I’ve decided to challenge myself this year and endeavor to learn a new dance that I’m completely unfamiliar with: Brazilian Zouk! Several months ago as I stood with the other beginners, anxious to be with the advanced dancers further up in the giant dance space at Inspired Movement, I reminded myself to slow down, breathe and enjoy the sensation of learning, of doing something badly and embracing constant revision.
Since I primarily partner dance, it means I’m not only monitoring my own body, but how it flows and moves with my partner. When I cut out, daydream or become unfocused, I have to revise again. My instructor recently said, “Remember that often as dancers we’re afraid to mess up and step on someone’s toes. Just go ahead and do that. Make those mistakes, that’s how you learn. It’s better to do that than to be so careful that you don’t step and never learn.” That hit me like a lightning bolt! Aha! That is my problem as a dancer, and often as a writer as well. I’m so careful with my prose that I won’t make the bold choices a narrative requires until later revisions. Occasionally, that’s after a lot of prodding from critique partners and editors alike!
The relationship between an editor and author is not unlike the dynamic between lead and follow in Brazilian Zouk. A recent workshop with Gui Prada illuminated this dynamic so clearly for me. It was particularly revelatory because Gui focused so much on guiding us to rethink how we dance, the energy we communicate to one another emotionally, and how our bodies interacted with each other based on specific touch points. Gui broke down and focused on the fundamentals of touch and interaction and invited the follows to give feedback to the leaders. This structured feedback lead to a beautiful synergy and a much more enjoyable dance experience for me, because I felt listened to, empowered to say what wouldn’t work for my body, and I didn’t have to worry that a lead was going to be offended that I was trying to do her/his job for him.
Similar to partner dancing with a lead and follow, the world of writing and publishing requires both an author and editor to make a good book. There’s a delicate, but necessary balance of give and take on both author and editor, which is also an integral part of the relationship between lead and follow in dance, which I never fully understood before Gui’s workshop. Incorporating feedback involves an emotional connection and receptiveness in both individuals for a work to reach its full potential. A connection in text and also in dance cannot be made without your emotions being involved. When you revise, you have to seek out the love in your manuscript, like dancers gravitate toward movement patterns in beloved songs that weave a narrative. At the end of the day, writing and dancing are both about creating a story.
One of the main tenets of Gui’s Leaders Intensive Training (which can apply to more than just Brazilian Zouk dancing) was “the mindset: the ability and willingness to adapt.” What does this have to do with writing and revision? Honestly, everything.
The bulk of inquiries I receive from new authors consist of individuals who have been laboring on their book/stories anywhere from 1-10+ years. The longer they’ve labored alone, and the less they’ve had outside input, the more their idea of their book’s vision has calcified. It’s similar to a comment from a lead I was struggling to dance with after the workshop who kept lamenting “This move works so well when I’m dancing by myself. I don’t understand what the problem is.”
I stopped dancing and grinned, wondering for a moment if he’d been listening during the 10+ hours of instruction that weekend. “Loads of moves work well when we’re dancing by ourselves. But, that’s not what we’re doing here. This is Brazilian Zouk: it requires both of us to make the dance,” I said.
The act of revision cannot always be done alone in front of your computer screen any more than practicing my dance moves in front of a mirror will train me to dance with a lead. I have to go to class, take private one-on-one lessons, and attend workshops. But, most of all I have to practice the art of revision with the person in front of me.
The reason I bring this up is because I’ll meet with authors (for their free consult with me) who will sometimes scoff at my suggestions that they:
- Need to be flexible with their vision of their book, because it will be hard to sell or pitch in its current state,
- Must take writing classes, workshops or work with a writing coach because their prose isn’t at the necessary level to construct a compelling narrative. However, with work their story can get there,
- Need a community of writers, or at least one writing pal to confide in outside of the editor’s relationship so that they have a peer to collaborate with and use as a sounding board for their developing ideas.
Why are dancers, musicians and actors continually taking classes and workshops without a moment’s hesitation, but some writers think that simply getting a short critique from an established author, a partial edit of their manuscript, or attending an occasional weekend workshop once every couple of years will somehow increase their skill level as a writer and artist?
I’ve been asked a lot lately whether simply getting an MFA is the answer. There aren’t any easy answers. If you want to get better, you have to dig deep and do the internal as well as external work to examine your mindset about your art. Assume nothing, because your effort won’t guarantee you become a star in the literary scene any more than attending every dance workshop out there will guarantee I become the best partner to everyone I dance with. There is always something I’ll have to work on and I’m okay with that.
Gui talked about the different aspects of his body he had to work on in the past (his head drifting toward his shorter follow) and the continuous work of keeping his left hand from squeezing his partner’s hand. He was open to the experience of listening to feedback from his dance partners, and as a result, his dancing truly looks like pure magic. Most importantly, the people dancing with him are having a good time too. They don’t look stressed because he meets them where they are.
I strive to be that editor that always meets people where they are. Likewise, I want to be that author that meets my critique partners, editors and collaborators where they are and has a flexible mindset about where my stories can go without having expectations or assumptions about things I have zero control over.
The writers that I see make the most progress are the ones who understand the power of their mindset, and who ask a lot of important questions, like:
- Is it worthwhile to keep submitting to agents after 10+ rejections?
- How is the feedback I’ve received from beta readers different from the feedback from a professional editor?
- How will my story concept sell?
- What in my writing needs the most attention right now?
- If I get a professional edit on my manuscript, will it increase my chances of landing a literary agent or my book gaining traction as an indie publishing venture?
- How can I revise my work myself after a professional edit?
- How can I make my book read like __________?
It isn’t a weakness to be aware that you can always be better.
My answers to a lot of these questions vary with the author, but they all involve embracing the partnership that’s essential in the hauntingly beautiful dance of writing. A few tenets of Gui’s teaching that especially felt relevant to embracing the art of revision in dance:
- Assume nothing-leads need to go into the dance without an agenda
- When the follower gives feedback about what feels good for them in their bodies, it gives the leader a chance to meet them where they are and, most importantly, adapt
- Adaptation is maybe the main element of our work
- The process of graciously accepting feedback has the potential to create great leaders if they are open to receiving and incorporating
- A process of permission and revision when concepts are broken down slowly into steps that built on each other (lateral, viradinha, basic, body rolls, sways, pressure points, etc…)
Modifying the above for writing fiction and narrative non-fiction:
- Assume nothing about where your writing has to go. Instead start the act of revising with goals for submission, but understand there are specific points you’ll need to concentrate on first before that submission. (You’re likely going to need to revise upwards of 3-5 times or more.)
- Authors need to communicate and ask questions of those giving them feedback, especially if they’re paying for edits. Mention what feedback is helping you to improve, and notice what is harder to hear and why. Be open to discussing that so that your editor knows how they can help.
- Editors and authors need clear communication and that can be hard if authors aren’t attending events or booking in time with editors to make that happen. (Just like I pay to go dance class so I have access to my instructor, similarly authors can do the same).
- Accept that anyone who takes the time to give you feedback has taken a lot of time and thought to give that feedback (I hope!) and accept it graciously. You don’t have to revise everything they address, especially if it feels wrong in your gut, but do consider it before rejecting it. Give it three days, at the very least. The process of accepting feedback will make you a better writer. Never let your ego win, because you’ll lose precious opportunities to become the artist you dream of being.
- Give yourself permission to go back to the basics and understand them: POV, narrative structure, and various voicings in fiction and memoir. Re-read and analyze, imitate (as an exercise) “the greats” that you love: their dialogue and narration. Know the terminology and how it functions in the genre(s) you’re writing in. Going back to the basics is a great way for me to anchor myself after a big edit with a lot of feedback. It’s okay to get feedback that says “not yet ready” or “not yet there.” It isn’t personal, it’s professional and it’s an opportunity for me to stretch after dusting myself off!
What makes dancing with another person engaging, at the end of the day, is the connection. That connection cannot be reached without constant and inventive revision. It’s an art, this act of subjecting your body and mind to a process of adaptation. Nevertheless, the end result is absolutely beautiful. Especially when after dancing for only a few months, you triumphantly declare: I can do more than the basics!
The same rings true when you’ve applied a flexible mindset to your stories and the feedback you receive. Because you’ve listened to feedback, you’ve created an emotional connection between the reader and your characters. Instead of your story feeling basic and clunky, your words flow. The voice of your prose is engaging and people forget they’re reading a story and instead live inside the carefully constructed world you’ve created for them. Your words, your experience, or your fiction has captured that experience and transported the reader there.
I want to encourage you to embrace the art of revision and see the possibilities your work has. It isn’t if your work gets published, but when. Take out your writing notebook (if you don’t have one, get one) and start jotting down what your vision is for your writing life. Embrace that vision and aim today to work toward seeing what opportunities for revision there are to make that vision come to life. Give yourself permission to step on a few toes and move in the wrong direction so that you can eventually dance to the music and truly enjoy it.
Join me next month for the first installment of my regular human-interest blog series: “What’s Your Dance Story” where I interview and converse with amateur Latin dancers and pro teachers about what inspired them to join the world of dance. Subscribe here to receive this monthly story in your inbox. Interested in being interviewed? Go here for more information.