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.
I love this, thank you both. Beautiful celebration of the daughter-mother relationship and a fascinating account of integrating writing composition with dance. I have a couple of friends who, separately, are into dance and storytelling. Having read this, I have a stronger sense of what they’re about. And it’s great that you’re a science writer – even more in these dark times, we need engaging and clear communication around the rational.
Thank you, Anne! I had asked Allison to share her process as I know how crucial dance is to her creativity. Movement has always been something she’s sought to master as expression and yet she writes. So I wondered, too, how those two disciplines converged on the creative plane. What I think is interesting, too she’s definitely a plotter and I’m a pantser. You’d think the improv dancer would be “pansting,” but she explains it differently. I’m pleased this helps you with your friends. And I agree with your statement regarding science. The way she writes it, she makes science lyrical and approachable.
“Phlegmy first draft”
Oh yes, that is spot on for me!
Makes me think we all do throat-clearing with revision!
Allison, this is a marvelous essay articulating your process. What you describe about the synthesis of dance and the physicality of writing calls to mind what some writing teachers say: for example, one suggests that writers spend some time every day being creative in another medium: painting, playing a musical instrument, or in your case, dance . Your essay ahows the benefits of that integration. Thank you for a thoughtful and helpful piece that invites me to reflect on my own generative process. Well done!
Thanks for that input, Paula!
Always a pleasure, Sister Mom!
<3 <3 <3
Hi Allison, Thank you so much for sharing your creative process combining raw dance with raw literature. I really enjoyed this post for many different reasons. Firstly, it was good to hear some of the motherly Charli. She is a wonderfully supportive earth-mother to all us writers here at the Carrot Ranch, and I love your name for her “Mumsy Darling”. I can understand why she earned the title. Your description of her long auburn hair appeals to me too, as that is something we share, though mine is (was) probably a bit more orange than auburn. And I have an environmental scientist daughter also who writes brilliantly for her university and science journals. Our families share much in common. But not dance. You certainly have the moves! And how lovely to dedicate the dance to your family. I’m sure it heartened them to see you dance and to know that it was for them. I was interested to read about the impact of movement upon your writing process, and smiled at the headphones snapping you back to reality. I can imagine. 🙂 I think using choreography as an analogy for writing is a good one. Sometimes the words lead us on a merry dance. This was an easy and enjoyable post to read. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for the mention. 🙂
We do share much in common, and you certainly share in common with me the idea that words lead us on a merry dance and we don’t want the jig to end! I think our hair is similar in color. I find it has darkened as its aged (my hair has aged; I’m yet young). I think our daughters would have lively discussions as we do, Norah!
I think so too, Charli. What fun for our families. 🙂
I have many discussions with the Textiliste over how similar our creative processes are – hers in weaving mine in writing; the idea, the plotting, the way the project absorbs your subconscious and changes your plans, the cost need to review and revise, the ‘never an idea wasted’ so nothing is ever really thrown away even if excised from a particular project. I’d not have made the same links to dance but it’s bleddin’ obvious as they say in Essex. Thank you for the essay and the video – I stumble around my latin and ballroom dancing and then see this and it is a different world.
Mind you Charli as a Mumsy Darling? Nope, not that sort of mother to me, but a very effective one none the less leading us callow writers into the light.
I think we’re delving into the deep now with creative process and beginning to see clarity. And I’m thinking this Ranch Mother might rope you into writing a profile on the Textilist and how the two of you share processes…! And a disclaimer, although I “dance” in living rooms and beneath blue skies, I do not effectively recreate movements recognized as dance in the way my daughter does. She’s lyrical and at times edgy, but always in motion with an inner ear to life’s music. She gets it from her Dad, but I’ll spare you all the video of him belly dancing!
Hub in a frou frou! It would put that Kardashian arse into the shade; the internet wouldn’t be safe! Sounds your dancing is like my singing; a very private occurence
Yes, some acts are best in private. The Hub could go viral in a rendition of Putin in a frou frou!
What a wonderful post Allison, it is a pleasure to read you dancer/writer, daughter of my dear friend and your wonderful Mumsy Darling with her beautiful, flowing auburn hair 🙂 It never ceases to amaze me the way different art forms enhance one another; I actually ‘felt’ the movement of your words as if you had written a dance routine with every sentence. You are a certainly a beautiful dancer and writer. Thank you for sharing such a wonderful memory of you and your siblings dancing with your Mumsy and your father’s perfectly timed entrance. Did he have a rose between his teeth I wonder? There were two things I always wanted to be: a dancer or a writer. If only I could have been both, like you! Some of my happiest memories are of dancing with my three children when little, and pretending to ‘play’ the kids like an air guitar which was a dance form…of sorts, ha! But yes, how marvellous when raw literature bursts forth from you raw choreography. My middle boy is a musician, self taught from the age of 15 on electric guitar. He’s 28 now. We talk often about the frustration and joys of our crafts…your mother and I will agree, I know, in the incredible pride we share in our children. Thank you Allison 🙂
I love this. The gritty “phlegmy” rawness of the process is a very real thing – to me, anyway. I think it’s true for any artist – writer, dancer, songwriter, visual artist, etc. There has to be that place where it’s just the artist and their inspiration and whatever happens – happens! Where we take it from there – how we shape, mold, or finish it – is an entirely different story. Thanks for sharing your process, Allison, and the lovely insight into your relationship with your mom and your family. Beautiful.
[…] also the creator of the trans-disciplinary video shared earlier in this post). In her essay, “Choreography in the Rough” she describes her process: “I get too excited listening to Tchaikovsky to get much […]