Get Back on the Mat
So, there I was. A 33-year-old man. Collapsed in a heap on the ground. Crying into my black belt’s shoulder. Feeling as great about myself as an old toy feels on Christmas Day.
I guess you’re probably wondering how I got to this point, huh?
Let me back up …
I’ve been writing articles for Pipeline Artists for several years now. And in some of those articles, I’ve talked about my love for a sport called Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
It’s a grappling martial art; one that involves twisting your opponent into a pretzel until he calls uncle and quits. And it is, unequivocally, the most fun I’ve ever had while exercising.
Or so I thought.
I’ve been training seriously for maybe 18 months now, and I’d finally decided to sign up for my first BJJ tournament. I initially was hesitant to do so, but a series of conversations with some of my coaches ultimately changed my mind.
For the first time, I was going to try and make a real, live human tap out (my nice-as-can-be training partners not included, obviously).
Sound scary? Yeah, that’s what my black belts told me, too. They said to embrace the nerves. To relish in the high of adrenaline that only comes from roller coasters and fisticuffs.
But truth be told? I wasn’t scared, frightened, or even nervous. Though maybe I should have been. In my mind, I’d been preparing for this moment for over a year and a half. I’d been training five times a week. Made significant progress in my technique. I’d been praised by colored belts (aka—people higher up on the food chain than I) that my “game” had shown massive improvement.
I felt ready.
The day of the event, I did everything the sports psychology books said to do. I spent hours visualizing success. I wrote down a list of every jiu jitsu submission technique I knew. I listened to happy, upbeat music in order to not psych myself up too much. And then, a few hours later, I stepped onto the mat.
And I got my ass absolutely handed to me.
I’m not even kidding. Freaking murder happened on those mats, and I was the victim.
It was like the first scene in a boxing film, where the protagonist has no clue what he’s doing and gets the snot beat out of him so bad he can’t breathe. Or when the nerdy kid tries out for football practice and gets carted off in a stretcher.
I was a fucking chew toy thrown into a pack of rabid dogs. I got torn completely to shreds.
And I felt fucking Tony the Tiger “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat!” about myself afterwards. (That's sarcasm, if you can't tell.) No joke, the sting of this defeat lasted for days … maybe even a week … afterwards.
What really got to me wasn’t that I lost my fights. It wasn’t the physical injuries I sustained. And it wasn’t even that all my coaches, friends, teammates, and even my goddamn Mom and Dad had to sit there and watch it.
It was my ego that got bruised that day. I felt like an utter fool for being overconfident. For not knowing exactly what I was walking into.
The reality check hit harder than any takedown, arm bar, scissor sweep, or triangle choke ever could. That’s what really sucked …
“Wow, cool story Spike,” you say, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for telling me all about a time you totally humiliated yourself in front of everyone you know. Except …” You pause, trying to find the polite way to say what’s on your mind, “I’m a writer. I’m 5’ 5” on a good day, and weigh 100lbs soaking wet. I’d never EVER get in a fight for fun …”
“What the hell does your story have to do with me??”
Really? You seriously don’t see the connection? Huh … OK. Let me shift some things around here in order to paint a better picture.
There I was. A 33-year-old man (or woman, I dunno). Collapsed in a heap on the ground. Crying into my mother’s shoulder.
All because I couldn’t get past the first round of a writing contest. Or because my script received mediocre coverage. Or because [insert your latest writing set back here].
I don’t understand what happened. I’ve been writing seriously for maybe 18 months now. I initially was hesitant to submit, but a series of conversations with friends who liked my script convinced me it was time.
Everyone told me not to be nervous, but honestly, I wasn’t. I’d been writing five times a week. Gone through several pain-staking rewrites. I made significant progress in my understanding of story structure and emotional resonance. I’d been praised by others in my writing group (aka—people with better scripts than me) that my story had shown massive improvement.
I felt ready.
The day the results were announced, I did everything the screenwriting articles told me to do. I visualized success. I prepared my winner’s speech. I made a wishlist of all the managers/agents I was going to query with my hot new spec.
And then I learned that I didn’t even make it out of the first round.
And I was crushed.
It was like the first scene in any high school romance, where the protagonist learns that the boy of her dreams isn’t taking her to the prom. Or when the lead in a classic rom com gets dumped by the love of their life.
And I felt fucking Tony the Tiger “Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat!” about myself afterwards. (Again, sarcasm.) No joke, I beat myself up for days … maybe even a week.
Am I making sense to you now, or do I need to go through this again?
Listen, I’ll be the first person to tell you that fighting and writing are entirely different skillsets. However, they aren’t entirely dissimilar either. The two share more in common than you might initially think.
For one, they’re incredibly challenging (like, unbelievably so). Second, each requires an endless amount of creativity. On top of total dedication and study. And they also need you to make someone else believe a story you’re telling (example—I need my opponent to think I’m going for an armbar, when I actually want the triangle).
But more than anything, both fields are incredibly scary. More than someone who has never tried them would ever think.
It’s scary to walk on the mat for the first time against an opponent taller and larger than you. And it’s scary to show people a story you’ve been obsessed with for weeks, months, and years on end.
Both instances leave you incredibly vulnerable—one, to physical pain, and the other, to embarrassment and mental anguish.
Do it anyway.
Though, maybe you’re like me. Where the “stepping on the mat” part (aka—submitting to the contest) wasn’t scary.
Maybe the scariest part of all is having to walk back into the gym after suffering overwhelming defeat. Perhaps the most nauseating feeling is having to face your friends and teammates and tell them that you got completely destroyed during your fights.
Maybe the scariest part of all is having to open up that laptop again. Perhaps the most nauseating feeling is having to tell your Mom and Dad that your script wasn’t selected as a finalist. That you still need to live in their basement. That you won’t be moving out to the City of Angels anytime soon.
Go to the gym anyway.
Open the laptop anyway.
Step back on the mat anyway.
Open that Final Draft file anyway.
Cause guess what? Your jits doesn’t get better by NOT practicing it.
Your writing doesn’t get stronger by NOT writing more.
Your side control doesn’t magically improve by NOT drilling it.
And your scenes don’t suddenly get smoother by NOT rewriting them.
You never advance a position you don’t work on.
And characters who don’t change over time never become more realistic.
Listen, the failures we experience in life can do one of two things: they can tear you down. Cripple you. And hold you in place until you’re 80-fucking-years-old on your deathbed, filled with regrets and sorrows about a life you COULD have lived.
Or you can shake off the failures, and use them as stepping stones to get where you want to be.
So, to all you writers out there reading this … those of you who haven’t advanced in that writing contest of your dreams. Or who have yet to get a call back from a manager on a query. Who have yet to see their names up in lights on the big screen.
Take that pain and put it on the goddamn motherfucking page.
Write longer. More often. More intensely and more focused than ever before. DON’T be that person who quits when the going gets hard. Be the person who dusts themself off, analyzes the mistakes they made, and tries again anyway.
Even if the cost of doing so might be more pain. More rage. And more vulnerability.
And don’t worry … I’ll be right there alongside you. Except I won’t be putting my pain on the page.
I’ll be carrying my pain with me, the next time I step into the cage.
And believe me. There’s 100% going to be a next time.
Godspeed y’all, and happy writing.
*Feature photo by Artem Podrez (Pexels)