This is no. 41 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I should have been writing. Instead, I was on Netflix, scrolling through new releases, hiding from my novel and my children, who were being occupied by a ridiculously expensive babysitter in the next room. I was burnt out, stuck, and I chose a documentary on modern dance, something I know absolutely nothing about, because I liked the serene expression on one of the dancer’s faces on the cover. I thought maybe the film would be a relaxing break, that I could watch bodies glide across the screen without having to think too much.
Everyone else probably knows this already, but it turns out modern dance is not like ballet. In the opening scene of the documentary, choreographer Ohad Naharin teaches a young dancer how to fall. “Stop,” he says. “Stop. You’re guarding yourself. You need to lose control.” She makes the attempt three, four, five times, hitting the floor over and over. It’s painful to watch, but Naharin is right. The dancer is tentative, holding something back. “Are you stressed?” he asks her. “No,” she says. “So do it again,” he says. This time, the dancer seems to lose consciousness while she’s still standing. There is no hesitation, the fall utterly convincing as she collapses, her body slamming into the floor full force. It’s so beautiful, it makes me gasp. It makes me want to write.
One of my mentors talks about being “open for business.” For him that means being ready at the page, actively composing for a set amount of time each day. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of discipline or personality or what, but I’ve never been able to work like that for very long. I try to touch my projects regularly, but I’m more likely to write in fits and starts.
Later in that same modern dance documentary, a bit of mesmerizing choreography will teach me something crucial about the pacing of my novel. I’ve stared at a Pollock in a museum and realized I’d left something important out of a short story. A single gesture from Bela Tarr’s devastating movie Satantango once helped me understand the origin of a character’s rage. But I’ve also learned things from less likely places. I’ve figured out how to structure a story based on a common chord progression from a ’90s pop song. I’ve stolen a critical line of dialogue from a tampon commercial. It’s not that everything in life is inspiring—I personally find social media to be a wasteland—but it’s been surprising to see what seeps in and informs the work. For me, being open for business is about being deep in a project even when I haven’t opened the document for a week. It’s about noticing stuff, listening and synthesizing, realizing that the best lessons sometimes take place far from the page.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection published by Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.