Off the Beat: On Playing With Your Writing
I've been thinking about my ballet-dancing days today. As some of you know, before I was a writer, I was a professional ballet dancer, a career I loved to the moon and back; the stage also taught me a great deal I would use on the page--about rhythm, pacing, arc, tempo, movement, stamina, how to keep going going going until you think you will drop--1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, ,8--and don't.
Yet looking back, friends, I stretch, and sigh. I am disappointed in myself. And I'm disappointed in one thing, specifically : by what I believe, during my dancing years, was a too-close fidelity to the music. I was fiendish, in those days, about the beat--I wanted my dancing to be exactly on tempo, to be so thoroughly aligned, so perfectly in tune with the orchestra that I and its rhythm would seem to be one and the same. I was constantly praised for this, too, by choroegraphers; reviewers noted it in their columns ("wonderfully musical" was the epithet most frequently attached to my performances); and I disdained dancers who lacked, in my estimation, a sufficient awareness of musical precision, faltered in their loyalty to the conductor's baton.
There was only problem. The greatest dancers do not follow the conductor. The conductor follows them. The greatest dancers stretch the music, so that it becomes, not a vise, but a thing fluid, a thing that can be pushed and pulled.
The next time you are at the ballet (or if you don't or can't go, just take a look at this clip), watch the ballerina and study her playfulness with the rhythm. Does she march along to it like a piper to a drum? Or does she vary her pacing, push and pull against it, ever so slightly, or sometimes boldly? Does she make you gasp by holding her balance en pointe just a hair longer than the adagio would indicate--can you almost see her wink at the conductor, dare the audience, Come with me, follow me?
The greatest ballerinas challenge their conductors. They play with the music. They dance with the beat, not on it.
Writers, good ones, do the same.
A sentence can be as twee as a flea.
Or it can buffle and swerve, manic, look out, that wave breaking on the beach, do you think it matches the rhythm of all the waves that came before it? No, it only seems that way, in fact, like each human ear it is unique, and attaches itself only once to the jaw of a coastline.
I learned recently that tightrope-walkers vary their rhythm as they cross a chasm on a line. Nik Wallenda did so this week when he crossed Niagara Falls, because to be too even is to risk a kind of whiplash: the line you are walking on begins to imitate you and your rhythm in ever larger waves, it loses its tension and steadiness and starts to trip you up with your own rigidity. And so the walker varies his rhythm, which keeps tension in the line, tricks it into submission. The walker is not the one doing the submitting.
It try now to remember this, not just at the level of the sentence but at the levels of paragraph, chapter, story.
I make up for all those lovely but perhaps too-neat performances.
I shove and wink.
I make up for time kept too caged.