Each Story It’s Own Path: Donohue, Leigh, and Morris on Writing and Martial Arts

There are many ways to write a short story or novel.  Each story requires something new and different of the writer.  While the study and practice of martial arts may be more systematic than that of writing, martial arts require no less flexibility of the practitioner.  As novelist Stephen Leigh says below, there is not a single right way, but many right ways, to write a story or novel.

Below, in our continuing discussion of the interplay between writing fiction and practicing martial arts, three writers talk about how writing fiction has informed their study of martial arts.  John Donohue is the author of the thrillers, Sensei, Deshi, and Tengu, and the forthcoming The Qi EatersStephen Leigh, writing as S. L. Farrell, is the author of the Cloudmage Trilogy and The Nessantico Cycle.  Susan J. Morris edited the Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep novels and wrote for and edited the best-selling Practical Guide series for Wizards of the Coast.

What has writing taught you about the martial arts?


Susan J. Morris: Writing helped me become a better teacher of martial arts. When I taught jujutsu, I needed to be able to express in words what my body knew how to do by feel, and use metaphors, similes, and just the right level of detail to help a student understand a concept. Writing helps with all of that, as well as with identifying and communicating clearly with the audience, and expressing concepts multiple ways. In addition, in writing fight scenes, you get very used to thinking about people fighting in 3D
in your head–and thinking about all the possibilities from outside both fighters’ bodies. This is very helpful when learning angle-dependent moves, exploring the effects each of your tricks and using those effects to set up other tricks, and when exploring entirely new moves.


John Donohue: The craft of the writer is something that is always evolving; we acquire expanded skills or different perspectives and attempt to integrate them into what we do. But it’s a very private experience. Martial arts are much more public. My martial training is something that needs to become much more open as well. It’s important to always remember that your skills or perspectives change and you need to be flexible and open in your practice. Particularly if you are an instructor, there is the danger that your approach to the art hardens and you lose some of the willingness to take chances and not be the expert.

Stephen Leigh: I think that what I took from writing into martial arts is the realization that there is no “right way” to do anything.  Just as every novel and short story requires its own unique path to completion, so martial arts techniques can also vary: from individual to individual, and from teacher to teacher.  I’m deeply skeptical of any teacher or sensei who proclaims that his or her way is the only correct way to do something… and that’s not just in writing or martial arts, but in pretty much everything in life.  There’s no “right way”; there are instead, many.  Any path that leads you to a successful result is the “right” way.