Miyamoto Musashi on the back of a whale


It is said the warrior’s is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways. Even if a man has no natural ability he can be a warrior by sticking assiduously to both divisions of the Way. Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.–Miyamoto Musashi

In my mind, I am writing the story of a fight.

I am sitting at a desk, on a bed, at a table–anywhere I can fit myself and a laptop in between tutoring sessions and my children’s doctor appointments, between one demand and the next.  Sometimes I pound the keys with an enthusiastic force for which I’ve been made fun of, the words flowing swift and sure, my fingers beating them out hard because if I don’t, if I do not capture these particular words now, they will never return.  Sometimes I falter, stumble, go back and stare at the screen, and the words come out wrong, or worse, they don’t come at all.  But sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, under my fingers a story is taking shape.  I am standing on the edge of the void, teasing up the raw materials of language (which is the stuff of creation), and I am weaving them into a story.  It is the story of a girl, and she is fighting for her life.

I know her story, because it is my story too.  I was never in the same kind of danger, but I know that there were moments when I could have been lost.  I know, too, that there are things that saved me–a book, a teacher, a friend.  What saves her will be different from what saved me, but in the end, it is our own strength that matters most, the swords and pens in our hearts and minds.  She will fight her battle eternally within the pages of a book, and I will fight mine with each new day, each new page, each new story demanding to be told.

In my mind, I am writing the story of a fight.

I am standing in a college gym, a wooden waster in my hands.  I am taking Exercise Science 186–Medieval Swordsmanship, and my inner ten-year-old is frantic with joy.  The instructor, who also teaches anatomy, shows us how to defend and attack, pointing out the devastating effect of each blow on muscle, tendon and artery.  There is a girl in front of me, and she has a sword, too.  We are watching each other, waiting for the command to begin.  She advances, throws an attack in slow motion.  She repeats the movement several times as I watch, plotting my response in my mind.  When I’m ready, I counter.  We rehearse the exchange, and then she adds her response.  Sometimes the best move comes naturally, and one guard blends seamlessly into another.  Sometimes I get my feet tangled up and she throws her weight in the wrong direction, but when we are finished, we look at each other and grin, because we are mighty.

It is a dance that we choreograph together, the slow practice-waltz of combat.  This is thought-sparring, a way to take what we’ve learned and put it safely into practice, to move from drilling to thinking about the realities and the rhythms of a fight.  It is a way to write the story of a fight, to play with possibilities and consequences, and it serves essentially the same purpose as a rough draft–it is a place to begin, a safe place to experiment and learn, to come face to face with our own mortality and walk away unharmed.

In my mind, I am writing the story of a fight.  It is not a battle between pen and sword, because neither is mightier and this is a false dichotomy.  I am sitting on a bed with a laptop that is neither more or less mighty than any other inanimate object, a once-stray little dog napping nearby.  She has fought her battles against starvation, neglect, cancer, and now she’s snoring gently.  At my screen, I battle on, translating thought to the action of my fingers on the keys, rehearsing my own humanity.

3 thoughts on “Thought-Sparring

  1. Wonderful post, Brenna. I really like the analogy between writing a rough draft and thought-sparring. Words (cuts, thrusts guards) become sentences (partner dills, understanding initiative, sensing the pressure on a blade) which in turn become a narrative (sparring). Rough drafts, like though-sparring, serve as a bridge between the mechanics and concepts and the story we are trying to tell. They give us a chance to experiment, try new things, toss out what doesn’t work and find brilliant insights. I’m really, really glad you’re enjoying the class so much and really, really glad you were able to join us this semester.


    1. Thanks, Gavin! I think the swordmaster has just made my point more effectively and in fewer words…..I love the words/sentences/narrative analogy. I will now attempt to be atypically concise and summarize my experience in three words: BEST. CLASS. EVER.

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