Former MMA fighter and award-winning poet Cameron Conaway highlights ten Bruce Lee quotes that can be applied to the craft of writing.
The sources of inspiration for those of us who have been following and/or training in mixed martial arts for 10+ years are all quite similar. I’ve talked to hundreds of MMA athletes over the years and their response to “How did you get into this?” typically goes back to one or both of these two roots:
(1) They were inspired by the original Ultimate Fighting Championship videos, especially with the dominance of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as demonstrated by Royce Gracie.
(2) They studied the writings, movies and life of Bruce Lee and were inspired by the way in which his philosophy applied both to their martial arts practice and their life in general.
Watching the science of Royce Gracie pulled me into the sport, but Bruce Lee’s philosophy is what kept me evolving and eventually encouraged me—while I was fighting professionally—to sign up for an Introduction to Poetry class. Though I initially applied all of his quotes to my physical training as a martial artist, in the past few years I’ve discovered how beautifully they also apply to the craft of writing. The ten quotes below are followed by my brief assessment of each:
(1) Life itself is your teacher…
So many times I’ve heard young writers say, “I don’t have anything to write about” or “If I could just study with INSERT WRITER my skills would take off.” I admit to feeling and likely once sharing these same sentiments as well. But the more I live the more I realize the importance of active living. We are not merely passive participant drones on Earth. On any given day we can create for ourselves an experience that rocks our mind in unimaginable ways. This might be going to Thailand, or it might be visiting the old playground you haven’t been to in 20 years. Both will strengthen your muscle of perspective. Remember this: Every experience in your life can be an experience that benefits your writing, but it’s up to you to make it so.
(2) Don’t fear failure. – Not failure, but low aim, is the crime.
The blank page. The blinking cursor. The forethought of feedback. Re-entering tough memories. Outdoing our previous work. All are examples of the way fear of failure hinder our performance as writers. While these are valid concerns and definitely worth feeling, it’s important to find the moments within your writing practice where you’re able to turn them off or push them aside. If you’ve discovered one of those moments, great! Isolate it so you can replicate it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a poet just discovering the play of words or W.S. Merwin, we’re all always starting from scratch.
(3) Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.
It’s often tough to see whether or not we’re improving as writers. No test can determine it. Nor can whatever madness happens in the margins or in the comments section. So we often turn to rules, or books about writing. And there are tons of great ones! My personal favorite book about writing is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. But you know what? Some advice in Writing Down the Bones is absolute garbage for me. And you know what? Some of these Bruce Lee quotes that have been great for me are going to be absolute garbage for you. Becoming a better writer, however, often means being a great sifter. We must expose ourselves to all kinds of lessons so that we can pan out the gold that works for us. Take it or leave it? Nah. Take it then leave it.
(4) Emptiness the starting point.
The emptiness here goes beyond the blank page and into the inner workings of the mind. Bruce Lee continued this quote by saying: “Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty.” Too often when we sit down to write we believe we have to fully understand our topic, or fully understand how we want our piece of writing to start and end. We want to start with a garage full of tools because it feels natural—if we’re going to work on the car it makes sense to have the tools needed to do so. This is where the practice of writing, like the practice of fighting, can be counterintuitive. Just as a fighter often needs to step assertively into the range of a punch in order to effectively slip it, so too must a writer wade assertively into the unknown. Both are about trust. Both are about developing enough confidence through that trust to make a habit of the pursuit of emptiness.
(5) Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain.
Our world has become a Gatorade culture of “win or lose” and of “second place is first place for losers.” Now more than ever it’s important to realize that to be a writer means not to perform but to play. While some pressure can certainly be helpful, if we expect to sit down and write a masterpiece we’ll be lucky to write any piece. Writing isn’t about notoriety and it isn’t about being the suffering artist—believe me, I’ve bought into both ideas. It’s about bringing life to life again and sharing with the world the stories that matter to you.
(6) Boards don’t hit back.
This is for those writers who (A) have sat through one too many creative writing workshops and (B) have for too long refused to show their writing to anybody. The quote from Bruce Lee was of course meant as a response to those martial artists who could break boards and bricks and yet couldn’t or wouldn’t actually apply the skills they so arrogantly showcased in a real fight. The true art of fighting isn’t flashy. It’s more often the elbow jab (a move of all but 3 inches) rather than the spinning roundhouse kick. Likewise, if you are, as (A), only showing your work to people who will praise it or, as (B), believing you are incredible simply because you are your only reader, it’s time to go out and at least put yourself in the path of getting hit. It’s the only way to grow.
(7) There is no such thing as maturity.
By this Bruce Lee meant that too often we think of “maturity” as some imaginary endpoint. “If I get my MFA in Creative Writing then…” or “If I read every book in the genre then I’ll begin writing…” or “I’ll start submitting my work to literary journals once I get older and mature.” Bruce went on to say, “There is instead an ever-evolving process of maturing.” Maturity isn’t an end goal. A writer doesn’t suddenly wake up on his or her 40th birthday and BOOM they are mature. It’s a process, one that comes not just with time but also in how we choose to apply that time to better ourselves as people and writers. Don’t wait for it; work for it. And know that “it” is part of a continuum and that others are often better at judging where we are on it.
(8) Don’t get set into one form; adapt it and build your own…
Look at how brilliant but simple the work of Hemingway can be. Look at Faulkner’s unbelievable use of words and more words. Look at Kerouac’s incredible stream-of-consciousness storytelling. It’s easy as writers to latch onto a “successful” style and try to ride it as our own. But we forget that those styles grew not from copying others but from an awareness of and then an adaptation to what other writers did before. Practice forms, experiment with the forms you’re drawn to it, but eventually give yourself the time and space to play without being “set.” It’s in this play that you’ll discover and then have the potential to build upon something uniquely your own.
(9) Cease negative mental chattering.
There are two applications here. The first is the way in which “the editor” in our mind can often shut down “the creator.” With each word written there’s a voice telling us there’s one better. With each sentence there’s a voice telling us to rearrange it. This, again, comes down to awakening to our practice. If we hear the voice and find ways to shut it down we must remember that way and flex the muscle consistently so it becomes habit. The second application applies to life in general. Negativity is everywhere we turn—it’s on the news and marketers purposefully orchestrate it so that we feel bad about ourselves and as a result buy their product. Plus, as we’ll see below, there are enough arrows coming our way just for being a modern day writer. Finding a strategy to shut out the negative mental chattering (until we can make good use of it) will have direct application to our work as writers.
(10) You must have complete determination.
Toughness is the most overlooked variable to becoming a better writer. Writing teachers (self included) talk of networking and of experimentation, of becoming awakened to our writing process and to not just reading but truly studying the great writers who have come before us. But make no mistakes about it: to be a writer in the 21st century is to grind it out day-after-day just the same as that driven fighter, the one with cauliflower ears who takes a 60-second break between rounds when others take a 90-second break. This field and this craft have all sorts of ways to break us. Publishers may butcher a draft you felt untouchable, bills may pile up, even family members may question what exactly you are doing with your time. This game takes resilience, and the only way to keep playing long enough to get good is to take toughness (and the practice of toughness) seriously.
Cameron Conaway is the author of Caged: Memoirs of a Cage-Fighting Poet:
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