Being a Good Writer Doesn’t Just Happen: Crewe, Donohue, Frost & Smeds on Martial Arts & Writing

Learning of technique, honest self-assessment and persistent practice, all lead to mastery of an art form.  Arrogance, doubt, and laziness (in varying degrees) are also part of the process.  Below, four very different writers–Megan Crewe, John Donohue, Gregory Frost, and Dave Smeds–talk about what the study and practice of martial arts has taught them about writing and life.

Megan Crewe is the author of the YA paranormal novel, Give Up the Ghost.  The sequel, The Way We Fall will be out in 2012.  John Donohue has written the thrillers,  Sensei, Deshi, and Tengu, and the forthcoming The Qi Eaters.  Donohue is also the author of Herding the Ox: The Martial Arts As Moral Metaphor and Complete Kendo, and the editor of  The Overlook Martial Arts Reader, Vol. 2Gregory Frost is the author of the Shadowbridge novels, Fitcher’s Brides, Attack of the Jazz Giants, and other books.  He is a visiting professor at Swarthmore College’s creative writing workshops.  Dave Smeds is the author of the War of Dragons duology, Piper in the Night, and other works of speculative fiction.  He also wrote Chuck Norris for the Martial Arts Masters series from Rosen Publishing.


What has the study and practice of martial arts taught you about writing in general and fiction writing in particular?


John Donohue: I teach writing in the MFA program here at Albertus Magnus College and martial arts at my own small dojo. I’ve got my feet in two seemingly different worlds and am constantly struck by parallels between the two. They are very different activities in many ways but share this: a mastery of basics, of standard technique, and constant “polishing” are the elements that can lead you to mastery.

Megan Crewe: Practicing martial arts has made me more concretely aware of how difficult it is for us to objectively evaluate our own performance.  It can feel as though I am doing a technique exactly the way my instructor showed me, when in fact I am completely off.  I need someone outside of me, looking at me, to tell me that.  Just as I may think I’ve expressed a character’s motivations or the mood of a setting in one of my stories, but I can’t know whether I truly have until an outside reader takes a peek.

At the same time, it’s helped me come to terms with the subjectivity of reading and writing.  With a physical technique within a particular style of martial arts, there is one right way of doing it, and you are either using the correct positioning and force and speed or you are not.  With writing, especially fiction writing, ten different readers may get ten different things out of the same story.  So while I can trust a single instructor to advise me in martial arts, I need several readers to get a full picture of the possible responses to what I’ve written.

Gregory Frost: A couple of things: First, the notion of “beginner’s mind.“ It’s an idea promoted in doshinkan aikido, the proper way to approach training–you come to it open, welcoming, without preconceptions, without second-guessing what your opponent will do. This is, to me, much the same as how one must come at a story: you’ve already considered its structure, already imagined scenes, characters, images. When you sit down to write, you want to be open to possibility. The more you can do this, the more the story directs you rather than you attempting to impose preconceptions on it.

The second is the idea that there’s only one thing you can control in life and that’s you. You can’t make outside forces obey. You can’t control what an opponent–or a partner–will do. All you can control is yourself, your response. The discipline of writing requires that same control. The secret of successful writing is, you plant your butt in a chair and you write. Nobody but you can make yourself do that, and the more regularly you do it, the better your writing will be.

John Donohue: One of the discussions I have with writers is about the concepts of Shu-Ha-Ri in martial training. I have my writing students read about how these principles play out in the lives of martial arts students and then ask them to draw parallels to the writer’s craft.

I think many people come to writing with the same expectation that they bring to the martial arts—that mastery is simply something that “happens.” But being a good writer doesn’t just happen.  It can happen, but it requires many of the same qualities necessary to be a good martial artist: practice, critical self-reflection, the humility to learn from good teachers, the willingness to fail, yet the conviction that the potential goal is worth the effort.

Dave Smeds: Martial arts gave me an epiphany that applies not only to writing but to any endeavor: The problem in nearly every conflict is me. I am a large, strong guy and I’ve trained a long time. I have the tools — the arsenal, as it were — to deal with most sparring partners most every time in the dojo. And yet I don’t always do my best. Should I blame the art form or the instruction? Nope. I have to lay the blame on my hesitation, doubt, overconfidence, laziness, or some other aspect of my character or my state of mind. Writing is the same way. If I’m not invested in the material, if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, if I get lazy — these are the things that will mess up the work. Once I learned my spelling and grammar and descriptive techniques and my plotting and so forth, I had all the technical means I needed to be an author. But with each and every story, novel, or screenplay I do, I have to stay in touch with how my personal qualities will affect the quality.

Megan Crewe: My study of martial arts has also given me greater insight into how learning a skill works.  There are those techniques that require so much attention and effort when I’m first trying to learn them, and it seems as though I’ll never not have to worry about them.  But then months later I’ll be going through a form, and realize I am doing that one piece effortlessly now.  I think it works the same way with writing.  You don’t know that you’ve mastered a particular element of story-telling or prose construction until you no longer notice that you’re doing it.  You can’t expect trumpets to go off in a victory celebration to let you know you’ve got it.  It’s a quiet thing that creeps up on you.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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