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Books

Nick Evangelista:

Writing about Fencing in Books and Other Places

 

I started writing about fencing nearly forty years ago. I actually started writing when I was sixteen, but that’s another story. After much floundering in fantastic fiction, I decided to follow the writer’s chief creed: write what you know. That, as it turned out, happened to be fencing, despite the loud derisive exclamations from the sport fencing community insisting that I know nothing at all about the aforementioned subject. Be that as it may, fencing became the lifelong focus of my writing.

At first, I did little how-to pieces, informative articles on how to get started in fencing. Then, I wrote about my fencing master, Ralph Faulkner, because, as a former Olympian and a legend in the film industry, he was an interesting person. Then, I branched out to movies that had fencing in them, because that has always been a favorite topic of mine. I covered the 1984 Olympics for various Los Angeles-based magazines, because I lived in Southern California, and I knew fencing, which elevated me in the minds of editors over those who didn’t live in Los Angeles, and knew nothing about fencing. Similar articles, including historical perspectives, followed. This, then, was the foundation of my fencing writings.

In time, I thought about writing books on fencing. Having a broad knowledge of fencing-related topics, it seemed logical to pursue a project encompassing the various incarnations of the sword: history, sport, movies, biographies, literature, music, books, weapons, and technical minutiae. From what I could tell, there had never been a single volume that embraced so many possibilities; so, in 1989,  I began cranking out my initial draft on a standard Smith-Corona typewriter (if anyone remembers what those things are). The completed manuscript was over two thousand pages long, not including pictures, and weighted a solid thirty-five pounds. I mentioned to my editor that if we could sell my book by the pound, we'd make a fortune. It took six years of writing-- including revisions, additions, and the editing of page proofs-- before it all went to press, becoming The Encyclopedia of the Sword (Greenwood Press, 1995), in the process. The book sold well, and received much praise. Of course, it garnered the usual brick-bats from those who complained that the encyclopedia should have covered topics they were interested in. One individual wrote somewhere complaining there were no color pictures (I suggested a box of crayons).

One thing I found upon entering the public sphere with my books: the moment you offer a creative product to the world, at the same time you are painting a target on your forehead and handing out free rocks for the chucking, most often, it has been the case, from the darkest corners of obscurity.  People will say things from the safety of anonymity and their computer that they would never say to your face. I have read criticism of my work from those identifying themselves as rank beginners--admitting only a few months of lessons--with the total assurance that I didn’t know what I was talking about. On one fencing discussion site, I came across my all-time favorite quote: “I’ve never read any of Evangelista’s books, but I know he is wrong.”  There is also an article somewhere on the internet titled, “Why Fencers Hate Nick Evangelista.” Personally, I take great pride in that.  Over the years, I have developed a very thick epidermal layer. I might add that such rebuttals have done nothing to hurt the sales of my writing. Personally, I think those who dislike me should simply go back to their fencing, and forget about Nick Evangelista. Focusing on fencing is always the best!

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Next came, The Art and Science of Fencing (Masters Press/Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill (1996). It is my “how to fence” book. It was my goal to add something new to the literature of fencing. I did not want it to be a dry textbook or a grandiose treatise. I wanted it to be a “people” book, something someone without any background in fencing could read without difficulty, and say to themselves, “I could do that.” I wanted to create a book that would both inform and inspire.

All of the fencing books I had ever read required at least ten years of fencing to understand them, all of them were simply rehashes of previous collections of fencing words, and all were painfully boring. Except for one: Aldo Nadi’s On Fencing (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943). Now, you can think what you want about Maestro Nadi’s quirkiness and his idiosyncratic notions about fencing, but here was a fencing book with personality. It expressed ideas. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t the fencing master be in the book they are writing?” That was my cue on how to approach my book.

I wrote about my own experiences as a fledgling fencer, the good, the bad, and the not so pretty, because I figured I was an excellent example of average.  I was not an instant success. I was not brilliant. In fact, there was nothing about me that would have suggested anything out of the ordinary. So, the fencing I wrote about encompassed all the striving, frustrations, mistakes, and hoping that was my early fencing life. But for all the trauma, angst, and ego crushing moments I’d encountered, I also overcame my fencing demons. I learned and survived, and eventually thrived as a fencer. This drew a picture of an art and science that was accessible to all. It is a very human approach to an otherwise technical and demanding subject. I think this is why the Art and Science of Fencing has become, over the past nineteen years, the best-selling fencing book of all time.

My third book was Fighting with Sticks (Loompanics Press, 1998). I would describe it as a fusion of sword fighting, anthropology and history from the perspective of wooden weapons: wooden swords, the single stick, quarterstaffs, and canes. It was, in fact, an outgrowth of my research and writing for The Encyclopedia of the Sword. Wooden swords came before metal ones, after all.

I think it is a neat, little volume, and it actually sparked a renewed interest in the use of the singlestick, which has since grown into an organized sport. This was a big surprise to me, as I was just attempting to preserve some knowledge that seemed to be otherwise heading for oblivion.

After this came my favorite book of all the books I’ve written, The Inner Game of Fencing (Contemporary Books/McGraw-Hill, 2000), which had the distinction of being the very first fencing book of the 21st Century. My name for it was The Fencer’s Brain, but the powers-that-be wanted a title that would make it instantly identifiable with a genre: The Inner Game of Tennis, The Inner Game of Bowling, The Inner Game of Golf, ad nauseam. It is like none of those. It is about learning to think in the language of fencing. And it is my most original work.

I had no templates to work with, no previous works to study that even remotely resembled what I was contemplating.  How could I possibly combine countless dissimilar topics into chapters and paragraphs and sentences without creating a hodgepodge of gibberish?

I finally decided to divide the book into sections that represented a particular aspect of fencing: The World, The Sword, The Body, The Mind, and The Spirit. Then, within each division, I wrote my ideas, not as chapters, but as individual essays.  That way, every concept presented could be developed and emphasized fully in its own space, without losing a single syllable to competing thoughts. And it worked. I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to find a deeper meaning to fencing, something beyond the intrusive buzzing of an electric scoring box.

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My last fencing book was The Woman Fencer (Wish Publishing, 2001). The entire focus of this volume, as the title implies, is female fencers, both young and old. It covers both fencing and women’s issues related to fencing and healthful athleticism. The medical parts of the book were written by my former wife, who was, and is, a nurse practitioner.

The Woman Fencer is the first book published in the United States to have been written specifically for the “weaker sex.” I say this remark in extreme jest, because I have been knocked down fencing epee with a woman in her 50’s, who is five feet, two inches tall, and weights 100 pounds, but fences like a fruit bat out of hell. She hit me square in the face with her French epee and her 100 pounds, and buckled my knees, sending me both surprised and laughing onto my butt. In my school, she is known as the Head Hunter.  So, in point of fact, I have much respect for women fencers, who have always been my most able students.

By the way, I think The Woman Fencer is an excellent book.

Aside from books, in 2000, I was approached by Encyclopedia Britannica to update all their fencing-related material for the new Millennium, chiefly for the on-line version of their venerable publication.  Having a strong “encyclopedia” voice, having honed it for six years writing The Encyclopedia of the Sword, this assignment was less work and more pleasure for me. The finished essays can be easily tracked down on the internet.

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Finally, there is my magazine, Fencers Quarterly, which I published from the Summer of 2000 to the Summer of 2006. To my way of thinking, it was the most original and interesting fencing publication ever produced. We covered every fencing topic under the sun; and we championed the traditional values of fencing, employing both logic and humor. Many people in the sport community who never read FQM did not like it. I supplied the editorials and the occasional article. The rest of the magazine was written by a handful of skillful, intelligent contributing editors, and many, many creative freelancers, all of whom worked hard for very little money. The magazine was a labor of love in the extreme.

And why aren’t we still publishing Fencers Quarterly if it was so absolutely wonderful?  Because almost all our advertisers fled hard copy for the countless advantages and conveniences of advertising on their own internet-based websites. I do not blame them, but it is a sad fact that you cannot run a magazine without advertising. Just the same, I was, and am, very proud of FQM. It was an honest, hard-hitting publication, and just another reason why sport fencers don’t like me. Oh, well…!

So, after all is said and done, just what is it that I espouse and teach that makes me so different from the sport fencing community? I will start by saying that it isn’t that we go about the same game differently. It is that we represent two very different games, in fact, two different world views.  

I see sport fencing as a game concerned only with results. It is technology-driven, and is upheld in its one-note approach only in this technology, which embraces the strongest, the fastest, and the most aggressive. The scoring box, the black hole at the center of sport fencing’s universe, is the source from which winning and losing flows. To me, this is a very artificial, outward expression of fencing, and, for all its sound and fury, extremely isolated and fragile. To make the scoring box sing first leaves little time for fencing, result taking precedence over process. Result, then, is the be-all and end-all of sport fencing. The end, as Karl Marx once wrote,  justifies the means.

In contrast, the fencing I teach is very much driven from within. It is the subtle blending of mind and body into an effective whole, which is the hallmark of fencing as an art and science. This blending of thought and measured action gives any fencer the opportunity to out think, out maneuver, out everything any opponent. It isn't fool proof, but it does maximize potential.

Moreover, within the conventions we employ, we find a mindset, a guiding genius for our actions called the logic of the sharp point. This logic forces us to ask, in any circumstance we might find ourselves, “What would I do if these weapons were sharp?”  Understanding this implied sense of mortality based on our behavior supplies the wherewithal for us to accomplish the age old adage of sword fighting: to hit and not be hit. I am very much a traditionalist, not because this is the way it’s always been done, but because these ideas and actions we embrace once kept men alive when sharp points ruled the day.  Bad ideas, of course, led to worse results. We avoid those. Strategy, economy of motion, timing, being on purpose, flexibility, and self-reliance are the focus of what I propose to my students. The Language of Fencing is what I speak.

Connecting all these dots, we do not have to be the strongest, fastest, or most aggressive fencer to win. We can analyze our opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, and, in them, create for him his own personalized downfall. Additionally, through this mastery of mind and body, we do not need artificial methods to score touches. Our touches become self-evident to all those present. Place the process first, and the result takes care of themselves. I said that.

This is fencing. And once we have internalized it, it changes us. We become what we do. It opens up untapped potentials within us, whether they be fencing-related or something out in the real world. In this way, fencing has been rightfully called a Life Skill, and this is the fencing I teach. I call it traditional, because the values of excellence it espouses and encourages have existed in all times. I would rather teach one individual a skill that might transform his or her life for the better than produce a hundred “champions.” This is my choice, based on what I consider important to the human condition. The label "champion" seems to be a rather flimsy and fleeting status in these opening years of the 21st century, anyway.

In the end, I simply teach fencing.

 

(All of my books can be found and purchased on Amazon.com. I can be reached through this website regarding purchasing back issues of Fencers Quarterly Magazine.--NE)