Pen & Sword

Yes, well.  This was supposed to be this oh-so-clever post about how sending my writing out for review was like going to tournaments, but I didn't write it on Saturday when I first had the idea because, yes, I was on my way to a tournament and now, three days later after a day of teaching, I can't think straight.  Which is frustrating, because as it came to me on Saturday it was really cool.

So let's just pretend this is practice.  Because, in fact, that's what blogging is, at least for me.  Practice.  It's easy.  I can just noodle around here, pleasing only myself.  I like having readers (a lot!), but I don't need anybody to say that what I've written is worth publishing because, hey! here it is, not even copy-edited, just blurted out as it comes to me, however I want to say it.  Sometimes I might come up with something really cool that somebody might find worth reading or even sharing, but it doesn't really matter because the point is to write.

Much as the point at fencing practice is simply to be there to fence.  Yes, it's better if I do my point control drills and concentrate well while I'm bouting, but as long as I pay my club dues and show up, I can fence.  Indeed, I am a fencer, however well I fence--or not. 

But will I ever get any better just noodling around?  Or bouting without keeping score?  Ah, there's the rub.  How would I know?

See, here's the clever part.  I was feeling rather nervous on Saturday, thinking about the tournament.  It's the toughest one we have locally, even tougher now that it's an ROC (Regional Open Circuit, don't worry about the label if you don't fence, it just means it attracts even more strong fencers than it did before).  And I didn't think I would do very well, especially since I'd missed practice for two straight weeks this past month with the flu.  Plus, I was still really tired from my Awkward marathon two nights before.  And stinging about what to do with the article that I'd sent out for review. 

And then I started thinking about what it all meant.  Tournament results and publications, medals and ratings and items on my c.v.  Nothing, I realized.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Publication is just like ratings or medals: easy to brag about, but more an epiphenomenon than anything real, at least insofar as it affects you or your ability to work.  It's not like it fundamentally changes anything, after all.  Getting a rating or a medal or an article accepted says nothing about whether you will ever get any more; it guarantees nothing about your future results.  Likewise, even if you never get one, it does not mean that your practice or study is meaningless.  The point, the real point, is not what you can brag about, but what you can do: fence, write, learn.

And yet, it is important to go to tournaments and compete.  It is important to send your work out for review.  Or present at conferences.  Local tournaments are like conferences, a good way of throwing stuff out there, seeing how the audience responds.  National tournaments are like sending work out for peer review, the real test of how well you have prepared.

But, again, the point is not how well your audience responds or what the reviewers say, any more than it is how well you place or whether your rating improves.  Your audience might be sleepy or jet-lagged or thinking about something else.  Your reviewers might have misunderstood.  Your opponents might be having a lucky day or fencing particularly well.  Whether you win a medal or get a new rating or have something you've written accepted for publication depends on all sorts of things, only some of which you can control.  Who the other fencers are.  How they fence.  How the director calls it.

Nor are the results themselves indicative of your absolute or even relative worth.  Sometimes someone with terrible technique will win.  Sometimes someone whose research leaves rather more than not to be desired will be published, even by highly respectable presses or journals.  Meanwhile, whatever you do, the usual winners (a.k.a. bestsellers) will finish at the top.  But even so, that does not mean that you should change your game, think that if you just write any old thing, fence any old way, you will get published or bungle your way to the top.

No, the point is what you learn when you get on the strip and have to face what your reviewer has said about your work.  Do you panic?  Do you worry about whether she respects you?  Do you spend more time thinking about how others perceive you that about what you need to do, now, to make this touch, argue this or that point clearly, improve your writing that little bit more?  Ah, I'm not being clear, I know.  It all came to me in a rush, the insights that I've had about competing these past several months, overlaid onto the anxiety I was feeling about my article.  Breathe, I told myself.  Think what you've learned being on the strip.  Think what you've learned about true mental toughness, about confidence, about how it feels to be down 0-4 in a 5-touch bout and know, know that you can still win.

Yes, it's nice to get published, it's nice to win a medal.  Just as it is nice to earn a rating.  I'm a D fencer, an associate professor.  Which is better, I suppose, than being an E, an assistant (certainly, it's nice to have tenure, although hopefully that won't degrade after four years if I don't renew my rating).  But I get to fence just as much with a D as if I had a C (full professorship) or a B (chaired professorship).  I doubt very much I will ever be an A (university professor, a.k.a. marketable superstar), but it makes no difference to whether I can fence--or write.  Likewise (and here is where I started getting really excited about the analogy), as a D, I have beaten Cs and Bs in tournament bouts, even if I have not yet finished high enough in a single tournament to earn a C.  Which is only to say that it is not an absolute scale, just as the positions that we hold in academia are hardly a direct indication of the worth of our teaching or research.

But I digress.  Or maybe not.  Did I say I was tired?  Because I fenced really hard on Saturday.  I made some excellent touches, particularly in my second D-E, when I was fencing against the number 3 seed out of the pools.  I am particularly proud of two touches I got in the middle of the bout, when I realized that I had been attacking her consistently along the same line and I thought to myself, "What if I change the angle of my attack just here?"  And it worked!  And I stayed with her the whole bout, losing only at 12 (when I had the unfortunate, but predictable thought, "If I beat her, will I get my C?"  Alas, no, but still).  I've had bouts that close before, but on Saturday I know I was fencing even better than my results show because (and listen very carefully, because this is important) I didn't lose it even when my opponents failed to smile at me when we shook hands after the bout.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I need to start work on revising my article.  Which I wouldn't be doing if I hadn't sent it out for review.


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