During the last years that I danced (though at the time, I didn’t know they would be my last years), I began watching other dancers more closely, and I became aware of a certain “something” the truly great ones possessed, a certain something I intrinsically knew I lacked. Oh, I was talented enough and worked hard to cultivate what talent I had, but the greats had this way of moving that I did not, something in their manner that I couldn’t describe but knew when I saw it–or rather, I felt it. It’s something that, for all a person’s natural gifts and dogged determination, cannot be learned. It’s something one must be born with, and because I had not been thusly blessed, I quit.
Now, there were a lot of other factors that went into this decision. For one thing, I quit dancing when I entered college because I believed I had to make a choice. I knew I would never be good enough to make it as a professional dancer, and so I chose to throw all my eggs in the intellect basket and became fully dedicated to school, even more so than I already had been. Besides, in dance, there were innumerable instabilities and potentials for catastrophe–a career could literally be ended with one tiny slip–and that was too much for my practical self to put stock in. Instead, I chose the infinitely more stable and far less catastrophe-laden career of a writer (sarcasm fully intended). I joke, but there was good reason for this, other than knowing I didn’t have what it took to be a dancer: as much as I loved it, I could live without dancing. I couldn’t live without writing.
I’m sure that, if I’d really wanted, I could’ve kept dancing in college, and in the years since I quit, I’ve considered taking classes over and over again. But something always stops me, and maybe it’s that I have never been capable of having a divided heart. If I love something (or someone), it has all of me. Of course, there are other minor loves and enjoyments on the side, but one thing always buoys up to trump the rest–and in this case, that thing is writing. But I think what’s primarily stopped me from dancing again, if only on a subconscious level, is that once I became aware that I did not possess that certain “something,” I never saw my dancer self the same way. I didn’t know if others could detect my lack–and most likely, they couldn’t, as we are always most critical of ourselves–but I could. Even if no one in my class had that “something,” even if I was the best of that particular bunch, I would always know that somewhere, someone better than me was at the barre, and because I knew this, I didn’t think I deserved to be there, too.
This may all sound melodramatic, and I swear, I’m not trying to be self-deprecating. I’m trying to make a point–because what interests me in this self-examination is that I’ve never had such qualms about my writing. Sure, I had (and have and will always have) those moments when I read something so wonderful that I think, Why on earth do I even bother? I also had (and have and will have) those moments when I get another rejection letter and think, Why the hell do I even bother? I have moments when I think I’ll never get it right, that I’ve not progressed as much as I thought, or that I will never be good enough to make something of this. But only recently has it occurred to me that, just like my dancing, my writing might lack that certain “something,” too.
I first became aware of the “something” in writing when I was a fiction editor for Silk Road. Most of what I read from the slushpile was, I’m sorry to say, dreck, but every once in a while, I would come across a story that just had “it.” What is “it”? Like the certain “something,” “it” is a quality of writing that I can’t put into words, but I know it when I read it. It’s that fluidity in the prose, that seamlessness of storytelling, that tale that seems to swell and glide along like a whale through the ocean (I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I think it works). It’s the kind of story that gets published in literary journals time and again, the book of poetry you sink into on a cold and rainy day, the novel you pick up after reading so much mediocrity that you’ve about lost your faith in the written word altogether–and it makes you fall in love all over again.
I know it when I read it. It occurred to me yesterday that I don’t think I have it. My writing, while rhythmic, is not fluid. My stories, while stitched with care, are not seamless. My work does not swell and glide along like a whale–it beats itself bloody against river rocks like a salmon, hopefully, maybe, somehow achieving a bit of grace as it hurtles toward its end. You know, before it spawns and dies. Again, this may sound melodramatic, and like with my dancing, I’m not trying to be self-deprecating. I’m trying to be honest and to observe, and I think this is an accurate depiction of my writing. It’s a bit too quirky, perhaps a bit too frail, to swim with the big fish in the big, big ocean.
I got started on this line of thinking because I received a rejection from a literary journal yesterday. This is by no means a strange occurrence, but what was strange was that the editor had mostly praise for my work, until he mentioned that he was passing on it because “it seemed to lack something new.” And my first thought was, Well, all the writers of the world should just give up and go work in gas stations, then, because there’s never going to be anything “new” to write. There are approximately three stories in the entire world, and they were all told before man even learned to rub two sticks together and make fire. If those of us attempting to tell stories in the twenty-first century are now supposed to come up with something “new,” we’re screwed. We’re so far beyond screwed that if Screwed were a planet, we couldn’t even see it with the Hubble telescope.
But what did Flannery O’Connor say? “There may never be anything new to say, but there is always a new way to say it.” That’s all we can do. That’s all I try to do. That’s what I thought I did do, but according to this one editor, did not do. Now, I’m not one to start doubting my entire purpose in life (at least for no more than a few hours) based on one instance of criticism, but this rejection set off a chain reaction (clearly) that ultimately has led me to ask, for those of us who maybe don’t have that certain “something,” can we ever hope for success? And by “success,” I unfortunately mean the literary world’s definition of it: publication in journals, books put out by big presses, guest lectureships at prestigious conferences, receiving large monetary awards named after obscure dead benefactors. I don’t have an answer for this. I do believe there are writers whose work has that certain “something.” I believe it is a way of storytelling that someone is born with–and just like dancing, one has to cultivate this “something,” but it begins as a natural gift–and I do not believe it was bestowed upon me.
However, I do believe my writing, and the writing of many others, has something else. I don’t know what this other “something” is, exactly, but I know it when I read it. I feel it. And I think it has to do with honesty, as if in writing, we’re saying, This is how I see the world. This is what I have to offer. Look with me, deeply, and don’t turn away. And maybe, if you do, you’ll be changed. And maybe that’s a “good enough” that really is good enough. Maybe it’s more. Maybe I’m okay with the fact that I’ll never be a whale. Maybe I’ll press on in the river I’m in, jagged rocks and blood and all, just happy to be swimming and knowing that, despite my imperfections, what I’m doing will somehow bring something to life.