Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ballet lessons

Does anyone have a memory of ballet lessons? I did them when I was 7 (for 3 long years). Mostly I remember always being the one who was out of step with the rest of the class, the ungainly one always going left when everyone was going right, sticking my foot forward when it was supposed to go back. I've always been somewhat uncoordinated. Which is why it's weird that in my adult life, I love dancing.

Anyway, the point I was getting to was, the ballet mistress would always go down the line of bodies, adjusting this foot or that arm position, telling you to suck in your belly, pull your shoulders back. So you'd maintain this "ideal posture" until she got past you, and when she was past you you'd let out your breath again and let yourself slouch a bit.

Writing is like that. Since I started formally studying the process of creative writing, and with my various informal interactions with people, I have been conscious of sucking in my stomach, making sure my sentences were lean, that there were no unnecessary words, that there weren't too many adverbs, that my prose wasn't overrun with -ings. This was when I started learning about poetry. When I started writing plays and short stories I learnt about not stating the obvious, about showing not telling, about suggesting rather than making my dialogue too "on the nose", and hundreds of other things.

The novel form, I was told (not by my teachers I hasten to add), is a great form. Here is where you don't have to watch every sentence or pare it down to the bare minimum. You can let your characters out to play. You can put in things that are, strictly speaking, unnecessary just because you like them. In a phrase (I naively thought when I started this project), you can let it all hang out.

This is a fallacy, as you've probably already guessed. A novel, as I've discovered this year, requires you to follow (or at least discriminately break) all of the aforementioned "rules" of good writing, but you have to follow them for longer. And it adds in further disciplines (plot, character development, thematic shading and so on)on top of that. It's hard and I'm feeling it.

To go back to the original (and by now rather strained) metaphor, I've been a bit lazy while the ballet mistress wasn't looking, but she's back and I'm desperately trying to hide the fat and pull the shoulders back so that at least it looks good, even if it doesn't feel so good.

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