and there. But it is a massive journey every time!

  6. I did feel bad - I had simply spit out a "black belt" level critique without any of the break down and explanation for someone closer to a yellow belt. Had to go back and do a little apologizing. She wasn't mad at me though. :)

  7. Critiques are a funny thing. You have to get a good one to understand how much you have to learn. Which is probably true of karate. You have to get punched in the face to remember that you're supposed to practice blocking as much as kicking. Great post!