How Flashdance Started my Writing Career

December 7, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Morgan Baker

When I heard the news that Irene Cara of Flashdance died recently, the butterflies in my stomach twirled around and sank. Not only did her death bring up the issue of my mortality as she was only a year younger than me, it also brought me back to an empty movie theater on Tremont Street in Boston, where I watched Flashdance for the first time.

That day, the old theater smelled of stale popcorn and butter, with sticky floors and uncomfortable seats, and was nearly empty. I was there by myself, and as I watched, I became riveted. This movie was made for me.

It was 1983. I had graduated college three years earlier, and realized the world beyond the walls and the ivory tower wasn’t so great. In New York, where my peers and I had landed, I discovered that peeling potatoes and cutting up artichokes while wearing a toque, double-breasted white jacket and checkered pants in the kitchen of a fancy hotel really wasn’t my thing.

I moved to Boston and found a basement apartment in Kenmore Square which I shared with roaches and an army of mice. I watched Diana and Charles get married from my bed.

Like Jennifer Beals, I was encouraged by family to work in a safe environment – not to take gigantic risks. So, I went to secretarial school, which I rarely share with anyone, and then I worked in an ad agency as a glorified secretary and then as the head of the “traffic” department. My job was to report on what creative teams were on time with their work, and who was not. I did this at every Monday Morning Meeting in front of all the executives and president. I was a hired rat.

I had originally thought I could move into a writing position there – working creatively on print and TV ads. This was not going to happen. I didn’t have the skill set for jingles and snappy copy. 

I developed insomnia. On Sunday nights, I laid spreadsheets out on the floor in my new one-bedroom apartment between MIT frats on Beacon Street. I checked off those deadlines that had been met and highlighted in yellow those that hadn’t. I didn’t like being a snitch.

One day after work, I walked up Washington Street, between the pillars of the Boston shopping world – Filene’s and Jordan’s – and found my way into the little movie theater on Tremont.

There, on the screen, I saw Jennifer Beals, as Alex Owens, pursue her dream of dancing professionally against all odds and making it. She was a blue-collar steel worker and didn’t come from the world of ballet. And, we were the same age – sort of. If she could put herself out there like that, so could I. I forgot that this was a movie, where things turn out for the protagonist. I was hooked.

Just as Owens wanted to dance, I wanted to write. During my angsty teenage years, I played with poetry while listening to Fleetwood Mac and Carole King (still my hero). But poetry and I parted ways and while I was informing on my colleagues at the ad agency, I took classes in Public Relations where I learned to write press releases. I took classes in feature writing, where I learned how to interview sources. This was not an easy feat for someone who couldn’t speak in public and hid in the back of every classroom. But, I figured, if I could tattle on the creative teams in front of a room full of mostly older white men, I could do this too. I felt smart asking questions of people who knew more than me.

I loved writing. I missed taking college courses, and this felt like an extension of college. I yearned to write about topics and people I wanted to know about more. Writing was also an extension of me and my interests and thoughts. I loved finding the right word to describe a look, or a place.

But in order to really get better and have a career doing this, I’d have to take a leap of faith, and apply to graduate school. That was terrifying.

Beals, as she danced across the screen, gave me the push I needed. It didn’t hurt that a friend offered to give me $500 if I quit the same day.

I did.

I’ve never looked back. I am not a fancy writer with a world-renowned name and career, but I have written for a lot of publications and I’ve never been bored. I’ve written about child development and parenting and benefitted from a lot of free advice. I’ve written health pieces about miscarriage, sleep disruptions, STDs, and more. I wrote business pieces, where I learned about electric cars and assisted living long before they were commonplace. I’ve written profiles on some of the coolest people – singers, writers, lawyers, actors, and teachers. Most recently, I was the managing editor for a website for older readers on how to live fulfilling lives. I’ve also written personal essays and memoir pieces that resonate with readers.

And, I teach. I work in college classrooms where students are trying on different personas to see which fits best. I guide older writers who are working on their life stories. Some hope to publish and have, but all are compelled to write these stories and be heard. Just like me.

While Irene Cara is gone, Jennifer Beals is still alive. The take-away for me is the same today as it was in 1983. Follow your dreams. Don’t be discouraged by how hard it is. Keep focused, be persistent, and define your own success.
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Morgan Baker’s work has been featured in many regional and national publications both on-line and in print. These include The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Talking Writing, The Bark, Cognoscenti, and Hippocampus. She was managing editor of The Bucket. She teaches at Emerson College and through private workshops. Her memoir, Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Good-byes will be out Spring ’23 with Ten16 Press. For more information visit Morgan at bymorganbaker.com.

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