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Getting Choked on a Regular Basis Will Make You a Better Writer


I've toyed around with some jujitsu and muay thai and such, mostly for fitness but also because I find fighting sports fascinating. I've had the privilege to get to train with three different guys who have won fights in the UFC (including my buddy Justin "The American Kid" Lawrence who will own the featherweight title someday) and love the way different fighters' strengths and weaknesses require different tactics. I always thought boxing was boring (still do) but MMA is awesome in my book.


Jujitsu and all it's forms (judo, aiki-jujitsu, brazilian jiu-jitsu) have a philosophical aspect to them, and one of the main lessons is "don't match force with force." They said fighting the man who created Judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano, was like fighting an empty jacket - if you pushed his right shoulder his right shoulder would move backward with no resistance, the only problem being he'd spin to his left, pull your collar backward and sweep your legs forward and half a second later you'd be lying on the ground wondering what just happened. This philosophy of not matching force with force can be applied to many other things in daily life and has helped me have a much less adversarial relationship with the world around me.


Another thing I learned in jujitsu was to be appreciative of the lessons I learned, no matter how painful. And when I say "painful," I mean that quite literally. Being a traditional martial art there is a hierarchy in the judo class, and when a black belt teaches you something you say "thank you, sir" (or "ma'am," as the case may be). This means that dozens of times in each evening's training session someone will throw you flat on your back, wrap their arm around your throat, and choke you until you're about to black out, and when they let go you say, "Thank you, sir."


This is very analogous to receiving a critique of your writing.


You spend months writing a novel, pour your soul into it, agonize over every detail, and fall in love with it. And then people read it and say, "This is complete crap." Actually, no one ever says that, they tiptoe around your feelings. But that's what you hear. Art of any type is inherently personal, and artists secretly fear that they're not really talented, so whenever someone says anything about your work that is anything other than glowing praise, it feels like they are saying "your art is silly and you have zero talent."


Early on in my writing career it was hard for me to take criticism. I had the response, as I think many young writers do, that the person critiquing my work failed to understand my brilliance. You just don't get it, man. As I matured, I learned more about the craft of storytelling and learned why there are certain rules, and criticism became easier to take, because I could link what the critic was saying to rules that I knew had a reason for existing, so the criticsm seemed more objective.


But note I said criticism got "easier" to take, not "easy." It still hurt. And I still had emotional reactions that I knew would hamper my career if I didn't keep them in check.


Eventually something occurred to me - this is never not going to hurt. Lessons are always going to be painful, whether that lesson is "you need to sink your weight lower if you want to execute ippon seoi nage" or "the conflict doesn't have enough emotional resonance for the viewpoint character." I had learned to take that pain in athletics and dive right into something I know would cause serious discomfort without so much as cringing. The trick is accepting the pain ahead of time. Once I decided to accept the pain of critiques prior to receiving them the whole thing became pretty easy to bear, and I learned a lot more.

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