How jiu jitsu helped me become a better writer

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The handshakes, that’s how I first know I’m in trouble.

I’m at a Jiu-Jitsu class. Wednesday. I’m recovering from the usual winter cold, have even opened my email twice that day to compose an excuse.

Sorry, Kev. I’m feeling under the weather – can I rearrange for next week?

Delete. If I send that I won’t ever go.

Down a coffee. Get in the car. Drive to the gym.

Now, the handshakes. There are ten men and each greets me by gripping my hand and telling me their name – I forget the names but remember the grips. I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the panic, but I don’t feel ill any more.

What followed was like a nature documentary, but instead of Attenborough’s voice putting the gazelle’s death into perspective, it was the sweaty grunting of ten men and me making noises like Kermit with tuberculosis. They choke me out, one after the other but are very polite about it.

I learn a few techniques and try to use them, without much success – still, I am getting better, surviving longer before they politely choke me. I start to figure that it’s about strategy, not just muscle and reflex. I have been using all of my strength and “gassing out,” while these men, some in their sixties, are effortlessly squishing me like soft cheese. Then they reacquaint me with their grips. Around my neck this time.

I stay on for the advanced class and start to last a little longer before tapping out. All the while, there is a strange thought in the back of my head: if these were fights to the death, I would be dead twenty-six times.

By the end it’s more like thirty.

I shake Kev’s hand, tell him I’ll be back for the next class, and leave with a smile. I am sore all over, have burns on my fingers and toes, but I keep replaying what I’ve learnt as I drive home, and later, when I’m lying in bed, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of how I will improve next time, how I will change my game.

Now, I have been to four Jiu-Jitsu classes. I know nothing. But already, I’m noticing how it affects other areas of my life – my writing in particular. So… why?

Failure. Nothing acquaints you with it better than Jiu-Jitsu. You will be choked. But after a while, that becomes not so scary. And then, once failure is accepted as a necessary step for growth, once it is seen that the only way you learn is through doing something wrong in the first place, there is a feeling of freedom. Get choked. Get up. Go again. You know better this time. If you aren’t afraid to fail, you are willing to try new things, to play risky, to be interesting. Same with writing, and everything else worth pursuing, failure is inevitable – bad drafts, abandoned projects, rejections. Every novelist I know has a project-graveyard file on their computer. That is no source of shame. It is a mark of craft. Lose the fear of losing. A winner is someone who never let loss stop them.

Struggle. We as human beings are not built for sitting on beaches with cocktails. That is nice for a while, but only for a while. We need a target. Something with which to contend. Placing happiness as all important is wrong – better to pursue something difficult, something worth the struggle, something with meaning. Often it isn’t pleasant, but in pursuing that target, you are fulfilled. Do something difficult, just to see if you can. You will surprise yourself. Struggle upwards, towards a goal, and you’ll have something better than brief happiness. It’s why we run marathons, why we climb mountains, and it is why we writers choose to sit and write every day when we’d much rather be somewhere else. We turn up, at the desk, ready to contend. It requires an immense amount of work and effort – the trek out into that hinterland of composition. We are grappling with plot, emotions, ideas, and that greater thing, that unconscious current which dictates the direction we pursue, which word follows the previous. Jiu-Jitsu is just a physical manifestation of that which happens every day at the desk. You are willingly contending with something difficult, and it is often painful, but once it is over, you know it was worth it, and you can’t wait to go again, to see if you will be better. To see what you will learn this time.

A piece of writing is just a by-product of this process of struggle. This contention with the unconscious, the constant working and re-working. If something is jarring with the rest of the work, try something different. In doing this, the process itself will become rewarding – the pursuit of the target. The journey becomes what is important, that process of learning. Like Jiu-Jitsu, if something isn’t working, adapt and find the right technique, be satisfied with the journey, the constant reshuffling of set-ups and finishes. Maybe you will be choked in the end. Who cares? A novel is a by-product of the process of contending with the unconscious, of reshuffling and learning. The process is paramount. The pursuit. You don’t make a sandcastle, you abandon the sandpit.

Tenacity. The most important thing. In my last class, Kev, the instructor, rolled with me for the last thirty minutes. My ribcage is still bruised. At one point I think he just sat on me, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that I didn’t quit. He asked if I wanted to stop but I caught my breath and carried on. And at the end, after my total annihilation, he called me “strong as an ox.” That felt good. Still, I think Kev could easily choke out an ox. I left that class aching, but proud that I had not given up. It’s rare today to encounter that kind of situation, but its good to know that if one were to arise, you have the ability to survive, the tenacity to continue. This directly correlates to writing – 40,000 words into a novel, it will feel like Kev is sitting on your chest. Be an ox. Kev will still sit on you, but the important thing is that you aren’t quitting.

Aggression. Everyone harbours it, no matter what they tell you or themselves. It’s normal. However, it will manifest itself in other, unwanted, parts of life if not acknowledged and integrated. Jiu-Jitsu lets you channel that aggression, and in doing so, gives you the confidence to integrate that assertive side in your life, when people might try to take advantage, when you need to stand up for yourself. It becomes a tool rather than a hindrance. There are circumstances where being nice just isn’t helpful – that isn’t to say that everyone should be an ass all the time. But for those of us who struggle to say no, whose first instinct is to be agreeable, this integration is life-changing. It’s a confidence. A self-belief. Again, an important quality for writers, who are (myself included) some of the most self-critical people around.

Humility. Try enduring a ritual strangling twice a week. It quickly teaches you humility. Appreciate that you will always be learning, that there are others who know more, that cockiness is laziness. If you are humble you are active, always trying to improve the work, but someone who believes they know everything has given up their desire to learn. Inactive. “There are no egos here,” is the phrase they use like a prayer or affirmation. It is a constant reminder that we are all learning, that we are all on the path – as Ursula Le Guin says so perfectly, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I am halfway through writing a novel at the moment. Kev is sitting on my chest, but I am not quitting. So, on Wednesday, I’ll be back for another choking, and when I get home, I will write my 500 words.

Both are painful, but worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author of this post

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Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology and with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He graduated from the Warwick Writing programme with a First Class BA Hons in English Literature & Creative Writing. He has three dogs and is often covered in their hair. His twitter is @CSBker

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The loneliness of the long distance writer

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Studying the daily routines of many famous writers, one is immediately struck by how many rely on physical exercise to support their mental cogitations. Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, favoured long swims at his local municipal pool, accompanied by “doing sit ups and push ups all the time”, while author Tim Leach has prescribed rock climbing as a writing aid, noting how “both writing and rock climbing share a kind of rarefied loneliness”. Countless other writers, meanwhile, have found solace in the hypnotic action of racking up mile after mile in solitary, focused long-distance running.

Louisa May Alcott, for instance, thought she “must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run”. Famous misanthropic satirist, Jonathan Swift, meanwhile, would “run half a mile up and down a hill every two hours” during his 20s, according to Samuel Johnson. Then of course we have the novelist Haruki Murakami, who started running to get healthy and lose weight, but who found in running something essentially important to the mindset of the writer, noting how he felt his “real existence as a serious writer began on the day that I first went jogging.”

So what precisely is it, about running, which seems to lend itself so aptly to the art of writing?

Joyce Carol Oates ascribes the twin activities of running and writing “to keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control”, and notes that she would ease any bouts of writing block with afternoon runs.

Freedom, consciousness and wildness

For Oates and other writers, running is thus a process that proves especially useful for the type of intensive, cloistered work they do. But perhaps it goes beyond that. After all, there seems a natural similarity between the two actions; they complement each other, seeming to be the natural extension of the other. The steady accumulation of miles mirrors the accumulation of words on the page, and both aspire toward a clear finishing line: either the end of the run, or else the end of the novel. Equally, while both are challenging, they can also invoke a sense of joy and elation – heavy physical exercise releases endorphins, while the rush and exhilaration of finding a writing rhythm and flow similarly brings forth feelings of ecstasy (no wonder Vladimir Nabokov described writing as “a drug”).

Both Leach’s “lonely” rock climbing and long distance running, therefore, offer a combination of freedom, consciousness and wildness – an ability for writers to escape their surroundings with a sense of purpose that is necessary for cultivating deep thought, or working out constraints and challenges within their writing.

Running is important to writing, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Perhaps nowhere in literature is this crucial aspect of running captured better than in Adam Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Famously, this work began as two alliterative lines of verse, written by Sillitoe upon being struck by the serene calmness of a young man bedecked in a running vest and shorts trotting past his cottage.

Sillitoe’s short story focuses on Smith – a working class teenager with bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime – who turns to long-distance running as a method of both an emotional and physical escape, and as a means of mental reflection. As he runs and thinks alone, Smith – perhaps inevitably – turns to writing; and it is he who narrates his own story, in a perfect summation of the symbiotic relationship between writing and individual cogitation on notions of ‘the self’ during bouts of solitary exercise.

Expanding consciousness and self-education

This idea is expanded upon by Oates, who in 1972 began keeping a journal to accompany a new-found “compulsive” need to run. She writes: “[Running] is not a respite for the intensity of writing but is a function of writing […] running seems to allow me an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream.”

Don DeLillo echoes such sentiment, as he recalls the transporting effects of running after his morning writing sessions in an interview with The Paris Review: “Running helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle – it’s a nice kind of interlude.”

The solitary exercise of long-distance running seems, in many ways, to be part of self-education – and indeed of self-revelation; just as writing is. This is pointed out by Murakami in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, as he attributes “most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day”. On the one hand, running is about constantly striving for new challenges and fresh goals – competing ever longer distances in the quest for better conditioning of our bodies – and on the other hand it helps us better express how this makes us feel through our words; supporting us in writing as we seek to better condition our minds and souls.

This isn’t simple conjecture based on hearsay from other creatives, either. Indeed, there are an increasing number of scientific studies that show a connection between aerobic exercise – which increases the flow of blood to the brain – and enhanced mental capacity. For example, a study by Oppezzo and Shwartz demonstrated that walking boosts “creative ideation” both in real time and shortly after (though this effect can also be induced by other activities, such as knitting).

Perhaps, then, the perfect daily routine for writing should include both long periods of solitary exercise, followed by periods of writing interspersed with periods set aside for knitting. Or perhaps the clue to the perfect daily routine for writing actually lies in those crucial words “daily routine”. For composition and writing is so rarely sustained by one momentary act of inspiration; but rather by daily perseverance and steady progress.

When creativity flows, it really flows; just like an invigorating run where you finally “hit your stride” – and it is no coincidence that this same phrase is used by writers and runners alike to describe the moment when work becomes joy.

But of course, simply running regularly will not be enough on its own to invoke the muse of creativity. It is not necessarily an instant cure for writer’s block. Yet it is through the same effort, determination and repetition of the act necessary to perfect the running process and push ourselves toward our long-distance goals that we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

In a 2004 interview with Runner’s World, Murakami sums this up pretty succinctly:

“The most important qualities to be a writer are probably imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus. But in order to maintain these qualities in a high and constant level, you must never neglect to keep up your physical strength. Without a solid base of physical strength, you can’t accomplish anything very intricate or demanding. That’s my belief. If I did not keep running, I think my writing would be very different from what it is now.”