What my master-class ballet teacher taught me about writing

What my dance teacher taught me about writing

A masterclass teacher once shared a surprising philosophy of movement with me that shaped my whole approach to dancing and later writing: dancers are lazy.

Growing up in a serious ballet studio, we were encouraged to take many masterclasses, so I acquired a wealth of knowledge from a diverse array of masterful teachers. Among my most memorable master teachers was a French man whose name I can’t recall. Paradoxically, he imparted on me the most impactful and lasting philosophy of dance I’ve encountered, and it’s bled into my writing practice as well.

As a French teacher, he had a much more minimalist approach to ballet than my Russian teachers at the time. He focused on simplicity rather than perfection and virtuosity. This overall approach to dance was new and exciting to me, but it was a particular moment in our second exercise off the barre that really drove home its impact.

We were working on pirouettes. He was giving us a correction I had been given many times – to keep our weight over our standing leg. As he tried to drive home the mechanics he said, “Don’t take more effort than you need for a pirouette, dancers are lazy!” Then described how when in fourth position, preparing for your pirouette, if your weight is between your legs, it adds an extra step of shifting your weight onto the standing leg before you can execute the turn. Conversely, if your weight is already over your supporting leg, all you have to do is relevé and rely on your back, arms and spot to turn you around. Revelatory!

What my dance teacher taught me about writing
A Pirouette

This philosophical approach to movement has informed how I teach and take class significantly. Now, it goes without saying that dancers – typically – aren’t lazy. Dancers spend hours every day training their bodies and studying the art form as well as sacrificing social engagements, drinking and often indulgent meals to maintain their instrument (their bodies). Choosing to be “lazy” in this context means reducing the necessary effort to execute movements, thinking ahead to best prepare our bodies for the next step, and analyzing the mechanics of a movement to successfully accomplish it.

You could apply this to any ballet or dance step (don’t tendu then turn out, start your tendu with the turn out; don’t relevé with your ankle then pull the rest of your body up, relevé your whole body at once; don’t pique into your arabesque then shift your weight forward, push all your weight forward into the arabesque using your back leg, etc.). It’s also helped my approach to writing.

Readers are lazy

Throughout my business-writing career, and my last couple years of writing classes at UCLA and various workshops around Los Angeles, I’ve noticed that there’s a pretty thick line between poetic and confusing or even boring. Contrary to my beliefs as a writer in high school and early adulthood, long, verbose sentences do not equal poetic or interesting sentences. On top of that, creating a riveting and emotionally impactful story does not require consciously burying its meaning so deep in the subtext you’d need an oil drill to extract it. It took some time for me to unearth these misconceptions because I wasn’t applying my French masterclass teacher’s expert wisdom to live by.

The rule here, however, is flipped on its head a bit. When writing, it’s important to remember that readers are lazy. Not stupid! (Never assume your readers are stupid or they’ll resent you.) Just lazy. I heard it in my classes, YouTube videos about the craft of writing, and read about it in blogs about how to write blogs. The more clear, concise and simply an idea can be communicated, the more meaningful it will be to its readers.

Readers aren’t typically looking for the words themselves to be a puzzle they have to solve. They want the writing to take them on a seamless journey only fraught with ideas and plot points – not confusing sentences, nonsensical verbiage, and self-indulgent attempts at poetics. Often, simple is beautiful. Like the old adage from elementary school to keep the children from gluing their fingers together during craft time, “Dot, dot, not a lot.” The crux of good writing isn’t elaborate exposition, it is complex ideas served on a clean, uncluttered platter (unless, of course, your point is to be confusing or disorienting – but even that requires tactful word choice and placement).

Simple, poignant quotes are the ones we remember as readers. The ones that have a hold over us and that we recite as a witty response to a friend’s remark or that we quote back and forth with our nerd friends that like to read the same books we do. We do it with movies too! Think about some of your favorite movie quotes and I bet they’re the shortest, simplest ones. Even some of the longer sentences I hold dear are said in the simplest terms. One of my favorite sentences of all time is,

“The night sky lies so sprent with stars, there is scarcely space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs, and it is so that their numbers are no less.”

  • Cormac McCarthy from Blood Meridian

It’s a carefully crafted sentence with so much beautiful movement and imagery, however, it’s written in plain English in a way that gives it a sense of spontaneity, like someone could accidentally spew out that glory while admiring a starry night in the desert, away from all light pollution. I don’t know anyone that can wax that poetic out of nowhere, but the simple language gives me, as a reader, the sense that someone could. I suppose that’s the true magic of simplicity – it gives the appearance that these things are happenstance, occurring as naturally as any real-life conversation.

Writers should be lazy too

If readers are lazy, writers should be too. A lot of new and inexperienced writers (like myself) can sometimes get overwhelmed at starting a new piece, story, or idea because we’re so concerned with the words to choose and how to make it somehow deep or profound. When this occurs, it’s helped me to remember to “be lazy”. Meaning: don’t fret over how to say the idea/story, just say it as simply and straightforward as possible. I recently wrote a short story with this approach and it quickly became my favorite piece of fiction writing I’ve ever churned out. (Waiting for some publications to open their submissions so I can get in!)

What my dance teacher taught me about writing
Image by Jamie E. Fulton

As readers, we’re often looking to literature to simplify and solidify our own experiences or give us a clear-cut understanding of someone else’s experience. We don’t want all that writer’s mumbo-jumbo standing in the way of our getting whisked off into the story and characters.

To clarify, I’m not trying to say that every writer should write like Ernest Hemmingway or Dashiell Hammett. You don’t need to cut all your sentences down to under ten words a piece. What I am trying to communicate is that the theme and purpose should drive the writing, not the other way around.

When I was an even more amateur writer than I am now, I would write as a means to discover meaning. I think a lot of young/new writers fall into this trap. The key is to soak each sentence in meaning without over saturating readers with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Let’s look at that McCarthy quote one more time:

“The night sky lies so sprent with stars, there is scarcely space of black at all and they fall all night in bitter arcs, and it is so that their numbers are no less.”

What else is McCarthy communicating here? Well, if you’ve read Blood Meridian, you know that its themes include the infinite nature of time, the repetitive nature of history, and the violent nature of humans. All of these themes have been neatly packed into this powerful, pointed sentence. “they fall all night in bitter arcs” speaks to the violence and repetition and that “their numbers are no less” tells us this pattern goes on for eternity. Imagine if he wrote the sentence this way,

The night sky is packed with bright, vivacious stars that go on out in space for eternity as they endlessly fall to their peril through the black space that surrounds them, yet enough stars remain to continue falling forever and never run out.

Exhausting. I’m too heavy-handed in suggestions of the themes I laid out above, I use unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, and the point is not only bland but also completely lost. Writing lazily, or being economical with your word choices, is not just about lessening your word count. It’s about communicating the most nuance and impact possible with every word you use. For an even simpler example, check out this Reader’s Digest post on economy of words when writing jokes.

Just like with dance, there is no shortage of ways you can turn and stylistic choices you can add to any movement. However, style doesn’t sacrifice technique. And, if it does, it does so with purpose. As the old cliché says, you have to learn the rules to break them. Learning the rules is not an arbitrary step. We don’t learn the rules with the sole intention of breaking them; we learn the rules so that when we break them, we know exactly what we’re communicating with our subversion and we do it with intentionality.

This general concept of laziness has especially helped me with writer’s block and overwhelm. When working on my novel I often get bogged down in the length of the story, the number of characters, the complexity of the themes, etc. Now, before I reach the point of hyperventilating, I can find some peace by remembering to communicate my story in simple terms and let the complexity bubble to the surface.

If you’re a writer plagued with stress and perfectionism around your writing and how to best communicate your ideas, remind yourself to be lazier. Take a deep breath and just tell us what you’re trying to say, don’t get bogged down in the most flowery language, the biggest multi-syllabic words, and burying your subtext seven layers deep. Let your world be natural and apparent. Let your characters be spontaneous and human (or alien, or animal, or whatever your jam is). And, let your message shine through unscathed by indulgent phrasing and intricate wordplay. Take a deep breath, let it flow out of you, and, don’t forget, be lazy.

Dime Store Philosophies Introduction

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