I am not an imposing figure. I am, after all, only five foot one (well, maybe one and a half). I have a friend who is six foot five, and he could probably walk by me without noticing I’m there. And despite a somewhat muscular build, I don’t think anyone who passed me on the street would feel particularly worried, unless they were concerned about the future of fashion. So there is something about me that might surprise you: I’m a third degree black belt in karate. I earned the title about six years ago in Orangeburg, New York after training, on and off, for eleven years. I haven’t been doing much karate since I moved to Massachusetts, so I’m not at the top of my game. But I can still throw a decent punch and round kick.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with writing?
A couple of weeks ago I sent an excited note to Tanya Whiton, the assistant director of the MFA Program at Pine Manor, telling her about an acceptance I’d received from a well-known literary journal. In my email I expressed not only my shock, but my appreciation to the program and my teachers — Joy Castro, Randall Kenan, Laban Carrick Hill, and Michael Steinberg. (I actually said it a bit less formally than that, something like: “Go Pine Manor! Go Joy! Go Randall! Go Laban! Go Mike!”) Tanya wrote back and congratulated me, and noted that it was unusual for writers to give credit to others when they experienced success.
Maybe those writers haven’t trained in martial arts. When you enter a good dojo, you learn about not only the chief instructor at that school, but also about that instructor’s teachers, and their teachers, and their teachers…tracing the lineage of that style all the way back to the founder of the art. The idea is that without all of those teachers, the current students wouldn’t have an art to learn, or instructors to teach them. They wouldn’t benefit from the knowledge and life lessons that those teachers passed on. My instructor used to travel to China and Brazil to train with some of the oldest, most experienced teachers in the arts that he studied. He often gave those people credit for what he knew and achieved. It’s not that he was downplaying his own talent and hard work — without either (especially the hard work) he wouldn’t have become the unique martial artist he was. But he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be that at all without the willingness of teachers to pass on what they studied and knew.
Having respect for one’s teachers — and classmates, who we learned from as we trained together — was something that was drilled into us night after night, in every karate class. We bowed to each other and said “Osu, Sensei!” to our instructors, always addressing them with an almost military respect. At the black belt tests each student was given a rose. We were told to hand that rose to someone who had helped us in our journey, such as a parent or a spouse. At my third degree test I handed my flower to my teacher.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned, or weird, or have so much martial arts philosophy drilled (literally) into my brain that I take the lesson about teachers too far when it comes to writing. Three of the teachers I had at Pine Manor were actually within a few years of my own age — they’re just people, right? Although known in literary circles, they’re not famous, for the most part (Dennis Lehane teaches at Pine Manor, but he wasn’t my teacher — although I did sit next to him at lunch once and managed, in my terror, to say and eat absolutely nothing), and they didn’t hand me any kind of magic bullet. They just have been at the writing game much longer, are more educated and experienced when it comes to craft and literature, and are more heavily published (well, okay, they are also, without exception, dauntingly talented).
But for me, there is more to the teacher-student thing than all of that. Each of my teachers atgave something of themselves and their skill, and was invested in my improvement and success as a writer. Each saw me through tough moments in my MFA journey — despair after tough workshops, passive phrasing in my texts, boring verbs, my first rejection letters. They talked me through roadblocks they probably talk students through year after year, but never made me feel silly or redundant or unworthy. Instead, they chose to encourage me.
So I maintain a certain sense of appreciation, something I think never hurts in life. Go ahead, call me a nerd. But before you do, remember — I have a mean round kick.