Why do we Write?

Thoughts on the action of putting pen to paper for dancers, teachers and choreographers

20 October 2010

This paper was written during my tenure as director of the Masters program in Contemporary Dance Pedagogy at the University of Music and Performing Arts, Frankfurt am Main, Germany

MAztp Student Erica Charambulous during pin-up presentation about her masters thesis, June 2011
MAztp Student Erica Charambulous during pin-up presentation about her masters thesis, June 2011

   The purpose of having such an emphasis on writing in the MAztp program is two-fold.  The first has to do with the emphasis on communication.  The second with having a tool to search for, discover, dig around in, examine and reflect upon ideas and one’s own values in relation to these ideas. 

It brings to mind thoughts from Haruki Murakami, as he ponders the meaning and worth of writing in his autobiographical reflections about running, “What I Talk about when I Talk about Running”, 

This is a book…in which I ponder various things and think out loud.  …No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.  …Perhaps I’m just too painstaking a type of person, but I can’t grasp much of anything without putting down my thoughts in writing, so I had to actually get my hands working and write these words.  Otherwise, I’d never know what running means to me.[1]

Writing as a thinker, as an artist, as a teacher – as someone making a contribution in her or his circles of communication – is seen here as an essential component of perceiving, turning over, reflecting on, and communicating to others about one’s attentions and viewpoints.  Moreover, it is one means by which we integrate and embody, interrelate and combine these thought pathways.  Sculpting with words can be a parallel, and relevant, channel of doing the same thing we do with our physical movement research. 

Writing is a consequential way to put our visions and reaches out into the common stream, tender them into the sphere of dialogue, hazard our claims and speculations into a (hopefully) supportive environment where we can clarify and strengthen them, get comfortable with them, follow them deeper, give them space to incite questions, thoughts, assertions and contentions.  Writing is a device to progress our contemplations to raw exchange:  to pitch them like stones to the river where they can be rubbed to a polish in the tumbling grind of the current.  And, lest we shy from potential conflict while setting our ideas into the fray, Rumi encourages, “this discipline and rough treatment are a furnace to extract the silver from the dross. This testing purifies the gold by boiling the scum away.” [2]

Still troubles the question: why do we research and reference others’ writings and ideas?  Or, what do we, as artists, share in our writing practice with the art of science?  On one hand, both territories investigate the skill of evolving a practice with which to perceive clearly, with an informed neutrality.  It’s not about pulling away from articulating a point-of-view and one’s values – but rather, to be able to see what’s actually there – as a painter learns to apprehend the actual two-dimensional data striking his retina and transform that information into the lines, tones and textures that re-create the artifice of reality.  We survey and then use this information to support, define and clarify our own stance, use it to sharpen our aim and objective, use it to take our work further, and thus frame a point-of-view, a perspective regarding the landscape of our interest.  Over and above that, we trace into the field of existing ideas to be a more informed, engaging colleague in arms as we exchange feedback and supportive provocation with our contemporaries. 

And yet, why write?  Personally, I enjoy and see a bountiful value in just exploring ideas by having a great conversation with a friend over a glass of wine or two.  However, I’m constantly struck by the ephemeral nature of these exchanges.  Like dance – once it’s happened – it’s gone.  How often have each of us tried to express, “oh, yesterday in the studio it was so great, the work was flowing and we were totally in the groove, everything just made sense, it was working!”  And then, found it difficult to re-create this atmosphere or material again?  How can these discoveries in the studio, and in our personal research have a larger impact?  One way is by setting them forth, and sending them forward, by writing them down.  By means of the action of pronouncing, wringing out, scribing our thoughts, the ensuing dialogue with others is facilitated – in fact, made possible.  And again, our craftsmanship (craftspersonship?) in this writing is a way to nurture coherence in thinking.  Simple formula:  work it out, give to another to read, converse and reflect on your ideas in context. 

Then, whether the ensuing conversation is direct and specific, or whether it travels around the globe and returns to us months or years later through circuitous channels:  We’ve put something into the world; our thoughts add to the chorus.

In addition to enhancing the content, though, writing is also about sharpening expression.  The part that might feel like ironing the shirt or shining the shoes.  Writing, is about clarifying concepts, and it is also about being effective and terse with one’s expression.  (I love this word terse, for it’s incisive sound, for it’s meaning, and for it’s etymology, stemming from the old Latin for to polish, as in to polish one’s language to make it concise and to the point.)  Inspired?  Yes!  Imagistic and poetic?  Yes, by all means!  Crisp, succinct, and precise?  Yes, yes, yes!  (Although, we may not solve the riddle of combining poetic exposition with aesthetic sobriety in sharp writing all at once.)

This aim of polished writing is at least twofold.  The first, naturally, is that the writing is accessible – that a reader can enter this landscape, travel without hazard, and follow path markings to the journey’s goal.  The second ambition is that it moves the reader: It evokes enthusiasm and a sense of adventure; it opens one’s senses to the sights, sounds and smells along the passage; and it conjures up emotion, imagination and fantasy in the reader – all the while guiding adeptly and invisibly in the background.  A fine text is like a story that flows, it’s construction may not be obvious, but it keeps the reader engaged and fascinated. 

Another objective of terse writing, although less obvious, is of direct relevance for teaching.  In my experience, all of this writing and editing and re-writing unquestionably lends color, shape and flavor, in both form and content, to the extemporaneous speaking (writing out loud) that I engage in while teaching or guiding a group.  It serves to make me more aware of what I want to say, and what words I use to convey the thoughts, images, examples and connections.  Writing, in this way, directly deepens our ability to convey our work effectively, convincingly in a parallel channel to our physical expression.  It brings to mind something David Zambrano says about choreography.  His thought is that creating these set-forms adds richness and variety to his improvisational or real-time composing work.  I am convinced that our ability to influence is directly related to this expressive potential.  I also perceive that our capacity to flesh out ideas and values in writing adds depth and range to our dancing, guiding and choreographic endeavors.

To close, let’s listen again to Haruki Murakami as he share’s his thoughts on the struggle of searching for the right words to express himself.  Thank you for reading.

The writings collected here… I didn’t write them at one stretch, but rather a little at a time, whenever I could find free time in between other work.  Each time I wrote more I’d ask myself, So – what’s on my mind right now?  Though this isn’t a long book, it took quite some time from beginning to end, and even more after I’d finished, to carefully polish and rework it.  …I was scrupulous about making sure it was exactly the way I wanted it.  I didn’t want to write too much about myself, but if I didn’t honestly talk about what needed to be said, writing this book would have been pointless.  I needed to revisit the manuscript many times over a period of time; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to explore these delicate layers. 

…there was the hope that writing this book would allow me to discover my own personal standard.  I’m not very confident that I’ve done a good job in this area.  Still, when I finished, I had the feeling that a weight had been lifted.  (I think it may have been just the right moment to write this book when I did.)[3]

[1] Haruki Murakami, What I Talk about when I Talk about Running, Vintage Books, page vi.

[2] Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Quatrains, http://quote.robertgenn.com/getquotes.php?catid=81, 25 October 2010

[3] Haruki Murakami, What I Talk about when I Talk about Running, Vintage Books, page 175-177


Why do we Write 2010
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