Last year, I wrote an entry called "10 Bruce Lee Quotes That Can Improve Your Writing," divulging my lifelong interest in the martial arts and how it influences my approach to writing. It ended up being the most popular thing I've written, and to this day it brings me more Google traffic than anything else on the site. It was an experience that taught me a few things; chiefly that it was okay to delve into my obsessions from time to time, especially when they converge with writerly pursuits.
And as it turns out, the paths of the dedicated martial artist and the successful writer intersect quite a bit, when approached from the right angles. This should come as no surprise, seeing as both endeavors require a person to reach inside themselves and (hopefully) come back with something they didn't know they had in them. Many of the qualities that propel the titans of combat sport are also found in champions of the written word. Here are some of the traits they share:
Ask any coach or instructor and they'll tell you discipline is the cornerstone of a successful martial arts training regimen. From day one, most martial artists are taught to maintain a strict routine and to avoid any temptation to stray from the path. It might seem like the most basic of principles, but it often separates the weekend warriors from the world champions.
And like many of the items to follow, this is an ethic that's directly applicable to writing. I've spoken at length before about the power of a writing routine, but I'll keep shouting it to the heavens: don't just sit around waiting for inspiration to strike. We all come from different walks of life and tangle with different demands and obligations, but if you can manage to set a writing schedule for yourself—and stick to it, come hell or high water—your creative output will benefit tremendously.
#2. Ever-Improving Technique
In the combat sports world, a champion's work is never done. When a fighter reaches the pinnacle of his sport, he doesn't stop learning because he's the best in the world—he works even harder to improve his arsenal. And that doesn't just go for combat athletes; walk into any respectable gym and there's a good chance you'll see lifelong black belts drilling the basics with the rest of the class (even great masters like Al Bundy).
In the same way, a serious writer never stops learning what he and the muse are capable of. Treat every book you open as a potential learning experience (even if it's learning what not to do). Pick up the odd book on writing or grammar to keep your tools of the trade sharp and well-maintained. Seek feedback, whether it's through a writing group or beta readers. And most importantly: write as much as you can and read as much as you can.
Whether training for a professional fight or just general self-defense, martial artists do their best to prepare for every eventuality. They try to see every angle and anticipate whatever their opponent throws, so they can be ready with a counter attack. Often a combat athlete will organize their entire training camp around their opponent's strengths or their own weaknesses, all in hopes of becoming a "complete fighter," ready for anything.
Writers would do well to follow suit, identifying our own strengths and weaknesses as we grow. It's always good to know what part of your story will shine the brightest, so you can emphasize those parts if you need to. But don't just write to your strengths; dive into your weak areas and do your best to cut them away. Build yourself up. Become a complete writer.
#4. Patience and Stamina
In 2010, Anderson Silva—the consensus number one fighter on the planet—defended his UFC title against a human wrecking machine named Chael Sonnen. It was the toughest fight of Silva's career, as Sonnen proceeded to beat the champion up for twenty-three minutes straight. But Anderson hung in there, and with only two minutes remaining in the fight, he capitalized on a tiny window of opportunity to submit Chael with a triangle choke, retaining his title. His patience and stamina paid off.
A writer's path to success may very well be just as long and grueling as those five rounds were for Anderson Silva. The odds of being an overnight success in the publishing world are like hitting the lotto. In fact, many of the authors who get tagged with that label built their "overnight" success over the course of several years. Take Brandon Sanderson for instance, who wrote six novels before seeing publication. So flex your knuckles and be patient. Your window of opportunity will come.
#5. A Sense of Progression
Most people know what it means to receive a black belt, even those who don't know the first thing about martial arts. It's a symbol of the years of hard work that person has put into learning and perfecting their style. The belt system varies depending on the discipline, but a practitioner generally starts out as a white belt, and is then awarded a new color at marked levels of proficiency (usually going from white to blue, purple, brown, and black). This gives the dedicated martial artist a clear, goal-based sense of progression in their art.
I think setting goals for your writing is one of the most effective practices you can adhere to as a writer. Think hard and realistically about where you'd like to see yourself a year from now, break down the steps it would take to get there, and reward yourself for every goal you cross off that list. Don't be vague and lofty (I want to be published is not good enough); be specific and immediate. How many words would you like to write this year? This month? This week? Write these things down, then go do it. Earn your black belt in writing.
As I found out at the age of seven years old when I took my first Karate class, a martial arts gym is one of the best places in the world to build confidence in yourself. All of the fancy moves in the world aren't going to serve you well if you step onto a mat with no confidence, and a good instructor can turn a scrappy kid with low self-esteem into a dauntless competitor. Confidence is one of the most effective weapons in a martial artist's repertoire.
A writer should be equally as confident in the work they've poured their souls into, even with the knowledge that they still have much to learn. If you're serious about realizing your writing dream, at some point you're going to have to send that precious manuscript of yours out into the world to be judged by complete strangers. If that doesn't take the confidence and bravery of a champion, I don't know what does.
Humility is the other side of the coin. The amount of hard work (and painful butt-kickings) necessary to forge a successful martial artist usually keeps that unyielding confidence from turning into outright arrogance. A true champion doesn't let his ego warp the sensibilities at the core of his training, no matter what color his belt is, and no matter how famous his skills make him.
We writers have egos too, and complimentary feedback can become intoxicating if you let it. But be careful not to fall prey to "golden word syndrome." Even the most successful among us still have something to learn every time they contend with the empty page. And the toughest, most callous feedback you receive on your work will often be the most valuable. We are never above criticism, and the day we forget that is the day we stop learning.
photo credit: Sebastian Hillig via cc