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Painted Space

A TWITTER THREAD ON MARTIAL ARTS AND WRITING

This is the second twitter thread I’ve put together, this time on martial arts and writing. It originally appeared on twitter in a daily format between September and October 2018. I’ve transcribed it to blog format, so it may ramble a little, but I feel it still has some good points about martial arts (including some engineering), writing, and their intersection:

Ok, folks, it’s time for me to ramble on about something I know pretty well, and has connections to my writing. This time it’s: Martial Arts! *cue cheering*

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been practicing Wado Ryu karate since 2002, which keeps surprising me as being quite a while ago. I now run my own dojo, where one of the things I focus on is body mechanics. What is body mechanics, you ask? It’s the way you move, or more generally, the way humans move. Over the last 4-5 years, I’ve been concentrating on this more and more to help my movement in karate. (Standard disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. I can’t fix your ailments, but I do know a little about how muscles connect, mostly by experimentation.)

With that out of the way, let’s talk about basic motion. Do you lean forward when you walk? Is your back straight? Americans especially have very poor posture, but here’s something you can do to help this:

  1. Tuck your hips forward. This is easier shown, but if you point a finger straight out from your belt buckle (or pants button, etc… ), it should point straight, not downward. If it points down, that means you’re sticking your butt out. While it may get you more looks, it’s pretty bad for your back.

  2. Once your hips are tucked, your center of balance is more underneath you. This means it’s easier to control where you move next. Why is this important? I’ll get there.

  3. Now shoulders. They should be DOWN, not in your ears. Relaxing shoulders can remove upper back aches, pains, and knots. Try this: pull your shoulders up (like I said not to) then back as far as they go, then straight down.

  4. You may notice your chest sticks out more when you put your shoulders down as above. That’s good. Once again, you’re aligning your center of gravity directly beneath you. This is very useful for efficient movement.

  5. And the last big thing: look forward, not down. Don’t lead with your head. In fact, pretend the top of your head is connected by a wire to the ceiling, and it’s pulling you up, just a little bit.

  6. Now put all this together: hips tucked, shoulders back, head up. We’re going to try a very simple exercise to show how this affects you. It’s very hard: WALKING.

First, walk like you usually do. Walk in a straight line forward. Now walk sideways. Now backwards, now turn quickly. How fast can you change direction?

Next, try the same sequence with the changes above. Once you have your balance directly under you, it’s a lot easier for you to change direction, and do so quickly. You’ll have more control over where you move and how fast you do. It also means you’re putting less stress on one part of your body (i.e. your back) because you probably were leaning forward. Lastly, you can move your legs faster, and take bigger steps. It’s more efficient.

To tie this in with books (and to nerd out a little), if you’re familiar with The Wheel Of Time series, I believe this way of walking is “cat crosses the courtyard.” It’s a swordfighting stance described as arrogant and self-assured. Try and you’ll see. Standing like this just *feels* confident.

Now to the writing part. If you want to make your characters’ movements more real, read authors who are martial artists or performers. Jim Butcher, Fonda Lee, and Mary Robinette Kowal are good examples. Read with an eye to their physical descriptions. Knowledge of body mechanics makes you more efficient at doing physical things. It can also make your descriptions more precise.

I’m an engineer, so I like making systems better. This is also why I like teaching karate. At the intersection of martial arts and characters is the *act* of writing. You can use the exercise above to sit in a good position to write. Head up, shoulders back. If you like to stand to write, this definitely applies. If you want to type 2000 words a day, and not have your wrists crumple in agony, posture is important. Get a comfy chair, or a good place to stand, and keep your body relaxed while you type. It will make things go faster. Learn to check if you unconsciously tense up muscle groups (Neck and shoulders, I’m looking at you) while you type. Relax them! It may take some effort to make your muscles relax if you’re used to tensing them.

You can move a lot faster, and with less effort, if you are relaxed. This is one of the basic tenants of marital arts. It also helps while writing. Want to up your words typed per minute? Relax! This is also useful in games of skill, and tense computer games, like Call of Duty, Overwatch or Fortnite. Rather than tense up when things get hairy, if you make an effort to relax your muscles, you’ll have a better reaction rate.

(Note: just saying “relax” doesn’t work–it takes effort. First step, be aware of how your body moves. You may need to set a 1-minute timer to check your shoulders, for example. You might be surprised how often you tense up.)

A good way to release tension is through breathing. Take a deep breath, hold it, then breathe out and let your eyes, jaw, neck and shoulders, etc, relax. Figure out what that feels like, compared to your natural state. Releasing tension as above is also important in martial arts. “Relaxing” doesn’t mean going limp, but using the least amount of muscle effort required to keep your limbs where they should be. Any more requires too much energy.

My students sometimes struggle with tension (in fact, I talked about it in class a few weeks ago). To me, there are 3 “levels” of tension: Rigidly Tense: you can’t move, Completely Relaxed: you fall over, and Engaged, but not tense. This third one is the one you want, most of the time. It’s as if you have a sort of tight elastic band between muscles and joints, without actively tensing, and without losing connections. It helps generate power. This goes back to that walking example above. Call it “engaged but relaxed.” Exactly like a cat. Ready to sleep, but also ready to pounce on something.

Watch a really good martial artist (Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, etc) move and you’ll see this loose connection informing everything they do. They can’t not move like that. It’s trained into them. This type of movement is also (I believe) what a character sees in a fantasy book one they eye up another character and profess them a warrior of some sort. It’s where descriptions like “fluid grace” come into play.

“Engaged but relaxed” is also the reason good martial artists are so fast. Relaxation is tied to speed. Here’s another exercise: try moving fast while your muscles are tense. I’ll break it down for you.

  1. Open a pen that has a cap, then tense your hands up as much as you can. Now try to put the cap back on. You’ll tend to overshoot, and it takes a few tries.

  2. Now loosen that tension and do the same thing. You may not be much more accurate, but it probably takes less attempts, and it’s a lot faster. Accuracy comes with practice.

  3. Next, imagine throwing your whole arm out with everything tensed vs. when you’re relaxed. Once relaxed, you may not hit every time, but you’ll be a lot quicker to hit the target when you do.

Physics-wise, speed is a function of friction and resistance in a system. The less resistance, the faster you go. Resistance, in part, comes from binding muscles up in opposition to what you want to do (e.g. tensing shoulders). To add more (bio)engineering, when you are looser, your body operates and learns better. This is where accuracy comes in. Back to the example with the pen, did you notice you make little loops in the air while finding the cap? You are (basically) damping a recoil motion. Your body is learning to find the best path from pen tip to cap. This learning takes place best when it’s uninhibited from extraneous motion or resistance.

Uncap and cap a pen a thousand times with no tension and I guarantee you’ll be able to hit the target every time. This is how martial artists train. It’s also how your body learns. Repetition has uses. This is the “wax on, wax off” philosophy. Martial arts teachers often “hide” a really useful self-defense move in a basic exercise. Once the student learns that action and can do it perfectly, a complex move becomes simple.

Teaching this was is rewarding (and hilarious.) My co-teacher and I once broke the most complex section of a kata into individual, meaningless, movements and taught them over a few weeks, without telling what we were doing. When we later learned the kata, we taught up to the hard section and told them, “This will be difficult, but you already know how to do it.” When we demonstrated the full movement, jaws were on the floor, but they could do the movements on the first try, and more important, were already good at them. They still talk about it.

This can apply to writing, as well. If you have a plot problem, or don’t really know what your book is about, break the plot into smaller, unrelated sections. Have a list of character reactions, and write 500 words a day on one. You might write linearly, or not. But once you have words down on the page, whatever order, you can use those character reactions to make a story. If you practice how a character thinks, you can “become” them while writing.

This might seem a little sociopathic, writers in effect “stalking” their characters in order to become them. It also doesn’t seem related to martial arts, but stay with me. Both are ways to learn about a whole from small parts. Just as with practicing martial arts, where we learn in great detail how our bodies move and react to external stimuli, so in writing we get to know our characters so minutely that any external input has an obvious response.

This response to stimuli is what happens when authors talk about their characters going off on their own, or doing the unexpected. They’re just responding in a very specific way to the challenge the author put before them. It often means the character has a very detailed personality, in the author’s mind, even if that personality is not always displayed on the page. Sometimes you have to search for what a character is responding to.

Similarly, if you encode a set of moves in muscle memory in a martial art, then they might come out in unexpected places. Several of my students have told about being surprised at work, and barely avoiding throwing a backfist. The same thing can apply to writing. Learn to know how to write so well that it happens by instinct.

Well, that’s the end of this for now. It may become a “part 1” in the future, if I find I have more thoughts on the matter. I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe learned something!


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