Tag Archives: aikido

Aikido and Writing: Practice and Improvisation

Last night at my dojo, I was in a very small class. In fact, when I showed up, it looked like it was just going to be me and the instructor, though another person showed up partway through our warmups.

Most classes during regular training have us practice two, maybe three techniques in a set sort of way: this technique with this entry, resulting in this throw or pin. Ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, kotegaeshi. (There are others, of course, but those five, and especially ikkyo through yonkyo, represent a sort of core for the practice.) We practice these over and over, static and in motion, in response to different attacks. We help our bodies to learn the movements so that we can do them without having to think, so that we can better defend ourselves against an attack we haven’t practiced against, should it ever become necessary off the mat.

We practice those techniques, and others, so that when we show up to a class attended by one other person and the instructor wants to have some fun, we can flow through attacks and find our way to a technique our muscles know.

One of the things that our senpai said during class last night was that, on either side of the technique, we shouldn’t enter with too many preconceived notions of what’s going to happen. If we attack, expecting a certain defense, or if we’re setting ourselves up to defend against a particular attack and our partner doesn’t do what we’re expecting, we’re going to have a bad time. That advice varies in usefulness depending on what’s being practiced, but for what we were doing, and for my practice as a writer, that struck a chord.

During rondori, defending against multiple attackers, I’ve frozen up or fumbled before when my idea of how I would defend didn’t line up with the attacks I was facing or when I’ve gotten partway into a technique and forgotten where I’m supposed to go next.

So often, when I get stuck on a story, it’s because I began with a firm idea of where it was going, and as I wrote my way in, it became clear that that wasn’t the direction the story was going anymore. It becomes very difficult, for me at least, to keep on writing when I reach a place where what I planned on having happen and what makes sense to happen don’t line up.

In both cases, practice helps, but so, too, does the advice not to hold to strongly to preconceived ideas of what will happen. Practice helps you connect with your partner’s energy. Improvisation lets you redirect that energy when your initial plan flies out the window. Without connecting, you may find yourself just planting your feet and trying to push or wrench your partner around. The energy in that feels wrong, and everyone, participant or observer, can tell.

Practice helps you get words on the page and connect to the flow and energy of the story. Improvisation lets you follow that story to its end, even if that end wasn’t the one you had in mind. Without that improvisation, you end up doing the prose equivalent of planting and pushing. You might get your story to go where you’d planned, but it’ll feel wrong, and it’ll show.

Now, in aikido, there is no drafting, no revision process in which you can go back over an attack and tweak and tug, here and there, until you execute a technique perfectly. In fact, there is no perfect, only a gradation of proficiency. (There is no perfect in writing, for that matter.) You can go back in subsequent drafts and smooth over the place where you planted your feet and forced your story to go the way you originally intended as sometimes we all must. In the moment of writing, though, I would prefer simply not to get stuck.

(If anyone figures out a good trick to actually applying the advice given above, I would love to hear from you.)

Anyhow, that’s your intermittent trying-to-relate-martial-arts-to-writing ramble.


Practice

At the dojo where I study aikido, we talk about our practice a lot. Sensei often says that the most difficult and most important part of any practice, aikido, writing, going to the gym, whatever, is showing up. While I usually don’t have difficulty showing up to aikido, this certainly speaks to my condition around writing.

I use Habitica (formerly Habit RPG) to help maintain daily writing as a habit (though it doesn’t always work out as well as I’d like). To that end, I have a daily goal (borrowed from Mary Robinette Kowal) of writing three sentences. Sure, I could just sit down and write three sentences and then go do other things, but usually that doesn’t happen, because those three sentences are my showing up for my writing practice. Once I’ve gotten three sentences in, I’m stretched and warmed up sufficiently that I can usually pound out a lot more words.

The trick is showing up.

When we talk about practice at the dojo, we also talk about the idea of renshū versus geiko, which are two Japanese words that translate, at least roughly, to “practice.” The difference between the two, as sensei explains it, is that renshū is practice in the most basic way—mindless repetition—whereas geiko is practice with intention behind it.

The idea of geiko has stuck with me since it was first explained to me late last year. Of course I would like to write every day, but the idea that just by doing writing exercises, I will get better as a writer has never sat well with me. I know that I can’t only write when I’m inspired, but an artifact of my pre-college schooling is that I’m rather unfond of doing things that feel too much like homework, and writing exercises often slot neatly into that category in my mind.

The challenge for me is to treat writing exercises, especially those which don’t end up becoming part of something longer, as geiko, to approach them with intention and focus on what part of my writing I want to improve upon with that geiko.

Because ultimately, isn’t that the point of writing exercises?

Certainly I won’t be engaging in geiko every time I sit down to write. Sometimes, renshū is the best I can hope for, and even renshū has its place—even mindless repetition strengthens the muscles, and I think it’s safe to say that most writers want their writing to be automatic to some extent.

In the end, the hardest part of the practice is showing up, whether that means writing twenty words or two thousand.


%d bloggers like this: