Mark Terry

Monday, November 15, 2010

Black Belt

November 15, 2010
Those of you who are on Facebook may have noticed that my oldest son, Ian, and I both got our black belts in Sanchin-Ryu karate on Saturday. This will be one of the only places I discuss my black belt in public simply because, as I mentioned to Ian, if you advertise that you're a black belt enough, eventually somebody's going to want to test you on it.

That said, there are some real correlations between writing and publishing and getting your black belt in a martial art. First, it took me around 6 years, give or take, to accomplish this. For Ian, it was about 7. It's not that I'm more talented or skilled, just that Ian started when he was about 10 and I started when I was about 40, and I had already spent a year studying a different style of karate in college, so many of the concepts were familiar to me. I already knew how to approach some things and how to learn certain things (oddly enough, you might call that maturity). I would guess the time we took was about average, although you run into some people who accomplish it in our style in a shorter period of time and some much longer (or never).

The keys to it seems to be persistence, practice, developing strong fundamentals, finding the correct attitude, and getting known. I think everything else makes sense here, but by "getting known" I mean that in Sanchin-Ryu, once you get past the purple belt stage, your instructor can't promote you, only your district master can promote you. Your instructor will make recommendations, but you need to go to the every-other-month black belt class run by your district master and be seen; it's also a good idea to visit other classes and to attend the workshops and retreats and special classes that are taught by the chief instructors in the style. They can't promote you if they don't know who you are or ever actually see you work out. Sanchin-Ryu is not like, say, Tae Kwon Do where there's a specific national guidelines and organized testing; in that respect Sanchin-Ryu is more like most other martial arts, in which when your instructors feel you're ready for the next belt advancement, you get it.

Anyway, enough about that. What about writing?

A lot of people think getting the black belt is the culmination of martial arts training. I view it more like getting your high school diploma. There's a basic level of competence involved, a grasp of a certain limited amount of the curriculum, competence over fundamentals. When I said that during my little ceremony/test thing I did on Saturday, Chief Instructor Master Ben Dearman jumped on it and made reference to the period prior to black belt being a gestation period with the black belt being something of a birth. A lot of growth gets to follow. (Another version of the "journey's just beginning" talk most new black belts get).

Without hammering this home, there's some thought that once you get a novel published, you've made it. But I think most writers discover that the same old challenges of writing a better book are still there, and there are other newer challenges that go along with, marketing being only one of them.

One of the topics of discussion this weekend in our household was that Ian and I are now first-degree black belts (shodan). "Master" rank comes around fifth-degree (although fourth-degree is sometimes referred to as "master apprentice.") In Sanchin-Ryu, at the moment, there are 10 degrees of "black belt" (although in truth, only some of them are black; some of them are red and white and the 10th is actually a gold sash). The 10th degree is the founder of the style, Chief Grand Master Robert Dearman. There are currently no 9th degrees and I think there are 4 8th degrees.

In that it probably takes, if you work hard and persevere, about 3 to 5 years to attain each degree (that's a general estimate based on observation, so don't hold me to it), I might be able to attain master rank by the time I'm 60. Maybe. I view it as a long-term goal. Ian stands a far better chance of becoming a chief instructor, etc., if that's what he wants to do, and at the moment that's what he says he wants to do. (At the same time, he expressed some relief at not having to worry about any kind of a promotion for a few years).

I think there are some definite parallels between getting published at one level and achieving "master" (whatever that means in writing) at some future period. You don't stop growing and working and trying to improve once you get published.



Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I started out writing comedy . . . felt like I had not mastered it, but got a black belt, say, when I'd published six romantic comedies . . . so I tried other genres and so on. Now, as I work on a new comedy proposal, it's like . . . sure, I have the voice still, but what I've learned by deepening as a writer these last few years means I am hopefully taking it to still another level. We're always learning.


7:21 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

First big congrats to you and Ian. In your case, to set out to do something like that at forty is pretty cool, and in Ian's case, to have the discipline to do it at his age is amazing. Uncoordinated as I am I can't imagine mastering such a thing at any age!

As you describe it, the whole business sounds like writing. There are definitely many degrees of achievement higher than "being published." Being published is a big achievement in itself, and most don't even get there, but, yeah, the basic level -- say publication of one book by a small publisher -- indicates nothing more than minimal competance. Thinking about it that way, I guess I got my black belt in writing pretty quickly but haven't had much luck getting to higher levels!

By the way, dad and son both getting black belts. That's terrific. I wonder, would it have been possible if you were still working a nine to five job?

8:52 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

The answer to the final question is: probably not. My kids (Sean made it to 2nd-degree brown belt by the time he was 9 or 10 and quit, which is okay, he's found other things to do) were doing it about a year before I joined. My karate "career" pretty closely overlaps my "fulltime writing careers." I have a good friend with a long commute and 2 kids about my kids' age and he started Sanchin-Ryu about a year after I did and he enjoyed it a lot, but eventually quit because it was a killer to get home from work about 5 minutes before a class, and take a class until 9:00 at night. I seriously doubt it would have been possible for me. People do, but it ain't easy.

9:52 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I get bored easily so I write in many different genres. If I don't switch it around I get a little crazy. I got my black belt in 1981 and it's been come and go since then, but I believe it's something that changes you.
Now if I could just get published...


1:01 PM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Interestingly, Taekwondo is only standardized at black belt and above. Until you get a black belt, you pretty much have to start over at the beginning with a new school, with a different set of rules, requirements, colors, and number of levels.

My Master in Ohio was pretty fast at getting people to black belt, but then he was a fantastic teacher (a World Champion), and the skill level of his students warranted it.

The correlation definitely works. I've heard people call black belt the "advanced beginner" stage. :-)

3:17 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

advanced beginner is a pretty good description of black belt. it's also a point at which you start looking back at everything you've learned and start relearning it again.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Barr said...

My Wing Chun sifu explained to us once: 'I'm just teaching you the alphabet - you will learn to write a long time from now.' I like to think about this when I'm writing (and of course playing WC). It's something I read somehwere or other and applies equally to writing and Martial Arts - 'You have to know the rules before you break them.' Nice post.

9:28 PM  

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