There are days when I show up to the page- more of them lately- and it’s a grind. I know I have to do it, because I see that I’ve marked up my writing calendar with how many chapters I need to revise a day and I’ve been working on Orphan Pods for so long, I just have to do it. Like a runner’s high, or a dancer’s euphoria, once I get my stride, I’m there, and it’s no longer painful. (Just for the record, I’ve never had a runner’s high, but the dance euphoria I definitely know).
I recently had a dance workshop with Laura Dalava and Elias Travers that taught me a lot about pushing against what I think my natural boundaries are. I think it starts first with the heart, your feelings, breathing into the work, then with your body, your mind and everything that we think makes writing what it is.
Laura said something incredibly profound: “A lot of what we do in Brazilian Zouk works against your body’s natural processes. You have to train your body to do something that feels unnatural so it becomes natural to you.”
A lot of dance is just that: stretching and training the body to make it more resilient and pliable with what you need it to do. (Even if that means spinning with your head tilted sideways).
Writing to me often starts with pen to paper. It’s so rudimentary. Sometimes it’s even typewriter keys to paper. I have to let myself do things badly. (A lot of my early progress in dance involves this too: I have to do things badly so I can learn, make mistakes and break free of my desire for perfection.) I also have to take feedback frequently.
I often think that there aren’t any rules other than: feel, revise, feel again, revise again, seek outside input, and, you’ve got it, revise again. These can be rearranged in many different combinations, but those basics of embracing the art of revision have to be there.
I also have to give myself the space to see my characters, even my future characters hovering on the periphery, asking me things, needing me to breathe life into them as they lurk by the lake while I dance under the stars. I have to give myself time to sit down, cobble down a few lines in my tiny notebook before being whisked out on the dance floor again.
A lot of the time, I’m drafting or revising when I’m dead tired in the morning, my eyes sandy, my brain foggy. However, I want to write a few lines because I want writers to know they’re not alone. I want them to embrace that they’re part of a larger community doing hard things and that they too can train their brains and bodies to do this important work.
Another fun note: just because you have a few books published, the process doesn’t get easier. If anything, it can feel muddier because each manuscript requires something different from you. A different stretching and flexibility.
You might ask, what if life gets really shitty and it feels like everything is standing in the way of writing?
Write anyway. Just three lines. Or three stanzas, if you’re a poet. Let the words that are in your brain seep into the paper. Don’t lose that connection with the page, even if it’s your thumb typing into your phone. Some of my best writing has happened when things truly fell apart. I was able to go somewhere with my characters that it was hard to access without the rock bottomness of life.
Lean into where you are and use it. I don’t mean this in an unhealthy way, but in a channeling, healing way. Trust that in revision you’ll sweep things where they need to go.
There is a trust that happens with your art. For me, there’s a triad that stabilizes my writing life: reading/writing, dancing, singing. I need to practice all three to feel in harmony. In different seasons of my life I’m doing more dancing/writing with my singing being reserved to when I’m driving. Sometimes I’m doing more reading and less writing, but the point is that I use what is in my life and let it swirl around me to fill the well.
Sometimes, when we don’t feel like writing it is resistance, fear, the oppressor telling us we can’t do it. At other times, it is that we’re depleted and our body is telling us to take care. At other times, it is simply something else holding us back that we need to write through, investigate and dig deep to investigate. (For more on this, check out Allie Pleiter’s blog.)
Often, I find that at the root of the act of resistance is a fear that we will dig so deep that we’ll be lost and can’t find our way back. There has to be a trust built around our writing practice, just like there’s a trust I have to have with each lead I follow. I have to breathe with him, let it flow and trust that we’ll come out the other end safe and more knowledgeable than when we started. Most of the time, that trust alone carries me through that initial panic that I won’t be able to move the way that lead needs me to move, needs me to trust, hopes that I will care enough to surrender.
Ultimately, I believe writing requires a type of surrender and trust, not only in ourselves, but in the characters forming under our fingertips.
When I wrote Hirana’s War, I was under a lot of pressure. I had just left traditional employment for the first time in my life, had started The Writing Consultancy and had a massive publishing deadline looming over me. Hirana’s War also had more parallels to my real life than any other book I’d written and that scared me. It look me longer to write scenes with one of my characters, Gulnaz, because she just wouldn’t speak to me. I had to leave town, book into an Air BnB in the woods in East Texas where I heard gunshots throughout the day and found myself in very unfamiliar territory. But it was exactly what I needed to hear Gulnaz and her feelings of disorientation. Those six days were some of the most productive of my writing life.
They weren’t comfortable. I had many tearful moments of writing her scenes, but I also had other moments of walking in the woods, feeling some scary thing on my trail, only to turn and find nothing behind me. The further I walked toward Gulnaz, the less afraid I became, because I could see who she was instead of what I wanted her to be to fulfill my vision of the book. I had to let her take the reins and show me the hurt, the history, the joy, and why self destruction was a type of control, the only type she’d ever known.
I don’t write to be successful. I write to experiment and push my boundaries. I also don’t dance to look beautiful or elegant (though, sometimes I hope I am). I want to feel, to love, to express myself and to join in a beautiful dance with another person and feel that connection that is so real and visceral. I like feeling like I can push both my body and mind and it’s probably what keeps me writing and dancing. They are my two true loves, since I was probably four years old and I doubt much will change that, even incredibly rocky seasons of life.
If you’re still feeling like the writing is hard, find what you love, even if it’s making little swirls with coloured pencils on the paper. Seek the love, and go from there.