Mastering The Art of Writing Judo

Editor’s Note: the original version of this article was first posted on the C2C in 2010.

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.”

Mastering The Art of Writing Judo

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.

Don’t Try to Make It Real, Just Make It True

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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2 comments on “Mastering The Art of Writing Judo

  1. Christina says:

    Thanks Ollin for a great post!

    In a way, writing doesn’t just record avstory, it also records your story.

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