Andromeda: Writing Lessons from the Dance Floor

My closest friend became a Zumba fanatic this summer. We run together each Sunday, and would run even more, just maybe, but she is too busy Zumba-ing, usually three nights a week. I peeked in at a class at the Alaska Club, to see what all the fuss was about, and found a packed room of bodies dancing to fast Latin rhythms—some expertly, just as many not. I’m used to kickboxing and aerobics classes, but this looked more like a crowded nightclub. The crush of bodies made me feel better: if I decided to try from the back, I’d be able to hide.

And so I did on a recent night, sweating and salsa-stepping with the rest of them, a ready convert to this latest craze (which has been around for quite a while—yes, I’m a late-adapter). I was exhausted by the halfway mark, but smiling the whole time and proud for keeping up with maybe half the steps.

What’s all the fuss, and why does Zumba seem more funky, less Jane-Fonda-aerobics-old-fogey? For one thing, the instructor hardly speaks. No counting one-to-eight over and over, no shouted directions about the upcoming move, no long motivational speeches panted into a tiny microphone. The Zumba teacher will signal with a hand that she is about to change directions or that everyone should pay closer attention to the mirror, because a new move is coming up, but these gestures blend into the dance. You could easily miss them, and some people do. No matter: keep trying and you’ll catch up. There are no grades. We’re all just a mass of people out on that dance floor, and sometimes—miraculously—we actually do look like a chorus line or Latin troupe, everyone doing the right thing at the right time. Hard to tell even who the teacher is, sometimes, considering how many fit, funky dancers take positions at the front of the room.

My two kids took the class with me, and they weren’t quite as won over. My daughter’s preference is to be told what moves are coming next, to get verbal corrections on her form. But I’ve taken my share of fitness and yoga classes, and frankly, I’m tired of the yakking. A language person, I nonetheless appreciate Zumba’s method: learn by watching and doing. Correct yourself. Pick out some role models and copy them. Focus on the big moves first and add the little details—Latin hands, a more nightclubby back thrust—only when you’re ready. Be your own best teacher.

This, too, is how we learn to write: through absorption, emulation, and intuition. Most of the lessons come not from being told anything, but from what we pick up from our own reading of fiction or creative nonfiction. “Read a hundred books, write one,” runs the motto of one MFA program, and that’s a good proportion for anyone to follow. (Same goes for screenwriters out there—and here is a fantastic post by an AK blogger in which some industry experts castigate writers who don’t bother to read great scripts while they’re struggling to write their own.)

After we’ve been struggling with a concept for a very long time, it can be a tremendous help to get a dose of crafty specifics in the form of a lecture or article about some lingo-laden topic. I’m reading a book right now about the depiction of consciousness in fiction, and it’s full of jargon and semantic hair-splitting, terms like “psycho-narration” and the author’s own scholarly take on “free indirect discourse.” Love it.

But if you haven’t read a few hundred books in your lifetime, and tried your hand at writing a few hundred pages, it probably isn’t the right time to worry about free indirect discourse, and why someone else calls it narrated monologue and what the French had to say about style indirect libre.

More than once, I’ve been asked to speak to school-age writers about some very focused, persnickety craft topic, the kind I love but most kids don’t — and I’ve relented on occasion. But my deep-down belief is that jargon-laden instruction aimed to deliver students via a fixed rubric through a grading tunnel won’t help if the foundation hasn’t been laid. If anything, details introduced too early simply confuse. Read first. Absorb. Write freely. Play and share. Celebrate the natural storytelling impulse in all its guises. There is time for semantic hair-splitting later. Often, we bloom when we’re ready, as long as we’ve had access to high-quality soil and sunshine along the way.

For serious adult writers, it’s a bit more complicated, of course. Let ourselves just read-read-read, without stopping to apply the lessons (it always looks so much easier in the form of someone else’s novel!) and the passive brain takes over. We need to read like writers, which is a different process. Yesterday, I retyped the first two pages of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which I’ve read on many occasions, and only for the first time did I truly notice how Woolf transitions between action and description, thought and memory. The words had to flow through my own fingers, rather than just flicker across my uncritical, entertainment-seeking eyes.

But of course, I don’t retype most of what I read. I just read, scribbling in the margin when something knocks me out, falling into the story at times and standing apart from it at other times, in order to appreciate its engineering: a natural two-step that most of us learn because we’re committed to our life-long literary apprenticeships.

Think of how many sentences you’ve invited into your brain over your lifetime so far; how much character development and narrative structure. From novels and newspaper articles. From movies. From jokes. From fairy tales and stories around the campfire.

We are learning machines. We know more than we think we know. Most of the time, we don’t need someone counting and hectoring and explaining how each move will benefit us. A teacher’s occasional gesture and our own glance in the mirror will suffice, as long as we show up and get moving, wanting to improve and not just flail. Zumba, not aerobics. It’s a crowded dance floor, but all the better; there are lots of talented, inspiring bodies to watch.

4 thoughts on “Andromeda: Writing Lessons from the Dance Floor”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks Nancy — I should have referenced it more clearly. It's Transparent Minds by Dorrit Cohn (1984) — not very well-distributed, but listed at amazon.

  2. Thanks for the title, Andromeda. I've never heard of it, which surprises me because it was new when I was in grad school. Too bad it's so expensive! I see she has a later book, that also looks good. It sounds to me like you're doing some very rigorous reading for your program–speaks well for you and it.

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