Erica Zendell is a writer, martial artist, former-classmate, and friend.
Last year, Erica quit her desk job to travel around the US, train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and write a book. I admire her tenacity, humor, writing, and heart. She's also been a loyal Fire Jar supporter (and regular mailbag contributor).
In Part 1 of this conversation, we discuss creativity, training, and self-belief.
Edited for format / length.
Jeremy ▸ How do you define "creative practice"?
Erica ▸ Showing up for the Muse. Making space for Her. And being on time.
When people ask "what are you up to these days?", what do you tell them?
Doing all the stuff my dad never would’ve wanted me to do (traveling, risking concussion, not working a lucrative job) while also taking his advice to the fullest extent (watching my back and enjoying life).
Learning to enjoy my life is the big one.
Some of that includes learning to spend money instead of save it, and wearing nice shoes instead of waiting for some perfect day or occasion to do so.
What first drew you to martial arts?
Something about violence and combat was always intriguing to me. I’m trying to figure out the true origins of those interests as I work on my first book, a memoir. My latest guess is my desire to fight (physically) was that my dad was a lawyer and I could never win a verbal altercation in our relationship.
Martial arts in my adult life became small way of fighting back and being able to win (for myself) in some other way - in a fairer fight than a girl against her father.
My dad, in particular, was an unbeatable, tireless, stubborn man. A dominant force in every way... susceptible only to the universal force of time. He passed away in 2020.
I was also drawn to the state of mental peace and tranquility that martial arts gave me - it's a fairly recent thing for me. When you and I first met, I certainly wasn't prepared to pack up my apartment, quit my job, and travel the country in the name of jiu-jitsu. I hardly knew what jiu-jitsu was!
I was burnt out from my first job out of business school and determined to "get my swagger back" (in one friend's words) in the wake of an earthquake of a breakup. In March 2017, I took my first jiu-jitsu class. From this very first class, I loved that I couldn’t do or think of anything else when someone was trying to choke me out out or break my bones - even if it was simulated.
I was addicted to the quiet in my mind and focus on the task at hand that my martial art of choice demanded. And I kept chasing that addiction instead of running on "The Tinder Treadmill" as my chosen form of exercise.
What's kept you interested in BJJ?
So long as I am physically able, I will train.
I think it's the ongoing challenge that keeps me interested (physical and mental).
Even when you've figured out certain series of moves or reached a certain rank, you're never "done". There is always a part of your game - and your self - that you can be pressure-testing and improving. One thing I love about competing in BJJ is that it exposes those weaknesses and areas of growth in a way that the typical day of training and sparring will not.
I also think BJJ also serves as a bit of a reality check / course correction for the reputation of excellence I'd developed in my life prior to beginning to train.
I grew up being good at the things I did - primarily academic in nature - and being known for them. I needed to know I could persist at something that I was bad at and eventually become good without being a natural.
What wisdom have you gleaned re: movement, bodies, exercise?
Nothing you can do today matters if it’s unsustainable in the long run.
I’d love to win a world title, but it would likely come at the cost of being able to train for the rest of my life. My ego would choose the former. A cooler head chooses the latter over the former.
The best athletes, coaches, movement practices are the most self-aware ones. Self-understanding is the difference between good and great, and great is unique. Someone can coach you or give you a blueprint, but it’s work you have to do on your own.
Aging gracefully is not just an aesthetic facial appearance. It’s a way of adapting movement, too. This is what I tell myself whenever the temptation towards Botox kicks in. That and the only expensive vice on which I’m willing to spend money routinely is getting a massage.
What advice would you give to your past-self?
It sucks, but you are going to have to trust someone down the line.
You can’t go it alone and go as far as you want to without someone else in your corner and/or walking alongside you. In the romantic sense, that will mean skinned knees and broken hearts from falling hard. But you’ll get back up and heal over and be better. I promise.
Many people will believe in you and what you are doing - but the most important person who needs to believe in who you are and what you are doing is you. You will need to do it to the point of self-delusion in order to get what you want. It’s not actually self-delusion. It’s simply the only way dreamers get anything done -through unabashed self-belief.
Anything worth doing is worth doing with both cheeks.
No half smiles or half asses.
[ the interview continues in Part II ]
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