The Influence of the Arts on my Writing (pt. 1)
From Martial Arts (Wing Chun Kung Fu): Better Basics mean Better Everything.
Art is severely underestimated as an activity. Being an artist and practicing art taps into such different ways of being. I love this pluralistic and whole-mind/body/spirit existence that practicing art allows me to experience and enjoy. And in this world that can be so fractured, irrational and nonsensical, art has a way of showing how things can be mended and bridged. Therefore, I've long had the life goal of gaining basic proficiency in as many art forms as possible.
I’ve written a bit about my journey towards mastery before, but there’s still so much to explore.
In this newsletter series, I want to address how different art forms have influenced me as a Writer.
The backdrop of this letter is a martial art called Wing Chun Kung Fu, but more importantly, the place I met Sifu Anders. (He’d scoff at me calling him “Sifu” as he’s way too humble to think of himself as a master, but he has always been a Sifu to me.)
Sifu Anders taught the Level 1 beginner class at a small Wing Chun school in Oslo.
In Level 1 Wing Chun you're learning how to Stand, Pivot, and Punch.
Trust me when I say this: In the beginning it does not feel like you're doing much when you're following Sifu's instructions. Standing with your knees folded inwards and “pigeon-toed” feels simple and looks a bit ridiculous. And you start wondering: did people like Bruce Lee and Donny Yen seriously have to do this? There's no way this leads to cool martial arts moves. I call bs...
Yet as our minds dawdle into lower-case mutiny, our Sifu has a ton to say about our form. "But how? I'm copying exactly what is being demonstrated." While every correction seems trivial and inconsequential to us, Sifu clearly sees something that we don’t.
One day Sifu Anders and I get talking. I learn that he loves practicing basics and teaching basics. I tell him I think he seems more capable than the belt he is wearing, but he replies and says he is not preoccupied with levelling up. Why is that?
He tells me: Better Basics mean Better Everything. He goes on to describe how he found a different type of strength and mastery by focusing on doing basics well, and would rather continue to practice basics with most of his time than over-extend himself with new moves and stances just to play the game of levelling up fast.
While teenage-me might have scoffed a bit at the adult advising us to "slow me down" or downplay the prestige of leveling up, I respected my Sifu enough that I just took his word for it and trusted that the truth would reveal itself later.
20 years since then, the truth has appeared in a thousand forms. And every time it makes a reappearance, I'm reminded of my Sifu's love for basics and the importance of this rather simple teaching:
Basics are not to be underestimated. They may look abstractly simple, sometimes even unrelated to the main activity. However, they are foundational upon which everything else is built. They are the pillars of mastery.
Basics are actually not basic at all. They may look or sound easy to do but once you pass some hump of proficiency you will notice so much more nuance that as a beginner you would never have been able to pick up on.
Basics are low threshold, high ceiling. Easy to do as beginner, hard to execute wonderfully and with pizzazz. Revisit and refine often throughout your practice. And every time you level up your basics, there's a new level of basics to strive towards.
Most arts have some kind of basics:
In music, you rehearse rudiments and drills
In drawing, you draw the light/shadow of basic forms
In cooking, you use simple and few ingredients in tried-and-true combinations
In dancing, you learn to take basic steps to the music
Finally: in writing, you show up, sit down and write
As beginners, we are often drawn to the craft when we see the work and performance of masters. It’s easy to fall for the trap of focusing a lot on tools and equipment, thinking they matter. And who isn’t guilty of seeking out easy wins, shortcuts wherever we can find them, or believe there exists secrets to success that, if only you copied them better, you’d be nailing it? 💅
The truth is, Basics has a PR problem. Basics are rarely painted as a glorious task. But the real secret is: for those who are humble enough to constantly improve Basics, greatness awaits.
(As youtubers love to remind us): Smash that like button if you struggle with doing Basics sometimes, even though you know that this is the way!
In art we trust,
What about your book ? almost ready?
Loved this! It's what I tell my Tai Chi students. A solid understanding of the basics and a lot of practice until muscle memory guides the moves so that one doesn't have to think about the nuts & bolts of how to execute each move, and can instead enjoy the energy flow. Now, I just need to apply the same process on my writing journey! ;)