Craft Capsule: Feel Your Way

Sejal Shah

This is no. 61 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the last year I lived in New York, I started dancing again at a Sunday morning class in the West Village called “Sweat Your Prayers.” An old boyfriend told me I should go. I was stuck on him, not great, but he did bring some good things into my life and this was one of them. The class was in the style of 5Rhythms, an ecstatic dance and movement meditation practice: 11:00 AM, no talking, a DJ, flowy clothes, everyone moving. A lot of white people, some people of color. They danced; we danced. The music sets changed, but the pattern remained steady, following the five rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness. Shapes emerge from movement, unbidden, in an intuitive way. Not speaking opened up another way of communicating with one’s self and the other dancers in the room—through the repetition of movement, in how we dodged some people and were drawn to others. 

I moved intuitively in dance class. It was a class based on improvisation, not a final performance. Making a book involves intuition, too, but then you have to stop and think: How can I make sense of this for a reader? A book is a performance, a gathering, a repetition, a ritual, and a thing, an object. There is an end point.

My first book will be published next week, but it took me twenty years to write. The essays that comprise This Is One Way to Dance were written, revised, then collected and stitched together in what proved to be a long process of encountering and attempting to contain and shape a lot of life, stylistic choices, and past selves—as much as the work—between two covers. A few essays began as short stories but as I worked, they became legible as essays through editing, shaping, metamorphosis. 

The process of finding a form for my book produced a tension between my instinctive sense of how the essays were connected, and the pressure I felt to utilize some kind of discernible structure or concept to link them. Framework often emerges slowly, an invisible labor. 

In my book, one way I created structure was through the use of dates, timestamps. I followed Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem as an example and placed timestamps at the end of each piece: the year I wrote it and, if relevant, the year I revised it. The stamps offer me—and the reader—a moment to consider time: its mysterious nature and passing.

I learned the term “front matter” from Tom, my book’s project editor. Before this, I had not considered how the beginning of a book is put together, how it unfolds. The front matter includes the title page, copyright page, dedication, epigraph, table of contents, preface or introduction. It can include acknowledgments, too.

After the front matter in my book is an opening poem, a prologue. I called it “Prelude” after “Prelude: Discipline is Freedom,” a dance choreographed by the artist Garth Fagan many years ago, a piece I grew up seeing. The dance is an invocation of sorts, with parts of a dance class woven within: the repetition of fundamental movements, foundational exercises, floor sequences, four women passing here, four men there, now slow, now speedy, now ratcheting up, now a solo. 

Before the introduction, before the poem, is the title page: the book’s title, the author’s name, the publisher’s name, the place of publication. There is also a childhood photo of me, dressed up to dance, in front of our old house wearing a chuniya chori my grandmother sewed, with Ba standing a ways behind me, visible in the glass door. 

“Prelude” begins with brackets, “[ ],” then my name in Gujarati. Then the first line in English: “I am trying to describe what it feels like //.” Working on the frontmatter, and the book as a whole, meant conversations with Tom and the designer Erin: deliberations about the language of captions, Gujarati script, typeface, size, margins, ornaments, headings. The permission to quote from Toni Morrison's essay, “The Site of Memory,” is on the copyright page as per the agreement. All of this was new to me—this level of detail that belongs to a book. 

I bought Martha Graham’s Blood Memory: An Autobiography last year, because I wanted structure and language and forms from the world of dance. I was searching for a connection to something fundamental; a structure I could rely on as I shaped my book from so many pieces. Classifications, levels, subgenres, terminology. I didn’t find my book’s structure there, but I found these words: “There are always ancestral footsteps behind me, pushing me, when I am creating a new dance, and gestures are flowing through me.” This movement.

My book’s internal architecture began with academic fields of study, disciplines. I organized essays under subheadings of American Studies, Area Studies, Cultural Studies, and Women’s Studies. School had been my house for many years, but I no longer live there. I live somewhere else now. 

Another try: I took the title of one of my lyric essays, “Castle, Fort, Lookout, House,” and divided my book into four sections: Castle, Fort, Lookout, House. The essay itself is one of my favorites: It’s an incantation built from years of reading fairy tales and love stories, romances, epics. Where is home? What is the journey? Who do you love? But it felt artificial to classify the other essays under these images, as they are.

A third try. These categories from dance: Space, Time, Direction. Too abstract. 

Ultimately, I realized that my book is a series of gestural movements, beginning from its spine, the tree. An old photograph to place us, to bring the past into now, though the whole book is a weaving of this time into that time, the way we carry the past with us in our bones, in our cells. 

There has to be movement and stretching, shapes, a direction. I thought of mudras, which I learned from studying Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi, two styles of classical Indian dance. Anjali mudra is one used often at the end of yoga and dance classes. Palms pressed together: a balancing. So much of writing is what has been cut away. A book is a series of choices; it is what remains.  

To dance is a way to integrate: to shed for a moment the weight and sense of being seen. It’s not lost, exactly, but being seen does not dominate. To move through the world, there is no leaving race behind. Not in this country. But to dance is to allow yourself to feel out through your arms, the sensation of being held in space, moving in a direction, grounded in a place. To be a person and not only a girl, not only a brown body, but to be embodied and therefore the subject, the I. In my “Prelude,” my opening poem, I borrow a line from a poem by Kamala Das: “I too call myself I.” I use different punctuation: “[(I, too, call myself I)].”

Working this way—in both dance and writing—takes time, to feel your way into the structure by sound. I look for my glasses on a morning bedside table cluttered with books, a glass of water, pens, a lamp, hand lotion, a weighted lavender eye pillow. How can you find your glasses if you can’t see? You feel your way.


Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Nikoline Arns