Keep the Channel Open
I was four years old when I decided I wanted to be a ballerina. My mom signed me up for lessons at a local studio, and I started in the fall of that year. Since I was so young when I began, I can’t say now exactly what about it seized me so thoroughly, though I’m almost certain it had to do with tutus. I desperately wanted to wear a tutu, the kind with crystals on the bodice and stiff tulle that sticks straight out from the hips (what's known as a pancake tutu, which is just about the cutest name for it). I wanted to move and to sparkle. I wanted to wear pointe shoes; to float and to spin on the tips of my toes as if I weighed less than a cloud, less than the wind. It was the closest, I believed (and still do), that anyone could ever come to flying.
Well, I’m very happy to report that I had the opportunity to wear many, many tutus—and tiaras! I love a good tiara—over the years, both pancake and Romantic, which is the kind with the long, full skirt. Many children take dance lessons at an early age, and I’d guess that most of them eventually stop and move on to other sports, other art forms. I, too, tried other things, like a disastrous summer of softball, a stint in baton twirling, and tennis. But through it all I never stopped dancing, never took a break. I kept going. And going. And going. I danced consistently, strenuously, to the exclusion of all other activities, from the age of four until I was twenty-two, including a four-week summer intensive with the American Ballet Theatre in Austin, Texas, when I was seventeen—a wonderful, if intense, experience. And it was not only ballet—I trained in character (folk dance), jazz, modern, and tap. I think I always knew I would never be a professional; I wasn’t quite at that level, and even if I were, the life of a professional ballerina is often a rough, uneven, and underpaid one. Still, ballet beat within me like a second heart; it taught me discipline, endurance, and how to express myself without words. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had not danced ballet. And I certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am either.
For me, ballet and writing will always be intertwined. Sometimes in a literal way, as with my forthcoming adult fantasy debut Little Bird, a story about a young woman in Depression Era Chicago whose promotion to prima ballerina puts her on a much more magical—and sinister—path than she ever imagined. Not all my novels are—or will be—about ballet, but even when they aren’t, my connection to ballet still informs so much about my writing. My sense of rhythm and movement is tied to voice and tone; my musicality also lends itself to word choice and sentence structure. The grandiosity and heightened drama of ballet seeps into my imagery. And, of course, the magic and romance inherent in ballet inspire the stories themselves, my characters’ sensibilities, and, especially, their capacity for wonder.
And so, that’s why one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is not actually about writing—it’s about dance. It comes from the book Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes de Mille. Both women, Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille, were dancers and choreographers born around the turn of the 19th century, pioneers of modern dance and musical theater, respectively. I have to confess, I haven’t read the book in full, though it’s on my ever-expanding to-read list. I stumbled across this passage on the internet a few years ago, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. It goes like this, as Agnes recounts a conversation she once had with Martha:
I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.” “But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.” “No artist is pleased.” “But then there is no satisfaction?” “No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Wow. There is so much here. So much to chew on. From the simple phrase keep the channel open, to Martha’s insistence that there is no satisfaction whatever at any time. The assertion that you are the only one who can create what you create the way that you create it, to the idea that producing art is a blessed unrest, that makes us more alive than the others. Art is the universe expressing itself through the artist; each artist is a piece of the universe, made flesh. Made to sing, and to paint, and to dance, and to write. There can be no true satisfaction because to be satisfied is to be done, and the work of the artist is never done. The work of the artist is to build on what has come before, to bring the picture of the universe into sharper focus, to ask questions, to keep searching. And that work cannot be done if we cut ourselves off from it, if we give into despair.
I have plenty of bad writing days; there are days that looking at what I’ve written makes me feel actually ill. Not good enough, says the mean little whisper in the back of my brain, echoing through my body and shivering through my bones. It’s not good enough and it will never be good enough. Garbage, garbage, garbage. Sometimes, when that happens, I just need to step away. Breaks are necessary. But other times, I open my favorite notebook, to where I’ve written this passage in bright pink ink, and I stand up, throwing my shoulders back. I read this passage aloud, more than once, slowly and in as firm a voice as I can. Keep the channel open! I always yell that part. KEEP THE CHANNEL OPEN! Don’t cut yourself off from the universe—from yourself. There is no satisfaction to be found here, but that is not why we write (or sing, or paint, or dance). We write because it keeps our feet marching, our hearts beating, our lungs breathing. We write because we must.
The universe will not have it any other way.