Writer's Life

Steve Bein: What does the journey of becoming a black belt teach you about writing and the creative life?

A one-question interview with author, professor and martial artist Steve Bein

Answer: Three big lessons leap to mind, and they’re about frailty, being a beginner, and surpassing your own limits.

The first thing I learned as a martial artist was five different ways to tear apart the human wrist. This was before we did anything you could properly call martial art; it was just calisthenics. You’ve got these five basic wrist locks, and it’s good to apply them on yourself to limber up a bit before you start throwing each other around by the wrist. The point is this: I hadn’t shed my first drop of sweat and already I’d learned how easy it is to tear my frail little body apart. Something like eight pounds of pressure is enough.

The same thing happens as a writer. Once you decide you want to pursue this craft, you start reading differently—or at least you should—and then you start noticing how many people are better at this than you are. You come across that perfectly executed scene, that one detail that makes the setting come alive,  that single line of dialogue that transforms a character from flat to fully formed. You read things like that and you see just how far your own work falls short.

It makes you feel frail, but if you ask me, this is a very good thing. You should want to find work that’s better than yours. That’s the surest way to improve your craft: emulate writers who are better at this than you are.

That gets me to the next lesson, which is what it means to be a beginner. Shodan, the Japanese word for a first-degree black belt, means “beginner’s rank.” It took me six years to earn my first shodan—six years to get to the point where I could start getting serious. There aren’t many pastimes where you practice two or three hours a night, five nights a week, for as long as it takes to collect a couple of college degrees, just to get to the point where you’re called a beginner.

But then there’s that apocryphal quote floating around: “The first million words are just practice.” (I first heard it ascribed to Graham Greene, but versions of it are ascribed to Jerry Pournelle, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ray Bradbury, and others.) If you were to write a thousand words a night, five nights a week, it would take you about four years to log your million words. Elmore Leonard agreed, and said that’s about how long it takes to figure out what you want your voice to sound like.

Log your first million, find your voice, write the next Great American Novel, and you’re still a beginner. You’ve still got to publish. If you go the route I went—traditional publishing, shooting for one of the Big Four houses—you’re going to need an agent. It took me three years to find mine. Signing on with her was a huge thrill, to say nothing of actually and getting the book contract a few months later. But even then I felt like a beginner. In hindsight my naïveté is just shocking to me. I signed a two-book deal with only the vaguest clue how I would write the second book. Then I decided it would be clever for the second one to set up a trilogy, blissfully unaware that the Big Four have no qualms about dropping an author midway through a series. But I got lucky, and today my trilogy is sitting on a bookshelf, not a thumb drive. If you’re stuck being a beginner, you might as well cash in on a little beginner’s luck.

It’s not all luck, of course. I worked hard to make sure my second book was better than the first and my third was better than the second. That’s the last thing the path to black belt taught me about being a writer: you have to surpass what you think you’re capable of.

In the dojo I came up in, the shodan test was a grueling affair: three hours of testing, followed by an hour of non-stop sparring where you get a fresh opponent every five minutes. It’s awful. It’s the greatest day of your life and it’s still awful. You can’t even take solace in the fact that you’ll be proud of this moment later, because in the moment itself you’re so exhausted that your only thought is of how to stay on your feet for one more round. It’s the longest hour of your life, and the worst, and the best.

This is exactly how I feel about writing. Maybe other writers don’t subject themselves to this, but I feel enormous pressure for each book to be better than the last. I also made a promise to myself from the beginning: you will never turn in a piece unless it’s the best work you could have turned in that day. So if the last book was the best I could have done, and the next book is supposed to be better… well, you see where the pressure comes from.

This loops back around to the lessons on frailty and being a beginner. Here’s the thing: no one is good at all of writing. Every writer has strengths and weaknesses. It’s the same as tying your belt and stepping on the mat: even if you think you’re not a beginner anymore, there are still too many skill sets to learn for any one person to master them all. Even when you get close to mastering one of them, there are still those magicians out there whose talent leaves you convinced you will never, ever catch up.

I think that’s okay. We need geniuses to emulate. They’re the ones who can inspire us to raise the bar with each book and still find a way to clear it. If they leave us feeling a bit beat up, that’s part of the training.

Steve Bein (pronounced “Bine”) is a philosopher, martial artist, traveler, translator, and award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone, and in international translation, and his Fated Blades novels were met with critical acclaim. Steve teaches at Asian philosophy the University of Dayton. You can find all of his work at www.philosofiction.com. Please follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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