What Dancing Taught Me About Writing

I began taking dance lessons in the second year of my MFA program. When I was a kid, I’d done the usual run of ballet and tap, ending when I was around ten. I loved dancing, but I felt like I wasn’t really allowed to do it because of my body. The form-fitting leotards, the tights, the bare arms, and the jumping. It was a form of dance that always made me feel heavy, even though when I look back at those photographs I can see I wasn’t even chubby. I was a normal kid.

I stopped taking ballet, but I never stopped dancing. In undergrad, it was at dance parties at the International Student house or impromptu living room dancing with a group of friends after a night out. I thought I’d never take dancing lessons again, that I could never study dancing like I studied writing. I could only enjoy it for the moments when it came my way.

The second year of my MFA program was tough. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much I learned, how much the literature classes helped me in my writing. But back then I felt overwhelmed and blocked. I hated my stories. I compared myself daily to my classmates, the published writers we studied in class, and found myself always coming up short.

I needed to get off the campus. I needed to do acts of creation that were in the body instead of on the paper, ones that could live and exist and fade without hovering in a state of editing limbo. One day I stopped at the bulletin board in the library and saw a flyer for a tribal bellydancing class. I showed up the next week.

My teacher was Joyce Young. She’s my belly mom. She’s an amazingly talented and hardworking dancer, and if you happen to pass through Fairbanks, Alaska go and take some classes from her. Joyce made dancing fun for me again.

The Moment’s Performance

This is what bellydancing taught me: to focus on the performance of the moment. To hold it, then let it go.

If, during practice, we messed up – cued a move incorrectly, made a four-count move into a six – we were told not to make a face. We were not to call out “sorry!”, and definitely not to stop dancing. After the song ended we could ask questions, go through the movements again, drill a move until our hips and arms were threaded together by memory.

But in the space of the dance, we lived in the moment of creation.

I am trying to bring this to my writing, to lock the editor outside my bedroom door and turn the music up so loud that I can’t hear his voice at the hinges. And then, dance.

***

Here’s one of my favorite ATS bellydance sets of all time, performed by Devyani Dance Company and Out of the Darj.

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Staying Sane

Two weeks ago life came to a full stop. For two days during the weekend, I was by myself with no means of transportation. I hadn’t planned to take that kind of break from life. I was going to distract myself with movies at the theater and family, but my family was busy, bad weather shortened our time together, and I wasn’t able to drive to the movie theater. I was stuck with myself and my two cats and an empty-feeling apartment.

You know in cartoons when someone is running really fast and they don’t realize they’re headed for the edge of a ravine until they’re right up on it? Then when they put on the breaks they keep skidding a little until their toes are curling over the edge? That’s what that weekend and the week after felt like. 
In the middle of the weekend, I started reading a book that my boyfriend had checked out of the library, Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane. Kismet, maybe. It was the book I needed during that long weekend. 
It’s a slim, easy to read book that feels much more like a gentle conversation than a condescending how-to book. 
There were two exercises that I’ve heard before, but Perry convinced me to try again. I think they’ve been really helpful for me as I try to strike a new balance between my writing life, my work life, and my personal life. 
1. Keeping a Diary
Sometimes I feel like all writing has to be productive writing. If I’m going to spend half an hour writing, shouldn’t I spend that time revising a short story or working on a novel? But Perry makes an excellent case for the benefits of keeping a daily journal, including a longer life. I’ve been writing in a journal for the last two weeks. Not every day, but most days. And I cannot tell you how much it helps to rearrange my brain so that there’s nothing left on my shoulders for the next day. 
I have to make sure I don’t leave the journal writing to the last minute, however. Journal writing in bed right before going to sleep leaves me with half-hearted scrawls on paper and waking up ten minutes later with a pen still in my hand. Journal writing fits, for me, into that awkward night space where I start to worry about the next day. Filling this time with journal writing helps me focus, keep positive, and use the rest of my evening time well. 
2. Circles of Increasing Challenges
The other exercise I found most helpful in this book is to draw a diagram of your personal boundaries and work on pushing through them one level at a time. An easy example of this is social interaction. In the center circle, you would write what kinds of social interaction are 100% ok with you. Like, staying at home watching Star Trek with your SO. Around that circle, you would draw a larger one, with interactions that are still doable, but maybe a little bit less comfortable, like going to a group event for a few hours. The idea of this exercise is to keep drawing larger rings around the original circle, filling each level with boundaries you would like to push past. Perry urges you to keep checking on your progress, pushing yourself bit by bit past your comfort zone, so that the leap to the person you want to be is instead a series of small steps. 
Perry also states that being mindful of pushing your boundaries is important to avoid slipping back into your shell of comfortable habits. Last year I made interacting with fellow writers and geeks regularly part of my writing goals, and I attended more events than I normally would have. I strengthened friendships, met new people, and was more productive as a writer. This year I didn’t include those interactions in my goals, thinking that I’d naturally keep up those habits. But they’ve fallen by the wayside, and I’m revising my goals to include conventions and crit groups both local and out of state this year.

There are many more exercises and great examples in this book, and I would highly recommend reading it, especially to writers. Not only for developing needs and obstacles for characters, but for working through your own as well.

Do you have favorite resources or personal exercises for staying sane as a writer? How do you balance writerly needs and ambitions with everyday life? 

Big Ideas and Permissions

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. 
 You can only see as far as your headlights, 
but you can make the whole trip that way.” 
– E. L. Doctorow
I’m slowly growing more comfortable with the idea of stepping into a novel without a detailed outline. I’ve tried making an outline using the feminine journey in the back of 45 Master Characters, but I always get hung up. Why? Because I haven’t spent enough time with my characters and their story to know who they are.

I’ve got three novel ideas, and I keep switching back and forth between them, unable to commit to pursuing just one. NaNoWriMo is about to start, and the days between me and the 10,000 word goal by November 15th are steadily disappearing. I’m kind of in novel freak out mode.

I have two wonderful writing friends to thank for pulling me out of my pre-novel funk.

Alisa Alering sent me a wonderful article by Bruce Holland Rogers about deciding on your Big Picture: why you are writing this novel. Each of my novel ideas has a different practical and creative purpose in my writerly big picture. One is a YA, one is literary/ experimental, one has a good feeling of forward motion. The YA would be writing for a great audience that I am eager to connect with, and would give me the satisfaction of finishing a story that I’ve been writing on and off for years. The literary one might never see the light of day, but it would give me the opportunity to unlock some stories and language I’ve been keeping stowed away. And the one with a good feeling of forward motion feels like one I could finish, that would prove to myself that I can write a novel, and would have enough of a structure to not melt into disparate parts after draft zero is done.

So what is most important to me in this first novel attempt?

My guideposts

With these in mind, my choice of which novel to write is much easier. I’m going to write the one with the sense of forward momentum, the short story idea my thesis advisor asked me about three years after it was workshopped in her class, about a body-modified raven and a lost girl searching for something that others are trying to hide.

The second writer push that happened this week was that Ashley Cowger gave me permission to write a crappy first draft. I’m constantly trying to persuade myself that it is ok to just write, get that first draft on paper, because I know I’m going to revise the story twenty or more times before I ever submit it anywhere. But the impact of having an accomplished writer whose work ethic and creative work I deeply admire tell me that it’s ok to just follow the story where it wants to go the first time through is amazing. I really feel like a giant weight has been lifted off of my chest.

After all, one of my guideposts is to prove to myself that I can write a novel. It doesn’t have to be the best novel in the world on the first draft, but it does need to be done. And if I’m not judging my writing every step of the way, then done is a goal I can accomplish.

So I’m going to pass this writing gift on to you, one day before the start of NaNoWriMo, in the almost November time when everyone’s itching to write a long story.

It’s okay to write a crappy first draft. 

I’m going to do it. Lots of writers do it. 

You have our permission. 

Now start writing. 

Using Pinterest as a Writing Resource

My mom got me hooked on Pinterest.

We were at the local craft show two years ago, and my mom said she had seen some of the ideas for monogrammed gigamabobs online. “You aren’t on Pinterest? I’ll send you an invite.”

At first I was only friends with some family members and the random people that Pinterest automatically selects for you when you first sign up. But then I started following some of my writing friends, and even my favorite literature professor from my undergraduate days. And now it’s a story brainstorming activity that I spend about 15 minutes a day doing. It’s relaxing, and continuously inspiring. I have more story ideas than I could ever write, and I find more every day.

How Pinterest works is this:

Your homepage is an all visual bulletin board that’s constantly changing. You can click a little button at the top of each post to pin the image to your own board. You create boards to keep your pins organized.

If you see an image you love and repin it, you can start following that person’s pins. It’s like making your way through a labyrinth, constructing it around you as you go.

How I organize my boards:

I have two different strategies for brainstorming on Pinterest.

The first is for character and setting ideas. A lot of the boards I subscribe to are art and travel that have the kind of feel that draws me in – funky, off, lovely. Usually these images spark a story in my mind.

I’m not worried about pinning them publicly, or sharing them here. I think everyone is inspired by images in a way that is specific to who they are. Let’s say we both wrote a story based on this image:

I think that little girl’s next step would be in two totally different directions.

So by compiling an idea box, I feel like the general well of ideas is never empty. I still get ideas from other places – cool documentaries on PBS, links sent to me by friends, strange dreams. But I like having this little alcove of images to keep my sense of story working.

One of the exercises young writers are given is to go to a public place and observe others. I used to do this often in college, and I’m still prone to stare a second longer or listen a bit longer than I probably should, but now that I’m working I spend most of my time alone in an office or at home with my cats. So I practice eavesdropping on images while I unwind from a long day.

The second way I use Pinterest is to brainstorm for a current work in progress. I have a dedicated Pinterest board for my current novel project, A Thousand Tangled Thoughts. Some of the pins on this board are research-based, while others evoke a certain mood I want to convey through the story. Most of these images I’ve found outside of Pinterest via Google image search or have happened upon while doing research. I added the Pin It bookmark to my browser’s bookmarks toolbar, and whenever I find an image that goes with my book I click on it and it adds the image to my Pinterest board.

Sure, I’ve got the obligatory tasty foods and geeky stuff boards, but those are mainly to keep the occasional Batgirl fan art or recipe for raspberry cordial that pops into my feed. But I’ve focused my subscription feeds over the past year so that the images that show on my page are mostly story inspiration.

It’s like watching a secret camera feed of a bunch of people’s dreams, but they’re all cool people who like misty landscapes and girls in quirky-beautiful clothes. And unlike dreams, these images are captured clearly, so I can use them for inspiration whenever the story is ready to be told.