Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Where my characters' get their kick-ass

Despite popular opinion, not all writers are weedy little geeks blinking at you from between horn-rimmed glasses.  Okay, yeah, some of us wear glasses--probably a side effect of squinting at pages under harsh sunlight.  Or something like that.

Fact is that many writers have spent considerable time learning various combat arts--from the proper use of firearms to archery and even the martial arts.  I'm a firm believer that one should try to know something about the subject about which you're writing.  If you're describing a sword-fight, you should have some knowledge of the mechanics involved.

My own personal love affair with the martial arts goes all the way back to 1971... and a little movie called "Billy Jack."  Probably something your typical 5 year old shouldn't see.  But I did.  And seeing this character, this Vietnam vet (like my dad) standing up to a bunch of bullies picking on a bunch of hippies (like my dad's friends) hit me right where I lived.

This was the movie that started it for me.  I was in Kenpo classes by the time I was 6.  Between them and tumbling classes I had a fairly strong foundation by the time we moved to Oregon.

My dad's knowledge came from Force Recon training, and he passed that along at the same time he tried out some of his weirder training techniques to me.  I swear, though I don't think he ever watched a Chinese kung fu movie in his life, he took more than a few pages from their book.  I got to carry half-full five gallon buckets of water 50 yards to water the animals in the barn...for example.

I was a little kid, so I got really good at dodging.  I didn't have the strength to stand up to most of the people who wanted to wallop me.  My mouth got me into a whole lot of trouble, though.  I learned very early on that no matter how fast your mouth moves, it can't defend you from a punch in the face.  That's where the first and most vital animal-form martial art comes in.  Rabbit.  I was the fastest kid at my school.  I know that for a fact.

When I was 13 and we'd left the farm life behind, my dad put me in kenpo school once again in Boise.  That lasted six months or so until I dropped out.  Yeah, I know.  It was hard and I had a lot of other things I wanted to do.  But it worked as more grounding.

For the next several years I picked up techniques and things from adults I met--people skilled in one art or another, from Wing Chun to Tae Kwon Do.  But in my early twenties I was introduced to escrima in a college self-defense class and I fell in love.  Simplistic in concept, but eminently variable in application, escrima was like the embodiment of everything I'd ever discovered about the martial arts.  As Bruce Lee taught--it's not about form, but technique.  It's about what works.  (Something my father and Bruce believed in common, as it happens).

Before anyone starts to wonder, no--I wasn't ever some great martial artist.  I considered myself adept, merely competent.  The only fights I lost as an adult were those in which I was sucker-punched.  If that says anything.  I'd always been taught that the real reason to learn the arts was to avoid fighting--to have the confidence to stand tall and not appear an easy victim.  And eventually I mastered my greatest weakness--my big mouth.

The personal style I developed from all these disparate sources over the years was ultimately adaptive, and ruthless.  My dad always taught me that fighting wasn't a game, that it didn't have rules.  He opposed competition fighting because he always figured it would interfere with the ability to fight in a life-or-death situation.  I don't know, but I know that several of my lead-in moves wouldn't be acceptable in a ring.

One of the things I passed on to others was that nearly anything can be a weapon--or, if not a weapon, at least a distraction.  I more than once used a cigarette as a means to stop a fight from starting.  And if that isn't successful use of one's environment, I don't know what is.

A few people have observed that my fight scenes reflect first-hand knowledge, and that the way the fights go seem somehow inevitable.  And yet natural.  My characters aim for weak points, not strong points.  They won't fire a punch to someone's jaw, but strike instead to nerve clusters between muscle groups, or to the side of the neck (right or left--both relatively effective and not likely lethal), or to the eyes, nose, groin, solar plexus.  Ruthlessness in a fight is something nearly all my characters have in common--regardless of the style of martial arts they supposedly studied.

These days the only martial arts I'm really capable of are in my head.  All the knowledge is still there, the reflexes still as tuned as they ever were.  But performing most of the techniques I once threw off as casually as a fire emits sparks would cost me in residual pain.  Particularly now that my shoulder's all messed up due to my carelessness.

I'm not half the man I used to be, but maybe I'm twice the man I thought I was back when I was young and stupid.

All in all, I prefer writing about fighting than participating in it.  I'd rather gather friends than best my enemies--even assuming I had any.  Which I don't.  Oh, okay.  I sent Bill O'Reilly an email suggesting he put me on his enemy's list--since he was advertising that he had one (couldn't resist) but I doubt he's going to be coming around wanting to beat my ass.

Besides, I'm pretty sure I could take him.

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