What do you write about when you want to write but don't have anything very definite to say? I did my poetry exercise for the evening, but only came up with one decent line, a dactylic pentameter ending in a spondee:

Suddenly one day in springtime the cows appeared in Grant Park.

After which should come something about how cool it was returning to Chicago after a year down south at the Research Triangle to find statues of cows populating all of the sidewalks downtown. But nope, nothing. It's because I'm thinking too hard, of course. Nothing puts off the Muse better than wanting her to show up. It's not unlike what happens in fencing when you're trying to force the action: the harder you try, the more you get hit.

And yet, last night one of my friends had me do a drill in which I would only score if I made the touch without any blade contact. The point of the drill was to force me to stop always trying to take the blade first, but how then was I supposed to prepare? Ah, but that was the trick: if I kept backing up (as is my wont), then he (my opponent) would have the advantage in starting the attack. If I wanted to make my attack, I had to be moving into the action towards him; I couldn't just wait for his attack expecting to parry. You see the dilemma: if I want to attack too much, I am that much more likely to get hit, but if I don't take the initiative, I leave myself at a disadvantage, allowing my opponent to control both our actions.

So, here I am, trying to tempt the Muse to begin whispering to me. If I sit here all clenched thinking, "I want to write now, come on, give me something to say," I will never get the touch. I'm too tense. But if I don't put myself forward, sit down at the keyboard and type, well, I won't get the touch that way either. This happens to me all the time in writing, but it's worse this week than usual. Of course, I know why: I've set next week as the time that I will actually start drafting my book--symbolically enough, on our presidential inauguration day--so, naturally, my mind goes blank even for my blog.

How's that for irony? The point of the blog was to ease me into working on the book, but it seems that I can't quite sneak up on myself that way. I'm still fully conscious of the difference between blogging and (gasp) "real" writing. Rather like the difference between bouting at practice and tournament: one counts more than the other, right? Or does it? Appropriately enough, I've just received the confirmation for my entry to the Veterans/Div II/Div III NAC at the end of February, by which time I've told myself I'll have gotten the book off the ground.* Will I be able to go to the tournament and think about it as just another practice? Or will I be putting myself to the test yet again, as I did this past summer at Nationals?

It's interesting. I was thinking last night on my way home from practice about how little I actually say on the blog about fencing as such. Not the psychology of fencing (there's lots and lots about that!), but rather about the way it really works. How it feels to hold the parry just long enough to prevent my opponent from taking the blade back and so give myself time to riposte. How it feels to be the one who is taking the initiative and determining how the action will go and how this is different from "pushing." What it's like to set up an attack with a beat-feint, beat-feint, beat-attack (exquisite!) and how it's different from just beating the blade and not actually doing anything with it. Where to put one's focus, whether on the point of one's own blade or on the target or somehow on both. And on, and on. So many little details that it has taken me years to learn but that somehow are there for me now although I couldn't say when exactly I became conscious of knowing them. What if I were to write a book about this experience? Where would I begin? How do you abstract the parts from the whole when the parts only make sense when you can experience them as parts of the whole?

In Myers-Briggs terms, I supposed I'm just too darned Intuitive, always looking for the "big picture," always wanting everything to come together and make sense. It's harder for me to take things apart and concentrate on making the individual parts work. Except that I love making sure everything in the structure is right, too. So I want to be able to keep distance, control the tempo, set up the action, keep my point on target, and finish the action all at the same time, which, to be sure, is what one needs to do in fencing, but you can't actually learn all of these things all at the same time. There needs to be a way to focus first on one thing--as with the drill my friend and I did last night--and then on another. Likewise with my writing. I'm in my usual pre-writing panic because I can feel the whole that I want to express, but I don't quite know which part of it to start with. I want to draw a picture and say, "Here it is!" but then I would still have to decide where to start in explaining the picture. Medieval monks were really good at these kind of diagrams.

Do you see what I'm doing in this post? Everything is coming into the mix: fencing, writing, poetry, memories of the last time I was working on a book (the Time of the Cows), personality types, parts of the whole, monks, competition. It's not that I have nothing to say. There's too much! I wish I could tell you about all of the books that I'm reading at the moment: on typology and the spiritual sense of scripture; on nuns and their liturgy; on Milton and epic; on how to deal with starting new projects; on the Fall (Paradise Lost); on prayer and competition and how to write poetry. Somehow, I know, all of this is part of the same project, but where to begin? It's as if--as I said in my poem a few days ago--I am stuffed full of thoughts but cannot yet determine their structure.

Well, okay, this has been helpful, if not terribly exciting (I suspect) to read. It's very like what I learned last night at practice: you can't just wait for your opponent to start, you have to get in there and take control, even if you don't know quite yet what your opponent is going to do. It was better to write something tonight than nothing at all, even if there are too many thoughts still trying to crystallize in my head. If this were easy (writing, fencing) everybody would do it.

Gonna be a long winter, I can tell.

By the by, it was Mr. Fry who suggested cows as the subject for the poetry exercise. Kinda nifty synchronicity, really.

*Read: spent several weeks trying to start without starting with the introduction; thrown out at least as much as I have written; had one or two fits during which I scream, "I can't do this!"; and hopefully settled down into something like a schedule for the foreseeable future.


  1. I don't know if it relates quite the way you'd like but, I did read this: Being Human is overrated (But Not When You are Writing) Being Human is overrated (But Not When You are Writing). I suppose its an option.
    I appreciate your writing (per blog, never read your books). It has been giving me different perspectives on things. Putting them to use is another story. I first thought of fencing as folks in white costumes slashing around with swords. Now I see it HAS much deeper meanings leads credence as too why you're a Professor at University and Kiera Knightley is a great Actress. I won't attempt to write something smarter, it will only make me look dumb. :-)

    I hope u can git yur writin' juicez flowin'

  2. Thanks for the reference. Mr. Stibbe has some good tips! For those who'd like to read them without subscribing to Visual Thesaurus, he's put them on his blog, too:

  3. sorry, didn't realize that.
    trying to be encouraging

  4. No worries. I just liked Mr. Stibbe's post enough to want to share it with everyone. He has other good tips on his blog "Bad Language", too.

  5. Interesting that our coaches have such different approaches to fencing psychology. (At least, I assume the approach you describe in this post comes from your coach.) Vitali doesn't want me to take control--he is drumming into me to watch and understand what my opponent is doing, and find the space they leave in which to act. Though of course the whole point of preparation (which he feels is very important)is to shape that space. So complicated and subtle! And so hard to put into words...

  6. Actually, this was Ed, not Bakhyt. Bakhyt tends to focus simply on drilling particular actions. Ed has more to say about the way in which you implement the actions on the strip.


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