Writing Advice From The Sword: What Fencing Can Teach Writers

unpacking sabersWhat’s a writer to do when winter just goes on and on and it’s March and there’s still snow on the ground and minus temperatures? Take up fencing.

As a movement artist-educator I’ve always believed that changing and challenging your usual ways of moving is an effective and pleasurable way to energize yourself and boost your creative thinking.

Fencing is certainly making my brain sizzle. And there’s the bonus of getting writing advice too!

1. Don Protective Gear

Protect your writing time from disruptions. Ignore the telephone, better still, turn it off. Disable your internet connection.

2. Hold Your Sword Lightly

Gripping it tightly, as I do, turns your wrist and arm into a solid block so it’s impossible to move fast.

Same with your pen or pencil or keyboard – don’t grip, keep your fingers relaxed or you’ll find your shoulders and neck all scrunched up too. A tense tight body means a tense tight brain – and then it’s next to impossible to find your flow.

Check your nose is not on your writing pad or pressed almost against your screen. Sit right on your sitz-bones, drop your shoulders down and lean slightly back from 90 degrees. Is your jaw relaxed?

3. En garde. Êtes vous prêts?

The fencing bout begins with a ritual, a courteous gesture to umpire, opponent and admiring fans.three sabers

What’s your ritual for starting your writing time?

The late Mavis Gallant said she always read poetry to transition from the morning newspaper to her writing.

I like to mess with words. I pick them at random from a newspaper, dictionary, instruction manual and use them to play with rhyme, alliteration, etc., or I do a free write. Or I create a found sentence/poem from words/phrases circled (in sequence but not necessarily from the same article) from magazines or newspapers. I also read the Poem-A-Day that arrives in my in box every morning. I read it both forwards and backwards! The danger is getting so involved with your warm-up ritual that you don’t get around to working on your project!

4. Focus

The hour class feels like a few minutes. Fencing involves complex moves, upper and lower body co-ordination, lightning fast reactions. You have to focus.

Three possible ways to find focus and be in the moment when writing:

  1. write/type fast, faster than you can think;
  2. pick a scene or character detail and work with it, describing it in minute detail, especially using the senses;
  3. imagine yourself in your character’s body. You/your character starts moving…eyes, one shoulder, a hand, a leg… Write all the sensations, thoughts, actions you/your character experiences.

“Nothing so clearly and inevitably reveals the inner man than movement and gesture. It is quite possible, if one chooses, to conceal and dissimulate behind words or paintings or statues or other forms of human expression, but the moment you move you stand revealed, for good or ill, for what you are.” Doris Humphrey

5. Act…and React

If you are coming at me with your sabre, I can’t just stand there and gawp at you. Well, I actually do sometimes, when my reflexes get stuck, but I should react – and fast! (In the first lesson I couldn’t help ducking and dodging but that’s an absolute no-no.) I need to block you. Once I’ve blocked you, I should lunge and get my point (that’s the theory anyway).

Same with writing."Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays" by David Ball

David Ball explains in “Backwards and Forwards” that action is in fact two happenings, “one leading to the other”: “If I (1) walk into your room shouting that the building is on fire and you (2) flee for your life, that is action. If you (1) flee for your life leaving me free to (2) steal your stamp collection, that is another action.” Do you create series of action-reaction in your stories?

6. Slow Down To Speed Up

I try to anticipate what my opponent is going to do. This means I’m too jittery so when he finally makes his move, I’m caught off guard.  My instructor, Thierry Bourbonnais of Club d’Escrime les Spartiates, told me to slow down, relax, watch and wait for the other to move, and only then make my move.

If you try to anticipate what is going to happen in your story, you may find yourself going up some blind alleys or skipping over important details which means sooner or later you’ll find yourself in a cul-de-sac and have to go back to winkle out the details. Stay in the moment in your story.

7. Part Buddies

When the bout is finished, fencing etiquette requires that you shake hands with your non-combatant hand.

Leave your story or draft in friendly mode. Let it go. Don’t bear a grudge if your writing hasn’t gone well that session. Stay loose and ideas and images may well come to you anyway as you make supper, walk the dog, do the shopping, have your hair done, play pool, workout. Writing is not a battle, it’s play. So play.


4 thoughts on “Writing Advice From The Sword: What Fencing Can Teach Writers

  1. Thank you Susi, this article came at the right time for me. I am starting to write my blog. It is the getting started that I have trouble with. Following your suggestions will help! Thank you for signing up for my Newsletter!


    • Hi Daryl, I think you’re off to a great start with your blog with your focus on exploring nature. And you’ve so much experience! I’m really looking forward to reading about all your stories and wildlife sightings. Susi


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