A Writer’s Discipline

I began my professional life not as a writer, but as a dancer. From a very young age, I learned to forgo my favorite Saturday morning cartoons (the only time they aired when I was young); and whether I was tired or not, whether the day was scented with spring or a brewing snowstorm, I would put on my pink tights and tie back my hair and go to my morning ballet class. There the endless repetition of pliés, tendues, and ports de bras were a ritual I accepted without question. From this seemingly dull routine I discovered a subtlety of form and interpretation, a relationship with movement and music, and a strange, particular purpose that filled me utterly.

Though I no longer dance, I draw upon that discipline every day as I sit at my computer to write. There’s never a question of whether I’ll be there, or if I’ll blow it off to go shopping or do the laundry or make a lunch date with a friend. It is only very rarely that I allow anything to distract me from the precious time I have set aside to work. And it is work, filled with the often mundane, frustrating, despairingly bad writing that I have learned is a necessary path to something good.

In those ballet days, I often struggled with my balance in arabesque penchée or stomped off the floor after moving too slowly in petite allegro, only to discover a morning when my movements were sparked with brilliance, when I sailed through grand allegro or pulled perfect quadruple pirouettes – yes, once upon a time, I could do quadruple pirouettes! – or when my ever favorite adagio was centered and serene.

Now, instead of pulling on tights and tying my hair in a bun, I make a cup of tea and answer a few emails, then set to work on the slow, focused practice that will hopefully, with daily effort and frequent failure, raise my writing from competent craft to something approaching art. These days I measure my accomplishment in well crafted paragraphs, in polished scenes whose beginnings, middles and ends cohere not only to themselves, but to the greater shape of my story. But I know those good paragraphs and pages must be built on the slow, hard chore of daily practice.

Right now my tea is almost finished, and this writing – like a dancer’s preliminary stretches – is almost through. I can almost hear my favorite ballet teacher saying, “Dancers, take your places. It is time to begin.”

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4 Comments

  • Warren Heygood

    I, too, begin my creative career as a writer. Your coloration of discipline between art forms is valid. My back ground is theatre and jazz. With jazz one has to master the scales and chords with constant repetition. In theatre, there is always the work no audience sees; the picking away at meaning, always questioning motives, running through difficult passages aloud in private. This is the work of art not the polished, nuanced performance of a finished product.

    The work of writing is never in the first draft. That has always been the Zen part of the process for me. It is the continual editing, going over and over, as in acting, to find that nuanced, polished manuscript. I cannot imagine the Thrall’s Tale ever being a first draft work, but one of repetition and craft.

    Keep putting these ingots of wisdom out there because in this up-to-the-second society we’re currently in, young artists need to know the time art truly takes to create. They also need to know that no matter how beautiful a triple pirouette one can pull off, there is always something to work on to make the whole better.

  • Stephanie Cowell

    Judy, it’s inspiring! I am bookmarking it! I think we look back on the times when whole scenes just rush upon us and choose to forget that between those glorious moments in the repetitive barre work, the tiny details. I have always wondered why I have been so fascinated with films about the discipline of the life of a classical dancer! I have watched L’Etoiles, about the dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet, about 15 times. When I get in trouble is when I say, “Well! Where’s my daily rush of total creative flying…”

    love, Stephanie (author of “Marrying Mozart”)

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