November is “National Novel Writing Month”, more commonly referred to as “NaNoWriMo”. As a member of a few online writing groups, my Facebook feed has been inundated with upbeat and encouraging words as fellow writers help one another through the various mental and emotional stumbling blocks on their way to reaching the goal of fifty-thousand words in a single month. It’s usually inspirational, watching them cheer one another on.
But last week, when all the interwebs were full of writers talking about their plans and preparations for NaNo, one writer caught my attention with his announcement that for the first time in more than five years, he wasn’t going to participate. He said he had gotten everything out of it that he could, and was going to move ahead with what he had learned at his own pace, and concentrate on doing whatever he needed to do to put out a good, high quality work.
And I get that. I applaud it. He had gotten what he could out of it and it was time to move on.
Now it’s time for my obligatory, meandering side note…
I’ve had a long and abiding love of both writing and martial arts. As such, I’ve followed quite the winding road over the years in studying both. I’ve studied a variety of martial arts since I was thirteen years old. To be sure, there were years between various classes, but when I sat down recently and figured it out, I think I have nearly thirty years of training under my belt (yes, pun intended). I have the equivalent of a brown belt in Shotokan and in Kali, was just shy of a brown belt in “American TKD” when the school went under, and have had the privilege of studying with some pretty awesome instructors. I have mid-level rankings in a handful of other styles, and minor rankings in a few more.
I’ve often made the observation that martial art styles can be divided into three types; sport styles, self-defense styles, and traditional styles. Each type overlaps with the others to a certain degree, but each one has a specific emphasis. I’ve further observed that each of the three kinds can be equated to a certain extent, to three levels of school.
I think of the sport styles as elementary school. Styles like MMA, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I’m not saying that they’re easy, but rather that they usually only scratch the surface of what martial arts can do for a person.
The self-defense styles I think of as your high school of martial arts. These are the styles I often call the “living” styles. They’re the ones that are still being used and modified today, to defend people in combat situations. They are styles like Kali, Krav Maga, or MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program). They’re the down and dirty, “get the job done” styles that emphasize defending yourself and those around you with quick, effective techniques. They teach you to incapacitate an opponent, often in ways that many people would regard as brutal.
The traditional styles I equate to college level training. These are where you can go to refine your technique. These are where you learn that shifting your hip just a few degrees this way, can give you enough additional leverage to drop your opponent without having to do permanent damage, or that striking an opponent a fraction of an inch lower than you normally would, while dropping your hips and angling your knuckles just so will deliver more force to a smaller area, causing greater pain and thus stopping your opponent more quickly.
All three kinds of styles have their place, and I don’t think of any one kind as better than the others. Then again, I’ve never been one who’s put a lot of stock in ranks or certifications. Some days I think that’s a good thing. Other days I have to recognize that ranks and certs can open doors that I would like to go through at times.
I reached the point to where, when I evaluated a possible class to join, I wouldn’t watch the beginning students, even though that’s where I would be starting. I would watch the black belt students and instructors to see if I “approved” of the way they were moving. It sounds cocky, but I wanted to make sure they had something to offer that I hadn’t already learned. I saw no use in sinking time and money into a class where the only new thing I was going to learn over the course of a year was a single new wrist lock (and yes, that actually happened to me.)
Writing, or any endeavor for that matter, can be the same. I spent years in writing critique groups, where I learned an amazing amount about writing technique and the publishing industry, as it was at the time. And don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely fantastic. But there came a point when I realized that I had learned all I could from these groups, and I was using them as an excuse. It was like I felt I couldn’t complete a project without the approval of the critique group.
Now, this isn’t intended to be a post about how critique groups hold you back. Quite the opposite. In my opinion, critique groups are absolutely critical to learning the basics of writing. If you’ve never been a member of one and you have the opportunity, I strongly suggest you give it a try. I remember my days in the two groups I was active in quite fondly, and as I said, I learned a lot from them. I wouldn’t be where I am today as a writer, if not for them. It’s the beginning of a writer’s education. And just as going from elementary school to junior high can be scary, so can leaving the comfort of a critique group.
But if you ever reach a point where you feel that you aren’t moving forward any longer, that you aren’t learning anything from something you’ve been doing out of habit, then perhaps it’s time to change that habit. Perhaps it’s time to lose the crutch, and stand on your own two feet.
I suppose the main point of all this meandering comes back to this… it’s all right to leave your comfort zone. There are even times when it is absolutely essential to your growth as an artist. So don’t be afraid to say, “this isn’t working any longer” and change things up. Sometimes you have to, in order to move to the next level.
All right, ’nuff said. Time to get back to work. Stay safe everyone.