Nancy Jane Moore spent much of her childhood in Texas reading books. Like a lot of bookworms, she learned about the world and people through the settings and characters found on the library shelf. A child of the 60s, she marched and protested and hitchhiked. In 1979, she began a journey that would last more than 30 years—the study and practice of martial arts.
Moore attended Clarion West and came out the program with a renewed sense of herself as a writer. Her early stories were known for crisp action, blistering pace, and vivid descriptions. As she says below, she wrote “adventure stories that allowed women to have adventures.” Moore still writes science fictional adventure stories, but they have become more and more focused on the subtleties of human behavior.
Moore’s fiction has appeared in venues such as Poliphony 5, Sword and Sorceress, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. She is a member of Book View Café, a writer’s co-op, where she blogs, publishes flash fiction, and has serialized her novella Changeling, originally published by Aqueduct Press. She gave a presentation at last year’s WisCon that combined the principles of self defense and Aikido with “the stories we tell about women warriors.” She maintains a self defense blog called Taking Care of Ourselves.
“Ultimately, I write to understand the world and myself,” said Moore. And it seems that she could’ve just as easily been talking about her study and practice of martial arts. Below we talk about the extensive interplay between these two activities that occupy so much of her time.
What forms of martial arts have you studied?
Nancy Jane Moore: I’ve studied Aikido since 1986, and am a fourth degree black belt (yondan). Before I took up Aikido, I studied Shorin-Ryu Karate. I’ve also studied some T’ai Chi. I began studying martial arts in May 1979, so it’s almost exactly 31 years.
What has the study and practice of martial arts taught you about writing in general and fiction writing in particular?
Nancy Jane Moore: You have to learn the rules before you can break them. But once you understand how things work, you need to be flexible. Rigidity is bad for both writers and martial artists.
The original reason you take up a practice is not the reason that keeps you going after reaching the higher levels. As your understanding and sophistication deepen, what you want to get out of your practice, and what you want to do with your art, changes. When I started out in martial arts, I suspect that I — like many people — wanted to be “tough.”
These days, I could care less about being tough, but I do want to communicate effectively through my body as well as through my words. Likewise, as a writer, I started out with an urge to write adventure stories that allowed women to have adventures. Now I’m less interested in writing fight scenes and more interested in exploring more subtle aspects of human nature in my stories.
Martial arts taught me one more thing: Even though I could be described as an intellectual, even though I spent a large amount of my childhood curled up in a chair with a book, and even though I’m not a world class athlete, I still need to do physical things regularly. I learn by using my body just as I learn by reading things and writing about them. Plus it’s amazing the number of creative ideas I get on the mat — if I can just remember to write them down right after class!
And since my primary martial art is Aikido, in which you generally train with a partner, I not only learn a great deal about myself in training, but also find out a lot about my partners. That gives me detailed information about such things as compassion, anger, rigidity, flexibility, and a host of other attributes and emotions that can be incorporated into characters to deepen their complexity. I was once interviewed by an FBI agent as part of the security clearance process for another member of our dojo. I think the agent found me confusing, because I’d never met my friend’s wife or been to his home, and only had a shaky idea of how many kids he had, but I kept saying, “He’s the perfect man for the job. When he first began training, even though he had a background in other martial arts and was a strong man who could push others around should he want to, he never did that. Instead, he approached training with an open mind and a desire to learn something new.” I learned that about him from training with him, and it’s the sort of knowledge that can work its way into a character.
And what has writing taught you about the martial arts?
Nancy Jane Moore: Just as with any other specialized activity, martial artists tend to have their own shorthand. In Aikido, we toss in a lot of terms taken from Japanese (and those of us who aren’t native Japanese speakers tend to use them in our own way, which probably makes those terms bad Japanese).
If I’m writing a story with a fight scene, I cannot say “She threw him with iriminage.” Instead, I must describe how she stepped behind her opponent, took control of his neck and arm, and pivoted to the rear, causing him to lose his balance, and making it possible for her to sweep her arm across his body and throw him.
In figuring out how to describe a technique, or a larger principle, using ordinary language rather than Aikido shorthand, I come to a deeper understanding of what I’m doing on the mat. I also learn how to explain these concepts in more ordinary language to those who don’t know the jargon.
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.