Column by Vanessa Shields
I know there are many of us who are writers and parents. This is a wild duality to live. My intention with this column is to write about the challenges of being a parent and a writer. I aim to share stories that reflect both the difficult and the extraordinary experiences of striving to balance the creative and the caregiving mind, body and spirit. Find an archive of the Writing Parent columns here.
I started taking ballet at the end of 2016—Quietly. Painfully. Joyfully. I started because a friend and I were looking for a fun physical activity to do together and also because a writer friend who I admire and am inspired by (though we’ve never met!) always shared her passion for ballet – she’s been doing it for years.
Physical activity and writing go hand in hand – or foot-and-inspiration. There’s a reason many writing retreats are located in gorgeous landscapes that encourage movement, roaming. Many writers I know choose walking as their physical activity: they walk before they write. I’ve tried it, and it’s effective when it happens, but consistency is a challenge for me. In fact, any kind of consistent exercise is a challenge when you’re a parent – throw on top of that being a writer, and well, if you’re like me, you choose writing over exercise almost every time.
But this ballet thing…I really wanted to try it. I really wanted to fall in love and be motivated to stay committed to it. A once-a-week one-hour class – that’s a time commitment I knew I could handle. And so, every Monday evening I made my way to the dance studio for adult beginner ballet. And I loved it so much that after awhile, I added an extra hour to the madness.
Did I fall in love? Oh yes.
Am I committed? Oh yes.
Is it hard? Um, totally.
But how does it affect my writing? And parenting for that matter?
Let’s start with the writing. Because my kids’ schedule takes priority and I also have a part-time job, the bulk of the ‘when’ of my writing fits into parts of the days when the kids are at school. Three days a week, I can choose to dedicate my 8:30am-2:15pm to writing. Two days a week, I’m at my part-time job while the kids are at school. I can also write after school (for maybe an hour but I mostly use this time for answering emails and doing social media) or after dinner (but mostly, I’m so tired by that point that I really only write if I’m up against a deadline), but these times are choppy and distracted.
Since I started ballet, my body has been in pretty consistent pain. I mean that in the best of ways. This form of dance asks of my body things my body just doesn’t do naturally. And yet, I’ve never loved a more physical challenge. It hurts to plié and relevé. It hurts to point and flex and hold my arms out nonstop. I sweat. My muscles cramp. I barely breathe, and I’m so tired at the end of class I can’t even cry for the lack of energy I have. The key here is: I’m in my body.
When I write, I’m in my head. Though my feet and hands get cold, and I forget to eat, and time melts into non-existence – it’s still a mind matter. A solitary matter too.
Ballet is respite from this process. Ballet makes me feel my body in ways that nothing else does. I am aware of my muscles, my bones, my joints, my breath, my posture. And, mon dieu, I’m in a room will wall-to-wall mirrors and I’m dressed in tights and ballet slippers – that alone is a challenge that took time for me to handle. And the pain of ballet extends into the rest of my week so that each time I move or step, I continue to be aware of my body. I look forward to practicing ballet at home. In fact, I just ordered new DVD ballet work-outs because I want to continue to practice during the week. The beauty of ballet is that being in my body means I’m out of my head.
Ballet helps me feel graceful. Patient. Strong.
My writing life benefits from this. I see that since I’ve started ballet, I’ve come back to my novel. I’m dedicated and determined to work on it every week. I make writing commitments to myself and I keep them. I’ve been more focused, more committed, more prolific since I started first-to-fifth-ing and connecting with my physical self. And in terms of parenting? The kids have noticed my new level of commitment and focus. They see how hard I’m working on my body and on my words. My daughter wants to take a private ballet class with me. She jumps and spins like she’s a ballerina. And, while my son doesn’t want to be a ballerina, he does ask about my classes and what I’m learning. He sees me being active and motivated, and it’s helping him remember to practice his drums. To be connected to his extra-curricular activities. And be dedicated to them. My hubby has noticed a decline in my negative self-talk about my body (did I mention I’m in tights in a room with wall-to-wall mirrors?). Ballet is teaching me both mental and physical grace.
I haven’t gone so far as to make one of the characters in my book take ballet, but I’ve written poetry about it. It’s seeping into the words. We are interesting creatures, we writers are. And when you’re stuck in your head with your characters, spending hours (some days) sitting still, the only thing moving your fingertips and eyes – we need a physical release. We need something physical on a consistent level that will move our bodies like our imagination moves our words.
It may seem like a simple goal, or an obvious health benefit, but we all know it’s not an easy task to fit exercise into our schedules. It wasn’t easy for me. But it’s worth it, as a writer, as a parent. The kids will notice. They’ll get motivated too. You’ll write more. You’ll write focused. Soon you’ll see that physical fitness – walking, running, biking, swimming, ballet – whatever your medicine, it exactly that: medicine.
Vanessa writes in the in-betweens of a busy life as a parent, producer, photographer and poet. (That’s a lot of Ps!) She lives in Windsor with her hubby and two kids, Jett and Miller. Her first book of poetry, I Am That Woman (Black Moss Press) was published in 2014. Her book Look at Her (Black Moss Press) was released in the fall of 2016. Shields created and hosts a storytelling series called Mouth Piece Storytelling. For all things Vanessa, visit her website www.vanessashields.com.