What Dance Taught Me About Writer’s Block

DancingAnyone who knows me knows I love to dance. And dancing, for me, has always meant learning new and fun choreography. Until recently. This year, I started taking classes at a studio that emphasizes learning to freestyle. In these classes, we all start out dancing together, but in the end, we each pick out one song for a freestyle dance—alone, in front of our peers. Who are, it must be noted, of a wide range of levels.

This can be terrifying. Sometimes, you just don’t click with the song. Sometimes you don’t click with any song. Sometimes the beat is too fast. Sometimes, you get caught up in your head, thinking how you don’t look like so-and-so, and you’re not as graceful as that other dancer, and you don’t have the technical skill of any of them. You start thinking how you have to pull out your best moves, try really hard just to not embarrass yourself. And as you get further wound up in your head, the beat starts driving you, and every move begins to feel the same—fast, pointless, not good enough.

You see the ways this is like writing?

In the beginning, that ever-narrowing headspace was almost impossible to escape. Which was so frustrating, because I could feel what I was missing. Until one day, after a dance where I was entirely in my head, dancing what I thought was my heart out, trying to capture something real but ending up feeling entirely unsatisfied, my teacher pulled me aside and asked how that dance was for me. (That is always the point: how it was for you.) And then, I could hide it no longer: miserable. That dance was miserable. I didn’t know how to escape it. I’d felt like I was finally improving! And then . . .

She smiled. She gets caught up in her head too, she told me. Everyone does, all the time. The secret is that when you feel that happening, give yourself permission to slow down, or even to stop. In the middle of a spin, or against the wall, it doesn’t matter. Just stop. Hold your position. Breathe. Wait until you feel the music pull you, until you feel your breath in your belly. And when you start again, it’s okay to move slow if that’s what your body wants to do. Dance authentically, in accordance with your body and your mood, and it will feel good. And, I’ve found by watching, it will be good, too.

It changed my dance. Now I seek authenticity first, and when I find it . . . it feels right. It takes me in unexpected directions. And while I’m not a fantastic dancer by a long shot, my dance has a different quality to it now. And they leave me feeling. . . not always happy. But like I’ve expressed myself properly. Like I know who I am. And while I’m doing all that—it turns out, I’m also improving. Stealthily. Without having to try so damn hard.

Honestly, I think this applies to writing, too. We all know the theory: butt-in-chair, writer’s block is a myth, just write through it. And for what appears to be the majority of writers, this works. But for me, for a long time, I took this to mean you should just push forward writing text that will literally make up at least the first (or zero, or whatever) draft of your manuscript. And that is a terribly unproductive thing for me.

See: I’m very good at butt-in-chair. But when the writing’s not coming, it usually means something’s wrong, that I’m approaching it incorrectly. And when I force it anyway, writing through the block like I thought I was supposed to—I end up writing farther and farther in the wrong direction, until I suddenly realize that nothing I wrote will be of use, that there’s nothing I love in it, and I end up disillusioned with the whole project. And like that awful dance, it’s miserable.

But of course, what are you to do, if not write through it? The feeling of writer’s block itself is terrifying—you have to do something. But trying to write through a block, when I’m in such a critical state, only makes it worse. Every error is magnified, and further proof of the thesis.

And there are a lot of errors—because when I get anxious, I begin writing as cleverly and technically as I can manage, like a gorilla thumping its literary chest. Or a dancer, pulling out tricks they’ve yet to master. But that’s not the answer; it’s inauthentic. And writing, like dance, is about authenticity. At least for me.

Anxiety and stress will always be a part of my writing—whether from deadlines, expectations, or even recent successes. And I doubt that will ever go away entirely. But I have found that when faced with writer’s block, the best thing I can do for myself is not write through it, but give myself permission to slow down and get some perspective, or even to stop. To daydream about my story, and what I’m really trying to say. To acknowledge where I am. And then, usually, once I’ve looked it full in the face, the anxiety will usually slowly unwind from my brain, as if all it wanted was to be acknowledged. And in its absence, my thoughts grow limber and playful again, and the writing—it comes back to me. Naturally. Authentically.

And you know what? It feels good. Which is, at least, half the battle.

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