How is writing like dancing? Well, both require a lot of determination, practice and talent. As an Irish dancer, I know this to be true. With dancing, as with writing, you get better the more you perform or send work out. You also get better the more open you are about trying new things and making hideous mistakes. Author Sadie Stauffer of Raleigh, North Carolina, is a ballet dancer and wrote this blog after we had a brilliant conversation about how similar dance and writing are. Enjoy!
After college, I lived with a gal who has become my truest, dearest friend in the world. Fifteen years later, we are closer now than ever before. She introduced me to the wonderful, exquisitely-beautiful world of ballet, and my life became more enriched. I took ballet class with her, and felt all of my awkward, graceless form in new and public ways. My muscles groaned and pulsed with the contrived effort of learning new ways to move and bend, ways they had never before moved or bent.
I practiced pliés everywhere: doing dishes, drying my hair, standing and filing at my job. I did relevés while reaching my petite form to the uppermost shelves of cabinets. I did barre exercises at my bathroom and kitchen counters. I took classes at five or six different studios, to learn from different teachers, to increase my breadth of knowledge and try new styles. Because practice, practice, practice.
I knew the only way to teach my obdurate limbs, to force them to do—and remember—the movements and execute them correctly involved repetition and exploiting every opportunity for rehearsal. I had to push myself beyond what I currently thought my limits were.
Getting back into writing is lot like first learning to dance, of pushing myself to learn new skills or become more adroit in current skills. In this pursuit, I have stumbled upon several aspects that I have woven into my writing practice in order to challenge myself. These are both the questions I ask myself and others who read my work and the lessons I’ve incorporated that nudge me further on the road to becoming more skilled writer.
First: it requires practice. Initially, after having not written for almost two decades, it felt awkward, my writing muscles lethargic and atrophied. I hesitated, feeling the weight of my limbs, the sluggishness of my mind, dulled by disuse. I searched frantically for my vocabulary and syntax, onetime stalwart companions but now seemingly lost in time.
I began to write. I wrote timidly at first, every day, not telling anyone, and I wrote about different topics. I tried different styles: prose and conversation; short story and poetry (I am not a poet); fiction and non-fiction. I wrote in first person and third person. I created characters and described scenes. I practiced, and then I practiced more.
Second: I had to throw the fear of mistakes out the window. Writing pursues growth, not perfection.
At age 31, I enrolled in a ballet class where most of the girls were half my age; two were a third of my age. I was that weird adult woman who actually wanted to do recital; the other moms expressed too much fear of making mistakes on stage.
On recital day, my heart thrummed with anticipation, and not a little trepidation. What if I fell? What if I didn’t finish my pirouettes with a smiling and perfect fourth position flourish? The reality was that I probably would have a not-quite-fully-pointed toe, an arm not fully extended. Would I let that fear stop me, or take the stage and embrace the things I did correctly?
The key—I’d been told numerous times as a child prior to piano recitals—was to keep going. That no one would notice or remember, unless I stopped playing, or in this case, dancing. I made a few small blunders, but practice (remember number one?) made it easier for my feet and hands to progress to the next step.
And writing is like that too: if fear of failure or imperfection is permitted to take hold, success is already sacrificed. If I stop after receiving a rejection letter (and I’ve received some mean-spirited ones), then I’ve missed the point and abruptly ceased the dance mid-routine.
Third: study of structure. A ballet performance includes several standard elements: unison, solos, dancing around the stage in a circle, and turns. The variety, so that one does not feel as if one watches the same performance, depends entirely on the originality and intricacy of the choreography. The beauty comes from the structure, the execution of each movement, which enables the story behind the dance to take center stage (pun intended).
Similarly, writing genres are comprised of standard elements, but the originality of use and execution of structure make the story stand out. A novel generally has a beginning, a rising action, a dénouement, a falling action, and a resolution. Writing stories requires study by reading them: how the author crafted elements, characters, scenes inside the structure.
In reading, I study sentence structure; I learn new words. I mentally correct mistakes (apologies, but I do), which practices my working knowledge of grammar. Sidenote: I was one of those exceptionally geeky kids enthralled by diagramming sentences in grade school.
Some of the most enjoyable books contain beautifully intricate, varied sentence structure, by far for me the most enjoyable aspect of a book or article, followed closely by amazing story-crafting. But the story is propelled by the words and sentences; they are the foundational legs on which it stands. Without stable legs, even the most original and intriguing of plots falters, crumbles.
And so studying the structure of the genre(s) in which I intend to write becomes vital. Classes abound; however, if time is limited, as mine is right now with young children, I find classes here and there, while filling in with independent study and keeping in contact with writing mentors.
Fourth: vulnerability. I don’t think I could have entered the world of writing for a public audience any sooner in life; I had too much fear of vulnerability. If someone didn’t like it, all my hard work would be for naught.
Submitting an article or short story puts me back on stage, lights high, audience waiting with bated breath in that pregnant pause when the dancer holds the last position of the dance and waits for the curtain to close after the music fades away. Are they going to clap or criticize?
Reality includes some of both. Some will be touched and see the world with new eyes; others will scoff, disparage, dismiss.
Reality also includes the truth that one cannot grow in skill without sharing. I can be my own most patronizing supporter as well as my own harshest opponent. Neither puts emotion aside sufficiently in order to accurately celebrate the successes in my writing nor pinpoint the weaknesses in a manner that will encourage further growth.
And the goal is, ever and always, more growth.
And so my fifth and final point for pushing my personal boundaries as a writer includes support, an audience comprised of two types of readers. The first type is friends who will rave; I need them! The second type is more selected: I call them my allies.
Allies are better writers than I, on purpose. They are more accomplished and more knowledgeable. They are on my side, aiding me in becoming a better writer, but with emotions removed, they focus on honesty and gentle-but-firm truths about places to improve. Possibly the most important lesson learned recently from life experiences is that I cannot do this alone, in a vacuum. I need my friends, and I need my allies.
Each ballet teacher had a different background: one primarily studied Ballanchine; another Vaganova; and still another, Cecchetti. The arm and head positions change slightly, and arabesques are different. Still, by studying a variety of approaches, my depth of understanding about dancing, as well as my dancing itself, increased in proficiency. Each offered a different strength, a different description of the position or what muscle to focus on in order to achieve a higher extension, a tighter rotation, a better turnout. Writing allies possess strengths that vary from person to person too. As with multiple ballet teachers, I gain a more varied capability by plaiting their proficiencies into my own rather than walking solo.
These comprise the foundation I have begun to build the last years as I pursue this life-long dream of being a writer (my seven-year-old child-self rejoices to see her dreams coming true!). These are the things that push me beyond myself, my goals and perspective on writing that encourage me to stretch the limits and see what lies beyond the horizon.
Sadie Harper Stauffer graduated from Meredith College and has lived in Raleigh long enough to consider herself a native. She lives in North Raleigh with her three children. A stay-at-home single mom and entrepreneur, she started her own small interior design business. Though she adores designing professionally and cannot imagine life without it, she also cannot escape the life-long call of writing, and she loves finding ways of intertwining the two. She hopes to publish her memoir later this year and looks forward to writing more of her own work, as well as writing and editing for clients, while pursuing a graduate degree. Other future dreams include owning her own interior design boutique by day, then using the space by night to support local writers and artists with live readings, author signings, and other special events.
Contact Sadie at Sadie Stauffer