Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Nancy Jane Moore

Timmi: Nancy, you’ve been a lawyer for a long time, even if you haven’t practiced law for all of that time; and you are also trained in the martial arts, which you do continue to practice as a part of your daily life. Training in the law imposes as much of a distinctively structured mental discipline as training in the martial arts does. In fact, thinking about this, I imagine that these two disciplines have taught you very different (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) ways of perceiving, evaluating, and acting in the world. Often the disciplines that have shaped a writer’s mental and perceptual processes exercise a significant influence on what and how they write. Would you say this has been true for you? And if so, you could you offer us some concrete details of that?

Nancy: I began my study in Shorin Ryu Karate—a hard-style Okinawan form—but most of my training has been in Aikido. These days I'm also learning some T'ai Chi. Why I started is an interesting question. I usually tell people that I got the idea from watching Diana Rigg play Emma Peel in The Avengers, and that has an element of feminist truth: That show did leave me with the idea that a woman who trained in martial arts could handle herself against men.

But the deeper truth is that I always felt a call to the path of warriorship. The Japanese term for the way of the warrior is budo, which also means to turn the spear, and that is my concept of warriorship: to be the protector, not the rampager. I use the word "call" deliberately, because I suspect this is not unlike the "vocation" of the person who becomes a monk or nun.

I feel a similar call to writing—and especially to writing fiction. Thinking back to childhood, I remember a core desire—as basic as the call to warriorship—to spend my life creating art. Writing became my art form because I had some innate talent for the manipulation of words and ideas. But all writing is important to me—not just creative writing—because I have learned over the years that I don't understand an idea until I have written about it.

And—likewise—I don't understand the principles of Aikido until I try to move with them. So both writing and martial arts are rooted in a sense of vocation, and are also key to how I understand the world.

They have one more important thing in common—depth. As I continue to train in Aikido (and bring T'ai Chi into the mix), I learn new things, some of them things I never even thought about before or realized I wanted to know. The same thing happens to me in writing. Both arts give me the sense of peeling off layers without a preset idea of what I might find.

Both writing and Aikido are tied to communication. Aikido training requires a partner, and you learn from how you train with that partner—essentially working on yourself while working with others (a daunting task at times). Writing needs a reader—though because you do the work in advance, you don't have the immediate give and take of Aikido. Still, the intent to communicate is there.

In martial arts. I started out with a desire to be tough—I recall with both pleasure and amusement the bruises I brought home from karate class, bruises that often freaked out my male friends. Somewhere over the years I have lost most of that desire—though tough still shows up if you make me angry. Now I am most interested in changing things by blending (as we might say in Aikido). That change came from a combination of greater skill and openness to new ideas.

I see a similar progression in writing. I know I started with a simple desire to write adventure stories in which women had the adventures. Now, though, what I want to write is so much more complicated, so much more nuanced. I still want to tell stories about women warriors, but my concept of warriorship is much broader than it used to be. My women characters don't look as much like warriors as they did in my first published story, which was about a woman soldier who ended up in command of a small troop in a losing war. ("Change of Command," published in Sword and Sorceress 6, bless Marion Zimmer Bradley.)

One other thing about martial arts: I have reached a point where I have almost no ambition connected with my study. I just want to learn. I teach some Aikido these days—I find I learn a lot by teaching at this point—and I'd like to get good enough at T'ai Chi to teach that, too, but I'm not striving to be a master instructor.

As a writer, though, I have ambition. I am actively interested in selling my work, in getting published and noticed. And money would certainly be nice. Mostly, though, my ambition is to write something great—and that involves continuing to learn.

Timmi: I think many people (specifically, those who are unfamiliar with the concept of "budo") would be surprised to hear that the call to warriorship is a call to be a protector rather than a rampager. Add to that, there's a popular perception that martial arts, for women, is "self-defense," which is a very different goal from the goal of being a protector.

I'm currently reading a book by Kim Chernin called My Life As A Boy. The premise of the book is that in her late thirties, after her daughter went off to college, the narrator (the book is classified as nonfiction, so I think we're supposed to take the narrator as the author herself) “became a boy” in the following sense:

If a woman in her thirties turns into a boy, that may mean she's having trouble getting out of the place she's in. She requires the instinctive, wholly natural ruthlessness of a boy. He will leave home; everyone expects it of him...he's off into the world, he's a boy, he's going... Women, especially mothers, know in every moment who is waiting for them to get back home, to call in, to fetch them; this knowledge is what it means to be a woman. Therefore the fate of a girl, the future she's definitely growing into, holds the certainty of restriction.

What makes me think of this book now is that the narrator says that the moment of transformation, when she "turned into a boy," came when she felt a desire to protect the woman standing beside her at a demonstration: "I was taller than she was, the sort of person someone would lean up against, the strong one, the one who can support the other." Elsewhere, the narrator notes that her husband, Max (whom she leaves when she "turns into a boy"), had always taken care of her. I find this way of thinking quite problematic, myself. Surely many women have experienced a powerful desire to take care of others (especially if they are younger, less experienced, or older and physically frail, and of course if she's a mother and they're her children). I know I have (and I am childless). Since this is a very interesting and underexplored subject for women, could you elaborate a bit more on what it means to feel called to be a protector (not so much in an ethical as a psychological sense)?

Nancy: My experience is quite different from Chernin's, as you describe it. Put in those terms, perhaps in some ways I was always a “boy:” I am larger than the average woman, I'm an older sister, and I have no brothers. I took on the role as my “baby” sister's protector when I was about five, and in many ways my father treated me more as a son than a daughter. That is, he wanted me to pursue the career he didn't have and he challenged me intellectually from an early age. So perhaps some of my calling toward the protector role comes from that upbringing—even though I didn't take up martial arts until I was 30.

But, like you, I don't think the protector urge is foreign to most women. Traditionally, it is confined to certain situations—the classic example of the mother protecting her child from a wild animal, for example—but I suspect most women have found themselves in situations where they felt the duty to protect someone else.

However, I also think the idea of being a protector—and particularly a protector of women—is hammered into men so thoroughly that both men and women tend to assume that the role is a male one. So women tend to downplay their experiences of being protectors, while men feel obligated to protect others, even when they aren't really capable of doing it.

The concept of protection is a large one, but of course the immediate image—especially in a discussion that includes martial arts—is protection from physical violence. And I fear that most women do not feel capable of protecting either themselves or others from physical attack. But I don't think this means they don't have the desire to protect others, or won't jump in to do so in dire situations. In fact, I suspect—though I have no data on this—that unskilled women are more likely to fight to protect someone else than they are to fight to protect themselves.

However, if a man is present, I suspect (and again, I'm talking about impressions—I've never seen any research on this subject, though it would be fascinating to read) that most women will defer to him to handle the attack. And most men will probably assume it's their job.

Like the issue of women in combat, this is a minefield in gender relations. I recall a discussion I had with a friend of mine who was a Vietnam veteran. The first time we discussed the idea of women in combat, he absolutely rejected the idea—and he at that time was trying hard to be a good hippie and was not generally anti-feminist. When we discussed it again some 15 years later, he told me how difficult the issue was for him on emotional grounds. “If I wasn't protecting others by going to war, then why was I doing it?” By that point, though, he was willing to acknowledge that some women might also want to protect others.

Protecting someone else on that most basic physical level—the life or death level—is a big responsibility. It's frightening. And as a society, we have not finished working through how we feel about this for both men and women. Our movies—and even our fiction—are more likely to show us women who can't take care of themselves or others, except for a few very exceptional cases, generally superheroes of some kind. I suspect this reflects the fear of most women that they can't fight effectively and the need most men have to see women as someone they must protect.

So women deal with a lot of mixed signals. They want to protect others, but they don't think they can. I'm working on a book about self defense that is intended to convince women—and men as well—that they can learn how to defend themselves. It's not a book on how to fight—fighting is a very small part of the whole process—but it is intended to convince people that protecting yourself and others is a skill that can be learned by almost everyone.

Perhaps that is why it's such a minefield—there's such a large mythology around fighters. Teaching people that the anyone can learn the skills of self defense, that it isn't just for the exceptional, is a challenge to a very established image of warriors as separate from everyone else. (Of course, some people will always be better at it than others, just as some people are world-class athletes while most of us just go out for a swim or a jog. But the extreme level of skill isn't required very often.)

As for the relationship between self defense and protecting others: I think they are two sides of the same coin. You can't protect anyone else if you can't defend yourself. I certainly took up the martial arts to learn to defend myself—I wanted to be able to walk down the street unafraid—but I wasn't motivated by any particular fear at the time. (It occurs to me that I assume that anyone who says they took up martial arts for self defense reason acted in response to an actual assault or a specific fear of attack, which may not be accurate.) In my case, I began my study out of a more general desire to be a warrior—a role I always saw as that of a protector, for some reason. Perhaps it was more of a philosophical motivation than a practical one.

Whatever the initial motivation, though, I should probably point out that nobody keeps training in the martial arts out of the simple desire to be able to defend themselves or others. After a few years, training is much more about the search for truth (or enlightenment or whatever name you want to put on it) than it is about how to fight.

And perhaps just a little bit about the fact that every time you learn some new move, it's just so damn cool. (Which brings us back to how martial arts study is like writing.)

Timmi: And your training in the Law?

Nancy: Law, for me, has always been a compromise profession and I have never made my peace with it. I turned to it in part as a substitute for warriorship—a way to take care of people—but I discovered early on that trial work (the most obvious version of lawyer as warrior) was an all-consuming job and the rest of the practice of law was, for the most part, tedious and limiting. I suspect that the only way I could have become fulfilled as a lawyer would have been to become a good trial lawyer, and that would have required me to lop off the rest of the things that mattered to me in life, including particularly the opportunity to grow and learn on the philosophical level.

I also went to law school because I was good at the basic skills of reading, writing, and speaking, because my parents wanted me to, because much of my early fiction writing wasn't particularly good, and because too many men said I couldn't do it because I was female. (I particularly recall a high school history teacher telling me that I'd be “just a housewife”—I've probably spent my whole life determined to avoid that fate.)

So unlike martial arts or writing, law has never been my vocation and I have had trouble respecting what I learned from it. I did learn a lot in law school—though I hated it, which should have given me a clue (undergraduate school drove me nuts at various times, but mostly I loved it). But it is valuable to understand how our legal system works and I do know how to think like a lawyer. In fact, essentially what legal training does is teach you how lawyers think and give you the analytical tools to solve problems. It’s very valuable—if the problem you’re trying to solve is legal—and it has made me aware of sloppy thinking (both my own and that of others).

But I wouldn't go to law school if I had it to do over.

Timmi: You went to law school in the early-to-mid 1970s, right? If my memory serves me, merely entering the legal and medical professions in those years was tantamount to storming the barricades. So in that sense your choice of a career in law must have been a bold move, yes? Many people assumed that women wouldn't have either the stamina or the smarts to make it in the professions. Were you surprised to find that the work itself wasn't very satisfying? And what career, if you had it to do all over again, would you have chosen to pursue instead?

Nancy: Yes, I went to law school in the first half of the 1970s and you're right—in many ways it was a form of storming the barricades. My law school class was 10 percent women, and that was an increase over the previous years. (Today, law school classes tend to be pretty evenly split between men and women.) And when I practiced law in Wichita Falls, Texas, in the late 70s, there were 8 women lawyers in town, out of a total bar of better than 100 lawyers. (I think I can still remember who all the women were and what kind of work they did.) At the time, people were debating whether women could really make it as trial lawyers—something that to me presages the current debate over whether women can handle combat.

For me, law school wasn't as bold a move as it might have been for other women. For one thing, my parents very much wanted me to go to law school. And I saw myself as different from the general run of women—an issue that I have since grappled with in feminist terms. I wasn't particularly good at “girlie” things, but I was tough enough for verbal sparring.

Given that I really didn't like law school, I don't think it shocked me much that I didn't like practicing law. And—in truth—I didn't do a very good job of building a career. I'm sure some of the barriers I ran into were caused by sexism; others I created for myself out of my hippie idealism.

I don't think I ever truly believed in the law. Law—like every other profession—has its core principles, and I've found—contrary to the popular impression—that most lawyers actually subscribe to them. One of those principles is that the law, while not perfect, is sacrosanct. Once we decide what it is, we must all follow it. So you get odd examples, such as John Ashcroft refusing to sign off on Bush's domestic surveillance program because he thought it went beyond the law, or judges lecturing attorneys about failing their responsibilities to their clients. I think these people are true believers in the principles of the law as profession.

As a child of the Sixties, I had trouble with truly believing in law in part because I was keenly aware that something could be legal and unfair at the same time. (I'm old enough to have gone to segregated schools and worked when the minimum wage for women was lower than the minimum wage for men.) My principles limited the jobs I sought. And while I don't regret the principles, they did limit my ability to spread my wings as a lawyer.

While I don't think I'd go to law school now, if I had it to do again, I must confess being a lawyer was a very useful role for me as a woman in a society struggling with gender issues. Lawyers, by definition, get taken seriously. Perhaps the most practical approach would have been to move to working as a legal editor much earlier—I find legal journalism much more satisfying that practicing law.

But if I had it to over—and if I had understood myself as well in my early 20s as I do now—I think I would pursue a journalism career. I wanted to write, and the way you become a writer is to write. Journalism makes you write quickly and figure things out.

I might have devoted some time to studying other areas, with an eye to writing about them. The great science writer Natalie Angier, in her new book, Canon, talks about studying science so that she could write about it. I think it would have been valuable to me as a writer to study various subjects and then write about them as a way to cement my knowledge as well as to educate others. And such a path might have also suited my far-from-one-track mind, which always wants to learn something new.

I might also have explored radio news in addition to print journalism. I have developed a great fondness for radio in recent years and particularly admire those who can do great live interviews with people.

But, essentially, I would have built my career around writing, rather than telling myself that I could always write on the side. That's not a political decision—going to law school was in many ways a political decision—but a deeply personal one. I wanted to write. The best career for me would have been one built around writing.

Timmi: Thanks very much, Nancy. Some of this relates to your essay in The WisCon Chronicles, of course, but some of it is new to me. I'm really looking forward to reading your book now in progress.

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