The Definition of Black Belt

I promised there would be posts about martial arts. And so far, I haven’t delivered. So in honor of the annual WTSDA Region 1 Championship, (which I’m not attending for the first time in, well, ever!), I present my first post dedicated to the martial arts. But be warned, my opinions on this topic can be either melodramatic and preachy, or poetically accurate, depending on whether or not you agree with me.

Regardless of which side of the fence you land on after reading this, here’s my interpretation of…

What it means to be a black belt

A black belt is more than the strip of fabric around your waist.

It’s helping those close to you because they need it,
not because it boosts your ego.

It’s knowing when to pick your battles and when to walk away.

It’s the dignity you have in the face of adversity,
and the grace with which you take criticism.

It’s the humility you show others,
and the respect you give to the people and
places that offered you this gift.

It’s the wisdom to realize that it’s better to be selfless,
but the strength to stand up for your convictions.

It’s the integrity you put behind your promises,
and the obligation to teach those that follow in
your footsteps these same lessons.

It is an achievement to be worn proudly,
but it’s not the color of the fabric that makes you a black belt;
it’s the attitude you present to the world.

–Kisa Whipkey
(Originally Posted to Facebook on May 17, 2011)

Shame so many forget that, or never bothered to learn it at all. So often, you will run into martial artists whose sole reason for training seems to be bragging rights; they’ve taken all these different styles (and mastered none of them); they’ve beaten X number of opponents to a bloody pulp in cage fights (proving their ability to brawl like a school-yard bully); they’ve won X amount of awards and trophies (Fantastic! So they’re basically a mockingbird attracted by shinies?); and they’ve done absolutely nothing of value to anyone but themselves.

Does the definition of black belt really have to be limited to the physical ability to kick ass? I don’t think so. True, you should be able to defend yourself effectively–why else did you learn to fight? But that’s not the main definition of the rank. You don’t need skill to be a good fighter. Luck, maybe, but not skill. Some people are simply born with natural ability, and the advent of technology has ensured that the rest of us can survive with little to no physical skill involved. So why go through the process of earning a black belt? Investing 2-4 years of your life, sweating and screaming in some archaic form of military practice? Because there’s more to it than that.

Being a black belt is a lifestyle choice, like choosing to eat healthy and exercise, or choosing to believe in the power of religious faith. It’s not about bragging at all. It’s about honor, dignity, respect, discipline and integrity. No one said that being a black belt was easy. In fact, it’s usually the opposite. The martial arts were originally intended for the elite, for the warriors who protected their country (like our soldiers today), and was not offered to anyone and everyone. Attaining black belt was a grueling process that required dedication, physical prowess, and spiritual development. Something that’s been sadly watered down over the centuries. But that doesn’t mean we have to let it slip away into the forgotten realms of ancient history. We can still embody everything the martial arts was supposed to represent, whether we’re training or not.

I’ve learned that people who take the philosophical meaning behind the martial arts seriously, exhibit subtle traits you learn to notice– it’s the way they walk or stand, the way they present themselves to the world, the way they interact with others. All those things are the marks of a true black belt. And they are only gained if  the student is willing to pay attention. Each belt color represents a new set of techniques to be memorized, yes, but it also represents a new challenge that will refine their character if they let it. There are so many out there who only care about the fighting portion and completely look past the rest of it; becoming the black belts who puff themselves up with glorified victories, leaving nothing but an impression of arrogance and brutality as their legacy. Personally, I prefer meeting martial artists who are quietly proud, and let their actions speak for themselves. Poise, respectfulness and integrity are always more pleasant to encounter than arrogance, inflated egos, and superiority complexes. Don’t you think?

Simply put, the goal of the martial arts was (and is) to be the best person you could (can) be. Which is why the black belt spirit can be found even in those who have never trained. It’s in those who volunteer to help the homeless/disabled/elderly/anyone-who-needs-help. It’s in those that donate their fortunes to charities, enriching the lives of others while living modestly themselves. It’s in the teacher that goes above and beyond to help a troubled student reach graduation. And it’s in you whenever you choose to do the right thing instead of the easy one. Being a black belt is a commitment to values, whether you gained them from religion, martial arts, or simply had them imparted by your parents. You don’t have to wear a strip of fabric around your waist to be a black belt, you just have to be a good person who cares more for their family, community, or world than themselves. In my eyes, anyone fighting for a noble cause, who earns accolades with dignity and humility, or who presents themselves to their daily tasks of school, work, and socialization with integrity and respect is a black belt. An honorary one, anyway.

So the next time you run into a black belt/instructor who seems intent only on wowing you with their peacock display of achievements, smile and respectfully give them the ego-boost they’re really seeking. Then walk away, safe in the comfort of knowing something they missed. That respect is never taken, it’s earned. And that strip of fabric around their waste doesn’t entitle them to it anymore than if they didn’t have it.

And to my fellow martial artists, please remember that being a black belt doesn’t end when you walk out the door of the studio. It’s a commitment that should reflect in every aspect of your life. Decide for yourself what black belt means and then embody that to the best of your ability. If you want respect, earn it. Don’t just do things to bask in the glory of a good deed.

That’s what it really means to be a black belt.


Plot Bunnies; Friend or Foe?

Firstly, what the heck is a plot bunny? According to Urban Dictionary, a plot bunny is “An idea for a story (usually used to refer to Fanfiction [writing your own version of someone else’s story]) that gnaws at the brain until written.”

I stumbled upon this amusing little moniker while reading through the blog of one of my new favorite authors, Maggie Stiefvater (Check her out, she’s very entertaining.) I’d never heard the term before, not being prone to write stories featuring other people’s characters/worlds. I mean, really, why would I want to mooch off someone else’s ideas when I’m drowning in hundreds of my own? Literally, hundreds. But anyway, I found the term endearing and adopted it. So you’ll hear me refer to plot bunnies quite a bit. Which prompted this post. Before I started throwing that term in everywhere and no one knows what I’m talking about, I figured I’d better explain it.

Despite their adorable name, I actually define plot bunnies as procrastination and fear of failure personified. Every writer suffers from them. Usually when you least want them around. And if you aren’t graced by their obnoxious presence, well, then, good for you. You’re one of the lucky few, and probably a bit inspirationally challenged. The rest of us carry around overflowing cages in our heads, bursting to the brim with plot bunnies that breed like, well, bunnies. Every so often, a few will make a run for it, escaping from their confinement to wreak havoc in whatever project we’re currently bordering on boredom with and completely distracting us from anything productive. Until we wrangle them back into a newly constructed extra cage, and the process starts all over again.

So, are they friend, or foe? I’ve found that it really depends on the day. Some days, (like those rare moments between projects when you can step away from your computer and realize the world actually still exists), they can be your best friend, bringing you bright, shiny paths of freshly minted inspiration and leading you ever closer to the coveted title of “prolific.” Other days, (like when you’re in the middle of an important and complex, pulling-teeth kind of scene that you’d rather jump in front of a bus than write), you really just want to take them out back and shoot them in the head so they’ll stop leading you astray while you’re trying to focus.

This week, they’re heading toward being on my kill list. They’ve gotten decidedly more rampant since I finally figured out where my aimless work-in-progress, aptly and ironically titled, Unmoving, was going. In the past two months alone, I’ve had 8 of the little buggers spring up…oh, nope, better make that 9. (Stupid radio for playing random-song-I’ve-never-heard-before and spawning yet another plot bunny.) Some are more demanding than others, requiring my complete attention and blocking out any hope I have at moving Unmoving forward. Others are just a tiny glimmer of an idea, a baby bunny shyly showing its whiskers for the first time. But all of them are extremely annoying.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to be drowning in such a fountain of overflowing inspiration. But when you suffer from a distinct lack of ability to finish anything, prolific ideas only get you so far. Maybe I have writer’s ADD, growing bored with projects well before they’re done and becoming easily distracted by the shiny new fur and whispered promises of plot bunnies. Or maybe I just have a hard time sticking with something that, for me, has been finished for months, and continuing to write it feels like sludgeing your way through a movie you’ve seen 8 million times. (There are many days I fervently wish that my brain had a USB port and a download button. That would make life so much easier! Wouldn’t it?) Or maybe I’m just lazy, and completing a story on paper, to the level my perfectionist side demands, requires far more work than I really want to expend. Whatever my problem, plot bunnies equal bad news.

So how do I deal with them? Since they’re a figment of my imagination, I can’t really take them out back and kill them. Well, I could, but that might make me a candidate for the title of Schizophrenic Bunny Murderer. Besides, I’ll need those shiny new ideas when I finally finish my current project, (or when I can’t stand it anymore and move on, adding yet another unfinished story to my Drawer of Fragments). You never know, one of those cute little buggers driving me insane might just land me on the NY Times Bestseller List. Eventually. Someday. If I can ever finish something again.

No, my strategy for dealing with plot bunnies isn’t violent at all. I actually humor them. I give them their moment in the spotlight, let them rule the creative half of my brain, until eventually they run themselves into exhaustion and shut up. Sometimes it only requires me to give the new idea a title, solidifying it into existence by the sheer power of naming it. Other times I have to write the whole plot in my head, complete with character bios, description and dialogue. And recently, one super annoying bunny decided I had to pinpoint the exact, and very real, setting of the new story before it’d leave me in peace.

Eventually though, they do all quiet down. I can then add them to my ever-growing to-do list of ideas (Seriously, at last count I had 164 potential stories, including the 9 that just popped up) and return to the task at hand–the grueling process of moving Unmoving closer to completion.

So my piece of advice to writers debating whether or not to turn their plot bunnies into new fur coats is this; try giving them the reins for just a short period of time. Do whatever it is that will satisfy that insatiable urge to follow them down the rabbit hole. Whether it be one of my methods, or, as I’ve seen suggested by other authors, writing a short story/synopsis of the premise, or something else completely of your own creation. I promise, they do eventually shut up and let you work.

And let’s face it, until you learn what your particular method for dealing with them is, you’re probably going to find yourself as unmoving as my current project.

"Bunny--Better Quality" by Vic-the-Raccon

Bunny–Better Quality” by Vic-The-Raccoon

Copyright 2012

Why Do You…(Insert Creative Verb Here)?

This is probably the most asked question of creative people–sometimes even by other creative people. And it’s one of the more irritating ones, because it’s such a hard thing to quantify. It’s like asking someone why their eyes are blue, or why they were born in the morning. How do you answer that? So, understandably, the answers to why someone’s creative vary wildly depending on the person. You’ll hear things like,

“I’m not sure, I just do.”

“Because it makes me happy.”

“Because it’s therapy for me; it helps me express myself.”

And my personal favorite, “I do it for me.”

Now the truth is, all of these answers are sugar-coated, watered-down replies meant to make the artist look more artsy; to make the listener think, “ooo, aren’t they cool? They’re so mysterious and vague.” Personal satisfaction is great, but you go to the gym for personal satisfaction, you don’t pour weeks, months, years, heart and soul into a project just for personal satisfaction. I mean, don’t answers like that just seem so full of themselves? Why narcissism is encouraged within the arts is beyond me, but the more self-involved the answer, the more prestige points an artist receives. And the more frequently you’ll hear responses like the above.

Personally, I view every one of those answers as a cop out. Because ultimately, statements like that are rarely true. And before you get up on your high horse and scream “controversy!” while flooding my comment box with all the reasons I’m wrong, hear me out. If creativity is such a personal thing (which I’m actually not arguing, because it is), why would anyone share its products? All those artists, authors, and musicians that claim they only create for themselves are lying. The proof is in the sheer fact that they made said creation available for public consumption. If it was truly just for them, it would be stashed in a vault somewhere, guarded by large, vicious dogs and fiercely protected until it’s location was lost in the afterlife. Not put on public display for all to judge. But that’s not the case, is it? Because these artists shared their work with the world.

(The only exception may be personal diaries and journals, which are never truly intended to be shared, but in reality, are almost always found and read anyway.)

When I’m asked this question of why I (insert creative verb here), I have a generalized, self-important, prosaic answer that I’ll give. (Who doesn’t want to earn some prestige points?) I simply say that the reason I (chosen creative verb of the moment) is that I never realized not (doing said creative verb) was an option. And this is partly true. Creativity just came naturally. Like breathing. But just like the answers I listed above, that lovely little sound bite, while somewhat accurate, is not the real motivator behind my masterpieces. (See? Don’t I just automatically sound more brilliant because I called them that?)

The brutal, honest truth is something none of us “Artistes” like to admit, because it makes us seem desperate and needy, and those two adjectives are a far cry from cool and mysterious. We don’t want to be put in the same category as your psycho ex that Facebook stalks you. But the reason all those artists, authors, and musicians are trying to hide from, is we create because we want validation. Public approval. Fame, Glory and all that jazz. Just like when we were little kids and we ran to Mommy looking for approval on our latest blob of mismatched crayon wax with no anatomy whatsoever that we were certain looked like the cat, waiting for the glowing ooze of motherly love to pour over us, we offer up the fruits of our labor to the public eye. With the sole intent of being lavished in praise about our awesomeness.

When you think about it, it’s not really that hard to see why this is the real motivator behind creativity. It’s the same reason that we post status updates several times a day and then check back obsessively, waiting for those little thumbs up signs to appear that means someone likes us, someone agreed. We’re cool. It’s human nature to seek praise from those around us; it makes us feel good, worthwhile, valued. Does that mean all artists are shallow, attention-seeking ho-bags? No. Do we all secretly want to preen while you sing our praises and tell us how awesome we are, so we can humbly pretend we didn’t already know that? You betcha.

Ultimately, though, it’s about receiving feedback of any kind, (although preferably of the worship-my-brilliance variety) that motivates us to hit that upload button, to submit that manuscript, or to step out on that stage. It’s often said that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And I 100% agree. Without that input from others, your creative side will shrivel and die like a thirsty plant locked in a closet. Which is why, whenever someone answers with the angelically selfish response of , “I (whatever) for me,” I find myself annoyed. Why is it ok to feed your narcissitic ego by pretending that success means nothing to you because you don’t care what anyone else thinks, but not ok to admit the truth? You did it for the same reason I do–to feel good when others tell you your creation is something wonderful.

And for those out there that feel this question is a perfectly legitimate conversation starter, it’s really not. You’re just going to be lied to. Few of us will man up and admit, “I did it to be rich and famous, duh.” You’re much better off asking questions that actually have quantifiable answers. Things that ask why we do things a certain way, or what did we mean with X, instead of something as innocuous as why do you create?

Hey, nobody said honesty always had to be pretty. And I did warn you that snarky rants were a definite possibility. But let the barrage of offended comments commence anyway. 😉

The Nuances of Storytelling

What Do I Know About It?

Blogging. I always swore it would be one trend that I wouldn’t follow. I didn’t have anything of value to say, nor did I want to dedicate the time it would take to regularly maintain such worthless ramblings. But now that everyone and their brother has joined the world of online diaries, I find myself bitten by the blog-bug. And here I am. Blogging.

So what changed? Why, now, do I suddenly feel like I have something to say? Because, in short, I do.  Because I can’t die having been nothing more than a Secretary. (I will seriously have to come haunt the world just so I can feel like I’ve done something worthwhile if that’s the case.) And because I’ve realized that maybe I have something to offer– a legacy, if you will.

What is this grand epiphany? My unique version of Storytelling. I’ve long dreamed of being a prolific author, envisioning my name on the spines of a whole shelf of books, a weighty list of “Other Works By” printed on the inside page of every one. But I’ve also dreamed, for nearly as long, of being an animator, breathing life into images that leave an audience grinning in kid-like wonder. And then, a small, semi-secret part of me, has often wished to be a famous choreographer, but since I took Martial Arts instead of Dance, this manifested in a successful stint as Demo Team Captain/Creator. All of these separate identities, as it were, led me to realize that this strange concoction of experiences– one part writer, one part artist, one part martial arts instructor, made up one rather interesting creative persona. Simply, Storyteller.

Whatever the medium I found myself dabbling in, the goal was always the same– to tell an entertaining story that allowed my audience to escape the real world for a little while. I even earned a degree in it. Video Game Design is definitely a field devoted to reality escapism. But I promptly turned my back on that flash-in-the-pan career choice, taking my hefty burden of student loans and returning to my roots of writing alongside a shaky foray into the world of Freelance Art. All the while, learning to define myself not by the medium I worked in, but by my ever present goal– telling a good story.

Which brings us to now, and this blog. My thesis, if you want to call it that, for this experiment in public journal writing, is to offer the secrets I’ve gleaned about my particular blend of storytelling; a creature rooted in the visual, inherently cinematic workings of my brain. All while keeping the bitter tirades to a minimum. Or not. Depends on the day. Angst-filled Cynicism is one of my specialties, after all.

Am I an expert? Not even close. Do I have something that can help you anyway? I’d like to think so.  So whether you choose to follow me because you find me interesting and/or entertaining, or because you feel obligated by knowing me, or because you’ve been bribed by someone who knows me, I hope you’ll enjoy the ride. It will likely be filled with thoughts ranging from constructive tips to frustrated ramblings about writing, art, martial arts, and maybe even a few thoughts on my supposed certified field– video games. (I should probably use that expensive piece of paper for something, right?)  I can’t guarantee that everything I write here will be a gem of wisdom, but somewhere in there, you might just find something unique and worth the trouble of reading for.

Welcome to Nightwolf’s Corner. Stay awhile. Let’s see where the journey takes us.