July 2018: Goats, Flamenco, and Remembering How to Play in My Writing Practice

As I mentioned May’s blog post, I’ve been learning to adjust my writing work style from what I  call “Angry Goat Headbutts Rock In Between It and Lovely Grass” to “Slightly Wiser Goat Looks Around Curiously to See if There is An Alternate Way to Get to Grass.”  The goat is me and the grass is the story,  by the way, if that metaphor wasn’t clear.

[Image description: a small baby goat with a brown and white body pushes its head into a person’s hand]
When writing (or anything else) starts to feel hard, my method up to date has been to keep showing up at the page and push through–effectively punch my way to the other side through willpower and gritted teeth.  Sometimes this works…but sometimes it doesn’t.  More and more research shows that willpower is a finite resource and can be fatigued by overuse and this has been true in my experience.   There is a romantic notion that  “real artists” devote all their willpower to their art–but that is not realistic or reflective of artists’ lives.  Certainly not my life, as much as I might want that to be true.  And even if my willpower was boundless as the galaxy and someone else could take care of all my physical, emotional, and social needs, there are some problems in writing that can’t be solved by sheer force.

When I complained to several friends about not being able to work my way through a story and having more and more difficulty gathering enough willpower to write, they asked about my writing practice and gently suggested that I prioritize fun and play in my writing.

“You’re using willpower for everything.  Maybe trying playing as a different tool.  Write stuff for fun, focus on the joy of it.  Follow what feels good sometimes.”

I immediately made this face.  And I kept headbutting away.

Stubborn Baby Goat is a candidate for my Patronus [Image description: a white baby goat looks up with a stubborn expression]

Back in January, I started taking flamenco dance classes–I wanted to learn flamenco since I was 13 and saw a performance at the Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in my hometown but shortly afterward, I started experiencing severe foot pain and was diagnosed with a type of irritation of the nerve due to a quirk of my foot anatomy.  There’s not really a cure since I can’t change the shape of my feet and my podiatrist told me to avoid high impact dancing and high heels, which is a perfect description of flamenco.  But I continued to watch videos of flamenco performers and imagined myself stomping to the guitar.

Finally, bored with my exercise routine, I decided to give it a try and see if I could make flamenco work for me.  I found that I could be in flamenco shoes and dance for one hour tops, and I could practice heelwork for 30 minutes at most.  This means that even if I want to keep headbutting my way through some challenging choreography, I just can’t.   I’ve found to my surprise that I can still keep up with the class even if I can’t practice for hours at a time and that some movements just take time to learn.

One day our instructor asked us to practice our expression.  “Stop being so dainty!  You are not ladies sipping tea!  You are tigresses showing that you will not be trifled with!” she said.  We stopped drilling footwork and instead tried making fierce faces at each other as we walked across the room.  “I know this might seem silly or trivial–but you have to practice confidence and a range of expressions.  If you don’t practice having a fierce attitude, it will be harder to perform with it.  It’s important to play around with this.”

As I was practicing my tigress face at home, it hit me–I wasn’t playing in my writing because it felt too important.  I love writing and stories and I want to write well so I was drilling but I wasn’t practicing a range of expressions.  I was afraid that playing with feeling and expression would come at the cost of good writing but not playing was going to come with a cost too.  If I didn’t start to play, I’d keep losing the joy of writing and watch it become brittle from drilling—and that was going to hurt like hell.  It was already hurting like hell, which was why I was so fiercely opposed to playing because I thought I could work and drill my way out of this problem.

It’s scary to do something new and uncomfortable, but we do scary stuff for the things we love.  So, I’m learning to play–I’d say learning to play again, but it’s been long enough that it doesn’t feel like “again” so much as learning for the first time.  We’ll see where this takes me.

My flamenco shoes, ready for practice. [Image Description: a black and white photo of a pair of worn black flamenco shoes on a wooden floor]