Essay by Allison Mills, a member of the Congress of Rough Writers, and the Darling Daughter of the Lead Buckaroo
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Deep down—way deep down where words melt into heartbeats and cation exchanges—I know I am a dancer. In that regard, I consider myself a writer second. Or perhaps I’m an editor second because I play the role of choreographer as I craft the words of a first draft. In my mother’s words, these stories in the rough are raw literature.
Yes, Carrot Ranch blog extraordinaire Charli Mills is my Mumsy Darling; it’s a nickname my sister and I gave her in high school and the one I still use in my mobile contacts. No surprise, my earliest memories are of her, living room leaps, and Shakespeare. I can appreciate Norah Colvin’s recent post on teaching children the process of writing and the value of a portfolio as Mumsy Darling was my first instructor in storytelling.
The specific memory I can recall is filtered through a home video. Her long auburn hair swaying, Mumsy leads us three children in a wild, dance-run circle to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. We spin, leap, throw our arms as only children and their mother can. The suite transitions, we fall to the floor, and ever the writer, Mumsy hears her musical cue for words, “Romeo, oh, Romeo! Where art thou, oh, Romeo?”
Before she can finish the monologue, my logger of father—wearing a cowboy hat and Elmer Fudd t-shirt—walks through the door, swinging his arms as only a man with bull shoulders and cantaloupe biceps can. “Right here, babe!”
The whole scene is improvised. There is an ease to the phrases and pirouettes. It’s raw. It’s a feeling I now chase as an adult writer working in science communication for a university. It’s a memory I use to spark choreography as a dance instructor and performer. To embrace raw literature, I approach my writing as a dance piece.
I get too excited listening to Tchaikovsky to get much rough drafting done, but headphones and music are an important part of my writing process. No lyrics—words don’t beget words for me. I have to tap into a mental and emotional space where I feel the shape and rhythm of words as movement before my conscious mind taps them out on the keyboard. Caught up in the steps, my hands will rise and flick out; at times, deep in concentration and imagination, my whole body steps away from the screen and I’m snapped back to reality by my headphones. Many of my coworkers have walked in on this desk dance; lit happens, people.
For all the touchy-feeling sound of this process, I’m terribly precise. Before my writing flows, I have to soak up so much information—just imagine all the facts a top-tier researcher with new paper can lay out in an hour-long interview—and I sort it first into messy notes and recordings, then weave the highlights into a tight and detailed outline. I work best with templates and a plan, even a rough one, helps me breathe life into a raw story. Sometimes I jump into the petit allegro of the body copy; often I bend the beginning into place and follow through like a traditional barre from plies to grand battements, kickers are endings after all.
Dance improvisation is the closest thing to writing for me. Improv appears extraneous; non-dancers may be surprised to learn how much structure is needed, much as non-writers may not realize how much research and thought goes into raw literature. A dancer builds up muscle memory, so that as she choreographs on the fly, her moves come smoothly and with practiced grace. Sometimes the steps are repetitive or off-beat, but you can’t rework what you don’t practice. A writer pens words every day and sometimes coughs up a phlegmy first draft for the same reason.
Practice does not make perfect; practice just opens up more opportunity and makes it easier to clear out the crud. Cutting and polishing are the precise tools of editing; raw literature is the material, crafted from intuition.
While rawness comes with some roughness, genuine expressions beat rote and memorized masks. I channeled this recently in a fusion improv I dedicated to my family and where we’ve all come since our living room ballets. I planned out the structure and agonized for months on what story to tell. On the night of the show, though, I realized it’s only a dance. It’s only a rough draft. Let go.
(See Allison’s solo at 4:55 and you’ll understand what comes of her raw choreography in a piece she dedicated to her family.)
Allison Mills is a Science and Technology Writer at Michigan Tech. A through and through geek, Allison writes university research stories. She studied geoscience as an undergrad at Northland College before getting a master’s in environmental science and natural resource journalism at the University of Montana. She moonlights as a dance instructor, radio fiend, and occasional rock licker. She writes features from fruit flies to sulfurous volcanic emissions. Read her published articles at Michigan Tech, and for all you sci-fi geeks and writers, follow her at Unscripted where science rolls off the tongue in discussions about campus research. Allison wrote, Welcome to Superfund, a multi-media masters project, including podcast journalism, environmental writing and map-making. She dances with the troupe, 47 North Belly Dance, and tweets at @aw_mills.
Raw Literature is an ongoing conversation about those first works we create as writers, as literary artists. Guest Authors share personal insights on their craft, its process, the experience of creating raw literature and what they do with it. Carrot Ranch is a dynamic literary community that creates raw literature weekly in the form of flash fiction (99 word stories). If you have an essay idea, pitch to Charli Mills, Lead Buckaroo, at firstname.lastname@example.org.