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Why Do You Dance?

I love dance, and I love Paris. So when I first saw the trailers for a little animated movie called Leap! (known as Ballerina outside the U.S.), I was completely taken in, and just had to see it when it came out. The movie is about a girl named Félicie who loves to dance and dreams of going to ballet school in Paris. Her best friend Victor dreams of being a famous inventor. So one night they escape their depressing Breton orphanage (using a glider-like set of “wings” Victor has invented, which he calls “Chicken Wings” — hilariously, despite his obsession with chickens, Victor has yet to realize they can’t fly) and catch a train to Paris.

Félicie finds getting into the famous Opéra de Paris ballet school isn’t an easy thing, and it takes her a lot of work to achieve her dream in the end. Throughout the movie, people keep asking her over and over “Why do you dance?”. And every time she dodges the question, acting like it isn’t important. Finally, towards the end of the movie, the school’s ballet teacher Mérante asks Félicie and her rival Camille this question, and Félicie finally has a response:

 

Something about Félicie’s answer moves me. With the very passion that separates her from Camille, she says:

Because it’s always been a part of my life. It was there with my mom when I was a baby, and it’s here now thanks to Odette. It allows me to live, to be myself.

The question is about dancing because this movie is about dancing, but I feel like you could insert anything in for “dance” and ask the same question. In my case, it would be writing. Why do I write?

Like with Félicie, writing has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Maybe not when I was a baby, but pretty early on. From the time I learned to read at three and a half, I read pretty much everything I could find. To this day, I still read everything, even if it’s some memo sitting on the table at work that’s not even meant for me, or something boring like the rules for alternate workweek elections on the OSHA poster in our breakroom. As a child, I would leaf through cookbooks and encyclopedias just as much as I read the Baby-Sitters’ Club or the American Girl books. I read books like The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata’s Diary and learned early on about the evils of war. I read The Secret Garden and learned about gardens and flowers and how people can be changed by the littlest things, like making a long-forgotten garden bloom again.

But back then I was also creating stories, though mostly in my head at that point. I came up with an elaborate imaginary life, where I was part of some theater troupe (and later a dance troupe), babysat imaginary kids (with a schedule, no less), and played spy (à la Harriet Welsch), observing the people on the playground along with my best friend, complete with a little notebook to write in.

This ultimately all led to me starting to write seriously around age 12. At this point, I mostly wrote poetry. I also wrote some novels, but I don’t really remember what they were about, only that they were rather awful. In high school, I wrote a couple comic scripts involving a rather X-Men-esque team of superheroes (then abandoned them when I remembered that I couldn’t draw). I think I also wrote that terrible murder mystery novel then. It was set in the ’30’s and was inspired by Agatha Christie, the only mystery author I think I’d ever read at that point (though I’d read other mysteries — I was and still am a huge fan of the Boxcar Children books). I wrote a story about a young elf girl getting captured by a troll and submitted that to a writing contest put on by the Association of Christian Schools International; the teachers from my school who screened submissions rejected it, though, saying it “wasn’t realistic enough.” Well, of course it wasn’t; it had elves and trolls. The following year, I submitted a different story to the same contest, a murder mystery this time (again set in the ’30’s), and that surprisingly was accepted, but I don’t think I won anything. I did have my first publication that year though — a story I wrote about Napoleon’s second wife, Maria Theresa, got published in the 2003 edition of the Anthology of Short Stories by Young Americans.

It was only after high school that I started to look into what it took to have a writing career, and what I learned was that I didn’t know very much at all. I read a lot of books and a lot of articles, and tried to follow them, and overall went into things without a plan. And as tends to happen when I go into things without a plan, it was kind of a disaster. My attempt to launch a platform in 2009 pretty much fell flat, and joining the Creative Writing Community Workshop club at my university did not go well. True, I did get some publications in their literary magazine and chapbooks, but I knew pretty early on it wasn’t a good fit for me — the rules for sharing your work did not work well for a novel, and with the exception of one or two people (well, mostly my friend Jessica), I was totally different in my writing style than the other people in the club. They were the avant-garde type, the kind who liked modern poetry and avant-garde authors. I, on the other hand, am more traditional. I love classic novels, old poetry, mythology and fairy tales. I felt like they didn’t have much constructive to say about the novel I was then working on. Rather than seeing the situation for what it was and quitting, I sold out and stopped workshopping my novel. I wrote poems and workshopped those instead. When our club president dared me to write found poetry, I did it. I wrote one using the ad copy on the backs of VitaminWater bottles and another using tweets about the second Twilight movie. As I expected, my poetry got better reviews – not great but better. Someone from the club shared my poem “Trains Waiting,” which was inspired by a photograph by a local photographer that had been on display at the campus library, with said photographer, and he e-mailed me to ask if he could use it when he displayed the photo, which was quite an honor.

But I was not happy I sold out.

I did eventually leave that club, and its members are off doing whatever it is they are doing now. In 2011, I finally finished the novel I had been workshopping. In the 6 years that have passed since then, I’ve dabbled in a bunch of different projects but never finished any of them. I wasted a whole extra year of college (2011-2012) finishing up a certificate in web design that I have yet to use. It was meant to give me a chance at a day job in case writing didn’t pan out right away, but it just turned into a big ball of stress (probably cause, at first anyway, I was trying to finish my B.A. at the same time…AND holding down a part-time job to boot). Sure, I like designing websites; I taught myself out of a book in 8th grade (yet another thing a book taught me) and designed several over the years, both personal ones and ones devoted to my various interests. I even taught my best friend how to do it. But after all that work I did to get that certificate, all I got out of it was the realization that I did not have the skills to pursue a job in that field at that point, and that even if I did, I might not enjoy it. It works as a hobby, but I couldn’t see myself doing it every day.

Writing, on the other hand, I could see myself doing every day, presuming I developed discipline I do not yet possess. Like with Félicie, it allows me to live and to be myself, something I’m not very good at doing out in the real world. When I took a class with Christina Katz 3 years ago, she reiterated time and time again that I expressed myself very well in writing. And I can certainly express my thoughts much better in writing than in speech, where I tend to ramble and rarely get to the point very quickly. And if it were up to me, I would quit my current job (one I don’t enjoy very much anyway) and devote myself entirely to writing. It sounds like a great dream, just spending the whole day holed up somewhere writing stories, stopping only for meals and to use the facilities.

But dreams are rarely that simple. They take work. And it sometimes takes a while to get to the point where you could realistically quit your day job and just write. These were hard truths I learned when I first looked into having a career. And to be honest, they crushed me. I was naive enough to think I could get by with just talent, that I would write something, and it would just flow, and I’d put it out there and everybody would love it. And instead, I’m still working at the same day job I got through university with, with a trail of unfinished stories in my wake, and a shelf two deep on my bookcase of writing books that I don’t read because I’ve read so much advice already I can barely take any more, in my early thirties with no career to speak of. In a way, I feel kind of like Mia ultimately does in La La Land (another movie I finally saw recently):

The movie ultimately praises foolish dreamers with the brilliant “Audition” song, and the message of La La Land is clearly that even if your dreams are foolish, you can achieve them if you try. And yet, part of me struggles to believe that.

Even though I started writing seriously when I was 12, I have come to realize I am still quite a beginner, and as a perfectionist especially that is difficult to deal with. I thought by now I’d be some expert, and to find out I’d barely scratched the surface made me so frustrated, because it made it seem like those years were wasted. Even worse, writing began to feel more like work and less like a passion, and that’s not a place you want to be in. Trust me.

And yet, despite the pain of being in that place, I could never just give up writing for good. I might start a story and then not work on it for several months, or even years (it happens a lot in my case), but I’m always writing something, even if it’s in my head. I even keep a note on my iPod for potential plot bunnies, though currently the list consists of mostly random observations (like “if we have deviled eggs, why do we not have angel eggs?” or why nobody ever renews their elevator permits), a weird story I overheard in the Verizon store, and a few ideas I “borrowed” from Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman (there’s this one story where The Sandman punishes this guy who was so blocked he kidnapped one of the Muses by cursing him so that he can’t stop coming up with story ideas even if he tried; I saved a few of those ideas). I wish I could have my iPod with me at work, because then I might be able to write down the things people tell me (people tend to confide in me a lot, even if they don’t know me, and I have no idea why). Those would probably be good to remember for a story. (I could write them down on paper, I suppose, but sometimes I’m too busy to have that luxury, and my short-term memory is awful).

But because writing has, in some way, always been a part of my life, I can’t imagine myself ever stopping, just like Félicie could not imagine herself not dancing (when she initially fails at achieving her dream and is sent back to the orphanage, she stops dancing, and M. Luteau, the orphanage supervisor, comments that she has “lost her spirit”).

While I am far from out of the rut I know I have fallen into – where writing is more like work than passion, where I beat myself up if I don’t write every day, where I despair that I don’t have a career because I fear if I wait too long I’ll never make it, where I constantly compare myself to others instead of staying true to myself and trusting God will guide me – I think, maybe, there might be a glimmer of hope. Last year, I did a novel for NaNoWriMo that was unlike any novel I’ve written recently. Rather than being fantasy or sci-fi, it is a historical fiction novel about a poet we know little about, a romance about two people who truly love each other, and a story about a young woman struggling to maintain her dignity and gain respect for her mind over her body in a world full of ambition, intrigue, and jealousy. It is, in a word, Nukata. I’d had the idea for it years before, when I read a poem by Princess Nukata for my British Literature I class (due to the department’s global focus, we read medieval Chinese and Japanese poetry in that class). I wanted to know more about this person, and so I did research, and gradually a story emerged.

I structured the story more strictly than I usually do, mostly because it includes real historical figures and events so I wanted to keep things straight. And yet, the story ended up taking it own turns, something which doesn’t usually happen very often to me. And for once, I let the story do its thing, develop organically. And I found that I really enjoyed writing it, and almost didn’t want to stop when NaNoWriMo was over. I did, only because NaNoWriMo is quite an exhausting process (anyone who tells you it is easy is a liar), and when I finally got back to working on it a couple months ago, I was afraid it wouldn’t be quite the same, and it isn’t really, but I am still really enjoying it, and I don’t regret going back to it.

A similar thing happened with my Camp NaNo April novel for this year, The Case of the Canterbury Colony Ship. I had a basic idea of the plot, as I usually do, but no idea exactly how to begin when I sat down to actually start writing it. I decided to at least write something, even if it was terrible, so I started writing about the weather, remembering what it was like when you’re on your college campus and trying to get somewhere. What emerged was possibly the snarkiest narrator I have ever written. To be fair, I was “surfing the crimson wave” (as Cher Horowitz would say) that day, so that may have had something to do with it. But although in the back of my mind I was sure nobody would like such a narrator, I just went with the story, and so far I like where it’s going. And that makes me happy.

So, why do I write? Because story has always been a part of my life, and I can’t imagine myself not writing at this point, and it allows me to express myself in a way I have difficulty doing otherwise. And deep down, despite my struggles, I do love doing it, and I’ve always believed God wanted me to do it, or he wouldn’t have given me the talent.

So enough about me…how about you, out there, reading this? Why do you dance? Or write, or sing, or do whatever it is you’re passionate about? It’s a question that all of us who have dreams must ultimately answer, cause otherwise what’s the point? We might as well be like Camille, dancing because someone or something forced us to. And that’s sad, because as Mia sings in her audition song:

She told me
“A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us”

So…why do you dance? Let me know!

I do not own Leap/Ballerina or La La Land, and the clips above are used only as illustration. “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” lyrics from Google results.

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