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).
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.