What Karate Has Taught Me About Writing
~ By Melina Kantor
I wasn’t planning to write a novel. Especially not in thirty days. But one October day in 2007, as I was walking my dog in Central Park while listening to a podcast, I heard about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).
Minutes after I got home, I signed up. A few weeks later, not only had I started my first novel, I’d become part of a writing community. Not long after that, I had a completed draft of an actual novel and was a member of RWA.
I’d found my tribe.
I still dive feet-first into NaNo every year, and this past November was my fourth year serving as a co municipal liaison for Jerusalem.
Even though this was unexpected, all of this makes sense to me. I grew up with a mother who happens to teach English, and I was raised to love stories, language, and words.
I’d never planned on taking a karate class, either. The idea had never even occurred to me. But about a year and a half ago, I accidentally (long story) ended up walking into an open house for women’s martial arts classes. Or maybe it was “accidentally on purpose.” Or fate. Who knows. I guess it doesn’t really matter.
Somebody suggested that I try a karate class, and I suddenly found myself in a room with a woman dressed in a gi (the white uniform) and a black belt who told me to take off my sandals and my watch. She taught me a basic punch, which wasn’t an easy task for either of us considering my lack of coordination.
Half an hour later, when I told her I was going to sign up, she said matter of factly, “Good. You’re mine now.”
And now, I’m part of yet another tribe.
This story, though similar to the first, doesn’t make as much (or any) sense to me, as I have never been at all athletic. But, I’ve learned to just be grateful and not question it.
Karate is now a huge part of my life. Yes, it takes time away from my writing. However, I do think it’s made me a better, stronger writer.
At the beginning and end of each karate class, we sit on our knees, close our eyes, breathe deeply, and then touch our foreheads to the floor.
Honestly, I’ve never been into any sort of meditation (which, I know, is probably a sign that I need it).
But without this exercise, I don’t know how I’d transition from a busy workday into karate mode. And on Thursday nights, that final forehead on the floor is the official end of my week, and the release of stress makes it easier to focus when I settle in for some weekend writing.
Though maybe not quite as ceremonial, I have a similar process for transitioning into writing time. It changes with each book, each season, and my whims, but the idea is the same.
In the winter, my “writing ceremony” involves listening to a song on my story playlist, putting on a pair of warm, cozy socks, making a cup of tea, and lighting a candle. Yes, the routine matters, but so does all of the sensory input that connects me to story in the same way the feeling of my forehead on the cold floor gets me ready to punch and kick.
At the risk of sounding like an addict, I go through a kind of withdrawal and get truly upset and worked up if I have to skip a karate class. I’ve shown up to class with bronchitis (don’t yell at me, I wasn’t contagious), torn Achilles tendons, and a whole other bunch of challenges life has thrown at me.
On the days when I can’t give it my all, I do whatever I can. On a few occasions, the instructors have made me sit down and just watch.
Why bother showing up under less than ideal circumstances? Because at least I’m there, in karate world, and connected to something I love.
When it comes to writing, I try to behave in a similar way. I get a little twitchy if I go too long without writing, but there are times, even during NaNo, when I know there is absolutely no way the whole BCHOK thing is going to work. Those are the times when I set a timer for 20 minutes and do whatever I can.
Even if all I’ve done is stare endlessly at the same paragraph, at least I’ve stayed in the world of my story, which, I truly believe, is a gift my muses will appreciate.
* Note: Life happens. There are times to skip karate classes and times to not write. It’s okay to take breaks. Case in point, one NaNo I reached 44,000 words the third week in November. And then, I got the flu. As in, actual influenza. I tried to keep going and reach 50K. Very bad idea. I ended up in the emergency room. Let me be your warning.
It’s Okay to Not Be at the Top
This year, I was reluctantly pushed out of my comfortable and beloved beginner class and am pretty much the baby in a class full of brown and black belts. Nothing about karate comes naturally to me. It’s true. I have zero natural talent, and I am perfectly okay with that so there’s no need to reassure me. I dutifully show up twice a week and don’t mind working extra hard.
I used to be truly intimidated, and when I was paired with a brown or black belt, I would apologize to them for having to take time to help me. I felt they were losing out on practice.
Now, I actually love working with more advanced students. They’re really patient, and helpful, and I’ve been assured that having to “teach” me is part of their learning process. (Okay, fine. I still feel guilty sometimes. But I’m working on it.)
Can you guess where I’ve felt the same type of intimidation? Can you guess where I’ve had that kind of support? RWA meetings and conferences. Seriously. Why would I be sitting in the same workshop, much less the same room, as one of my favorite, best-selling authors?
The answer is that even experts have a lot to learn, and we can all learn from and support each other.
Leaving My Comfort Zone and Making Friends With My Enemies
There are karate exercises I love so much I could do them for hours without getting tired and just let the endorphins fly. It’s fun feeling like Buffy.
And then. . . there are the “others.” I’ve been practicing a move called “shuto-uke” for over a year, and I don’t think I have ever done it correctly. Not once. And it’s not even that complicated.
Oh, and that mediation I mentioned earlier? Confession. I have trouble keeping my eyes closed. One of the instructors started making a big fuss about it a few months ago and, after a loooot of back and forth, we finally reached a compromise. Now, I focus on a spot on the wall, and leave my eyes open.
Worst of all, even though I love karate, I absolutely, positively, do not love having hands and feet come towards me, even gently, and even when the fighting is pretend. I get startled and flustered and forget what to do.
I know what my boundaries are, and I respect them. I have no problem skipping activities I’m uncomfortable with. At the same time, I don’t want to limit myself, and I’ve been told that the only way to deal with the activities that make me uncomfortable is to “make friends with my enemies.” So every week, I try to do a little more of the “scary stuff.”
The same principle applies to my writing. I could write every story in first-person, past tense. I could write pages of nothing but snarky dialogue. That would be heaven. But it would also limit me.
The first time I tried to write romance instead of women’s fiction, in third-person, with two points of view, my brain hurt so much I wanted to let the story go and start a new one. But I kept going. It’s not my best work, but it’s done.
I still prefer writing first-person stories with lots of dialogue, but I think branching out has helped me grow as a writer even when I do stay in my comfort zone. And now, by my own free will, I sometimes choose to write in third-person.
The next enemy I need to make friends with? Writing a story in present tense. I’ll do it, I swear, even if it’s a short story or novella.
Taking and Giving Critiques
Just this past Monday night, the instructor lined us up after an exercise and told us, one by one, what we should “try doing differently.” Every single one of us, including the advanced students, got a public, honest critique.
In my case, I’d been holding my arm too far above my head.
This practice sounds cruel, but it really isn’t. We’re used to it. Besides, there was no “you did it wrong” or “watch her, she does it better” or “you suck at this.” It was simply helpful advice from somebody who truly wants us to succeed. “Try holding your arm a little lower,” I think were her exact words.
So I’ve been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, and by the time I go back on Thursday, my “age-uke” will have (hopefully) improved.
As writers, we’re also used to critiques. Nobody reaches a level where critiques aren’t needed. “This passage wasn’t clear” or “This scene has too much backstory” aren’t comments about us as people or even about our ability as writers. They’re just observations about things that, with thought and hard work, can be improved or fixed.
And we should all learn to give critiques as constructively and tactfully as a good, loving sensei.
It’s Not a Matter of “Can” or “Can’t”
The words “We Can Do It” are painted, Rosie the Riveter style, on the wall of one of the classrooms where my karate class meets.
Only, the “can” is crossed out.
Why? The idea is that whatever happens in that room is not a matter of can or can’t. It’s a matter of doing. Even if whatever you’re doing is nowhere near the level of a black belt.
There’s one instructor who tells new students, “Monkey see, monkey do.”
If you show up and participate in a karate class, even if all you do is jump around, you’re a “karateka.”
Like karate, writing isn’t a case of “can or can’t.” You just have to make writing a priority and learn as you go. (I know. Easier said than done. But I believe it’s true.) Writing may come more naturally to some than others. Others might have more time or more experience.
If you sit down and write, no matter how big a mess you make, you’re a writer.
There you have it. I belong to two tribes. Belonging to my RWA tribe means wearing cute shoes to conferences and meetings. Belonging to my karate tribe means working barefoot.
Still. The two go hand in hand. Karate makes my writing stronger, and I’ve been able to stick with it because of what writing has taught me about persistence and determination.
Best of all, in each environment, I’m connected to strong, inspiring, women. And for that, I consider myself incredibly lucky.
* What tribes do you belong to? What activities have helped you with your writing?
Melina writes contemporary romance with a pinch of oregano and a dash of chutzpah. She loves to travel, especially to her family’s village in Crete, and turn her adventures into research for her novels.
In July of 2012, she moved from New York to Jerusalem with her adorable but sneaky cocker spaniel. Her family now includes an incredibly sweet yet troubled rescue puppy.
Melina likes the color pink, baking, daffodils, teaching girls to code, running her small business, learning to use power tools, practicing self-defense, Krav Maga and karate, and breaking cinder blocks with her fist.
All three of the protagonists in the trilogy she’s currently working on study empowerment self-defense and / or matrial arts.
Visit her at http://melinakantor.com.