What Karate Taught Me About Writing (And Vice Versa) by Faith Van Horne

Slideways by Faith Van Horne, a young adult fantasy novel

I recently met Faith when she commented on one of my Healthy Writers Club posts. I was fascinated when she mentioned how karate has helped her improve her writing and vice versa, so I asked her to write a post for us! Enjoy her insights! And share you own in the comments!

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A little over seven years ago, I decided to take up karate again. I had practiced for about a year as a teenager, but never seriously. Likewise, about that same time I decided to start writing again, another venture I toyed with when I was younger. I always figured that, one day when I grew up, I would be a writer. Trick is, you have to actually write something before that can happen.

At this point, I’ve made some progress in both practices: I earned my first-degree black belt in karate last year, and had my first novel published this year. I was surprised to discover that many of the lessons I learned from karate, a physically demanding practice, also applied to the sedentary art of writing. Today, I’ll focus on one:

You have to start where you are

“I have a really good idea for a story, but I have to wait until I’m better before I can write it.”

I used to say this a lot, and have also heard it from other beginning writers. The concept makes sense on the surface. When I was first learning the craft of writing, I couldn’t place what the problem was, but my stories just felt “off”. In my mind, my story was a perfect, shining jewel. If I started with a concept, that concept fascinated me. Sometimes it started with a character, one whose troubles zinged through me. I had to tell her story. The person, or the idea, was ideal. All I had to do was write it down.

Then I started writing, and found that what came out didn’t match what I’d experienced in my head at all. I’d get frustrated and scrap whatever I was working on. I’m still a beginner, I decided. This story’s too hard for me to realize right now. I’ll put this away, and start with something easier. Too bad I never found a story easy enough to do right.

When I started karate, we began with basics—stances, blocks, punches. I struggled to get my feet in the right place while I was moving, let alone make my arms move at the same time. Then my sensei put another person in front of me. A person who was throwing a punch at me. And I had to keep that punch from hitting me.

Wait! I’d think. Are you crazy? Didn’t you just see how I can barely move my hand and foot at the same time? And that’s when I don’t have someone punching me. I’m not ready for this. I can’t get attacked right now. I need to get better first.

But, as I learned, the only way to learn how to avoid a punch is to get punched. A lot. (Thankfully our class practices drills with excellent control.) So I got punched. And amazingly, I began to figure out why I was getting punched. I was too slow. I had to move my body this way, my arm this way. I was too stiff. And, ever so gradually, I began to move in such a way that I didn’t always get punched.

Meanwhile, I pulled out those stories and took another look. As I learned about craft, I figured out why those stories didn’t match my brain’s image of them. The pacing was off. The dialogue didn’t move the story. The characters had no motivation to take the actions I had them taking. Now that I knew why they didn’t work, I could begin the process of tinkering, trying again, getting them to work.

The only way to learn karate is by doing karate. The only way to write a story is by writing it. And to do that, I had to accept my limitations, start where I was, knowing I was awful, and do it anyway.

I still get hit in karate, and my first drafts still suffer from awful writing. But the difference is, now I can recognize why what I’m doing isn’t working, and work to fix it. But to get there, I had to accept where I was, and where I am. That there will never be some final destination where my karate and writing will both shimmer with perfection. And then do the work anyway.

Faith recommends: Dojo Wisdom for Writers by Jennifer Lawler

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Faith Van Horne is the author of the young adult fantasy novel Slideways. She is currently putting together a collection of stories and working on another novel. In her free time, she practices karate, and even helps teach it a little. She blogs at Scribatious (faithvanhorne.blogspot.com).

Beth Barany

Beth Barany is the editor and publisher of the Writer's Fun Zone. Certified as a Creativity Coach and NLP Practitioner, and an award-winning novelist of a YA fantasy novel, Beth Barany is passionate about helping genre novelists get their message out into the world, gain confidence in their self-expression, and discover how they can get noticed and sell books to their readers. More about her services and products for genre novelists at http://www.bethbarany.com. Write on!

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6 Responses

  1. Great post, Faith! Love the way you use the analogy of karate and writing, but the truth is practice makes perfect, even if it does smart going over old manscripts or getting hit. Cheers and best wishes for a stellar publishing career!

  2. Thank you, Faith. It’s like saying, “I’ll wait ’til I’ve arrived before I” (fill in the blank: write that novel, take that chance, pursue that relationship …)

    Start where I am. Great advice. Thanks again.

  3. Beth, thanks for hosting me today! And Sharon, yes, it does hurt to pull out those first drafts, doesn’t it? :)

    Jodie, you hit on a good point. You can never succeed without taking some chances.

  4. Dave Zarlengo says:

    This reminds me of an interview with, I think it was Steve Vai. He was the guitarist with David Lee Roth and Frank Zappa. When asked what makes a good guitarist, he said you should know enough technically to be able to play the music you imagine in your head. What you’re talking about here is something I ran into with a story I came up with. I realized when I started writing that I was way in over my head, so I stopped. Figured I’d get back to it. That was ten years ago. Waiting “till you’re good enough” can be an excuse to never finish, start or even try.

  5. Dave, I know that feel. Rule One of Writing (or, if it’s not #1, it’s right near the top) is finish what you start. Actually, I guess that’s Rule Two; Rule One would be to start writing in the first place. So have you pulled out that story again lately?

  6. Beth Barany says:

    I so agree with you, Faith. In fact, Stage 1 of my Writer’s Adventure Guide process is also Start From Where You Are. It’s all about getting moving, right?!

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