Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Didn't Always Want To Write

The blog description hints at this, but it took more than a few hyphens to make the transition from dancing to writing. To keep this from getting too long and convoluted, I'll start with the first, most basic layer.

My mother took me to my first dance class when I was 6 years old. After a few hiccups because of silly baby things like "It's too hard!" and "It hurts when I stretch!", I fell in love. By age 11, I had been competing regionally for a few years with lots of shiny medals to show for it, and went to my first dance convention, a deeply spiritual and formative experience that deserves a post of its own. My teachers admired my dedication and potential, and I'm sure my relatives were thrilled with the abundance of pictures of me in adorable outfits.

For myself, especially after that convention, I went through every day with the peace and certainty of a person who knew exactly what they were going to do with their life. I branched out from just tap and took jazz and ballet classes as well. Stretching became therapeutic, not painful. As I matured, the way I felt when I danced slowly began to match the way I moved. I say this humbly, but in truth: I was pretty darn good. By age 15, I was confident enough in my abilities to smile, wink, and otherwise emote my enthusiasm to the judges. "Go ahead, watch me."

It also helped that I had a boyfriend, I think.

But at some point, I'm not really sure when it was, I hit a wall. My improvements from year to year were less  dramatic, and whenever I competed I couldn't take my eyes off the girls from the other studios. When I was younger, I could look at them and think, "I can be that good someday." But now that I was in high school and nearing the end of my instruction I realized I was running out of time. Sure, I could hope that going to college as a dance major would help me close the gap between where I was and where I, needed to be, but financial restraints kept me from dedicating myself fully to the idea. In hindsight, I'm glad I didn't. The cost would have been horrendous even if I had been talented enough to get a boatload of scholarships, and I can say with certainty that it wouldn't have paid off.

I adjusted my dreams to reality. I wouldn't own a critically acclaimed studio; I wouldn't win So You Think You Can Dance; I wouldn't be the principal dancer of a prestigious company, in New York or elsewhere. But I had a knack for choreography. I watched two studios perform to the same song and saw which one was an amalgam of formulaic crowd-pleasers and which one allowed itself to be inspired by, and beyond, the lyrics and rhythm. I wouldn't be lying if I said I became something of a snob about it. (Aren't most art critics?) 17 now, I was the early stages of developing my own style and motifs, though past teachers and routines still influenced me heavily.

Senior year. Just a little over a week until my last competition, and less than three months until recital, graduation, wedding, leaving the nest. Disaster strikes. I'm practicing a new leap I had learned and was considering adding to my solo. Something feels wrong when I land. I shake it off, tell myself it was a matter of improper weight distribution. I'll get it next time. I prepare to do it again. I never leave the ground.

Two days later, the podiatrist says I have broken a major blood vessel between my second and third toes. A freak accident, he says. Never seen it before, will probably never see it again. Recovery will take eight to ten weeks.

Until this point, I had never experienced anything more serious than a bruised tailbone. (Never take your butt for granted. It does more than you think.) Even with my distress, I knew I was lucky. The horror of the injury lay not in its nature but its location. I cannot walk without limping, to say nothing of dancing. For my last competition ever, I do not even consider bringing my costumes, shoes, and make-up. The thought of dancing is that unfathomable in my condition. Dozens of fellow dancers ask me, "What happened?" I have been at the competition site for less than an hour, and I'm already tired of telling the story. I stand in the wings, favoring one foot while the rest of my class performs. During my lyrical piece, my partner looks strange when she embraces the empty air. I don't remember how my studio placed.

I will not finish choreographing my solo for recital. My voice cracks as I tell this to the studio owner. I realize I didn't have the mental fortitude to add yet another thing to my ambitious list of things to do anyway.

Dress rehearsal for recital. I've been able to participate in the last few classes, but I'm taking it easy. I'm getting married the day after recital, and I want to walk boldly down the aisle in high heels, dammit. The next day someone posts a mid-leap photo of me on Facebook. It is one of the quintessential "Wow!" shots of my chosen profession. I've always wished someone would capture one of me.

My legs aren't straight, or as horizontal as they should be, my gimpy foot isn't pointed all the way. My arms at least in the right position, though a bit limp. My expression is too pensive for a routine meant to be joyful. I look exhausted. Worst of all, I don't look like a professional.

Recital night. I have six costumes. Tap. Graduating seniors dance. Ballet. Lyrical. Duet with my younger sister. (We hold hands for the first time in years as we walk through the dark to our positions.) Pointe. Production. At least, I think that was the order. Mistakes were minimal, though I completely forget one of the last sequences of the pointe dance, one of my favorite routines. I hold an improvised pose until I can jump back in.

By the end of the night, I'm just glad it's over.

My last few months as a student did nothing to change my post-graduation plans - move to upstate New York, otherwise known as the prettiest place on earth with my husband and get a teaching job - but it did rattle my already fragile self-confidence. I spent my first six months querying studios in the area. In the entire county, three were within reasonable driving distance. (My hometown alone had at least ten.) When I called the most promising of the three, I had to hang up before I finished my voicemail because I stumbled over my words too much. My second attempt was much better, though my mother-in-law says I left a dent in the backyard from pacing so much.

I won't detail the whole ordeal as this is already getting too long, but suffice to say that every studio was a long established, some decades old, one woman show that had no interest in expanding the payroll or the classes they offered. When I changed my strategy and asked about adult or private classes I could take to keep my technique sharp, the answer was a flat, unchangeable "no". "That is not a door I am interested in opening," one of them told me.

I kicked myself for not finding this information sooner, but again, I persevered. I didn't need a studio. I just needed to dance.

A year and a half later my greatest achievement was a ballet solo for a children's Christmas pageant. The whole thing took place in the basement of a 100-member church. I had to keep my movements small to avoid kicking my audience. When I suggested a worship dance program open to all ages, the person in charge of such things gently said it wouldn't be possible. Though I was very well received at the pageant, the woman who ran the best studio in town was the granddaughter of one the parishioners. "We wouldn't want to offend the family." No evidence was ever presented to me that they would be, or that the woman would have ever started something similar given the opportunity, but it was another wall. I could have spoken to the family myself, but at that point I was so demoralized by small town politics and its mentality that I couldn't bring myself to try.

I made half-hearted attempts to contact other churches. After all, dance was a universal blessing, and I didn't need to root it in my own denomination for it to be successful. The concept of dance as a religious expression, such a treasured part of life at home, was beyond comprehension to the people here. They were very sweet, but it was obvious they had no idea what to do with me.

A few weeks after my last phone call, I waited in my bedroom until I knew I would be alone and unheard. I let myself come undone. But just in case, I wailed into my pillow. And that was the end.

I have since decided that it was my first break-up, as devastating as the loss of any boy. Moreso, even, because the courtship was so long and I was so devoted and there was so much promise. Like most first boyfriends, a part of me will always love it, will always belong to it. I can now watch other people dance without tasting salt and my own bitterness. Thoughts like, "Should I have done more? What could I have done differently? Did I give up too soon?" no longer plague me.

Who knows, I might one day be in a more urban, culturally alive setting, and I can take a class, one hour a week. Paying per class, not month. It would be a friendship. Less intensity, fewer expectations, but perhaps just as fulfilling.

And in the meantime, I have my writing.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

About My Book

I'm working my way through the second draft of my first novel, a gritty heroic fantasy tentatively titled Chains of Gold and Iron. My elevator pitch still needs work (people on trains are great practice for when I eventually meet an editor or agent), but so far I've boiled it down to this:

"Two elven siblings - one devoted to a god of healing, the other a god of war - are sold into a pit fighting circuit by a merchant lord who sees their divine gifts as an opportunity for profit."

Sure, it cuts to the meat of the plot, but it leaves out the things that I find most interesting to explore within the story. The book alternates between the perspectives of two very different people, and I think that comparing and contrasting their inner workings is what turns a fairly straight-forward concept into something more. (Intro to Psychology tied with Writer's Craft as my favorite elective in high school; the two interests became inextricably entwined, and since then I have not enjoyed reading or writing about well-adjusted people.)

We have Kortesh: a brash spitfire who's spent all his life in his elder brother's shadow. Embracing the teachings of Cevarius, a human god of war, gives him something to strive for, but sparring matches and history lessons get a bit repetitive after 120 years. Bored and untried, he jumps at the chance to see the world and find out what he's capable of.

Then there's Elestyne: younger than Kortesh by one year, and the lone agnostic among a family of clergy; however, any elf who wants to be seen as a medical professional associates themselves with Leiana, patron deity of their race. She packs up her kit and heads for the frontiers, hoping to share her knowledge and talents in a place where most people acknowledge the rule of neither kings nor gods.

A merchant friend of the family offers to let them stay with him until they get on their feet, in exchange for a favor or two. But when someone tries to rob the merchant and threatens both siblings, which one of them uses magic they didn't know they had to accidentally kill the would-be thief?

Not Kortesh. *grins*

This leads to the stuff mentioned in the pitch, and then the real story begins. I get to subvert and deconstruct some of my favorite tropes in the genre, both for horrific and comedic effect - occasionally at the same time!
(I mean, seriously, pit fighting elves? I've had almost 2 years to adjust to the concept and I still think it's weird.)

My only hope is that one day my skill will match my enthusiasm, and I'll have the writing chops to do the story justice.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hello, world!

It's generic, it's amateurish, but it's mine.

I'm hoping this blog will fill a need I've had for a while. Facebook is a fun place for sharing quippy one-liners and commiseration for life's common struggles, but I wouldn't attempt an in-depth conversation with someone over the medium. We've all seen someone try it. Most of the time, it doesn't end well.

I've also been a part of many forums over the years. They're great for getting a variety of views on a variety of topics, but even online I am an introvert. I lurk more than post, and when I do post I feel like I'm intruding on the turf of the more prolific regulars.

This is going to be a place where I can talk about things I think are awesome. As such, it's going to be a bit unfocused at first, and I can't guarantee that every person is going to be interested in every post. Since I just jumped right into blogging and am figuring it out as I go, perhaps I'll split things up into different categories later on if the archives get out of hand. I like the concept of organization, but the execution and subsequent maintenance is an epic struggle. Anyone who has seen my desk at any point in time will understand this.

The first few posts are probably going to be writing-related. I'm in the midst of revising my first fantasy novel, so I'm absorbing as much about the craft as I can. But I also used to be a competitive dancer, I watch anime and play video games, and I'm currently a cashier at a dollar store. Despite my hermit-friendly pursuits and dead end job, I still manage to live an interesting life.

And here I will conclude my long-winded blog intro and get back to my book. The main antagonist just made his first appearance, and he has a tendency to steal the show.