Once upon a time, I worked at a law firm in Boston, in the financial district.
I went into the law firm in the morning, and I came out in the morning, usually about 2 a.m. When I came out, I got into a car that drove me home. Law firms of that size pay for a car to drive you home, if you’re there past a certain hour. I was often there past that hour. And they pay for dinner as well, if you’re there at dinner time, which I almost always was. So I drafted documents, and ate take-out, and didn’t get enough sleep.
I was in terrible shape.
That was when I started taking dance classes. And since I’m me, I started taking dance classes at the Boston Ballet School. I had taken ballet as a child, but I had not danced for years, so it took me several months to learn the steps and positions again. And it took me that long to get back into the shape I needed to be in, to dance.
One of the interesting but also intimidating things about the Boston Ballet School is that you’re among the professional dancers. They pass you on the stairs, but also they sometimes take the beginning or intermediate classes, particularly after they’ve been injured and need something easier to do. Because they, of course, dance every day.
I danced for several years after that, both while I was a lawyer and after I started graduate school, and I’ve never been in such good shape in my life. Ballet reshaped my body, made me stand and move differently. You can see it if you look at the pictures of me in my Resolutions post. If you look at the first picture, you’ll see that I have ballet hands.
I have not taken dance classes for a while. It’s difficult to, living here in Lexington. Commuting, teaching, and writing the dissertation take all my time. There’s no time left over for dance. But I try to stay in shape by exercising the way a dancer would (you know, pilades, yoga, that sort of thing).
You’re wondering what all this has to do with writing, and here it is: I have to do it every day.
I realized this particularly over the last semester, which was one of the most difficult periods of my life. Among other things, I stopped trying to stay in shape. When you’ve been exercising as long as I have, you don’t immediately turn into mush. It takes a while. But I haven’t been feeling well. So recently, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to start exercising again, specifically so that, once my dissertation is over, I can go back to taking dance classes. I miss dance, the discipline of it, feeling as though I’m pushing myself to my physical limit.
But again, I have to do it every day. Oh, I suppose I don’t have to. But when I don’t, even for a day, I feel the weakness in my core, or my shoulders. I feel that I’m not as strong or flexible as I was the day before. When I do it every day, I feel tight, together, as though I can move effectively and efficiently. Flexibility is particularly important. You lose that overnight. Every morning I wake and start to stretch, start to gain flexibility again. And if you do that every day, it’s easier the next day, and the next.
(Last night was particularly bad. I haven’t had a nightmare for a while, several weeks, but I had one again last night. At first I couldn’t get to sleep at all. I lay awake for what felt like hours. But when I finally did get to sleep, I dreamed that my lover was being pursued by the police. He had run into the forest, up into the hills. Then finally they caught up with him and shot him. I was not there, I only heard about it. And then I dreamed the terrible feeling of having lost someone you love, the permanent absence of it. The blankness of knowing that person was gone and would never come again, not on this earth. Mike Allen once wrote that he enjoyed his nightmares and would turn them into stories. Not me. My nightmares are horrible. And – this was my point – I woke stiff all over, barely able to turn my neck.)
I think writing is like that. The brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised every day, and whichever part of it writes, that needs to be exercised in particular.
What did I write today? I wrote part of the first chapter of my dissertation. Well, really I revised it, because it had been written some time ago, but I’m trying to revise both the first and second chapters to make my argument clear. And then I wrote this blog post.
I think both of those count as writing, and later today I will need to work on my Folkroots column, which will count as writing too.
Writing every day, whatever I’m writing, makes me stronger and more flexible as a writer. If I didn’t write for one day, I think I would feel it. I think parts of my brain would feel – well, mushy.
I will end with two photographs. This is a picture of me exercising my writing muscles:
And this is a book I saw in the YA section of Barnes and Noble. I include it for your amusement!