Writing Stage

February 26, 2019 § 12 Comments

By Jessica Ribera

I’m a performer to my very core, a person who aced every Show-and-Tell, a woman who never met a mic she didn’t adore. I started life as a ballet dancer reveling in stage time and show people. But context is everything. No one likes to be conspicuous, not even performers. They love standing out–but only in their proper places, the stage or the audition. My current, stay-at-home writer/mom gig hasn’t provided too many theater settings. Now I’m conspicuous: a flamingo in street clothes.

Sometimes I wax on about things no one else thought were weird. “You guys! That Uber ride! We were packed like sardines, but no one was talking! His breath was SO strong, and we kept hydroplaning, then “Don’t stop, get it, get it…” played, and I’m thinking WE’RE LISTENING QUIETLY TOGETHER TO A VULGAR SEX DESCRIPTION, and I. Almost. DIED!!!!”

But I hear, “That’s just Uber.”

I feel crazy. But I promise myself to work the scene into a piece of writing.

In conversations, I often worry I’m moving too much, monologuing about something no one else cares about. I wonder if they’re thinking, She’s interesting… or GEEZ, I thought she’d never shut up. But if someone clicks a link, they’re interested. So onto the paper it goes.

I regularly sit on my hands and wrap my legs to keep from dancing N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” lip-syncing “California Dreamin’” or performing the entire choreography of The Nutcracker in waiting rooms and grocery stores.

I hear a lot of, “You have to come to keep the conversation going.” Or, “show us a dance!” The invitations remind me of the career and colleagues I’ve lost. Rather than enjoying the opportunity to perform, I do it with a touch of sadness. I puzzle over it all by typing.

Once, in my child-filled minivan, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” demanded that I pull over. The thought of backup dancers all working together behind full-force Mariah so thoroughly clouded my eyes with longing, I couldn’t see through my windshield.

Lonely and conspicuous, I pour my performer self onto the page. Writing hasn’t yet solved the need to dance, but I’m finding an audience who love to read about it.

***

Recently in New York, I bought tickets to see a former colleague dance in Aladdin. Jace and I hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, but dance company friends are family, worth vacation cash.

I spent an insane amount on double scotches in adult sippy cups then settled in with friends. When Jace danced on stage, I misted like a mom at graduation.

You’re front and center, baby! On Broadway!

He’s tapping! On Broadway!

He was speaking lines! Popping through trap doors! Taking a curtain call! On Broadway! My pink palms stung with enthusiasm.

We girls smugly pushed past all the kids and parents waiting at the stage door, our names on the list. I admired the bulletin board, covered in call sheets perforated with a million pushpin holes, each one the memory of a callback, letter of dismissal, or renewed contract. There was a familiar lack of opulence, lots of poured concrete, and metal stairways. Pressed to the side, I shyly smiled at the exhausted performers exiting to cheap dinner, stiff drinks, and long subway rides. I wanted to shout, “I’m in your club!” and follow them out.

Jace came around the corner and I wrapped my arms around his sweaty muscles. “I am so proud of you.” He laughed in my ear and hugged me. “Want the tour?”

The New Amsterdam is the second-oldest theater in Manhattan. Huge photos of Ziegfeld Follies girls line the walls backstage. Jace was a great tour guide, like someone trained at Disneyland. But I honestly didn’t care for factoids. I wanted to gaze toward the house seats and beam into the balconies. My back straightened and clavicle spread. I pressed into my hyper-extended knees, and my feet turned out involuntarily. My little nostrils sucked backstage smell into my brain. It was as though someone held out white-dusted hands saying, “Remember cocaine?” And I could only answer quickly, inhaling deeply, “OH. MY. GOSH. YES.”

Costumes had Sharpie names in them same as ever. Lit mirrors showed no technological improvement. I could see the trap doors and tricks. Every mark on the stage directed me: “strike a pose!” While Jace answered questions in the wings, I stole back to center stage and sank into a perfect 180-degree split in my mom jeans and cheetah sweater.

Memories swished through me, but one thought rose to the surface:

This just can’t be over.

***

Barely into my career, a stagehand’s mistake sent me crashing to the floor and ruined my back. Devastated and no longer fit for classical ballet, I was dismissed from my places to be safely conspicuous. I retreated to practical pursuits: college, marriage, clean house, pregnancies.

I’m wildly thankful for my family.

I miss that old self terribly.

Dancing on the page helps me find and reincorporate her. Like Roald Dahl’s BFG, I package sensations to blow into people’s ears. Maybe the effort will reveal a path back to theater, my true home. For now I write to build my own stages and studios. I shout from the page, “Come in! See my thoughts. Add your feelings. Let’s be conspicuous!”

_________________________________________
Jessica Ribera moved to Seattle at 17 to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now, she lives there with her husband and four wild children. Her work has appeared in The Mighty, Scary Mommy, the Brevity blog, Fathom Magazine, and Red Tricycle. The Almost Dancer, her memoir of dance and disaster will be published by White Blackbird Books in 2019. Find her as @jeskybera on Twitter and @thealmostdancer on Instagram.

What’s Stopping You?

August 21, 2018 § 32 Comments

Multi-tasking is the key

Yesterday I went viral on Twitter:

And aside from 17 replies of “But I’m 97,” a few scoldings on how I shouldn’t glorify Laura Ingalls Wilder, 12 “What if I’m just lazy,” and a couple of crabapples sniping about factual accuracy (yes, I should have said “novel” for Twain), the overall response was one of relief.

Thank you, I needed that.

There’s still hope.

I needed to hear that today.

A lot of people are worried they might be too old, or not published enough (the paradox of not publishing until you’re published), or that being a writer is somehow a special condition and only certain people are allowed to contract it.

It was fun to see so many retweets and likes, and I checked in periodically while putting together a PowerPoint for a workshop next weekend, “25 Hours in the Day: Planning and Living a Writing Life.” I made pretty slides about saying no to tasks that don’t help your writing, and how many “obligations” we take on aren’t really things we’re obliged to do, and apps and tools to manage our time. Then I edited two hours for a client, went to the library and printed some maps I needed for novel research, refilled a prescription long-distance and answered some email.

My day also included a panic attack, where I wept and vented on the phone to my best writing friend, because I’ve just finished a writing workshop and booked myself three days of personal writing time in the same location, and I’m spending that time working for other people.

Not writing my book.

I feel my age closing in, the sense that I’ve “wasted my life,” which is patently ridiculous given that 1) I’m only in my 40s; and 2) I’ve already done three successful careers which, surprise! gave me shit to write about.

But in a one-on-one consultation with my teacher last week, he looked at me very sternly and said “You need to stop editing and write your own book.” I repeated that to my husband, who said “That’s what I’ve been telling you for four years.”

I like editing. I like teaching and speaking and helping other people work for their dreams, and I don’t want to quit entirely. I like blogging for Brevity.

I don’t want to quit teaching circus entirely.

I don’t want to quit traveling.

And all these things help me write, yes, but they also take time from writing. They demand physical and mental energy. That’s what we forget when planning our writing lives: it’s not the obligations we chafe at that are hard to shuck off—It’s the stuff we love.

Many writers love being a good spouse. Parenting well. Looking after a family member who needs help. Those aren’t writing hours.

We enjoy living in a nice place and keeping it up. We like working to pay rent and food and the care of people who need us. We take pride in doing well at that work—some of us even adore the work itself. Those aren’t writing hours.

If I’m going to write, I have to make writing hours. A lot of them. I don’t have kids, but I like being a good wife. I like the self-respect that came from being self-supporting. Some of being a good writer is sacrificing some of those two things. I contribute to the house with money and work, but after twenty primary-breadwinning years, I’m not self-supporting any more. My best writing time is often away from my husband by thousands of miles. And it’s hard to say no to editing clients, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can help them best.

Small things help: I pop in my earbuds and put on the song that launches me into one book or another. I maximize my time by turning off wifi and my phone. I updated my website to say I’m not taking on new writers, because it’s easier to have potential clients say no to themselves before emailing me.

I’m privileged that these are options I have; your barriers may be different and much harder to surmount. But it’s easy to make time for writing by saying, “I’ll get the kids to do their own laundry and start doing groceries only once a week.” It’s much harder to look at things we love and value, and decide we might love writing more. Especially when we aren’t living on our writing money, the time we spend can feel like self-indulgence, like a frill.

But we’d tell our treasured friend, You deserve that time. We’d say, Modeling dedication and focus is also good parenting. We’d tell them their spouse should be supportive, and applaud the spouses who were.

Let’s tell it to ourselves, too. Let’s ask, What’s stopping me from writing? and be brave enough to let go.

____________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Follow her adventures with the monthly I Do Words TinyLetter.

 

Throw It Away! A Writer’s Guide To Decluttering

May 8, 2018 § 24 Comments

My actual junk

We’ve all been there.

Friend of Friend: What do you do?

Writer: I’m a writer.

Friend of Friend: Hey, I have a great idea for a book! Why don’t you write it and when it gets published we split the money?

Writer: [weak smile]

Ideas are the easy part. Sure, “high-concept” pitching is a thing—It’s Speed, but on a boat! It’s the Wizard of Oz, but in space!—but it’s a thing for writers with a few airport-ready books under their belt and a relationship with a major publisher. Everyone else has to actually, y’know, WRITE THE BOOK.

That’s the hard part.

Ideas ignite passion and inspiration. But getting 60,000+ words on the page takes time and craft. That guy at the party doesn’t understand that most writers have plenty of unwritten ideas scribbled on scraps of paper and dictated into our phones at 3AM, sparked by articles we’ve read, lectures we’ve heard, people we’ve met. We are drowning in ideas.

Most of our ideas will never take flight enough to spend years of our lives writing them down. We stockpile them, stacking up paper and browser links against the day we’ll be out of ideas. The pile itself becomes an obligation, a list of ignored tasks weighing on us.

Sometimes the space for what you want is filled with what you’ve settled for. Full closets have no room for new clothes. Stuffed files shut out new ideas. (This also—sacrilege!—applies to bookshelves.)

I spent two days emptying basement boxes from a house I no longer live in. It was mostly stuff I hadn’t used in five years, stuff I’d never even unpacked after moving to that house in 2003. I thought files would be the hardest part. Banker boxes and milk crates full of past teaching syllabi and class assignments and yes, idea after idea. Folders marked Plays to Write, Articles to Read, Possible Blog Posts. But about six folders into the first box, I noticed, These ideas aren’t that good. Or they didn’t resonate with me enough to be worth my time. Or they’re something I think about a lot and don’t need twenty pieces of paper to remind me.

I started with 30 storage boxes, 7 of them documents and files. I started with fear. What if I couldn’t get rid of any of it? Was I a failure if I threw away an idea I’d never tackled? What if I got sad, or angry at my past self? What if something I really valued had been destroyed by that water leak three years ago? After two days and the (paid) help of a friend, I’m still not done with the basement, but the dread is gone. So is most of the stuff. Seven boxes and 6 garbage bags to charity; 3 boxes and 2 bags to the community theatre; 6 bags of documents to the shredder; 6 bags of trash to the curb; a stack of empty boxes.

I’m keeping one box. One. Plus half a box of “letters and photos I don’t want to go through right this minute.”

I feel amazing.

In my one box, I have two files of ideas to be written. They aren’t fat files. They, plus my notebook, plus my brain that still works, are plenty of ideas for the rest of my writing life.

Ideas aren’t precious and they aren’t hard. Execution is hard, and keeping a paper fort of ideas doesn’t do anything for our work ethic.

Contemplating your own files with terror? Here’s how to get started:

Don’t sort in the storage space. Take everything into a clean room where it must earn its place.

TOSS:

  • Multiple manuscripts with workshop notes. In the future, copy feedback into one document, which pinpoints problem locations even if everyone sees a different problem. Throw away notes from writers you dislike—they aren’t inspiring to use.
  • Articles that sparked ideas. They’re all online.
  • Old syllabi. You know how to write a syllabus.
  • Old student evaluations. You’re never going to quote them.
  • Anything on your computer and backed up. Double-check your backup process.
  • Multiple copies of magazines you’re in. That’s why God invented PDFs. If your Mom wanted a copy, you already gave it to her.
  • Other people’s work you never got around to commenting on. I hereby absolve you of writer’s karma. Cultivate one reader friend (or two) you regularly exchange with and don’t keep track, or a “muse” who reads everything you write and asks nothing in return.
  • Box up books you thought would make you a better person if you read them and books you didn’t like but feel like you should. Get rid of unread classmates’ books inscribed with meaningful notes. Photograph the inscription if you feel really bad. You can delete the photo next year.

KEEP:

  • Minimal notes/research for no more than six projects.
  • One copy of things you wrote that lived on floppy disk/zip drive/your previous computer. You probably won’t ever type it up/scan it. Review next year and toss half.
  • Your sense of humor

Keeping paper doesn’t lead to more/better writing. Trust that your brain is a pipeline. Flush out the reservoir and make space for new ideas.

_____________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Memoir From Memory, including how to write a memoir proposal, at Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey, June 10th.

Gnawing the Story Bone

September 25, 2012 § 29 Comments

“Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life…
Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still”
—Thoreau, as quoted in Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

A GUEST POST FROM ALEXIS PAIGE:

I am a writer first, but once I become a teacher, I will use smoke and mirrors to get my students unstuck, to get them gnawing on their own bones. We do rapid-fire writing drills. I play keen illusionist to their bored bravado, ratcheting the intensity with cliché—C’mon, guys! Time’s a-wasting! There’s money on the line! (Who says such things?) In fact, our whole selves are on the line, and we all know this, hence, the magic show. As writers, we sometimes have to trick ourselves into going there: we have to dodge our conscious minds with sporting maneuvers.

I do, anyway. Each time I write (or teach) I stand at this conscious edge, with my mind’s cartoonish miasma at my back—all of its limitations and lost points and monkeys and awful fucking chatter. Still, going there and beyond is the point, the singular, impossible point, and sometimes it is also the reward. The point is to hold my breath and throw my whole body into the deep that others may do the same—whether in writing or life. The point is to do it because others have done it before, and their doing it mattered.

So I find prompts in writing books or online, and I save them in my teacher’s Rolodex. My students sniff corny from a mile off; corny doesn’t get you there. The good prompts mimic the jumping off point, that feeling of running headlong at the abyss until your breath is ragged, your steps loose engines of wholeness, and your rhythm your own little rain dance.  I remember. I don’t remember. I think. I don’t think. I fear. I don’t fear. I love. I don’t love.  I am.  I am not. Good stuff comes from the litotes; some higher force comes to bear in the negations, and tamps the language into shiny coins.  My students fear the surprises that emerge here; they don’t want to share them. “That’s good,” I tell them, “go on…” And here again, I am convincing myself.

“What’s your larger theme?” my writing buddy Sarah asks about my current memoir project. I don’t want it, but I need her to ask this, to prompt me in this way. She says, “I think it’s: Why Alcoholism?” I have to stop for a few days and ask the question until it becomes a koan. What is the theme? What is the theme? Why? Where am I going? What do I want people to do or feel? The questions seem aimless, rising dust motes in my ears. And then I have it: it is not Why alcoholism? Not exactly. It is so simple, it seems silly to write it down, but I do anyway–on a sticky note with the closest available marker:

WHO AM I?

“What am I to myself/ that must be remembered,/ insisted upon/ so often?” Robert Creeley writes in his poem “The Rain.”  Ultimately, we keep writing and prompting and asking not because we want to know so much as we need the relief that comes after the knowing, the relief that comes after the awful black mounting and the storms marching upon us. We need the rain to come and wash us clean.

Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.

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