Defeat Litter!

on writing as a martial art (wait, that's just ridiculous)

Quick Reminder: if you like beer and shrimp, Crescent Rotary’s annual fundraiser is tomorrow, October 1st.

Less Quick Pre-minder (Is that a word? It is now.):

The next day, Sunday the 3rd, at 10am, we’ll be meeting in the RockBox parking lot off Markland & Battleground Ave to do a litter clean-up along the adjoining section of the Greenway, which is flat and paved, making it a lot easier to negotiate for people with mobility issues than the eroding banks of a creek.

The next Saturday, the 9th, from 10am-2pm, I’ll be out at the King’s Forest Park in east Greensboro, 1501 Larchmont Drive (check your favorite GPS-enabled gadget), with other Crescent Rotarians, pulling trash out of the stream and its surrounding woods.


I’m in the middle of a rush, not writing so much as submitting. I had a goal of 50 for the year (an average of one a week, a modest increase over last year’s total of 34), and up until my summer teaching season I was ahead of the curve. Now I’m behind, but almost caught up after two intense afternoons of work. Tracking this stuff literally gives me a headache, and it would be so much worse if not for The Submission Grinder, which is a superb free tool specific to the genre fiction industry (crime, mystery, speculative fiction, etc). It’s a database that cross-references your own work with the magazines that might buy it (and how much they might pay for it!), so you don’t, for instance, send the same piece to the same magazine multiple times, which is undoubtedly something I would otherwise do.

I haven’t taken a writing class since undergrad. Most of my workshop experience was in writing grant applications or academic papers, which focus on clarity, completeness, and not offending anonymous reviewers over all other considerations. Sometimes I go to informal panel discussions with authors at conventions or listen to BookTV on C-SPAN, or read author interviews. Mostly I’ve avoided the ever-growing industry of advice-givers and workshops.

Two exceptions

John McNally is a literary writer who lived near here in Winston-Salem and taught at Wake Forest for a decade. I’ve never met him, or even read any of his fiction (though this looks interesting), but his nonfiction writing guide, The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding, I found useful. It spoke to me. This is from an interview:

I don’t look at success in any kind of professional sense—book contracts, film options, sales, etc. Those things are out of my control, and I don’t think it’s a healthy way to spend your time since you would be tying your fate to the whims of people you’ve never met. In my book, I talk a lot about tapping into your unconscious mind when you write, and how when you do that you’re drawing from a pool of material that will likely surprise you, mystify you, confuse you, and confound you.

George Saunders is a more celebrated literary writer, I guess. I’ve read at least a couple of his short stories, and got a couple of chapters into Lincoln in the Bardo. His latest book, however, is based on a Russian short story course he’s been teaching at Syracuse for about twenty years. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain holds seven short stories by 19th-century Russians, alternating with essays and exercises. I’m two-sevenths of the way in, and it is so far the most detailed nuts-and-bolts description of constructing stories that I’ve ever read. Maybe that’s because Saunders used to be an engineer; I don’t know.

Saunders also emphasizes the unconscious mind, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. In the second part of the book he’s examining “The Singers” by Ivan Turgenev, a story that drives his students crazy because it’s so much the opposite of the Hollywood show, don’t tell tradition.

“The Singers” is a story of an ancient variety, in which A and B meet in a contest of skills and one of them wins. (Think: The Illiad or The Karate Kid or Rocky, or any movie with a gunfight in it.)

What gives this type of story its meaning? If we just say it that way (“A and B meet in a contest of skills”), why do we care who wins? We don’t. We can’t. A is equal to B is equal to A is equal to B. Nothing is at stake if the contestants are identical.

I want to apply a bit of that analysis to a movie I watched on Netflix yesterday afternoon. IMDB says it was more or less panned (which would explain why I never heard of it until 5 years later), but I really enjoyed it.

Birth of the Dragon

Like “The Singers,” this 2016 martial arts film is a story about two men having a contest. One of them, Bruce Lee, is like the contractor from Zhizhdra — all about the technical flash. The other, a Shaolin monk from China named Wong Jack Man, is more concerned with his internal emotional state and the effects of his actions on others — with the purity of his soul, like Yashka the Turk from the story. So the battle is in one sense a battle over philosophy, one that mirrors the ongoing debate over guns in the US. Who should have access to deadly force? Should we restrict access to those who have proven themselves worthy? How do we judge worthiness? And who gets to do that judging?

A 95-minute documentary might just go with examining those philosophical questions (and stick to the actual historical facts of the incident). A 95-minute Hollywood film has to complicate things with “character development.” This very young Bruce Lee is a strutting peacock, handsome and charismatic but ambitious and arrogant to the point that even his own students don’t always like him. The movie’s Wong Jack Man is more like the fictional Kwai Chang Caine from the show Kung Fu (played by David Carradine, who was no more Asian than “Iron Eyes Cody” from the litter ads that affected me so much as a small child was Native American) than the real historical figure — exiled from the temple for using his powers in a way the elders found destructive. And then there’s Steve McKee, the American dumbass, a blue-eyed Indiana boy on a motorcycle, who studies with both men and in turn inspires them to fight for true love (and justice for the innocent!).

It’s not a simple case of one man (or one philosophy) cleanly defeating the other. Events conspire to complicate the contest in ways that are catty-corner to the character development, and another quote from the John McNally interview above:

“My hope is to complicate the meanings of the terms failure and success,” and elsewhere, “In one light, the story of my life has been the story of failure, but if that light shifts ever so slightly, the story of my life becomes a story of success.”

It was way more satisfying (to me, at least) than anything I’ve read about Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, though the latter has already made a ton more money.

Kiss of the Dragon

(why can’t it be a horse? horses have lips)

As a bonus, one of my other favorite not-quite standard martial arts movies is Jet Li and Bridget Fonda in 2001’s Kiss of the Dragon. Jet Li plays a bad-ass cop who, like the love interest in BotD, also happens to be an acupuncturist. Bridget Fonda plays a prostitute.