Trust Your Muscle

I feel naked without my hipscarf, is my first thought at the beginning of hula class. One gets used to dancing with the jingle of coins at the waist. In a studio of twenty women, hundreds of coins will chime on the beat. Quite an enthralling chorus.

But no coins today. The instructor, Laila, plays the beginning measures of “E Huli Makou,” or “Let’s All Turn,” a fun, flirty hula number hailing from the Kona Inn Hawaiian Show. We line up, knees bent, maintaining a squat position as she shows us the correct way to move side-to-side, drawing circles with our hips—first one hip, then the other, slowly, then faster. Called the Kaholo, the move is similar to what we call “snake hips” in Bellydance but more challenging to maintain in a squat position, while simultaneously executing the graceful signing with our hands and arms, the hallmark of hula dance. Moving to the left, we kaholo and sweep our hands up, signing “mountain.” Then slide into a backward figure eight, running “snake hands” down our bodies, both common Bellydance moves. A few beats later, and we’re swiveling our hips in tight circles—the ami, familiar to those of us in Middle Eastern dance as the omi, only with a different accent.

Every Saturday for the past five weeks, I’ve left my writing desk mid-afternoon to take this Polynesian dance workshop, my first. For a long time now I’ve admired the hula and Tahitian choreographies performed by Orlando Bellydance, but only recently has that admiration bloomed into full-blown curiosity. How different will it be to learn these basic elements, after so many years of shimmies, hip locks, and snake arms ingrained in my muscle memory? Will working so long in one mode make learning Polynesian—a style with a few near-identical counterparts in Bellydance—easier or more difficult? Worse yet, are my fantasies of becoming a South Pacific princess ultimately doomed when I take to the stage November 10th, flower above my ear, shell necklace rattling and grass skirt swishing?

Hula and Bellydance may be close cousins, but as I struggle to Kaholo forward and back while pushing my hands down and out, the realization that they are different animals sinks in. And the frustration. Why am I doing this? I catch myself wondering more than once. I’m a decent, proficient belly dancer, so why the heck take on hula? Isn’t cabaret enough of a challenge?

Why do we take on the unknown task, daunting and uncomfortable? My guess is because we can. We want to see what we’re made of.

After a year of querying literary agents, I finally landed one this fall for my novel. All those rejections, all the close-call letters back from a few of my “dream” representatives, and in the end, the agent I’m working with found me. He’d read a guest post I wrote for the Green Mountains Review blog, connected with me via Facebook, read my manuscript in September, and wrote me an enthusiastic response. He pointed out some areas where the manuscript could be stronger, however, and I agreed. The present day plotline needed building up, the middle section trimmed down. More assertiveness by the main character. Perhaps most importantly, a more gripping opener.

Since then I’ve been reliving and reworking the novel almost every day, chopping and reknitting threads, researching new settings and time periods. Imagining a fresh, hundred-page section for my protagonist that will bring her to the present day has been equally delightful and agonizing. Some afternoons the writing is fluid. Other days, I’ve spent hours squeezing out one paragraph, unsure if my words are the right ones, let alone if my protagonist is ending up where she inevitably needs to be, giving the novel the scenes it needs. The Paris Review famously asked Ernest Hemingway about what compelled him to rewrite the ending of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, and Hemingway replied, “Getting the words right.” I know exactly what he meant.

So grueling the novel-writing process has been at times, not only in this specific revision but all the ups and downs from three years ago, when I began, that I still ask myself—even with the renewed confidence and commitment of an agent in my corner—do I have what it takes to pull this off? I love writing short stories; maybe I should just keep doing that, and forget this novel business. Which has led me to another question: has my short story writing undermined the novel? Not only my progress, but my understanding of the characters on the page.

For there’s no question the novel and the short story are different beasts—each hungry, ruthless, throbbing creatures of desire. For years I’ve been at this novel, but I strayed from it from months at a clip, answering the howl of stories. They felt impossible to fend off. But were they? If I was—am—serious about the novel, should I have ignored the stories creeping around in my brain, no matter what? Build them a cage on notebook paper, ordered them to sit, be quiet, until I tended to the novel properly?

I don’t know.

Here’s what strikes me as true. The stories—in different points-of-view, tenses, and styles—sharpened my skills. I may have been working with different pacing and structure than a novel, but I was constantly employing the most crucial aspects of fiction: telling detail, conflict, theme. When I sit down to write these new chapters, those muscles are what I call upon to tackle the uncharted territory ahead. I trust them; I’ve got to trust them, because that’s what I’ve got—plus enough short stories for two more collections.

One of the great things about short stories is that you can fail at them, and the failure is no big deal—twenty pages, more or less. I think this hones a fiction writer’s intuition as she struggles through a novel, if she’s learned what works or doesn’t in a certain point-of-view or voice in a story. She is more likely to steer clear of that pitfall when working in the long form, hopefully before she’s a hundred pages down the wrong road (although I’ve been there, too).

There is a time to focus on one thing and cut the distractions, and a time to branch out and work on multiple projects at once. Right now I’m focused; I can’t even think of a single short story I’d want to take out and revise. But that’s another thing the story-writing prepares you for. With failure comes revision, more than you ever thought was possible. For me, the greatest enemy is boredom with the characters and situation, but you must learn to stay engaged, stay the course while keeping the faith that you can solve those problems ahead. You can learn to kaholo on a diagonal forward, then back—it’s just a snake hip, after all, with a little dip. Nothing is insurmountable. Trust your muscle.

I don’t think I’ll be taking another hula class for awhile, but cross-training within your art form isn’t a waste of time. The more you practice, the better master you become of where to focus your energy, and when. Ultimately, a novel has a vast scope and depth, and is going to take however long it needs for all the elements to run together, for the beast to give its great howl at the end, and blow the reader’s mind.