It Began with Knives: Imagining the Real (and Knowing What You Write)

A few years ago, in a writing group, someone asked me where my imagination came from. I was surprised to hear that question from a fellow writer. I was also a little embarrassed. I’d just assumed that all writers needed an imagination. I mean, they do, right? Sure, everyone else was writing literary fiction, and I was writing SFF (an early draft of Enemy, as it happens), but everyone was imagining something.

In that heartbeat before I answered, I tried to figure out what she was really asking, what it was about the quality of my imagining that had prompted the question. I’d turned in a fight scene for that day’s workshop. Maybe that was the problem. I heard, unspoken, that advice about writing what you know.

But I answered the question she had asked with the honest-to-ancestors truth: “I don’t know. I guess I’m not too fond of this world’s reality. I like the ones in my head better.”

What I should have said was: It began with knives.

Okay, really it began with a boyfriend becoming an ex-boyfriend over the course of a screaming meltdown (his, not mine). As he was smashing an unfortunate chair, I remember eyeing the distance to the door, and the distance between us, and thinking that if he came at me, I wouldn’t make it that far. I remember thinking don’t run. I remember holding very, very still.

I was scared, yes. But I was also angry.

I was, by this point, already a storyteller. The writing had come to a grinding halt (grad school, destroyer of prose), but I was role-playing a lot, creating characters and stories and worlds.

And in none of those games, not one, did I imagine my character going through what I just had. I tended to make tanks: physically powerful and capable fighters, target of monsters. It’s totally a power fantasy, but it’s the power fantasy of control.

Well. I’d just gone eye-to-eye with a very human monster, and I’d frozen entirely. There’s having a fantasy, and then there’s being a fraud. At that moment, soaked in adrenaline, shaking, aware of how lucky I’d been — I decided I’d better bloody well become the tank for real.

One of my friends, former roommate and resident badass, was a longtime martial artist who’d trained in ninjitsu in Hong Kong and was taking classes in more traditional forms of Japanese sword-work at the time. Teach me, I said. Teach me to fight. I don’t want to feel like that ever again.

So he did, and we began with knives.

Knives are small, they’re light, they’re less dependent on strength than on speed and placement. And, as Rich pointed out: they’re meant for close-quarters. That apartment, with its narrow hallways, wasn’t meant for swords. Most places wouldn’t be.

There’s a beauty to knife-fighting, but there’s an ugliness, too.

A rapid violence that, if it works, leaves someone dead or crippled. I remember Rich’s voice, his hands on my wrist, showing me where to strike, how to draw the blade to do the most damage. I remember when he told me that there’d be suction, when a knife comes out of a body. That I’d have to pull a little harder. That if I caught bone, it’d stick. I remember him showing me how to block and explaining that yes, I’d get hurt, too, if I ever got into a fight.

But you’d rather take that strike here, on the meat, than here, where it could hit tendons.

I calculated damage, for the first time, not as numbers on a character sheet, but in terms of real flesh and bone. I marked it in bruises — rubber knives, foam knives, even they leave their marks.

I was appalled. I was also grimly fascinated. So this is what it’d be like (I imagined). When I cut my finger in the kitchen, I’d mark that pain and think how much worse it’d be, how much more blood, if I’d been cutting a person instead of a carrot. If I’d been the carrot.

But I, the role-player, the storyteller, wanted more than knives. I wanted swords. So Rich granted my wish. He began to teach me swordfighting: two-handed, Japanese style, no shields or armor. We trained with shinai and bokken. Shinai for speed, because they’re light. The bokken has a blade-side, it has weight. It was also there for slower sparring, where blade-placement mattered. It wasn’t a matter of cutting imaginary tendons, now, or even arteries. It was cutting imaginary heads, arms, legs. It was severing things. It was keeping someone else from doing that to you.

Take the beauty of knives, and multiply it. Take the scariness, and square it, then square it again.

Like knife-fighting, the sword is not a matter of strength. It’s a matter of not being there when the blow lands, or deflecting it down the length of your own blade. It’s a footwork and angles and stamina, so much stamina. Rich tailored a set of lessons for me from his own training, a mix of bladework and empty-hand techniques.

Sometimes it was pretty traditional: stand here, then step and swing thus, repeat! until the muscles remembered, until the wrists knew how to angle the blade. Sometimes it was all footwork, or hitting the heavy-bag: Rich braced, saying again, get your hips square, that’s it, again. Sometimes it was empty-hand, elbows and knees, balance. Sometimes it was giving up balance deliberately.

Dive. Roll over your shoulder, like this. -Oh god. -C’mon. Trust me.

I did trust him. And eventually he taught me to trust myself. My reflexes, my judgment, my own strength. Until finally, when we sparred — when I ran across the apartment’s common green, leaping the stream, dodging around trees — I didn’t stumble or trip or drop my sword. I fought back, and it worked. Oh, it wasn’t pretty, and I wasn’t good. But I had achieved a measure of competence, and with it, confidence. I was pretty sure I’d lose a real fight. But at least I’d be able to fight back.

This isn’t the part where I say, And so I became the tank in real life, and I was never afraid again. That’s a rainbow-unicorn fantasy, of the flat-out-lie variety. I prefer my fantasy dark, bordering on the grim.

No, this is the part where I say — and so began my collecting of skills my characters would use, or need, insofar as I am able. (I cannot, to my chagrin, summon a witchfire.) This is the part where I answer that unspoken question from that long ago workshop and say I do write what I know: that a world in which knives and swords are a primary means of settling disputes will be a violent, bloody place. Both more beautiful and a little uglier, more rapid and violent and scary, than this one.

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