We’re asking writers we admire to write for us, and we’ll be releasing their posts monthly throughout 2021.
For December, Thomas Glave, who started us off in January, brings the year to a close with a keynote in three parts.
FALLING AND WRITING
A Keynote in Three Parts
- Unafraid of Falling: A Dancer’s Approach
Once, not so long ago, in that part of the world far across the sea, there lived a young girl who dreamt of dancing – in fact dreamt of growing up to become someone who danced constantly, as if no other way of being existed. During those early years, she never envisaged herself as a ‘ballerina’, so to speak, but simply as someone who yearned to, and was always beautifully capable of, moving her long limbs to music, and actually surrendering herself – surrendering what she would have called her ‘soul’ – to music. This girl grew up to become the great ballerina Suzanne Farrell, internationally renowned star of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet company, and the foremost interpreter, in the late twentieth century, of his ballets. At one point, in 1965 when she was twenty years of age and he sixty-two, she almost became his sixth wife. (Balanchine’s previous five wives had all been ballerinas.) But marriage and romance mattered far less in Farrell’s life, a life dedicated almost exclusively to her art, than her holy pursuit of dance, and to what dance critics and Balanchine himself, as well as other choreographers, began to observe and refer to admiringly, and often with utter astonishment, as her style of ‘off-centre’ dancing. In Farrell’s vision, ‘off-centre’ dancing was a means of attaining ultimate generosity and daring onstage, a supreme gift to the audience but also a gift to and from the art form itself. It presented moments in which the vulnerable performer, dancing out her heart and very being across an enormous stage, and ostensibly completely uncaring as to whether she might be taking risks that could hurl her directly into a disaster such as falling off her dangerous balances or worse, became something like a true force of nature, unrestrained by gravity or fear. As one critic familiar with Farrell’s work and Balanchine’s choreography for the New York City Ballet understood the dancer, Farrell’s off-centre dancing involved ‘astonishing pirouettes, during which…she showed not an eyelid flicker’s worth of concern over whether her partner would be there to catch her at the end. As a rule he was, though there close calls, and a few terrifying occasions when we thought that…she was truly going to pitch herself into the orchestra’.
Farrell’s wildness and even recklessness onstage, especially in startling contrast to her deeply taciturn, even aloof personality, beguiled countless people, myself included, all of whom wondered at and reveled in the utter freedom and daring of her artistry: a freedom from the self-consciousness that we all know as both writers and human beings, known and experienced by all artists. This self-consciousness includes the often gnawing fear that at some point, whilst working on this or that project, or having completed this novel or that play or poetry collection, we may end up making fools of ourselves in front of them: the people out there, actual or imagined (or both): the individuals ever ready, we often fear, to hold our work up not only to cold scrutiny but also inevitably to scorn; the people out there who will surely regard us not with the care and earnest concern for which we yearn, but with cold contempt; the people whose moist breath we can always feel just over our shoulders as we begin writing on a new blank page. What will they think, those disapproving faces both imagined and real. . .
Yet perhaps, like daring ballerinas and other artists, we eventually realise that our work, like the work of dancers risking everything on a stage before an unseeable audience enshrouded in darkness, always involves the greatest daring of our most secret imagining selves. In such vulnerability there can be – and there invariably is – the possibility for humility, our embracing of humility, as we grapple with the fact that such deeper giving in art always requires the jettisoning of our egos in service to the art form’s discipline and demands. A ballerina may indeed fall out of the next sequence of pirouettes or fouettés, but was she giving us all of her energy and soul when she did? We may stumble over a sentence or a stanza, or find that our hands were wrapped too possessively around a character’s throat in this chapter or that poem, or we may mis-hear the lyric’s begging us to reach for a smoother rhyme, but it always seems – at least until the final loss of our faculties or simple end of our existence – that we do have time to work and re-work, and re-work again, anticipating in calmness the inevitability of falling without engaging any fear of falling. And again, and again. We certainly have more time than ballet dancers, who daily strive for beauty and grace against the ticking clock of their aging bodies. As for the patience required for the doing and re-doing, trying and re-trying, the pandemic has impressed upon us nothing if not an understanding of the importance of patience. During the numerous hours I’ve gritted my teeth whilst thinking of the great difficulty, at least for me, in patiently working to inculcate patience, I remembered Farrell insisting that her pre-professional female ballet pupils take an entire ballet class, not only the class’s second half, wearing pointe shoes – ‘Because’, Farrell often told those eager teen-agers, ‘you don’t learn to dance on pointe by not dancing on pointe’. Like those dancers in their ballet studio or rehearsal hall, we know that we don’t become writers by not writing. Yet I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that tomorrow morning, like so many of us having to face that awful blank page, I remain fearful of falling, and of what they, out there, will eventually have to say. Yet the fall itself is sometimes all we have at the outset, or at least the very best thing in a daily parcel filled with unknowable risks, but also often with surprising joys.
- The Good Fortune of Commands
Sometimes people ask you as a writer to do things: to write a keynote address, or to craft a poem; to ‘work on’ an essay or short story or even a screenplay, or even – so I have heard — to write a novel and send it to them, as in: ‘Write a novel for me, if you don’t mind? And if you could send it by the end of whenever, that would be lovely’.
Like many writers, I’ve found these requests serve best when I turn them into secret commands, telling myself things like: So-and-so asked me to do this, so now I must. This or that person asked me to send them whatever, so now I absolutely have to do so, and will in fact have to write the thing first, whatever the thing is. And I have learnt that in these secret ‘commands’ lies great good fortune: for in convincing myself that I must do something, I – any of us — can swiftly get to work with a deadline in mind: a deadline often a quite useful tool for sweeping aside the writer’s anxiety that can produce procrastination. How many of us have written works that we might not have begun, let alone finished, had not someone – some editor with an unexpectedly warm face – asked us to ‘do something’, which we then did? This has certainly been my experience, and the demand, as I re-imagined it, lit the proverbial fire underneath my (etc). Moving through these considerations, I return for just a moment to Balanchine: a prolific choreographer, he was known for startling his promising younger New York City Ballet dancers by unexpectedly notifying them that he wanted them soon to perform a distinguished principal role in a ballet in which they had never performed. With his legendary calmness, he would summarily advise them Hto begin preparing for the part. . . to which the dancer in question would almost invariably protest that she or he didn’t feel yet ready for such a demanding role. ‘Ah, well, dear, that doesn’t matter’, Balanchine would usually respond with the same unnerving calm. ‘Get ready’. The dancer, usually immediately registering both apprehension and excitement, had little choice but to prepare for the role, and ultimately to dance.
We know as writers that imagining such demands from others, and facing actual ones, can help us to write by simply requiring that we do. Yet there exists another possibility embedded in this task that isn’t always as obvious: the fact that we might not have ventured into other genres, other literary worlds previously unvisited, had we not embarked upon the pretend-demand project. I might never have written ‘literary nonfiction’, which I’d never believed I could really do, especially given that I’d not always known what it was, and am still not certain that I do know, had an editor at a literary journal not asked me years ago to write some ‘literary nonfiction’ on a particular topic for a forthcoming special-themed issue of that journal, after which I began trying to write in the strange new (to me) form, hoping all the while that the exercise inherent in the daily writing and all the attendant struggles of trying to say something that meant something that was not fiction – in short, something that made sense in the realm of this other, as-yet untried genre – would ‘work’, as people like to say. It felt distinctly odd then – as odd as it might feel to prepare a keynote address — to write words such as ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’, as opposed to thinking about what my characters thought and believed (and sometimes taking refuge behind the greater boldness or madness or just plain strangeness of those characters: the people who so often could do and say all the things that I might have secretly wished I could do and say, not including ugliness or cruelty, but which in our real-time world of constrictions and tight ropes I felt I couldn’t dare do, or say). Yet the younger writer of that time emerged from the process somewhat unscathed, and rather astonished that I had written a piece of nonfiction. Really? But yes, some critical and editorial voices in the world whispered, some of them even with a welcoming gaze on their watchful faces; and that younger writer who was me, once upon that time and far away across the sea, soon realised that, as with the use of pointe shoes in ballet class for aspiring ballerinas, the best way to learn how to write nonfiction was simply by writing nonfiction: writing it steadfastly, accompanied and enabled by the teeth-grittedness of sometimes gruelling patience.
And so when Writing West Midlands earlier this year asked me, during one of the UK’s Covid lockdown periods, to write something about Birmingham during lockdown, I accepted the request as a command, having no idea that the city’s encroaching seagulls, grown bolder during lockdown and less fearful of humans (if they ever had been), would have much to say to me, including critiques, during their regular evening choruses over Brindleyplace and elsewhere: would I have thought to listen carefully to seagulls’ complaints and observations, and converse with them, and struggle to translate their often hilarious profanity, had this writing request-command not materialised? The request also forced me to look at the hilly, labyrinthine city of Birmingham altogether differently, thorough the twilight lens of lockdown-enforced silences and a Broad Street virtually empty of humans, especially at dusk and afterward, but wildly alive through the darker hours with windblown paper rubbish carousing, even gallivanting, in all the corners and byways where it knew no people would care, because scarcely any people — at least not people with faces – seemed to have been there, unless I was somehow missing them between dreams and waking. Birmingham’s canals suddenly began whispering, in the snakiest of tones, Do you see now what we’ve been trying to tell you all along? – and as a fairly new resident in the twisting, hilly city, I couldn’t help but respond Yes, yes, and yes. And still I wonder how many requests-as-commands become writing possibilities for each of us: Does Pick up some milk at Tesco become a story, or Could you please walk the dog before it rains? become a novel? I remain certain that now, right now, someone is hearing the poem or the play or the screenplay (or all three) in Will you please email the Council, or Would you like to use these dishes, or Do be careful with all my cactuses. If this is true, then all that I can guarantee at this moment is that everything that the snarky seagulls promised me through all those lockdown evenings shall surely, in the languages of our deepest and most intimate dreams, also eventually be promised to all of us, everywhere.
- What You Realise You Know, That They Don’t Know
In conclusion, I wished to include some words in reference to this twisting, hilly, strangely configured city of Birmingham, in light of some of the twisted, strange remarks so many people throughout England in particular have made to me upon learning that I happily, freely chose – and was not required – to live here. What do such words teach us? What on earth can it mean when a well-meaning London-based person stammers, ‘But does Thomas really live in Birmingham? But why?’ What do we learn when we hear English people speak mockingly of Birmingham, deriding the famously constantly mocked Birmingham-area accents, even as I, an outsider to all this British baggage, would be interested in undertaking Birmingham and Black Country dialect lessons? What do we learn when we remember that although so many Londoners sneer at Birmingham, the UK’s esteemed capital and vast home of Big Ben and more is more frequently than ever in our climate change era prone to foul-smelling floods? How do we feel about the fact that London’s quasi-prehistoric rats appear to possess the very same physical and psychological characteristics as Birmingham’s twenty-first century vermin?
I believe that the examples of people’s provincialism and ignorance help those of us who know the West Midlands and Birmingham in particular understand, quickly, that we actually know a great deal that these narrow people don’t and probably will never be able to know. They won’t know about Birmingham’s sprawling neighbourhoods with their merciless hills (speaking here as a long-suffering long distance runner), nor about the gleaming domes of particular mosques, nor the windows of halal grocers’ shops that steam up on colder days. It cannot be possible for them to know about the stories within the stories within all of Birmingham’s streets and squares and alongside the murmuring canals (thinking of a story I recently heard of a skulking demon that resides in the canal waters beneath the long Curzon Street tunnel, for example). It might not even be possible for them to understand at last all their own hang-ups about social class and when and where they fit into all of it, or don’t, and who they know who does or doesn’t give a damn. In all of this not-knowing, whilst those Birmingham detractors may know of other things and places (although this possibility appears dim), they’re unable to know and engage with, embark through, these particular stories: a great loss for them. At the risk of sounding like the opening sentences of a Latin American novel, I could have no idea when I arrived in Birmingham New Street station on that fateful day six years ago that I would someday not only find myself shocked into silence by the raucous profanity of Brindleyplace seagulls, but also that I was all at once living in a region – indeed, in a country – in which a great many people often said very little that was meant to say much, whilst other people said some things that hinted at other things they knew they shouldn’t say but couldn’t help inferring, all the while ending their sentences with rhetorical phrases such as Is that okay, or Is that all right, whether or not the thing in question was indeed okay or all right. Here clearly loomed, with open hands, an offered gift: the opportunity to decipher, discern, observe, attempt to understand, and – with luck – uncover the story or stories deeper within the understanding, in the exact heart of where the person or persons existed and, like all human beings, where they yearned, dreamt, lived, perhaps loved, and where, one day, they would, like all of us, die. Moving through these worlds in our daily living and writing, our dreaming and listening, it seems clearer than ever that we need not waste time with the fear of falling, for in fact all we need do is walk. I couldn’t have said all this six years ago when I first arrived in this city of hidden stories and long hills and twisting streets – and even if I could have, I wouldn’t have remembered until exactly today, right now, that I was first told all of this and more by one of the many shadows that emerged and finally had the chance to voice their whispered stories during the spectral quietness of lockdown evenings, and our recent summer long evenings, as they will do again throughout a future autumn’s golden hours, and through every season to come. Even now I can’t remember all the words that those shadows shared with me, but I do recall their strong Birmingham accents, and the comfort that they seemed to take in the company of particular ghosts, and trees, and all the things that didn’t yet exist because all of us, through all of those twilight hours, were still working so very hard to imagine them. . .working to imagine and produce on the page every word, every breath, and every single remaining silence.
 Joan Acocella, ‘Dancing for Balanchine’, The New York Review of Books, 11 October 1990, p. 33.