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Writing Novels about Dance

Novels about dance can become too sterile: the ones I read as a teen (I don’t recall the series name anymore) always centered around a protagonist who was trying to make it. Fame had the same premise. A Chorus Line. Billy Elliot. Center Stage. One recent exception so far is Off Kilter. I always knew I’d write a novel about dance, but I wanted to write one that didn’t follow that generic plot line. (Though I did write one when I was 16 that will thankfully never see the light of day.) Although Between Worlds is about more than dance, dance plays a central role in Juliana’s life.

How to Write about Dance in Fiction?

So dance is part of Juliana’s life, but using dance in fiction carries a certain challenge: how to describe what the dancer is doing and feeling without boring the audience.

Dance is a visual art form. I’ve written dance reviews, but just talking about steps wouldn’t have any effect on my readers. Instead, I had to talk about the choreography, costumes, lighting, the dancers themselves, because all those elements worked together. With Juliana, though, I don’t have access to all those elements. Does the reader care about the lighting in Juliana’s dance studio? Or does the reader want a detailed description of her dance outfits?

I also need to remember that not all readers are looking for novels about dance. They’re reading the series instead because they like the premise of the series, or because they enjoy the juxtaposition of a historical storyline with a contemporary one. In addition, steps mean nothing to a reader who has never studied dance.

As I debated my dilemma some more, I realized that when I wrote about dancers for other magazines, we never talked about the steps; we talked about what dance felt like to them, or what they loved about dance. If they were older dancers (like, way older), we discussed how they danced now. But it was never, or at least rarely, about the steps.

How to Write about the Dancer in a Novel, Then?

When I was 14, my emotional self wanted to pull me deeper inside my conscious self, but I was scared of forgetting where I was in my dance and of sharing too much of myself on stage. It means that, when writing storylines about dance, I have to stretch past my own experience. When I describe how Juliana gets lost in her dancing, I’m describing a dream, because it’s not something I’ve ever been able to fully realize for myself. (If you’re able to get lost in dance, tell me in the comments section below what that’s like.)

So I needed to find a balance. Too much description about dance, and I risked losing some readers. Too much emphasis on Juliana’s thoughts, and I risked losing yet others. I was confident I could achieve that balance, so the next question came up: what dance form to use?

Writing Involves Rhythm. So Does Dance.

Dance in fiction often focuses on ballet. Dance in movies currently seems to be more hip hop and street than ballet. I wanted something different, but I also had to be comfortable writing about it. So I chose tap. But how could I incorporate it so that readers who’ve never studied it understand what I’m writing?

Aside from being my favourite form of dance, tap also has the bonus of fairly standard vocabulary, and at least to my ears, the terminology often matches the rhythm (or can be made to do so.) In the last scene of The Move, Juliana taps on her new tap board while working through the major changes that happened in her life. The scene was challenging to write, but I think it achieved the balance needed to express a teen dancer and still keep the reader’s interest.

Let me know in the comments section what your thoughts were on that last scene. Be sure to mention if you’ve danced or not.

Have Questions about Writing Novels about Dance?

If you’re happening upon this blog post because you’re doing a project on dance for school, or if you have questions about writing and dance, feel free to leave your questions below. If they’re personal (i.e., you don’t want the world knowing your question and my answer), email me. I’ll certainly do my best to answer.

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Comfort Zones: Potential Danger for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Everyone in Between

Comfort zones are those nice, cozy, warm, fuzzy parts in our mind that convince us to stay put. They have a purpose: respite. But like any spa, too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing (and, frankly, become very expensive).

I recently interviewed a sportscaster for a magazine article, and time and again she emphasized how important it was for her to get out of her comfort zone. She was a trained dancer, but when she got accepted into a well-known musical theatre program in Canada, she spent three years singing in front of others. For her, that was terrifying. But it allowed other opportunities to flow her way.

Hindsight is 20/20, as you know. In my case, my comfort zone in dance became so strong that I even stood in the same spot in the studio as often as possible: the right front corner. I even said I’d have my ashes buried there. The building, though, has since been razed and replaced with a more modern business building. I’ll have somewhere else to inter my ashes.

With writing, it was the same: I wrote about characters I knew, either by attempting a novel for a franchise or copying TV characters from my favourite shows; created plots familiar to me from same sources of inspiration as the characters; and did not expose my heart to my readers, a necessity for creative writing. In my youth, that was a fine path to follow, because I may not have been ready to show my vulnerability back then. This was before social media, of course, but one well-intentioned piece of feedback from a teacher, friend, or parent can hurt you as much as a stranger’s public criticism of your work these days, maybe even more so. I was looking for approval, not feedback, and using my personal creations for that purpose wasn’t the best idea.

Since January 2015, I’ve been working on a novel. It started as a creative challenge to myself: write 10,000 words by December. I hit that goal by mid-February and kept going. (Now, I’m at 92,000.) I’ve submitted the first three chapters to two editors, a friend, and a family member for feedback, and yes, some of the feedback hurt. But age does something to you besides give you wrinkles: it gives you strength and confidence…if you let yourself push past your comfort zone. Their input made me stop writing and go back to character and plot development. I have some major re-working to do, but the piece will hopefully come out stronger in the end. (The feedback is dead on – we’ll see if the writer can make it work.)

Of course, the usual disclaimer: we’re talking about personal goals here, not seeing how long you can wait for a car to approach before you dart across the street without getting hit.

I think it’s wrong to assume that everyone wants to achieve huge monetary success, but I think it’s right to assume that everyone has dreams that will seem big to some and small to others. For some, being able to free their voice and speak up in front of others is a huge dream. For others, it’s normal life. For some, living off $50,000 a year while also saving money is the big goal. For others, that’s reality and they can’t fathom why someone would find that hard to accomplish.

Whatever the goal, it’ll push you. But what I’m finding is that, like my interviewee, you won’t experience the freedom that comes from reaching those goals unless you cross the boundaries of your comfort zone, even just a smidgen. (Just stay out of the path of moving vehicles.)

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Writing From Your Past

Man wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, sitting amongst daisies.A frequent source of inspiration is our past. You may feel inspired when you think about your high school prom, your first kiss, or the first memory you hold about your life. Taking inspiration from your own history helps create your unique voice because, let’s face it, no one else has experienced your life the way you have.

Whether you dig through old journals, your family’s history, your own memories, or even talk to older people who knew you well as a child, you have a treasure trove of ideas waiting to take hold of your imagination.

Writing About People From Your Past

A common question about writing about your life is, “How should I write about others I know?” Here’s my take on it: In most cases, respect people’s privacy above all else and leave them alone. Put yourself in your family’s/friends’/managers’ shoes: Everyone’s trying to make a place for themselves in the world. If you describe people from your social circles in an unfavourable light (“unfavourable light” defined by your acquaintances, not by you), you could really hurt them.

Of course, we’ll all come across times when we’d like to write about someone. Just make sure you have their permission first. Also stay true to your word and to your relationship: if they let something slip that they would rather not have known to the public, respect their wish.

Then Why Write From Your Past?

Use your life experiences to inspire your writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. For example, I dated many guys before I met my husband. Each one kissed differently. Should I really write a detailed description of the guy whose kissing felt like skullcrushing? Or the one I dumped 24 hours after he frenched me? No. But the thoughts and feelings of an awkward kiss can be transposed into other scenarios and stories, both fiction and non-fiction.

If you take the emotions your own memories give you and put them into new situations, new scenarios, then you are completely free to create whatever you want. You don’t have to worry about how accurately (or inaccurately) you remembered something. Which means, you don’t have to worry about embarrassing anyone, including yourself.

What to Do With Your Memories

Sometimes, an element of your past simply writes itself into a piece you’re already working on. Other times, though, the emotion of it is so strong that you know you want to write about the event but can’t pull away from the details. So what do you do? Try this exercise, which I first learned about through Mark Levy. It’s called freewriting.

  1. Set a timer for ten minutes or more.
  2. Get your memory in your mind.
  3. Write everything that comes to mind as fast as possible. The page should mirror your thoughts.
  4. Write continuously. Don’t stop.
  5. When your timer dings, read what you’ve written and underline the parts that “have energy,” as Levy describes them.
  6. Then pick one, start a new line with it, and repeat the entire process.

Levy suggests doing a five-to-eight-hour marathon in this fashion. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have done 90 minutes. (I would’ve gone longer but the constant typing tired out my forearms.) He says that a day-long session will really tire out your internal editor and let your own voice show itself for a change. The exercise really digs deep into your mind and spirit, if you give yourself the time to do it.

I suggest this as a way to feed off of your past because it lets your mind wander. You’ll hear questions and their answers. You’ll see yourself writing things like “this is dumb” or “no one will ever read this shit.” Keep going, anyways. If, after your session, you are too embarrassed about what’s on the screen, delete the document. It’s that easy.

Your New Story

Don’t hold your story back by limiting it to its source of inspiration. Instead, let it grow and develop into something new, with its own life. Real-life stories have their time and place, but so does respect for others’ privacy. If you do retell something from your past, be sure your decision to include others you know is a conscious one, not a careless one.

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30 Journals and Counting: Now What?

Lori Straus' stack of journalsI have 30 journals covering almost three decades of my life. I travel down memory lane once in awhile, but other than that, they sit in my closet, waiting to be discovered by my kids when they’re old enough and tall enough to reach them.

About two years ago, I read a biography on Louisa May Alcott. Alcott would sometimes write notes to her younger self in her older journals. It sounded like an interesting exercise, so I gave it a shot. I couldn’t have expected these results.

I turned the pages back to a more difficult time in my life: When my oldest was born, there were complications with his birth. He had tubes coming out of him, wouldn’t breastfeed for the first week, needed an oxygen hood, started turning blue at one point…He’s totally fine now, but back then, I had no idea what to do or what would happen with him.

When I turned back to those pages, I travelled back several years emotionally and mentally. I gave the sadness some attention and then returned to the present (where both my children are happy and thriving). Writing from my current vantage point, I wrote a note to my younger self. I explained that everything turned out okay and that he’s doing just fine.

Talk about losing a spiritual ten pounds. I felt a release, a deep sense of relief. The tension that event had been holding up in my being evaporated completely.

But there was one other unexpected effect: higher self-acceptance. And this wouldn’t be the only time.

I’ve only written to my younger self a few times, but each time I did, I experienced even more self-acceptance. Please don’t get me wrong: I don’t spend my days hating myself! But, like most people, I have insecurities and guilt, and they’ve stunted my spiritual growth. Now, every time I’ve released tense energy from past events in my life, I feel increasingly more secure and start bulldozing through my goals. I’m less concerned about whether I succeed or fail and more concerned with what I learn along the journey to attaining my goals.

During those difficult events, I didn’t have the life experience to help me deal with them. Sometimes I turned to others for help, sometimes I just did my best to move on. But I didn’t have enough experience to deal with those issues when they happened. Now that I’m older, I do.

When I read about some of the more troubling times in life, I re-experience my fear, my anger, and my sadness. By writing back to myself, acceptance replaces those emotions. It’s an incredibly powerful experience. (But again, do seek help if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed with life!)

I’ll never go through all 30 journals. In the end, they’re there for posterity’s sake. But whenever I’m in a bit of a rut, I’ll find an old entry where I’m expressing some kind of trouble (even if it’s worry about not having a boyfriend when I was 16), and I’ll write some words of wisdom to myself. Helps every time.

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The Role of Positive Thinking in Creativity

Index cards with "Happy Notes" written on them and tied with colourful yarn.Positive thinking pops up once in awhile in my social media feeds. It seems a new trend is criticizing its usefulness, though I’ve also read other critics who say it’s empty, even harmful. (The New Yorker has a well-rounded article on the research of positive thinking.) I find positive thinking a very beneficial tool if it’s used properly. Here’s why (and how).

I don’t believe that only positive thinking can achieve my goals. Instead, I see it as a necessary step to that end. It acts as my internal life coach, if you will. I read motivational and self-help books, because I’d rather read about solutions to my problems than read about my problems.

Happy thoughts by themselves have never helped me achieve my dreams. For example, I spent almost two decades fantasizing about the day I’d make my living as a writer, yet I did very little to get there. That’s not positive thinking; that’s self-deception. Positive thinking is about choice.

As an example, let’s say you’ve got writer’s block. You’ve been working for an hour on a story or a piece of copy, and now your ideas have dried up. What do you do?

You can decide that yes, you do indeed have writer’s block. You start cursing it, jump on to your social media and lament to your friends (or worse, within your professional circles) about how writer’s block has once again robbed you of your inspiration. You then find that within 30 minutes, you’ve worked yourself into a nice state of creative depression and stop writing for the day. Or…

You can decide that writer’s block is pointless to dwell on. Your internal editor is simply getting in your way. You then choose a method to help get your creativity going again, e.g., free writing, mind-mapping, going for a walk, or washing your floors. Then you return to your writing, even if it’s a different piece.

In this situation, positive thinking isn’t about saying, “I’m a creative writer. I’m a creative writer.” It’s about acknowledging the situation at hand and trying to solve it instead of lying in it and taking a nap. If you have a personal affirmation that helps you get through your situation, excellent! If you don’t but you still get through it, anyway, then that’s just as fine!

Positive thinking definitely leaves room for you to connect with your friends and family about life’s troubles. You need to let your feelings out; that’s how you acknowledge your problems in the first place. It’s clearly unhealthy to keep things inside, and indeed, most art comes out of some kind of pain. (Artists then choose whether their piece will emphasize the pain or the pleasure of the experience they’re depicting.)

By sharing your troubles with others, though, you’re also on your way to finding a solution. As you talk about your problems, also listen for solutions and tell yourself that you can find a way out of whatever is ailing you.

If that thought is too big to muster (it might even feel dishonest to some), then tell yourself the first step you’re going to do. It might be as easy as going to bed for the night, as Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her hit book several years ago, or eating a piece of fruit, or calling someone up to say thanks for a favour they recently did for you.

Positive thinking is about reminding yourself that you’re human, that your feelings are justified, and – most importantly – that you’re capable of finding a solution to improve whatever you think needs fixing. It is not about empty affirmations and self-deception.

And that I firmly believe.

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Minimalism and Creativity: Is There a Connection?

Dedication to one’s craft requires sacrifices, and you have to know how much you’re willing to give up to achieve what you define as success (assuming you can achieve it).

I recently interviewed Jeff Hyslop, a Canadian stage and television icon. (You may remember him from your youth as Jeff the Mannequin in the children’s show Today’s Special.) I was surprised to learn that he was still dancing in front of audiences at age 62 (and that was after hip replacement surgery). He’s close to having spent six decades dedicated to dance and musical theatre. I haven’t hit 40 yet, but I’m certain he could out-dance me. Staying creative and physically fit for almost 60 years of your life is incredible dedication.

I inquired about it, of course, and he gave me a reason: he makes time for himself: He stretches regularly, uses a footsie roller to keep his feet and Achilles tendons supple, and walks a lot.

After we hung up, I reinstated my bedtime stretching routine and aimed to regain my splits by my birthday. Although I wouldn’t call the splits “my craft,” I spent about 15 minutes each night stretching before I went to bed, and lo and behold, here you have it, folks:

Lori Straus achieving her birthday goal: regaining - at least in part - her splits.

Writing could benefit from the same amount of dedication. However, I’m not at my writing best at 10:30 at night. I need to write during the day, so I have to make the room, literally.

I’m starting to take to heart the minimalist movement, i.e., doing away with things that don’t help you in life anymore. (Or, to use the less trendy name, living like your grandparents, so long as they weren’t packrats.) Because it all comes down to this: I can spend my time searching for things I can’t find, putting away the things I do find, and cleaning around all of it, or I can practice writing.

So I’ve drawn up a schedule to go through my house over the summer and start getting rid of stuff. Less stuff = more time. If I spend two hours or so a week de-cluttering, I’ll have those two hours by September to write (in addition to the time I already have) plus the time I would’ve needed to maintain all that stuff. No more shoving things out of the way to get at other things. No more crawling over things in our storage areas. No more wondering where other things are because they’re stuffed behind things that need to be moved or crawled over.

Really look at your environment and see what helps you with your creativity and what hinders you, and then fix it. You may have family now, perhaps even some older loved ones who need your help, and you likely have other true priorities. However, people who know what their true calling is (this is different from your ego thinking it knows what its true calling is) make the time. If you’re getting a late start wtih that, that’s okay! One of the easiest ways to make time for yourself is to clean up your environment. Remember: less stuff = more time.

And on that note, I’d better get to that pile of laundry ominously waiting behind me.

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Storytelling or Missionizing?

Robertson DaviesI idolized Jean Little in my pre-teens and early teens. Many of her books helped me understand other children. I do believe they made me a nicer person. One novel, Different Dragons, even helped me get over my fear of dogs (though I still greatly dislike them). I wanted to write similar stories, ones that helped others understand their friends, family, and even strangers better. I didn’t want to scare anyone, or hurt anyone, or embarrass anyone. I wanted to help. But I was still too young to look past someone’s physical appearance into their soul, and that showed in my writing.

My problem, according to Robertson Davies, was that I was focusing on the message and not the story. (He didn’t advise me personally – I simply enjoy reading his essays.) Davies felt that too many writers were trying to missionize. I was in that category. “Write about what you know,” they say. While I don’t think that always has to be true, it did apply to my stories at the time. Jean Little wrote in her first autobiography that she began writing to fill a void in fiction. In her younger years, she used to work with children who faced various  challenges. She loved reading to them, but every disabled child in the books she read magically became abled at the end:

I was looking for a book in which the child’s handicap was present only in the background. The kids I taught were no conscious of their disabilities most of the time. They minded when people stared at them, or when their brothers and sisters got bicycles, of course. But usually they were too busy living to brood. Physio and occupational therapy were like arithmetic and reading, an accepted part of their days.

[…]

Why couldn’t there be a happy ending without a miracle cure? Why wasn’t there a story with a child in it who resembled the kids I taught? Somebody should write one, I thought. It did not yet cross my mind that that somebody might be me. [Little, Jean. Little by Little: a Writer’s Education. Markham: Penguin Books. 1987. Excerpt from pages 224-225.]

She currently has over 40 publications to her name, from 1962 to now. She knew how to capture the soul of each child in her work. The books aren’t about “be nice to handicapped kids.” They describe real children’s growing pains, regardless of what daily challenges they face. The child could have cerebral palsy, be afraid of dogs, or live during the Spanish flu epidemic. I stopped reading Little when I was about 13 or so, so I’m no fully familiar with her current works. But as a child on the quieter side of the spectrum, she connected with me.

Fast forward 20 years, when I have my own children. I had started another book with my boys last night: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott:

Soonie’s family makes SHOW WAYS – quilts with secret meanings that are maps to freedom. Her family tells stories of bravery that inspire courage. Each generation passes on to the next the belief that there is a road to a better place. [Book summary.]

Beautifully written, it let me read a book to my young boys about American black history over two nights. My youngest is a bit too young – he doesn’t understand that sort of thing yet. But my older son was quite enthralled, despite claiming at the beginning of each night that he didn’t want to read it. The theme described how mothers pass down hope, generation to generation, through quilting. The background was slavery and then the civil rights movement in the US. For older children, they may have recognized some of the photos pulled out of history. For young children, they blended in to the background as my kids listened to my words.

My third example of an excellent children’s writer (because this is a genre prone to missionizing) is Marc Brown and his Arthur series. I get more excited when Arthur comes on in the morning than my kids. And my anticipation increases when I realize it’s an episode I haven’t seen yet. (They’re currently in season 18, so I have lots of episodes to watch out for.) Arthur, Francine, the Brain, George, Muffy, D.W., Binky…all the characters could just as well be my kids’ friends at school. They’ve tackled cancer, Alzheimer’s (with Joan Rivers’ help – awesome episode), bullying, trying to write a story that’s true to you…The last thing I think about is being missionized to. The first thing I see is an excellent story.

I’ve spent a lot of time debating how to tackle topics that are important to me, the kinds that I think people should read about. It’s easy to rant in an op-ed piece for the local paper. Not so easy is writing excellent fiction on a difficult topic that invites the reader in instead of shutting the reader out. You can’t missionize, you have to tell the story.

There is nothing more satisfying than understanding a challenge you’ve carried with you for so long and finally knowing the direction you have to go in to fix it.

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Showing Your Kids What Work Is

Kids at a tableThe hardest thing about writing as a job is that it looks the same as Facebooking, emailing, surfing, and reading. To a child, at least. Of course, it would help if I didn’t get caught turning “I’ll get you another bedtime water” into 15 minutes at the computer socializing.

Guilt aside, though, it’s much harder to show children what you’re doing as a writer, especially when they can’t read proficiently yet. More difficult is when the subject matter means nothing to them. I imagine that visual artists inspire awe in their children, because a child doesn’t need an interpreter to make out the art: they’re more than happy to interpret it themselves.

When I received my copy of just dance! magazine in the mail with my article on The Next Step in it, I could finally show my older son what I actually do. The two-page spread of the cast, a collection of smiling faces, appealed to him right away. He quietly scanned everything. I showed him the next part of the article, which had more text but still had graphics, and I could tell it clicked.

“This is what Mommy does. You see? I wrote all of that.”

Of course, I only got an “oh” as a response, but that meant he was throughly engrossed, even if for a moment. (The article didn’t have any pictures of trains.)

I’ll need to find ways of showing him more often what I do – it’s a lesson I think he’ll need to hear again and again, simply because the act of writing is so abstract to him. His world is full of single sentences that take five to ten minutes to write and beginner readers that still push his endurance. Now, if I can just teach him to cook, then I can write even more…

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Writing Stories for Children, With Children

Two pages from my kids' creation: a book about their grandfather losing his bed and finding it under some books.
Two-page spread from my kids’ first book.

In my quest to expand my creativity, I set my notebook and pen on my night table. I frequently started writing as soon as I woke up, spending 10 minutes creating children’s stories to share with my kids some day.

After a few weeks, I finally had the courage to read one to them. It was about a friend of theirs who had lost something. My two sons were the Super Sleuths and helped their friend find the lost object.

Their eyes seemed to listen as much as their ears: They loved it.

I might as well have climbed Mount Everest! Not only did they request it again, but they created their own series: “The Friend Story.” Like any true series, it has a standard plot line and the same characters. They alternate turns giving me a sentence to add to the story, and I write down as best I can whatever they tell me. We write their children’s stories evenings, after our reading time and before sleep time.

I eventually suggested we write a story for their grandfather. The plot line was the same: their grandfather lost something (his bed), looked everywhere, and eventually found it (under some books). I typed it up, spread out the sentences over about eight pages and printed them. Then I asked them to draw the pictures. They were in a bit of a silly mood, and you can tell! (I also added in my own story at the end as a way of saying, “I’m back!”)

After spending a fortune laminating the pages and having everything bound, we had a finished, published children’s story. I could not have been happier, and neither could their grandfather.