“Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.” — Marvin Bell
The American poet Marvin Bell has a tremendous body of work that spans traditional, experimental and radical forms. His work is passionate, intricate and thoughtful — and as you’d expect, this makes him worth listening to when he talks about creating art.
There are points of commonality between the literary arts and the martial ones. I’ve been thinking about writing more lately, so I returned to some Marvin Bell texts the other day.
What does this have to do with training? I was struck by how many of Marvin Bell’s 32 Statements About Poetry sound, with minimal editing, like he could be talking about jiu-jitsu.
Below, I’ve taken many of the 32 statements and lightly edited them. I removed the ones that are just about the process of writing poetry. But I kept the majority of the statements, replacing “poetry” with “jiu-jitsu” and “writing” with “training,” for example. To me, there are significant insights that cross over. This might say something about the practice of each art, or it might simply speak well of Bell’s observations about life.
If you’re interested in poetry, check out the original 32 statements (and, while you’re at it, The Book of the Dead Man). If you’re just here for the jiu-jitsu, read on for some advice from a different type of artist.
1. Every jiu-jitsu practitioner is an experimentalist.
Jiu-jitsu is like science: we experiment with techniques. If the techniques work against a resisting opponent, we keep using and refining them. If not, they’re changed or discarded. And each of us has different physical attributes: for a time, I experimented with the body triangle. Upon my scientific discovery that I had stubby legs ill-suited for the task, I moved on. Training means trying things and finding what works for you.
2. Learning jiu-jitsu is a simple process: learn something, then train it; learn something else, then train something else. And show in your training what you have learned.
Jiu-jitsu is a deep, rich, complex art: jiu-jitsu is hard. In contrast, learning jiu-jitsu is easy. You find a great instructor, show up and do what they say. Drill the older stuff regularly, and be open when they show you something new.
3. There is no one way to train and no right way to train.
One of the instructors I respect most is old school, but also open-minded. After he watched a Caio Terra DVD, he remarked about how odd it was that Caio teaches techniques in a radically different way than he does — but the technique still makes sense. This is one reason Dave Camarillo’s maxim “train with everyone” is so apt: there are many things to learn and many different ways to learn them.
4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.
5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.
Some of Bell’s statements I didn’t have to edit at all: these two were among them. These are true of poetry and jiu-jitsu and life. The latter in particular has echoed in my head for many years.
In jiu-jitsu, I think about rules like “hands off the mat,” which new people absolutely need to internalize. Then you train for a while and you learn exceptions. But this simple dozen words could be a philosophy all its own.
6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.
I will never pull 50/50. Yet I own Tony Pacenski’s 50/50 guard DVD set. This is both because it’s important to learn the techniques you’ll come up against, and because it gives me a window into a way of doing things that is vastly different from my own.
7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.
Ryan Hall is justifiably known for making great instructional DVDs. One of the things I like most about them is that Ryan explicitly mentions where he learned certain techniques and principles — almost like an academic citing sources. The way he thinks about jiu-jitsu is original, but includes knowledge he’s gathered from other sources. In amalgamation there is creativity.
Like it says in Hamlet, there is nothing new under the sun. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
(This is also, incidentally, a reason I love rap music and mash-ups: creative combination and repurposing of found objects. But that’s a different post.)
8. Try to drill techniques at least one person in the room will hate.
You can take this one of two ways. Either “that guy is going to make fun of me for drilling berimbolo, but I’m going to do it anyway,” or “I am going to drill heavy pressure techniques, like the kind Roy Marsh teaches, and give people free chiropractic adjustments.”
Like Bell says, there’s no one way to do things.
12. It’s not what one begins with that matters; it’s the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.
I started out with much better takedowns and takedown defense than one of my training partners. She’s been working assiduously on it, and now she’s basically caught up to me. Nothing is static.
21. Jiu-jitsu has content but is not strictly about its contents.
These days when I go to a seminar I’m more interested in conceptual understanding than I am in learning new moves. Concepts are more important than contents. Once you have a bucket, you can always fill it with water. If you have no bucket, get all the water you want, and all you’ll have is a wet floor.
Leo Vieira told me at a seminar this year: “As long as I am comfortable and using less energy than my opponent, I’m doing the right thing.” It blew my mind.
23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.
You can ask your instructor to show you every technique they know. They can spend weeks of their life doing so. If you don’t drill constantly, you won’t learn even one of those.
28. Jiu-jitsu is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it’s art! On the other, it’s just art.
Dave Camarillo’s academy has one rule: respect. It’s amazing how one principle can apply to all practices and situations.
It’s great to learn self-defense, just like it’s great to learn to move people with poetic words. But it’s really about the larger picture: respect, beauty, work ethic and becoming a better person.
29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.
I’m just going to leave that right where it is. It’s perfect.
30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.
Bell wrote this about writing workshops, but the best jiu-jitsu seminars are like this.
Murilo Bustamante, a man who as achieved more as a competitor, coach and instructor than 99 percent of people ever will, came to teach where I train. He listened to every question. He showed every detail people needed help with. He had enormous respect from everyone before he walked into the room and left with more than when entered.
32. Art is a way of life, not a career.
That says it all, no?