Black Belt or Novel?

by Margaret McNellis


“Don’t hurt me!”

That’s typically the first response I get when people find out I have a third-degree black belt.

“Do you have to register your hands as a lethal weapon?”

That’s usually the other question someone asks. In case you’re wondering, I don’t go around hurting people and it’s a myth that martial artists have to register their hands as weapons. I’m pretty sure a police department would just laugh at me if I called up asking to register my hands. The other response I commonly get is wide eyes and dropped jaws. This, I think, is based on the fact that not many people get black belts.

Can I let you in on a secret? Black belts aren’t so elusive. If you put in enough time and practice, and you want something enough, then you too can have a black belt. In that way, the martial arts is a lot like creative writing.

I wrote my first novel in 2008. I’d been studying with the Long Ridge Writers Group, which offered one-on-one mentorship for both fiction and nonfiction study. All of my original stories (I used to write a decent amount of fan fiction) hovered around the one-thousand-word mark, and I didn’t think I had it in me to tell a longer story—at least not until another Long Ridge student told me about National Novel Writing Month. I signed up, and thirty days later, I had a 50,000-word fantasy story about disillusionment with organized religion.

I’d like to take a moment to emphasize that writing at that pace didn’t produce anything publishable. I don’t want to give the impression that pumping out a book that fast is really all it takes, because it takes so much more.

I kept participating in NaNoWriMo, and even served as the municipal liaison for my region for four years, but in 2014, I wanted something more. I enrolled in SNHU’s MA – English & Creative Writing program with a specialization in fiction. More than any workshop, that program started to teach me how to write well. It was, for me, the equivalent of getting my green belt.

I earned my green belt after a three-hour test next to a marshland that produced a never-ending supply of biting green flies. I survived the test—and the pests—and beamed at my instructor-friend when he told me getting my green belt meant I was a serious martial artist (green belt was considered the first of the advanced ranks at my dojo). Earning my MA in 2015 felt the same, but I craved more.

Now, as a second-semester student in SNHU’s Mountainview MFA program, I feel like I’m approaching black belt again, except instead of a six-hour test of physical strength, knowledge, reflexes, and the ability to resist mind games, I’ll be submitting my thesis, a historical novel set in the seventeenth century, in just over one year.

On those days when I find it hard to write, when the blinking cursor mocks me, or when I feel like the ending of my story is completely predictable and therefore foolish, I think back to all of the martial arts tests I’ve taken and I write. One word after the other, just like one kick after the other until I’ve reached one thousand kicks, one thousand words, then another thousand, then ten thousand, until I have chapters upon chapters and a finally a novel.

If you put in the time and practice, and want it enough, then you too can write a novel. And you can make a good one, one that says something about what it means to be human, one that makes readers question their world…but it won’t come easy. It won’t be like getting your white belt when you sign up for martial arts lessons. It’s going to take a sacrifice, it’s going to take something from you, and you have to be okay with giving into the process.

Perhaps the best part about telling someone I’ve written a novel is that they don’t cringe or ask me if I’ve had to register my LAMY fountain pen with some government agency. I’m kidding—the best part is knowing I’ve breathed life into characters, into a world, into art, into something that will hopefully leave a positive mark on the world someday.