To the Root, I Return
In the first house that I can really remember living in, my father had an office. Its walls slanted inwards. On one hung a crocheted image of Bob Dylan in cream and brown yarn, which I think my grandmother might have made, but I’m not certain. I’ve asked many times but never remembered the answer.
Dylan’s faded semblance hangs in my father’s apartment now, not far from a giant photograph of me at six years old wearing a salmon-colored mock-turtleneck sweater.
My father’s apartment is full of books and magazines and newspapers. He is a hoarder, and all my life I have saved plastic shopping bags and shoeboxes in his shadow, but those literary collections speak more to a passion than a compulsion.
My father is a writer.
Before I was born he wrote for a newspaper from an office in an old industrial mill building, in a real old newsroom full of voices.
By the time I knew enough to know that my father was a writer he was a freelance journalist working from the office with the tilting walls and my brother and I were being home schooled, light-handedly, between assignments.
I learned to read and write at a young age, though for several months I pretended I could not. There are many notebooks from early years tentatively half-filled, a few sentences here and there, a few doodles. I knew, it seemed, that I did not yet have the words to say much worth saying; nor did I have much to say anything about.
At the beginning of my junior year at Bennington, I removed literature from my plan of study to allow myself the freedom to delve deeper into my work as a dancer, to give more time to myself in the studio. I felt unspeakably guilty doing this. I spoke to my parents daily. I was told that I could always go back to it and that I would always be a writer.
I wandered the stacks in the library, lingering by the sections of American writers with last names beginning in ‘R’.
I invented misgivings as absurd as the worry that I had “wasted” three terms in honors seminars and that my work in them would not be acknowledged if I didn’t graduate with a Concentration In Literature. These were a way of avoiding such real worries as: what if by straying from the thing I have always been able to do, I find I can do nothing?
I wondered if my parents had ever lied to me about my work.
I started to go see dance in my early teens with my father, who went to review. As I got older he started to ask me for my opinions. When I was “old enough” he invited me to take over part of his job, and I began to write dance criticism.
In preparation I read dozens and dozens of articles by Wendy Perron, Deborah Jowitt, and Joan Acocella, trying to understand the critic’s voice. I read biographies and essays about historically significant choreographers so that I could write authoritatively about periods in dance that I was too young to know. I wanted to provide myself a knowledgeable background from which I could move easily into fluid prose. It was much like a dancer’s training, emphasizing a foundational layer of technique from which to open into artistry.
I was enrolled at that time in a course about the literary theme of money which, while not especially enriching, introduced me to two people: the professor, who had a penchant for calling me a rock star, and Acocella herself (through the professor’s personal connection). She wrote to me in an email:
You do know—don’t you?—that there are almost no jobs to be had in dance criticism. Lean to literature!
Rock star, I wonder if I ever thought I could not do it.
Over a year after I had begun to write criticism I went to see the Mark Morris Dance Group. I went grudgingly. I do not like Mark Morris. I sat in the audience with my notebook and pen and the man seated to my immediate right asked who I was writing for. I explained, and (as expected) he said he knew my father and didn’t know that he had “a daughter who was old enough to write reviews.” I said that I might not be as old as he thought I was.
At the end of the show the man asked me if I was going to write a good review. I responded that the review would, indeed, be well written.
Re-reading it now I am proud of myself, not for any specific bits of writing, but for not giving away how thoroughly I hated most of the program and how little I wanted to be writing about dance.
I never wanted to be a writer.
It happened the winter that everything changed, the winter I lived in Brooklyn and re-taught my body how to move and was so cold and miserable all the time that text was the only thing I could create that didn’t ache. I went back to Bennington in the spring and it was the dancers who immediately saw a difference, so I didn’t notice that I had also become something else until months later when, in a poem, I captured movement.
While researching the life and work of poet and visual artist Joe Brainard, I became obsessed with the periods in his career where he switched from one form to another, from writing to assemblage or vice versa. I had to know what it was that he was able to achieve in one but not the other. When I asked a friend of his about this, however, he discouraged me from looking at it in such black and white terms, urging me instead to view Joe’s multi-disciplinary prowess as indicative of a prolific artist whose voice could not be expressed through one single medium.
I wonder what it is that we cannot say in words, and why.
I wonder whether it is about the saying or about the hearing.
I wonder if, without writing, I could continue to dance.
Last week I spoke to my father about writing. I explained that in my recent work I have found myself drawn to the things I can speak authoritatively about: myself, my observations, and my loves. As a result, I lay myself bare.
My father said the closest he ever came to feeling like he was writing personally was when he wrote parenting columns: when he wrote about me.