Dancing with Michelle

. . . Doves in the elsewhere
of their cooing.
—Yves Bonnefoy

I never danced before meeting Michelle. I’m not sure what diffidence kept me off the dance floor, whether it was my having no idea how to or no confidence that I could or simply no inspiration. But whatever it was, it was meaningless. Michelle taught me that.

We first danced on our second date—although it might well have been our third date or even our fourth; we’ve never been able to really say which of our earliest trysts first embodied the unambiguous romantic implications of a “date.” Was it that first dinner at Orso, ostensibly a business meeting? Or was it the following week’s rendevous for martinis at Ginger? Or Herb’s party? Dinner at Zephyr? Martinis at the Bubble Room?

Anyway, the scene of that first dance we’ll never forget.  An afternoon in early January, on the banks of Eagle River for a winter picnic, snow everywhere. We picnicked on salami and cheese and fruit and wine and then, the early winter evening coming on, went dancing through the snow up to our knees; danced along, postholing and humming that great vernal tune from the Ellington era, Billy Strayhorn’s “Flower is a lovesome thing.”

We’ve been dancing together since. If you’ve ever seen Michelle dance, you know her moves, the kind of wild-eyed abandon she dances with. I can’t keep up, but I also can’t keep from following her out onto the dance floor. I joke that I’m there to keep her from flying off into space, but really I’m out there hoping she’ll carry me with her into orbit.

The thing about this kind of dancing is that it’s not confidence that gets you out there, out on the dance floor. It’s not believing that you can or knowing how. It doesn’t help to know the steps, because there are no steps. It takes wanting to be out there, really wanting it, and rock & roll makes it easy. One of the great liberating and redemptive things about rock is that you can’t dance to it by knowing how.

You have to give yourself to it give it your whole body let the music tremble you shake you loose abandon yourself to the drums the bass the thumping lunge headlong into that rhythm into that great unpunctuated surge of bodies shaken loose by the music.

You learn not to learn to dance. You dance. You just dance.

I think that, in some weird way, writing is like that too. You learn not to learn how to write. You just write. Language comes to us as naturally as dancing: we already know how, we just need to get up off our duffs, put ourselves out there where our readers are and try to keep up. If we wait until we “learn how,” we’ll never write. Writing isn’t something we learn how to do once and for all anyway. We can just try to develop some good habits, but every new piece forces us to figure out all over again how to do it.

It didn’t surprise me that after a hiatus of more than twenty years I started writing again seriously around the same time I started dancing: after meeting Michelle.

I’ve been teaching writing and working as an editor for most of my adult life, and I could see whole truckloads of inaccuracies and half-truths and out-and-out nonsense in the things we teach about writing. And I talked about these things in the classes I teach, but I had not committed to exploring in print the ideas that were actually floating around inside that nebula I call my brain. I resisted the urge to write the same way I resisted the urge to dance.

I started writing when I realized I really want to be out there among you.

We start to write by writing, by going with the words we actually have in our heads. Let the words lead us where they want. We just have to keep writing them down, keep revising, keep trying to make them work harder, keep trying to find that rhythm.

That rhythm.  I always wanted to write the way Neil Young plays electric guitar, or compose an essay like a Billy Strayhorn tune.  Or Bach’s Violin Sonata in G Minor–the way Nathan Milstein plays it.

Writing is a process not just of description and explanation but of exploration and discovery. If you already know exactly what you’re going to say before you start, that’s just rhetoric. I think of writing as a Socratic dialogue that leads both of us, writer and reader, over the borderline of what we think we know. For me, the best writing raises more questions than it answers.

In his famous villanelle “The Waking,” American poet Theodore Roethke writes:

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.                                                 What falls away is always. And is near.                                                                     I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.                                                                I learn by going where I have to go.

The dancing itself is the learning how. Writing is our learning to write. The diffidence that keeps us in our seats is meaningless.

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