The Mighty Pen

martial arts notebookI want to engage you in an activity more often associated with prom nights, small losable keys, and annoying younger brothers—that’s right, keeping a diary. Whether it’s called a journal, a notebook, a workbook or the alluded to diary, it’s all the same.

Any martial artist can benefit from this, but for advanced martial artists especially, a notebook can be a real life/time/brain saver. I recently discussed with a colleague of mine the philosophical, athletic, and martial ups and downs of keeping, feeding, and grooming the true notebook. Though continually training, dutifully applying herself, ceaselessly refining every nuance and detail, I wanted her to obtain the advantages of recording her superior efforts in a medium other than physical.

Her immediate objection was, “But what if I record it imperfectly? Or maybe I’ve just had a bad day.” I told her that one of the important missions in keeping a notebook is to also record the failures and flops; this is where the noisy, irritating, spine straightening and unforgettable problems are always hidden, like low tables in a dark room, just waiting for one of your shins.

So a notebook (NB) shouldn’t record only your supreme triumphs, nor your grand failures; recording even the smallest sticky problems can bring eventual enlightenment or, at the very least, gradual progress.

Below are a few bona fide types of content you can scribble down in your book.

Good ideas belong here, obviously. Treat your own ideas with some respect; give a home to those lightbulb insights and unexpected wrinkles. And don’t assume everything in martial arts has been said before. As an author of hundreds of articles on the subject I can guarantee that there will always be unique ideas to record, crucial details to reconsider. Even small thoughts can be turned into useful practice.

I hardly know an advanced martial player who doesn’t harbor at least one paradoxical, nonsensical, worrisome and private idea they’ve been nursing like a screaming cat for a long time—petty, annoying and significant all at once. Your notebook allows you to track these persistent naggings without having to immediately resolve them. Amazingly, many deep concerns get answered through some mysterious logic of the cosmos; present thoughts which bug you now may be unlocked when attacked from a different angle or time.

Without a doubt one of the most rewarding and charming moments occurs when you illustrate your viable idea with a sketch; it can depict a water-dummy made out of used Aquafina bottles, or a new patch for your school. No artistic training is needed for plant holders to become spear targets, ax handles to become an opponent’s arms. What? no plans to build a perpetual motion machine? A notebook lets your mind go anywhere.

The NB is your other side of the coin; it is you talking to you. You are not responsible to solve every martial task that comes your way, but it is a unique opportunity to host ideas big and small, while always being honest with yourself. It gives you an unprecedented ability to tinker with a practice that shapes you, to reevaluate yourself privately, to situate yourself within your martial community.

Your notebook need not be well-managed—you’re not being graded on this. Training can be chaotic and messy, rarely a straight arrow that hits the target the first time out. Keeping the organization loose—an idea for gaining an inch of speed followed by a stick-figured sketch and description of turning the backyard laundry pole into a skinny opponent—will actually delight you when you return to the book for inspiration.

And don’t forget those drawings! It doesn’t matter if your figure in a horse stance looks like a folding chair, or your extended punch looks like a runaway balloon. After more than 50 years of keeping my own martial notebooks, I assure you that those visuals continue to fire my imagination as much as—and sometimes even more than—my inscribed words.

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