Ever heard the sailing term “in irons”? It means your sailboat is pointed straight into the wind so that wind can’t fill your sails. The jib and mainsail luff about, and it’s damn-near impossible to get moving again.
Having your writing rejected or criticized can have the same effect. One of my mentees is dealing with that special hell of creative depression right now. My answer is what I would tell any beginning writer dealing with self doubt and rejection. After all, it’s what I tell myself every day:
Get used to it, because it doesn’t matter how good of a writer you become. People will continue to find flaws in everything, and it’s just a matter of deciding what feedback you agree with.
Writing can be a tough craft to get down, and the only thing for it is to keep trying. I’ve lately been analogizing the process to learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu. We recognize there that everyone has certain inherent attributes — youth or weight or athletic ability — that might make them more or less talented. There’s nothing to be done for that. But everyone, no matter how stunted or brilliant, still has it within them to earn a black belt through hard work. All it takes is time on the mat.
So we’ve all been there. Many of us often revisit there. I get rejected all the time, and it frequently leaves me depressed. Rejection sucks every time. But I’m in it for life, no matter the outcome, so I’ll keep trying.
Keep writing what brings you pleasure. Don’t worry about what genres they’re in or whether you’re writing in too many. Just do it until you find your own voice. Categorization will come later.
Video of my BJJ championship match in the no-gi, over-30 tournament division on Saturday. My opponent is a talented martial artist at my school who normally kicks my ass on a regular basis, so this match made my day.
BJJ is a great sport and martial art that I’ve gone on about at length. Follow the tag archive. Feel free to contact me with any questions about it.
This is so inspiring:
In a nutshell: James Terlecki, 74 years old, just earned his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He started it when he was 61. Thirteen years to a black belt is a normal time range in this martial art.
It’s inspiring because it gives me confidence I’ll get there one day, too. I started shortly before my 40th birthday, and it’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I’ve often felt it’s been more difficult for me than for others on account of my age.
Malcolm Gladwell famously wrote that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in something. In the time since his book came out with this claim, he has said this doesn’t necessarily apply to sports, which may rely more on genetics, and psychologists have disputed the figure as being over-inflated. I think it’s safe to say, however, that after that much practice, you’ll have achieved something in the endeavor.
I calculate that since I began BJJ in February 2013, I’ve invested between 400-500 hours in training. Right now, it feels like 10,000 hours until mastery — or at least until a black belt — is about right.
I’ve spent considerably more time in the pursuit of the writing craft. Have I spent 10,000 hours there? Hell, I don’t know; maybe. Am I a master at it? Certainly not, but because it’s my life’s work, I know more than the average bear. Maybe by the time I’m 74, I’ll have something worthy to show for my time. That’ll be 32 years down the road.
The way I figure it, I’ll be 74 one day no matter what (and hopefully still alive), so I might as well go for it.
In the meantime, congratulations to James Terlecki. I think most of us want to be you one day.
Made two choices in the past week — three, if you count my new commitment only to write in sentence fragments.
(Okay, two. Although I have a new love for sentence fragments.)
The first is to sign on as an official mentor in the Horror Writers Association. I’ve been paired with a beginning writer, whom I’ll advise for the next year.
The second is to return to the Borderlands Boot Camp for Writers in 2016 as a student/grunt. The last time I attended as a paying student was 2005. I’ve returned several times since then as a guest “dramatic reader” for Sunday writing exercises.
I’ve been submitting for professional publication now for 25 years. Does that make me qualified to hold forth to my HWA mentee, who is eight years older than me? If yes, then why return to a workshop conference normally populated with writers who’ve only had a few years of professional experience?
Oddly, you might say, I credit my newfound passion for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu martial art with guiding me through this. In BJJ, there’s an unstated distinction between talent and experience. Talent is that thing you bring to the mat: it’s inborn, you have no control over it. You might genetically be a jiu-jiteiro genius, and you might not. But whatever talent you have won’t emerge without experience. Experience is signified through the belt-rank system. White belts are still learning their basic skills. Blue belts have learned the basics. Purple, brown, black, and the legendary red belts have progressively customized those skills to themselves as individual artists.
I now look at the writing craft the same way. I don’t necessarily have more talent than the guy composing his first short story. He might have more. But what I do have is experience. He’s a white or blue belt, and by virtue of how I’ve spent my time, I’m a black belt. That’s what gives a black belt its color, after all: the grime of work.
With this metaphor in mind, I return to the writing craft with a more humble and generous mindset. As an HWA mentor and an informal mentor to some other friends and family members, I understand these writers may have just as much or more talent than I do. But I still have things I can show them. Paradoxically, this means I teach myself; it’s a truism that you don’t learn a skill until you teach it. It’s only at that point that you examine what you do and why you do it that way. I’m also helping others because I have mentors like Thomas Monteleone, who runs the Borderlands Boot Camp. As he’s told me, he has had mentors, too, and now he feels an obligation to give back.
As for returning to the Boot Camp as a paid participant, I equate it to the fun prospect of attending a particularly good black belt seminar hosted by Leo Dalla. This is a chance to study with writers who’ve earned their fourth- and fifth-degree black belts, so to speak, who’ve been around much longer than I have, and who can help me refine my skills. Even people who’ve been at it 25 years have something to learn. And along the way, I’ll benefit from that teaching-to-teach-myself blowback effect mentioned above. I’m doing it because I love the writing craft, and I can think of few weekends more pleasurable than sitting around analyzing plot and character development with like-minded folks.
Why am I doing these things? Because I finally have the right perspective on who I am and where I am.
Now if I can just land that literary agent.
This video of an actual fight is making the rounds about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. (Warning: lotsa strong language)
These guys are complete, boneheaded morons for allowing this to escalate into a fight. I don’t commend this as a illustration of maturity or common sense. HOWEVER, it’s a prime example of BJJ’s applicability to self defense. I’ve studied karate, Tae Kwon Do, and now I’m studying BJJ, and I think it’s truly the best. (You can skip the machismo and go directly to the fight at about 1:15.)
I’ve had people tell me, “I’m too old to do that.” Baloney. I turn 42 in two months, and I’m not too old. I’ve also met people pushing 70 doing this, and they’re not too old. Others have protested this is only for men or boys. That’s also baloney. We have a 100-pound female in my class, and in another six months, I have no doubt she’ll kick my ass. Others have told me, “I’ll just run away.” Yes, I agree that’s a great strategy, but what if you’re cornered and can’t run away? What if there’s a child or some other loved one who can’t run with you? And others have told me, “I’ll just kick/punch him in the nuts/throat/eyes.” Also a valid strategy, but as you’ll see here, that’s not always an option, either. Only about three punches were exchanged in this tussle. The rest was about control and talk-down.
If anyone near Staunton wants info on our local BJJ school (I *promise* we’re more mature than these two f’ing idiots), send me an IM. If you’re out of the area, open your phone book to find a school. Invest in yourself and your family by doing this.
End of rant!
As my family and friends know, three art forms consume my life. The first, the main subject of this website, is writing. The second, which I’ve practiced on and off since age 6, is the piano, particularly classical music performance. And since age 22, it’s been martial arts, on and off.
“On and off” is the key phrase here. It’s so damn hard to keep one’s life balanced, especially when there are all-consuming responsibilities like working a job and raising a family. (And washing the dishes. Some nights, it takes me a half hour. I’ve learned to wear rubber gloves.)
Lately, I’ve discovered — or rediscovered — a truism about getting better at anything. It’s so trite that it’s laughable. But it’s also comforting to learn, once again, that practice makes perfect.
This month, with both my children finally in school, I started practicing the piano again regularly after a nearly 20-year hiatus. Oh, it’s not like I ever gave it up completely. I’ve always held onto my Steinway studio upgright and religiously had it tuned every six months. And I’ve occasionally played music gigs and performed at parties. But not since college have I made a commitment to sit down every day to do something as mundane as practice scales or patiently learn the subtleties of a Mozart sonata.
Mozart’s piano sonata in G major (K. 189h) has been my project lately. Like many of his compositions, it’s a deceptively simple suite of three movements that rarely layers on more than two voices. My edition, edited by Richard Epstein in 1918, makes sparing use of the pedal and allows Mozart’s charm and elegance to shine through.
If only the composer were here to play it. I have an unsubtle set of knobby fingers with hair on the knuckles. It’s hard not to imagine him sitting in my living room, wincing and shaking his head at my attempts to give voice to his creation.
Almost every weekday morning for the past month, I’ve practiced for a half hour before work. I usually do it after working out, which means that, even if I’ve showered and changed clothes, I’m sweating and kind of looking like Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard as I sit there (shirtless, to cool off), dripping onto my piano bench.
I start with scales and arpeggios, all the major and minor keys from C to F. On alternate days, I try to do F up to B. While a piano minor, I was required to practice both hands in parallel (up and down the keyboard together) and in opposition (hands moving in opposite directions). I haven’t recovered the oppositional skills yet, let alone recovered all the scales. I’m thinking if I chop my ring fingers off, I’ll be able to perfect B-flat minor.
This morning, a funny thing happened. After a month of working on the G major sonata, I returned to the first movement of the F major sonata (K. 300k). That’s the first sonata I ever learned with my old teacher Christopher Johnston, when I started with him in the seventh grade. It’s a fun piece with dark colors and sforzando chords that stomp on you when you least expect them.
I’ve had years to learn bad habits with that one. It’s so much fun to play that I usually slop through the piece, not correcting my errors. (Hell, who has time to rework a fingering when you only have five minutes to play before a toddler walks up and wants to bang the keys?) But this morning, it suddenly sounded different. Better. I wasn’t sure why; it wasn’t like I’d been practicing it. It took a few minutes of talking to myself to figure it out. (I often talk to myself. You wouldn’t want to watch me write.)
The first difference was that I played the piece slower. It gave me time to pay attention to where my sausages landed. And that meant I was being more precise. Mozart music is, if nothing else, precision-driven. I was also more concerned with my phrases and with the crispness of my rests. Whereas before I’d always relied on the sustain pedal to smooth over my lousy transitions, this morning I thought what the hell and tried playing it with almost no pedal at all.
In short, I was using all the same habits I’d used over the past month to learn the other sonata. And the result was it sounded at least twice as better.
Practice. It makes all the difference. I’m noticing similar results in my jiu-jitsu and with my fiction writing.
Now the only riddle to solve is how to keep my perspiration from discoloring the wood.
Here’s my version of the “positivity challenge” — you know, that annoying meme going around Facebook where you’re challenged to list five things that make you happy.
Yeah, right. Me, happy?
Actually, I feel motivated to say something positive here. I just scrolled through my blog and noticed my last three entries are all surly and stuff. And my last one about the persecuted novelist may have jumped the gun; he might be the subject of a routine “involuntary commitment” to a mental hospital for reasons other than his writing, not that we’ll ever know for sure because of HIPAA.
Wouldn’t want to give you the wrong impression about me. So here goes:
And just because I’m an over achiever, I’ll add one more:
So, there you go. Now resuming our normal, grumpy man programming. . . .
Interesting strange name for a bookstore. I must get to the bottom of the word “Ukazoo” when I’m there tomorrow. Here are the details:
Where & When:
Saturday, January 25, 2014 @ 1–3 p.m.
730 Dulaney Valley Road
Towson, MD 21204
Meet Matthew Warner and Deena Warner, author and illustrator respectively of THE SEVENTH EQUINOX, the new urban fantasy novel from Raw Dog Screaming Press.
Wait a minute. They have the same last name. That can’t be a coincidence. It’s a conspiracy, but . . . no, this isn’t that kind of book. It’s set in the Shenandoah Valley, and it’s about a young divorcee who moves into a Victorian house, and she finds a demigod living in the caverns connected to her root cellar, and —
What’s that you say? Towson, MD, isn’t anywhere near the Shenandoah Valley, VA? Then what are these people doing so far from home? Conspiracy! It’s . . .
A chance to eat chocolate chip cookies and buy a book. Yep.
Yes, I wrote that myself, as you can probably tell. Let me know if you’re coming by joining the Facebook event page about it.
After the signing, Deena and I will amble over to the ninth annual Borderlands Boot Camp for Writers, where we hope to visit with Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and this year’s grunts. I attended the first boot camp in 2005 and had a great time. (Feel free to read my Hellnotes Newsletter article about it.) On Sunday morning, I’ll be the guest performer of the short stories the grunts will have written that weekend — meaning that I’ll be doing anonymous, cold reads of the manuscripts (aloud) to facilitate a critiquing free-for-all. Hearing someone interpret your story in a dramatic reading is a great way to develop your writing; does my words’ inflection come through properly on paper? Always a lot of fun.
I hope my voice will be back at full strength by then. Last weekend, I drilled the “throat crusher” choke too many times in jiu-jitsu class and developed a wicked case of laryngitis as a result. I never would have guessed that being choked could do that to you. Good reference for a future story.
Last night, I was the guest of a private book club, which met at a cozy house here in Staunton. We spent a lot of time discussing the writing process — but it was strange at one point to hear the ladies discussing The Seventh Equinox as if I wasn’t there, making conjectures about character histories and talking about whether they liked a particular character. It was a bit like being at the Borderlands Boot Camp, in a way. Strange, sure, but a rare privilege.
Do you know those holiday newsletters you receive from relatives, printed on pink and red paper, that go on and on about trips taken during the year? Yeah, this is like one of those, so I’ll keep it to a mere ten rambles. In 2013:
This year, I hope to have more of the same. Best wishes for happy developments in your neck of the woods!