Category Archives: Writing
We spend all our lives
making monsters of ourselves:
the tender feet
hard-trained until they arch like dolphins’ backs,
their bones like bridges spanned
by calloused skin.
The knees’ inverted arc
sails bony ankles heavenward;
the thighs like steely hawsers
cast the whole ship off,
cast it heavenward–
the collarbones like ploughshares
carve the air.
Hard to explain this,
though G-d knows I’ve tried.
What makes us do
all that the unseen god requires of us?
The music speaks
and stirs the weary dead:
go wake the living in their stalls!
The royal box looms empty
lonesome in the night.
Lone and strong we leap
now miracles, now golems,
in the light.
–14 August, 2017
I suppose that that's what comes of taking class at night then watching Mao's Last Dancer but last night, I dreamed of dancing: of the wild flight the pas de chat the grand jeté ankles swift and crisp as deers' power rising from the soft plié the triple turn erect and effortless one perfect double tour. I don't suppose it matters much and yet this thrill remains this singing in my bones this certainty: I have become, somehow, a dancer and my femurs and the smallest winged ribs all know the spirit of the dance. And so I say, and mean something much more: last night I dreamt of dancing.
I am clearly confused about life right now.
I’ve jumped into an assistant-coach gig for a middle-school dance team, which is a huge leap out of my comfort zone, what with my background being strictly ballet & modern of the kind that tends to foam at the mouth when someone mentions “dance as a sport.”
That’s not where I’m confused, though.
While I may be something something of a knee-jerk mouth-foamer about about the concept, I’ve realized that, with the right coach, Dance Team can be a way into dance as art for kids who might otherwise never have a chance. The coach I’m working with, a friend of mine from the increasingly tiny world of dance and aerials, is that kind of coach. Likewise, she and I come from essentially opposite dance backgrounds, and know how how to work together to take advantage of that, so we make a good team.
I’m totally drinking the Kool-aid, there.
No — what I’m confused about is this: why am I still scraping the paint on the house when I should be firming up the piece I’m choreographing for the team?
Or, well … Okay, I’m not really confused. I know what’s going on. I’m just confused about why I’m letting it happen.
Basically, I’m terrified. I’m afraid I’m Doin’ It Rong; that the dances I create are stupid.
This is also part of what keeps me from finishing my longer choreography and writing projects. Every now and and then, I experience a spasm of lack of faith in my own vision.
I don’t, I should note, most faith in my ability as a writer (sadly, the same cannot be said for my flaming case of Impostor Syndrome about dance): I’ve had too much success not to know that I can put words together beautifully; I just fall into fits of thinking my stories are stupid. Then I freeze for an indefinite period of time, after which I return to my projects and continue work.
Anyway, today I should be making a dance, but instead I’m busy being afraid to make a dance. (I should be making plans for auditions for next year, but I’m paralyzed about that, too.)
I’m writing this so I can see how silly this all is. Maybe someday, I’ll read this and laugh at how silly I was.
After all, it’s not like I have to go win the Prix de Lausanne the day after tomorrow (besides, I’m over-age for that). I just have to come up with a dance for a group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who all seem like hard workers with good attitudes (or mostly-good, which is good enough).
Regardless, I really need to up my procrastination game. Who procrastinates by scraping paint, anyway, FFS?
Apparently, I do.
There’s also this other thing. Maybe you can relate. When everything starts coming together and landing in my lap, which is totally happening right now, part of me (of course) feels grateful and excited … but another part starts looking around to see if the Universe is trolling me. Like, “Was that a real pat on the back, or did some divine force just stick a kick me sign on there?”
…Which is also totally happening right now (sorry, Universe).
I’m going to force myself to proceed as if there is no Kick Me sign; as of there’s no possibility of any such thing.
It just might take me a little while to really start believing it.
And I am about as happy about that as it’s possible to be.
Spent a relaxing day looking over (and then frantically revising, because I can’t leave well enough) a couple of things I wrote for Dr. Dancebelt, sent them along, reviewed things and updated old reviews on Amazon, kibitzed on the Tweeters, chatted about some camp inventory stuff with one of my fellow camp leads from Burning Man (who is also one of my favorite people, full-stop), and spent a bunch of time doing laundry, folding laundry, doing laundry, folding laundry. Ate some food, probably going to drink some decaf chai now. Waiting for the last load of laundry to finish drying, then I’m off to bed.
There is much to be said for a quiet day spent reading, writing, and folding things (I like folding things; it’s one of those jobs that has a clear start and end point, and when you’re done things are better than they were when you started).
More or less decided what to wear to tomorrow’s performance, which (as it will be for most of us) is less rehearsed and will be seen by more people than anything else I’ve done in the vein of performing arts (probably including all previous dance performances) simply by virtue of being part of a free outdoor festival. It may involve quite a bit of improv, but IDK, not worried about it.
I’m in that place, mentally, in which things appear to be improving, but I’m taking my optimism with a stiff dose of caution. Tomorrow might be a trial — not because of the performance itself, but because I should probably be cautious about how much I actually wind up interacting with humans.
Getting back into the regular rhythm of ballet, on the other hand, helps immensely. Looking forward to class tomorrow. I hope by then my trapezii and lats will be done being sore, though.
I haven’t posted a poem in a while, so here’s one I wrote today, when I could have been writing up my class notes instead.
I rather hope that you’ll like it. I think I do, though of course it’s a rough draft and almost certainly needs some revision.
I hated the boulder.
Each morning, I woke,
encamped at the base of the hill
with the boulder beside me.
I boiled the water,
drank the black brew
that passes for coffee here
in the land of long shadows.
Fried up the eggs.
Scraped off the rough stubble
that peppered my chin.
I said to myself,
“These bitter gods will not break me,”
as I finished my breakfast,
“I will not succumb
to the madness of Tantalus:
I will overcome;
I will push this boulder
over the top of this hill.”
Then I set to work:
rain or snow,
cracked heat of summer,
joyful reprieve of the fall.
I bent down,
set my hand to the plow—
though if course it was neither my hand
nor a plow,
but the stone digging into my shoulder.
I did not look back.
Every day, I marshalled my strength.
The boulder rolled:
slowly at first,
then just a bit faster
as I found the pulse of my work.
as I climbed,
I felt I was a man.
How can I explain?
For the length of the day,
I drew closer and closer,
the bald crest of the hill
rising before me
as ever I strained at the climb.
Each day, I pronounced,
“I am man,
I shall conquer!”
as each day staggered closed—
I felt first the will of the boulder
and then the hard will of the gods.
at the crest of the hill,
as the wheels of my fate turned their round
and the counter of days
added a hatch to his register
the boulder, too, turned—
and then sharply
and all at once there it was
charging back down
to the hollow that rooted the hill;
the place where I boiled the coffee.
Every night I wept—
not with sorrow, but wrath—
bitter tears salting the earth
as I followed my fate
to the place where I’d boil the water for soup;
where I’d rest myself under the stars
and the laughing, invisible eyes
of the gods.
Each morning ,
I hated the boulder.
Then one day I woke
and I boiled my water for coffee
and scrambled the eggs
and scraped off the stubble
and threw my weight into the stone
and did not look up.
All day I pushed,
climbing the hill,
saying, “This is my work,
as once being a king was my work.”
All day the stone rolled
and I felt the hot strain in my back
and the fire of my calves
and the weight of perpetual burden.
I welcomed them,
“This way I do
that which I was given to do.”
And at last,
in the pivotal moment,
as the last rays of light grazed the pale, bald crest of my hill,
as my boulder began its decent,
I felt my heart lift
knowing that I had done
the thing I was given to do.
My boulder rolled down,
tearing clods of pale grass from the earth,
racketing over the bare spots.
I followed with tears,
but not bitter tears:
as I had been king,
and every day shouldered the burden of kings,
now I am but Sysiphus,
and I shoulder the burden of Sysiphus.
And if I have not conquered,
no more does anyone else.
I go gladly instead
to the work that Persephone grants me:
let that, instead,
be the breadth
and the depth
of my victory.
And sometimes at night,
I look up at the dim, distant stars—
so far from this land of long shadows—
how much harder it was
all those years,
all those hardscrabble years,
when I was still a man.
I wrote three poems today —
or really four,
because that one
is probably more than one,
but I don’t think it’s really more than two —
And now there’s this,
so that makes five, I think,
which makes me want to say,
“Oh, wow, that’s something—
look, I’m writing things again;
I’ve found that thing
(whatever that thing is)
that makes the words pour out.”
Or maybe just
“I’ve finally found the stopper,
yanked it loose.”
I have written, now,
and later I will take them all apart
and strip them for their marrow
as one does.
And this will be the day
(I hope it will)
that I look back on,
These five poems
became the start of fifty-five more poems,
five hundred fifty-five,
of this great stream of neverending poems
that tumbles me along
and does not die.
… A little literary navel-gazing today.
I’m making some adjustments to Strangers, but also trying to figure out the answers to some writing questions.
Specifically, Toby and Phinny are co-protagonists, and it’s clear to me what Toby is after, as a character: he really wants to understand a dark, painful, and muddled period in his past so he can, like, move on with his life or something (okay, yeah, that sounds pretty vague). He also wants Phinny.
Phinny continues to be a bit of a problem child: I don’t know exactly what he wants in the story. To an extent, I suppose he wants to avoid the exact confrontation with his past (that is, his and Toby’s mutual past) that Toby wants and needs, but that avoidance thing serves Toby’s story better than it serves Phinny’s. Likewise, he is attracted and even a bit drawn to Toby, but not with the singularity of intention that draws Toby to him.
Beyond that, he is mostly a guy who has what he wants in the world: he’s spent his life preparing to become a dancer and has done so with no small success; he has grown up in a loving-if-somewhat-distracted family and maintains a good relationship with his parents and his kajillion brothers and sisters; he has good friends within his company; he likes traveling and as such enjoys the fact that I Travesti spends most of the year touring. He certainly wants love in the romantic sense, but I don’t think he feels any pressure about it — he is focused, instead, on dancing.
This doesn’t mean he’s a well-adjusted “whole person” — he absolutely isn’t, and in some ways he has constructed his entire so he never needs to deal with the trauma of his past. He never stays in any one place very long; he lives a secure, cloistered life in which he is almost never alone with his thoughts, let alone with a potential romantic partner; his relationship with Peter is at once primary, quasi-romantic, and asexual (Peter is basically the straightest man who has ever made a living by performing classical ballet in drag); he is at once aware of his own desirability and protected from its consequences by the people around him.
So getting to grips with his own past is a thing Phinny needs to do (or will, someday, need to do), but also a thing he feels no pressure to do, as he has carefully crafted a life that prevents situations in which he might feel said pressure.
Likewise, he doesn’t suffer from Toby’s central problem, which is a nagging guilt. Toby’s as driven by a need for absolution as he is by a need to understand what the frack actually happened; they are faces of the same coin. Phinny’s damage is more abstract (possibly because, ironically enough, the Bad Things in his history are more concrete — though also because he avoids it all so effectively).
So there’s that question: What is Phinny after, if he isn’t just a passive vehicle in this story? And, of course, does he reach whatever his goal is?
None of these difficulties get in the way of actual writing, of course — I’m a “Write first, ask questions later” kind of guy — but they will, sooner or later, come to bear on the novel as a whole.
Since I’m Taking A Couple of Days Off, I plan to spend a bit of time with Toby and Phinny and see what comes of it.
In other news, this injury means keeping work in turn-out to a minimum for a bit, and my inner Ballet Wonk is busy throwing a fit about that. I mean, in the long run, it’s important — the muscle I’ve managed to injure (which was secondary to the Groin Pull of Doom) is one of the major turnout muscles, and if I want to keep my turnout in the long run, I need to let it heal. But FFS, how do you ballet when you can’t turnout? Bleh.
(Yeah, I know — #FirstWorldBalletProblems)
I have also decided that I need to educate myself on how to manage minor injuries so I don’t turn them into major ones. Abnormal pain perception has its advantages, but it also has its disadvantages, and this is one. Things don’t always hurt when they should (especially once my muscles are warm), so I wind up exacerbating injuries or adding new ones.
The groin pull wouldn’t have been a terribly big deal by itself, but I wound up injuring another muscle because of the way muscles compensate for one-another, and that’s the kind of thing I need to learn to avoid.
On the upside, I managed to prevent myself from sleeping in a face-down turned-out left retiré (seriously, I sleep that way most of the time, or in the butterfly/frog position — I mentioned this to B, and she said, “No wonder your turnout is so good!”), so I at least woke up far less sore than I have been.
Anyway, onward and upward, what what.
First, though, a couple of updates:
- First, I’m feeling a little better than I did yesterday, in part because I finally slept last night (for thirteen hours, in fact) and in part because B. and I went to an evening ballet class.
- Second, I started writing up class notes, but haven’t finished them, so I may or may not get around to posting them. It’s funny — long ago, when this was mostly a bike blog, I used to feel intense misgivings about going off-piste like that. I suppose it was, in reality, mostly because I was still running from my own mental illness and from my own past. That’s an interesting thing to think about.
Okay, so: on to writing.
There’s a certain incantation well-known to writers, central to the craft of writing, attributed to everyone under the sun (though apparently it originated with Arthur Quiller-Couch), and apparently the title of a movie that I’ve never seen: “Kill your darlings.”
I’m not going to try to explain what it means. Other people have done that fast better than I could right now, and it seems likely that some of them are out there on the innertubes somewhere. (Google amongst yourselves; I’m feeling a little verklempt.)
Instead, I’m going to kvetch about the difficulty I’m having with it right now.
Back in November, I made a huge foray into the complicated waters of Strangers In The Land — and then I got stuck.
The work started to feel unwieldy, like an oversized chainsaw, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Just as it’s a good idea, when a chainsaw feels unwieldy, to perhaps put it down for a while, it can be good to walk away from a piece of fiction for a time when it gets really, really impassible.
This is one of the reasons I’m working on more than one project most of the time — at the moment, Strangers, which has proven to be much, much harder to write than I imagined, and a fantasy trilogy, which has proven to be much, much easier than I imagined even though it involves a very long story arc and a whole lot of world-building and mythopoetic creativity and so forth*.
*To be honest, I think those things make it easier, since they feel like a game — it’s all a giant game of make-believe set in a world that I have come to love intimately and tenderly even as I continue to do terrible things to it and its inhabitants. The biggest challenge is just figuring out what to include in the final work and what to leave on the cutting room floor.
The fantasy work, which bears the sad overall working title of The Tales of Kirnan, though the individual elements have less-awful ones (Calderon, A Song In Time Of War, A Far Green Country), is easy to tell because, for all the complexity of its setting, it’s a fairly simple story about a war.
For the most part, it hews (intentionally) to the conventions of the genre: indeed, it evolved out of a kind of joking attempt to put my love of really complex, layered stories aside and write a simple good-versus-evil, swords-and-sorcery romp. It has grown since then (apparently, I can’t keep myself from badding up at least some of my good guys or exploring the motivations of my bad guys at least a bit), but it’s still reasonably straightforward, all things considered.
Strangers, meanwhile, is not. It’s set in the real world, which is messy, and involves characters with more or less ordinary problems, which are also messy.
That in and of itself perhaps isn’t a huge challenge. I mean, I just described every work of realistic fiction ever, yes?
The problem is figuring out how to tell the story, which cuts, in some ways, very close to the bone.
And this is where killing my darlings comes in.
I love Phineas (Narrator Number 2 in this tangled skein of words). I love writing as Phineas, probably because in many ways Phineas — an effusive, restless dancer; wildly impractical; essentially romantic — is a lot like the parts of me I like best. I love his voice and his energy — and yet, the more I’ve tried to work my way out of this Gordian Knot of my own creation, the more I’ve come to feel like I can’t use him as a narrator to tell this story.
He is critical to the story itself — the story is, in part, his story — but trying to tell it in his voice isn’t working. Increasingly, it seems like the answer is to cut the knot: return to my original approach, in which Toby — far more sober and uncertain — tells the story for both of them.
This is hard.
First, as I said, I love writing as Phineas. It is often effortless, and an unalloyed pleasure — but characters have lives of their own, and Phineas refuses to approach the darkness at the heart of his own story. When I try to take him there, the wellspring of his voice runs dry.
For a while, I saw that as a failure of craft; since then, I’ve realized it’s not. It’s a central part of his character. He has spent nearly half his life doing everything in his power to avoid thinking about What Happened, and while he’s arguably the more successful of the two main characters in the world’s narrow sense, he’s also the more troubled, even though I didn’t want him to be**.
**I really wanted to shake up that convention, because in some ways it’s all too much like a romance novel — this story too easily could turn into “beautiful, feminine, troubled ballet dancer is rescued from his demons by ordinary, conventionally-masculine, brooding Knight in Flannel Trousers.” Then again, that’s very nearly the story of my own life, and besides, the rescuing is mutual.
I suppose that, because he’s in some ways a transcription of myself, I wanted him to be unbroken, resilient, in a way that I haven’t been.
Maybe it’s more honest to write him as he apparently is; as he has created himself: resilient in so many senses of the word, strong in so many senses, but ultimately brittle and fragile in critical ways and rushing headlong towards a crash.
Second, excising Phineas as a narrator means leaving some of the best writing I’ve done in years on the cutting-room floor.
That’s hard. People who don’t write think writing is easy, but good writing is hard. Good writing forces us to ruthlessly destroy things of great beauty when they don’t ultimately serve the purpose of the work. Forget the moon — the pen’s a harsh mistress.
I effing love the passages where Phineas rambles about dancing; I love his exchanges with the irrepressible and abrasive Antonio Garibaldi (who reminds him, at one point, that, “…There’s more than one way to work on your turnout.”). I kind of love how unaware he sometimes is of his own vulnerability: but that’s part of what makes him so freaking hard to write, when it comes down to brass tacks. He is unaware of his own vulnerability because he’s willfully blind to it, which means I can’t get his voice around the hard parts.
If I can’t make him do that, he can’t narrate, no matter how much he wants to talk about Company Class or the dynamics of I Travesti or anything else. If I was a better writer, I might be able to do it: to somehow justify the lacuna that must inevitably surround that revelation; to let Toby enter and pass through that purifying fire before Phineas recounts his end in things.
I don’t think I’m up to that task yet, though. Writing this kind of novel is hard, y’all.
Dropping Phineas’ narration also means losing almost half the content of the novel as it stands and relying on a narrator who is more consistent but also, frankly, not very exciting. Good narrators, of course, don’t have to be exciting — in fact, sometimes the best narrators are those who are more or less observers in their own stories … something that Toby certainly is at first.
It’s just harder to write an interesting story about a boring guy; about someone whose life is so neatly circumscribed. Phineas becomes a catalyst in Toby’s carefully-constructed world of placid certainty, but anyone who has watched a chemical reaction knows that the part before you add the catalyst can be pretty boring.
Phineas is a character whose life is full of tangible things happening; Toby’s life is far more internal. Generally, Phineas makes things happen, while things happen to Toby (a dilemma that is reflected in their ways of dealing with the same trauma: Phineas runs — a strategy reflected even in his career with a dance company that spends much of its time, more than half of every year, on tour — while Toby stands still; Phineas uses all his power never to think of it while Toby ponders it endlessly, but can’t seem to work it out).
In the past, I haven’t often found this hard to do — heck, I’ve all but written out the original main character of Kirnan because he was, frankly, kind of a boring one-dimensional goody-goody — but this time I’m really struggling with it.
Which, I suppose, is probably evidence in favor of the decision. I love Phineas too much and stand too close to him to really use him well as a narrator. He can’t tell his own story in his own voice. Not yet.
So there you have it. Phineas (as a narrator) must die so that Phineas (as a character) can live. Feh.
Anyway, that’s it for now. Having made this decision, I’m starting to see my way clear plot-wise, so I guess I’ll go strike while the iron is hot.
À bientôt, mes amis.