Review of The Martial Art of Writing and Other Essays by Alan Baxter2 min read
When I was first learning Chen-style taijiquan, my instructor would make us sit in a narrow horse stance, which was uncomfortable. Then he’d physically adjust our hips, our thighs, heads, etc. in order to get as much of our bodyweight as possible onto our heels without us leaning forward or sticking out our tailbones. This would make me audibly yelp and fall over, and it wasn’t just me. Other people, some of whom had practiced another flavor of the martial art (“tai chi” to you) for years would come from across the country to learn a few things. Invariably, their experience availed them not. Nobody could really hold this extreme stance for long. But in class, we kept at it, and then one day everyone who didn’t quit could manage it.
As Chinese martial arts instructors sometimes gnomically say, “Eat bitter, then taste sweet.” Less gnomically, there’s a trick to getting better at holding low stances, and it’s the literal opposite of the typical advice. It’s unsurprising, then, that Australian writer/martial artist Alan Baxter’s brief how-to guide, The Martial Art of Writing and Other Essays also incorporates the bitter, and the inversion of typical advice. One piece simply reads “Never give up”, but it is followed by a longer chapter on a novel manuscript he realizes is broken.
In “Grabbed by the Throat or Gently Teased?” he determines, via a reading of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station that the old saw of starting a story with a “hook”—say, an action set-piece or the introduction of a protagonist and the initiating incident—is false, or at least can be false. There are many ways to tantalize a reader into continuing, and Miéville’s intense description of setting works as well as any rock ’em-sock ’em.
Baxter’s strength is, of course, his fight scene advice. Much like with sex scenes, it’s easy to go on too long, and readers with experience often find them as embarrassing as the innocent find them inexplicable. As my teacher often says before punching me in the face, “Don’t wait your turn.” Baxter notes that fights are chaotic, dynamic, and are almost never a matter of mere trading blows. He describes the adrenaline dump that everyone experiences in a fight, and how many techniques go right out the window, and the primal emotionality of fighting. Let your winners puke and cry! (Martial arts also informs his excellent advice not to sit around all day writing—“get up and move around once or twice every hour AT LEAST.”)The Martial Art of Writing is a short read, and some of it is a simple recitation of the basics, but like any martial artist knows, success comes from perfecting the basics. Read it while holding a low horse stance.