Digging Deep & Finding Out Who I Am

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” – The Litany Against Fear, Dune

Yellow Sash

Jennelle’s Yellow Sash in Kung Fu

Last weekend I took my first martial arts test. Let me back up a bit first, though, so I can explain this. I’m over 40 years old. I started learning the martial art of T’ai Chi about six and half years ago and only in the last two years or so have I begun studying Kung Fu. Most of the kids I study with could be *my* kids by their age alone. I’m certainly not the oldest person in class, but I am the oldest testing in the Kung Fu classes so far.

This test I took consisted of seven kids still in their teens and early twenties, a guy in his 30s (bless him for showing up), and me. It was more than a physical endurance test, though. In addition to demonstrating our ability to perform martial arts techniques accurately over time, we also had write a two-page paper (sweet Jesus so short!) answering the question “Why do you practice martial arts?”

You’re probably thinking, “Woot! Aces, girlie. Not only do you write for a living, but you also write for fun. You’ve must have knocked this paper out in a split second!” Yeah, not so much.

You see, my day job is as a technical writer. What I write involves sorting out technical details and putting that information in some semblance of order through a boatload of thinking, then a last burst of ohmygodgetitdown writing before development staff push the “go live” button with the software products and websites. Most of my day job isn’t traditionally considered “creative” writing because it’s not fiction (if it is, it’s somebody else’s fiction, not mine). The information is from my head, not my heart, where many an artist claims their true inspiration lies.

This is pretty much what my Sifu (martial arts teacher) knows about my job too, so he pulled me into his office in January and told me flat out that this paper I had to write for my martial arts test had to be the other way around. It needed to come from the heart, not the head. Then he shoved me out the door and slammed it shut behind me.

Ah, but I’m sure you’re thinking “Yeah, well you’re also a romance writer. The angst! The emotion! You know the heart and you’ve so got this.” Yeah, no. I mean yes. Well, kind of. I was a little in shock. And lacking any other instruction, I basically took his words and ran with them, promptly flayed myself open, got elbow deep in my own hang-ups and angst, smeared them all over the page, let everything dry, and informed my teacher that I’d written my paper.

Female Warrior #12 "Touched by the World"

The Warrior

That’s when he informed me I’d be reading it out loud.

Now at this stage of being an unpublished romance writer, my writing is still very private save for what you all read here on Teatime. I don’t read my writing out loud. Only a very few people have gotten to read any portion of my work in progress. In fact I can count them on one hand and have fingers left over. The martial arts test on the other hand is all very public, including the reading of the papers, a point I’d apparently missed when I initially agreed to test. It meant that anyone could show up to watch and listen, even some random schmuck from off the street that I didn’t even know.

After a lot of soul searching, I agreed to continue and actually finish the testing despite the fear of all this…exposure.

So test day came, complete with random schmucks off the street, and by dint of sheer willpower I survived the physical portion without passing out or throwing up. When it was my turn to speak (I was second to last), I got up as calmly as I could in front of complete strangers, took the deep breathe before the plunge, and started reading this paper I’d birthed. Within the first paragraph, I sank into this cadence of the story that I was telling of my life, the troubles I’ve had in it, and ultimately why I practice martial arts.

But then a funny thing happened. As my story ended, there was this moment of utter silence where no one moved or said a word. No one. They were all sitting there staring at me. Not even my Sifu said anything and the first thing I thought was “oh my god, no one believes me.”

I was just about to start crying when suddenly everyone was clapping. And we’re not talking polite golf clapping here folks. We’re talking “damn that’s loud in this room” applause. I didn’t realize until that moment that I’d been holding my breath.

What I had written about my life, what I had read and shared with everyone had touched people in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Some of them were obviously trying not to cry. Others were openly weeping. Yeah. Holy crap, right?

The End

Jennelle’s 2012 NaNoWriMo Word Count

It occurred to me as I was standing there with people crying and smiling and applauding that this martial arts test was really what the whole process of writing and publishing a novel is like. In both cases we sweat like crazy, exhaust ourselves physically and emotionally, and pray that what what we’ve written will make some weird sort of sense that touches people at the very core of their being. Taking a martial arts test and writing a novel both make you dig deep into this well of your soul and come out changed by discovering something about your true self.

So who am I? What did I discover during my test last weekend?

I am a martial artist. And I’m a writer. And some day you’re going to be reading one of my books and I really hope you’ll be smiling and crying like I did when I wrote it.

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13 thoughts on “Digging Deep & Finding Out Who I Am

  1. Jennelle, what a great post! That silence before the applause is a most precious thing. It doesn’t happen unless you do something really really good. Be proud. Many don’t get the opportunity to feel that.

    The challenge for me is to turn off the left brain and channel all that emotion into my story, but that’s another blog. — Amy

    • Thanks, Amy. I know what you mean. Apparently for me, channeling the emotion involves me really having lived it. But I’ve captured it now more than once and I think if I can figure out how to consistently get myself into that headspace, then it’ll all work out ok. I think you should write about those challenges for a post of yours.

  2. No fair, Jennelle – I haven’t got any kleenex here at work!! Scratchy napkins from the cafeteria will have to do. What an incredible and tangible way to find out that your writing can really touch people. Not that we’d doubt it for a second.

    What’s also intriguing is that for your writing to touch others, it seems that taking a risk and putting it all out there is a necessary and intrinsic part of it. You can’t manufacture a connection. You’ve got to be the first one to reach out. And that’s pretty scary (I’ve got to work on that).

    • *HUGHUG* I think that this experience is definitely going to change how I approach not only what I’m writing but how I perceive everything about it (from my characters’ mindsets to that of readers reading the work). You’re absolutely right that risk is what I’ve discovered works. It’s still a very scary proposition but one I think we should all consider taking. My martial arts test only proved it to me.

  3. Jennelle,
    Thank you for being brave and sharing this with us. What a wonderful, heartfelt post. It’s so hard for us to be open and vulnerable like this because tt takes a huge amount of faith and trust that the other person/the audience will understand and respect what a huge risk you’ve taken. It’s even harder because when we pour ourselves on the page like that, when it gets rejected, it’s almost impossible not to take it personally. That they’re rejecting US, not the work.

    Brava to you! And congrats on passing your test.

    Like Beatrice said, I need to work on being less afraid of digging deep and leaving myself open.

    • Thanks, Lisa. It really is difficult to understand that making yourself vulnerable actually makes your stronger, whether that’s writing or practicing martial arts. Doing it in a safe environment first is key for me, I think. It may be time for me to branch out. 😉

  4. Jennelle, congratulations on your first test! I never thought of martial arts as something a woman would do until one of my very dear friends started classes in her 40’s –as a way of surviving a heartbreaking betrayal and divorce… She was scary-angry, all the serious students began begging to work out with her!

    End result? A few years later, a black belt and a sparring partner, who became her new husband! She is now a happier and less shy person than the woman I knew before her classes. She’s certainly not the woman who showed up in Boston and stayed in my spare room for 2 weeks -only asking only for flannel sheets and comfort food! LOL

    • Thanks, Cristine! I’m glad your friend found her survival mechanism and her road back to happiness. Happiness is a choice I think few people really grasp. (I totally get the comfort food and flannel sheets request.)

  5. Wow. Just wow. As always, I’m awed by your fierceness and your honesty.

    So proud of you in so many ways. (And hello world, as I’m one of those few people who have read the WIP, excuse me while I brag.)

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