On Tutus, Right Tackles
And Writing In Obscurity

By PJ Parrish

Was perusing the New York Times over the holidays, lingering at my two favorite stops: sports and arts. In sports, I read about the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line (for you non-sports types, that’s the big fellows up front who form a pocket around the quarterback). In the arts section, I read a review of The Nutcracker that zeroed in on the corps de ballet (that’s the group of dancers who form a circle around the ballerina).

Patrick Mahomes being protected

I’ve been watching football since the 1950s, slogging with my Dad through the sad history of the Detroit Lions. I’m now a long-suffering Dolphins fan as well. I’ve been going to The Nutcracker since the 1980s, when I became dance critic. I think I have seen The Nutcracker over 400 times, every version from the dazzling (New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Bolshoi) to the amateur and heartfelt (in hot gymnasiums with many parents in the audience).

On Christmas day, I watched the Lions and Packers. That night, I saw the Tallahassee Ballet dance The Nutcracker. I often focus on the play of the offensive line because they work hard in unison to showcase the quarterback. I focus on the corps dancers because they work in sync to showcase the ballerina. Until now, it never struck me how similar their jobs are.

 They both depend on teamwork

“Sometimes I’m blocking with a blind side and one of the other linemen literally has my back. We must rely on each other. We have to know each other’s personalities to coexist out there, and we have to know each other’s tendencies. — right tackle Kareem McKenzie.

“Sometimes you feel like you are just part of the scenery…the military aspect — the discipline, the straight lines, doing everything at the same time, the lack of individuality.”– Cécile Sciaux, Paris Opera Ballet.

2. They will never be the stars but without them, the show doesn’t go on.

“When you first get into the company, you don’t think you’re going to spend your life in the corps. Your dream is to be the lead, and at one level that never goes away.” — Dena Abergel, New York City Ballet.

“As kids, we all started out as quarterbacks or receivers, but then we got fat and slow so we became offensive linemen. We might try harder now, but who is going to notice a bunch of big guys blocking? — Center Shaun O’Hara.

Well, you don’t really notice them — until they screw up. If a Chiefs lineman misses a block, Patrick Mahomes gets sacked. If a corps girl’s leg goes too high in arabesque during the Shades entrance of La Bayadere, she shatters the whole lovely illusion.

So, if you watch the playoffs this week, pay attention to the chunky guys up front. And next time you go to the ballet, watch the girls in the back. There’s artistry in their obscurity.

Which is a long ways around to get to my point, crime dogs. Many of us tell great stories. Some of us get published. Some of us work hard and publish ourselves. Very very few of us become stars. Most of us will work in obscurity and quiet hopefulness. All of us have our special fears about that.

We fear we don’t have enough talent or the stamina needed to go the distance. We fear we will never connect with an agent or editor. We fear the churning changes in publishing will crush our dreams. We fear our work will get lost in the cacophony of self-publishing. We fear we’re too old for this, or that it’s too late to even start.

We fear obscurity.

What can I say? I’ve been there, believe me. I’ve been published by the biggest houses in New York, small presses, twelve foreign houses and by my own little self. I can tell you it has never gone away, the fear of sliding into nothingness. I’m battling another round of it of late. But I’m plugging on. So here, modestly, is what I can tell you as you start anew in this new year:

Don’t stop. Face the blank screen every day. I suggest doing so after you’ve gone back and read something you’ve already written. If it’s good, you can find great solace in your genius. If it’s not so good, you’re strong enough to admit it, hit delete and try again.

Stay connected. Try to write every day because the string between you and the imagined world of your story is fragile. You have to stay connected. If you stay away too long, you forget the language, lose your place, and find your characters have drifted away. Here’s Walter Mosley on the subject:

Writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat. You have to continuously set yourself on course. If you get distracted or allow yourself to drift, you will never make it to the destination. It’s not like highly defined train tracks or a highway; this is a path that you are creating discovering. The journey is your narrative. Keep to it and a tale will be told. Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.

Read good books. I’ve posted about this before, but it’s vital to your momentum. When my own work is rough-sailing, I take a break and go read another chapter of Jess Walter’s Cold Millions. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he makes me want to be a better writer.

Clean yourself up. When I feel like I’m becoming engulfed by what Virginia Woolf called “the mist of obscurity” I think about that Marie Kondo lady. She’s the one who  preaches about decluttering your den or underwear drawer. Declutter the junk that prevents you from writing. Get off Facebook or whatever your social drug is. During writing time, turn off your phone’s text alerts and let your calls go to voice mail. Lock the kids out of your writing space, or decamp to a coffee house. And for heaven’s sake, clean up your office and your C-drives. Like those skinny jeans hiding in your closet, that lousy romantic suspense manuscript you whiffed on will only make you angry if you keep getting it out and looking at it.

Talk to someone. You probably don’t need a mentor, but a trusted beta-reader is good. Keep coming here to TKZ because we know what it feels like. Ditto critique groups, but stay away from pity parties where wine and whine is the only offerings.

Get some exercise. The science proves it: physical movement helps get the brain, bowels, biceps and everything going, including creative energy. I don’t recommend joining a gym. Wait until February when the crowds thin out. Walk the dog, even if you don’t have one.

Good grief. I just re-read this. I apologize for yet another extended metaphor, that bit about ballet and football. And I didn’t mean this to sound like a rah-rah-get-off-your-ass New Year’s resolution thing. I hate resolutions. Never make ’em.

But I do wish this for you as you go on into 2023: Try to embrace the idea of obscurity. Think of it merely as a state of being, a transition. Understand that writing is, at its essence, aloneness. You can’t write amid noise; embrace the quietude. Obscurity can be freeing. It releases you from your fear of failure, because who’s gonna hear you singing off-key if you’re doing it in the shower? This is what third and tenth drafts are for — whispering in the dark as you hone voice and craft until you’re ready to face the audience.

I leave you with a thought from Susan Orleans: “We are all whispering in a tin can on a string, but we are heard, so we whisper the message into the next tin can and the next string. Writing a book is an act of sheer defiance.”

And if you’re so inclined to watch, here is the Bolshoi corps in five of the most beautiful minutes in all of ballet. Good writing in the new year, friends.

Postscript: For technical reason, I am having trouble posting in our comments section today. If I don’t answer in a timely fashion, please be patient. I have to use our back door.


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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

14 thoughts on “On Tutus, Right Tackles
And Writing In Obscurity

  1. Ironically, sometimes an offensive lineman is also a nutcracker.

    Good, sound advice, Kris. All of it.

    Personally, I was always more afraid of penury than obscurity. The majority of pulp writers who made a living with their typewriters are unknown to us today, but they put food on the table. I aimed for that rather than The Today Show. (I will, however, accept their call.)

    Happy writing and plickleball, Kris. (Hmm, another metaphor brewing?)

  2. As a high school lineman, I know my contribution to the team. Growing up with the “Cardiac Cardinals” and the O line of Dan Dierdorf, Bob Young, and Conrad Dobler, I know the power of a good block. The very best of HOF quarterbacks and Heisman running backs thank their blockers at every opportunity.

  3. Terrific advice, Kris. Obscurity is a fact of life for nearly everyone, and is of course, relative. One may be famous in their own circle, but unknown outside it. The same is true for writers. What matters is the writing. I love your advice to write every day and stay connected to your story. I’ve seen personally how fragile that connection can be.

    Here’s to 2023. Happy writing!

    • There are two kinds of success in our biz, I’m thinking. You can get critical success and win Edgars, but never reap the big financial rewards or hit the bestseller lists. The French call it being a “succès d’estime.” Then there’s James Patterson. I’d be happy with some good reviews, breaking the extended list of the NYT bestseller and making a few bucks. Which is right about where I am. Although a nice small villa in Provence wouldn’t be bad.

  4. Love it, Kris!

    Most of what you say is true of me. I feel like I’m on a deserted island sometimes, plunked down somewhere in the Northwest. But I’ve always liked being alone, so it’s not all bad.

    This particularly resonates with me:

    We fear we don’t have enough talent or the stamina needed to go the distance. We fear we will never connect with an agent or editor. We fear the churning changes in publishing will crush our dreams. We fear our work will get lost in the cacophony of self-publishing. We fear we’re too old for this, or that it’s too late to even start.

    Thanks for a great post and start to my morning.

    (Crossing my fingers that this comment posts . . . )

  5. To James:

    {{Bada-BOOM}} (the nutcracker barb).

    Penury. I admit I had to go look it up. I’ve been lucky to always make money on my stuff. First romance I wrote was plucked from a slush pile by Fawcett (yeah, I’m that old) and I got $2,500 advance. I was in high cotton! I once got one really big advance and it wasn’t a good experience really because if they overpay for you and you don’t make that money back, you’re dead. Had two other good friends who were in same boat. Pretty much destroyed their careers. Maybe I will post about that someday.

    Now, since I own 99% of my backlist, I get regular checks from Amazon. They keep us in dog food.

    • Sorry to comment this way, Kris, but I can’t get past the “Denied” error this morning.

      Love the comparison of offensive linemen to ballerinas. I never would have thought of that one, but it works!

      Each one of us has our own point of fear. I’m not afraid of obscurity, but I’m always concerned that I’m not doing my best work. Either way, your suggestions are good therapy, no matter what the cause.

      Btw, I especially like the quote from Walter Mosley: “Writing a novel is like taking a journey by boat.” I’m working on a post for next Monday that discusses this very thing.

      • No prob Kay…I’m using Dashboard to comment cuz I can’t get in otherwise. Yeah, the Mosley quote was an eye-opener for me. I think I found it in his book on writing. (Sorry, forget the title). When I met him at the Edgars a couple years back, I told him what the quote meant to me. He stressed that the every-day thing was really what made you a writer.

  6. Long suffering Dolphins fan? Lissen, pal. I’m a long suffering Giants fan and even before the preseason starts I’m saying “Well, there’s always next year.” I suffered through the worst years of Craig Morton and Paterson Plank Joe Pisarcik.

    I think mentors are a pretty good thing generally, particularly when you’re learning your craft, if you find someone who takes an interest in your professional development. It can save a lot of years.

    On the general theme of obscurity, it doesn’t bother me too much. I’m very good at it. I reckon Paterson Plank Joe Pisarcik is good at it too.

  7. I just finished reading your blog and I have to say, it was an undivided pleasure. Your writing style is engaging and descriptive, making me feel like I was right there with you on your exploit. The picture you included were also incredible and really added to the overall quest. good-luck

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