The Writer’s Dojo Concept: Shu-Ha-Ri

It’s not unusual for martial artists to talk solemnly about “the Way” and how the life lessons that have been created through training spill over into the rest of our lives.  These lessons are important ones yet, at the end of the day, they are not unexpected ones. Even the most elemental list, while unobjectionable, is also not terribly inspiring: things worth doing are worth doing well; the most rewarding things in life are often ones that require time and effort and delayed gratification; you can always do better; and no matter what your level of accomplishment, you should always stay humble.

Good lessons. Important lessons. But so global in scope that it’s hard to see how exactly the application of them works. So I’d like to explore a concrete example from my own life where the lessons and approaches I’ve gleaned from my lackluster martial arts history have helped me in an unexpected area of my life.


I do martial arts. I’ve been doing them for more than thirty years (as the various uniforms, colored belts, pads, armor and archaic weapons scattered around my house suggest). And I also write.  At first it was the purely academic prose that my professional life as an academic entailed. But over the last decade or so, I’ve been writing fiction. And as I embarked on that new and different (and terribly fun) adventure, I’ve had to learn some things. I’ve had to practice. I’ve looked for writers to inspire me. I’ve had to get used to criticism from readers and rejections from more agents and publishers than I care to remember.  I’ve had to think about what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it, and why.

So: hope, effort, practice, discomfort, humiliation. It was, perhaps, inevitable that the process I would adopt as a writer seemed to have many parallels to my life in the dojo.

The most compact way to illustrate this is through the training adage common to traditional Japanese martial arts: shu-ha-ri. It’s a shorthand phrase designed to describe the phases of mastery.

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