Writing Judo

Writing is like martial arts.

You can’t let all the tools and the forms and the structures restrain you. You have to be willing to apply your skill to whatever comes your way. You have to allow yourself to work with a scene in your novel both organically and at the same time shape it with the skill you have learned. It’s mind meets instinct. Bruce Lee says it best:

“Be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

When I am convinced that my mindset at the moment is not congruent with the scene or piece I am trying to write, I write it anyway. But instead of ignoring my mindset at the moment, I use it, I utilize the energy–whether it is that I am mad, or confused, or feel humiliated, or lost. Suddenly what I thought had nothing to do with what I was writing was exactly what the piece needed.

There is a raw emotion and a realness that you bring to your work. Because, after all, you are the one that is human. You are the only real thing about your novel, so it is up to you to bring that realness of humanity to your writing. One way to do this is to use your raw emotions, your vulnerabilities, your insecurities, your anger, what have you, and let them shape that scene.

We can get convinced that there is no way that our lives right now could possibly be in sync with what we are writing about and so we can’t use any of it in our writing.

But try again, and you’ll find that you are wrong. What you are going through is (sometimes) exactly what you need.

Our writing is a reflection of who we are at the moment, whether we like it or not. You can try to restrain that human rawness typing at that laptop, but it would serve you better if you went with it. Be like water. If you’re being poured into a cup, you become the cup.

Allow your mood to guide you, to reveal an answer. That nightmare you had last night. Write it out, and in your story you can give it a happy ending. That problem that you couldn’t solve all night, and kept you up, and now you don’t remember what it was–write it out in the story and maybe you will solve it.

Dustin Hoffman once talked about a pivotal scene in Rainman where at one point as an actor he became so mad and frustrated that he couldn’t get the scene right. Obviously, he had to do the scene no matter what, so they went forward with the shoot. But instead of resisting those raw emotions, Hoffman used them in that very same scene. His character suddenly become angry and frustrated. Did the audience care that what they were really seeing was Dustin Hoffman, the actor, being angry and frustrated? No. The audience didn’t know the difference. All they saw was the real, raw emotions–they saw the anger and the frustration, and they connected those emotions with the character in the scene. That’s all they needed to see.

Or to paraphrase my acting teacher in college, Kay: “You can’t make the scene real, because it’s fake. But what you can do is make it true.”

As the writer, you bring the rawness to your work. Don’t hold it back. Use it. Infuse it into the work. That’s how you bring the truth to the work and your characters. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t the right emotion for the right period or situation, or whatever. Humans haven’t changed much over the years. The same basic needs are still there. Your characters all need to have those basic needs in order to come off as human, but since they’re fake, you have to give it to them.

If you’re a writer, feel lucky. Someone has given you a pathway. A way to find an answer, that is all in your control. Don’t resist, let it flow.

much “everybody was kung fu fighting! nah nuh nah nuh nah nuh nah nuh nah!”


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16 comments on “Writing Judo

  1. Melissa says:

    Well, now that song is going to be stuck in my head for the rest of the night…. haha.

    I do feel lucky to be a writer and being able to create such emotion in my characters is an exciting thing for me.

    Bruce Lee never really was in my head when I write, but he will be now! 🙂

  2. Lua says:

    Great post Ollin!
    “One way to do this is to use your raw emotions, your vulnerabilities, your insecurities, your anger, what have you, and let them shape that scene.”
    This is not easy to do- but like you said, vital for the scene to come alive, for characters to become 3 dimensional and the story to work…
    I loved the Dustin Hoffman example, we have to work with what we got, after all we’re the only material we have. The only emotions we know is the one’s we’re experiencing and we have to use them to help our story breathe…

  3. Agatha82 says:

    A great post Ollin. Very true and inspirational. You’re spot on about the emotions that we feel and how to utilise them into our writing. Long ago, I took drama and learnt about method acting. This is where you recall something that happened to you to bring out those specific emotions, so if you need to be sad, you think of a sad event that happened etc. Just the very act of remembering will bring out those emotions required to use for a specific scene. In a strange way, we all kind of do that sometimes when writing. I go a step further sometimes and actually use that method acting training to trigger whatever emotion I need to infuse my story with.

    I bet you’ll soon have a black belt in writing kung fu 🙂

    • Method acting is very helpful with writing. You know that’s why I think I’m going to recommend from now on that all writers try acting for a while. It is so helpful isn’t it? You are the only other person I know you has taken acting and applied it to writing. I do that all the time, but I find it hard to make it clear to other writers how very helpful it is. I’m glad you have that useful tool in hand to help you in writing!

      • Agatha82 says:

        It’s very useful indeed. Just a lucky thing that I dared to try acting once. Only did it because I am so shy but I loved it so much I almost became an actress then life happened and I never got around to doing so but it’s ok, I found my true profession in the end 🙂

  4. Agatha82 says:

    Oh and I meant to say: That was a very cool quote by Bruce Lee…”become water my friend” Loved that and all that it implies.

  5. milkfever says:

    “If you’re a writer, feel lucky. Someone has given you a pathway. A way to find an answer, that is all in your control. Don’t resist, let it flow.”

    You hit the nail right on the head, Ollin, or perhaps I should say you chopped the plank of wood right through the middle, with the side of your hand.

    We’re lucky to have a way to explore our inner world and our emotions. I resist writing emotion because it scares me a little. But when I do resist, when I try to write without feeling through the characters, my writing is flat. Emotions are colour. I don’t mean high drama, and it doesn’t even need to be expressed to be powerful, but yes, the emotions need to be there.

    I’m going to have to watch Rainman again and see if I can spot the scene in question.

    I’m loving your posts. Keep up the great work.

    • Thanks milkfever,

      Writing emotion scares me too. It’s never easy, and I always have the initial resistance, but then I just plough through.

      As for Rainman, it’s the scene in the baththroom, where they find out why they sent Rainman away.

  6. Barb says:

    Blogs serendipity: you suggest writers take acting classes, a writer considers herself an actress for her characters…
    I won’t take acting lessons, but I often am one of the characters and in most of the others anyway – and did I mention it’s like a movie for me? 😉
    Happy writing!

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