Come for the Health, Stay for the Self-Improvement — One Writer’s Martial Arts Journey

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how they inform the author’s literary identity!

Writing is a very sedentary profession. You spend most of your time sitting at a computer. Thanks to the march of technology, you don’t even need to get up from that computer to do research anymore, as most of what you might need to look up is accessible from the same machine that you’re writing on.

In my twenties, this was hardly an issue. I was young, I was energetic, I was active. But by the time I hit the age of 35, the warranty had run out, as it were. My doctor stared at my growing belly, my hiatal hernia, the prescription pain meds for my constant knee and foot pain, and said, “Hey, maybe you should try exercising, y’know, once.”

That suggestion started me on a journey that took me to some amazing places I never imagined I’d visit.

I hated doing exercise for much of my life. Part of it is due to my love of reading and writing, which was cultivated at an early age. I was raised by librarians who read to me as an infant. When I was old enough to read on my own, they fed me a steady diet of Ursula K. Le Guin (the Earthsea trilogy), Robert A. Heinlein (his YA books), J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit), and P.G. Wodehouse (the Jeeves & Wooster stories and novels), which is pretty much me in a nutshell. With that reading list, it’s no wonder I grew up to be a SF/fantasy/horror writer. (It’s also no wonder I use both my middle initials in my byline…)

Growing up in the 1970s and coming of age in the 1980s, we still had the very sharp divide between jocks and nerds, and I fell very much in the nerd category, especially given the love of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars, superhero comics, and Dungeons & Dragons that I cultivated alongside my reading habit.

It didn’t help that my two experiences with athleticism went remarkably poorly. I’m actually a fan of sports, especially baseball, and there was a time when little Keith dreamt of growing up to play second base for the New York Yankees.

I was disabused of this notion in two stages. The first was my grammar school soccer team, which was quite possibly the worst soccer team in the history of the world. We not only never won a game, we were never in any danger of winning a game. I think we had a lead once the entire season, and it only lasted a quarter.

Then I joined a local Little League, where our coach didn’t think working with us on hitting was important, as every practice solely consisted of him hitting the ball to us in the field. As a result, we had the worst offense ever, and finished ninth in a seven-team league. (Okay, not really, but we did finish last, and set a record for fewest runs scored.)

After that, I focused on more liberal-arts-style pursuits. In addition to reading and role-playing games, I started writing. Actually, I started writing when I was six—my first work of fiction was created on several sheets of construction paper that I bound together with string. This improvised codex was entitled Reflections in My Mirror. (Mind you, it’s terrible—I was six, after all…) I also did theatre, performing in several Gilbert & Sullivan plays in grammar school and a few musicals in high school.

By college, I was focused on writing, getting my BA in English, and also working as a writer and editor for the paper, Fordham University’s alternative newspaper. That continued into adulthood, working as an editor for magazines and book publishers throughout my twenties, going freelance at age 29, and never looking back.

But by age 35, I soon realized—as I huffed my way up to my third-floor walkup apartment in New York City completely winded from the simple act of taking two flights of stairs—that something needed to change. Shirts were getting too tight, I wasn’t needing a belt to keep my pants up, my knees and feet were in constant pain, and I had the stamina of an asthmatic ant.

So on 20 September 2004, I walked into a dojo that happened to be close to that third-floor walkup, as proximity to my own shower was a very important criterion in choosing a place to exercise. I didn’t want to join a gym, because I knew I would give them my money and then never show up, because the stuff you do in gyms bores the crap out of me. However, I’ve always had an interest in martial arts, and I figured that would not only give me the physical exercise I needed to get healthier, but also engage me mentally. This nearby place taught an Okinawan karate style, founded in 2001 by Shuseki Shihan William Oliver (dubbed “the black Bruce Lee” after his impressive performance in the All-World Full Contact Karate Tournament in 1976 in Japan).

That first class was, to say the least, horrible. In the thirteen-and-a-half years since then, I have been through three black-belt promotions (a brutal four-day process that includes thirty two-minute rounds of sparring with other black belts), numerous fighting classes, tons of heavy workout classes, and more—and none of it was as back-breakingly awful as that first class.

It was bad enough that my overweight, out-of-shape self was standing there sweating and grunting and making a pig’s ear out of everything I was being told to do, but three other people had their first class that same night. They were all younger, more athletic, and had previous martial arts experience. They were already in good shape, of course; me, I managed to successfully do maybe three of the thirty push-ups that we did in sets of ten over the course of the hour-long class.

It’s a good thing I’m stubborn, because the brutality of it, and standing there watching while the other three newbies did everything perfectly might have discouraged me. Luckily, I had that stubbornness—I really hate to fail at anything I set my mind to do—and I also had a great teacher. Shuseki Shihan Paul, who runs my dojo, is simply a superb teacher. He never tells you when you do something wrong, but he always shows you how to do it right. His style is one entirely of encouragement, never of discouragement, and it’s really effective (both with kids and adults). And it worked, as five years later, Shuseki tied a black belt onto my waist. At 35, I was an indolent worm. At 40, I was a black belt. No one was more surprised, or confused, than me.

Left to right: the author receiving his shodan (first degree) black belt in 2009, his nidan (second degree) in 2013, and his sandan (third degree) in 2017.

My sole purpose walking into the dojo that September evening was to get myself into decent physical shape.

It soon became considerably more than that.

First there was the obvious: I became more fit. I was physically stronger, I could lift heavy things, I could run up the stairs and not be winded. My clothes started to fit right again, and while my weight didn’t actually go down (muscle weighs more than fat), my tummy got smaller, which was the important part. Better still, my feet stopped hurting, and my knees hurt much less. (They still hurt some to this day, frustratingly.) It still surprises me, sometimes, as a big part of my self-image is the nerdy kid who failed at everything athletic, so the notion of being a physically strong person conflicts with how I often see myself, though I’m finally starting to move past that.

However, I noticed other changes. I became more comfortable in my own skin, more confident in my movements and in my surroundings. Growing up in New York in the 1970s and 1980s, I had always cultivated an air of “fuck-you” while walking down the street, but karate modulated that into a relaxed confidence.

It also cultivated an ability to observe my surroundings that was even greater than it had been before karate. This proved useful on one particular occasion.

People are always asking me, “do you ever use your karate outside the dojo?” What they actually mean by that, of course, is “have you ever been in a fight?” I’m relieved to say that I haven’t been. The real answer to the actual question is, “all the time,” because my sense of self-awareness is much greater since I started training.

However, when asked that, I generally respond with one anecdote, which nicely illustrates my heightened observational capacity. From late 2011 to early 2013, I worked a part-time (two days a week) job at a high school library to help pay the bills. One day, I could tell that a fight was brewing between a junior and a senior following several verbal arguments between that junior and a different senior. I was able to read what was happening well enough to put myself between them right when the fight was about to start and push them apart before a punch could land.

The biggest change, though, was discovering teaching.

I’d dabbled in teaching over the years, a week-long substitute teaching gig here, a writers workshop there. After I achieved my black belt in 2009, I started helping Shuseki with classes. We have a very robust kids program, and some of the black belts in the dojo will donate their time to help out with teaching. I started doing that, and eventually I was asked to fill in for Shuseki when he went on vacation.

And I absolutely love it.

There is a rush, a thrill when teaching people that I had never realized was there. Conveying something to someone and watching them learn from it is a tremendous experience, and one that has not dimmed over the past nine years. Which is good, as at this point I’m teaching four classes a week to kids—three are part of an afterschool program we’re doing in concert with local schools here in New York, the fourth being the weekly kids fighting class at our dojo. Teaching has made me a better student, too, as working with other people (kids and adults both, as I sometimes teach adult classes as a fill-in) also helps me to learn more about the material. It never ceases to amaze me, the things I’ve learned even about the beginner stuff years later just by teaching it.

It helps that people seem to respond to my teaching. A lot of the parents and kids in the dojo enjoy my classes, and the afterschool program has been going strong for four years now.

The person I was at 35 was out of shape and not at all comfortable in a body that was aging way too fast. The person I am at almost 49 is a happier person, completely comfortable in a body that is in better shape than it was in fifteen years ago (although my knees are still horrible, heavy sigh), and I’ve found a new vocation that I never expected and which brings me great joy.

Hilariously, it hasn’t helped me as much in my writing as you might think. In fact, initially it hurt my writing. Action scenes have always been a big part of my fiction, as my bibliography is filled with stories that star superheroes, cops, and Klingons. But after I started training, I got a terrible case of new-toy-itis, as I knew so much more about the specifics of how combat works, and I had to share it with everyone in excruciating detail!!!! This made my fight scenes incredibly boring until I got it under control…

Overall, though, training in the martial arts has brought about changes I did not expect, all for the better. I’m happier, I’m healthier, and I can lift heavy things, a skill many of my friends and family are more than happy to take advantage of…

Keith R.A. DeCandido is the author of more than 50 novels, more than 75 short stories, and more comic books and bits of nonfiction than he can possibly count. His most recent novels are the Marvel’s Tales of Asgard trilogy featuring Thor, Sif, and the Warriors Three. Out this year will be A Furnace Sealed, the first in his urban fantasy series about a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx who hunts monsters, and Mermaid Precinct, the latest in his fantasy/police procedural hybrid series. He has been writing about pop culture for Tor.com since 2011, covering Star Trek, Stargate, Doctor Who, Wonder Woman, Batman, Marvel’s Netflix series, and more. His “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch” appears every Friday on this site, an exhaustive look at every live-action film based on a comic book superhero. He also is creating nifty stuff on Patreon, including vignettes, reviews, excerpts from works in progress, cat pictures, and more.

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