Writers on Writing #59: Vanessa Blakeslee
“No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Matthew 6: 24
Five years ago, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and befriended a poet who was also in his early thirties, whose work had garnered enough attention to earn him a scholarship. Not only gifted with words on the page, he drew spellbound throngs at night when we gathered for drinks and music; one could quickly tell that his abilities as a singer and guitarist could warrant a professional career. One day toward the end of the conference I asked him about his dual talents, and how he gave energy to both. He admitted that while he’d thrown himself down the path of music until his mid-twenties, he played less since he’d devoted his time and attention to poetry—earning an MFA, completing his first collection, accepting a tenure-track position teaching college. Then he mentioned something a faculty member of the conference had said to him a few days earlier, the quote from Matthew 6: 24. He and I took this exchange lightly, preferring to shrug it off, but my friend gave the impression that the older poet had been most earnest in his delivery.
If I recall, the whole notion of “no artist can serve two masters” struck me as rather silly and overly-serious. Why couldn’t someone who possessed multiple artistic talents pursue them all? Why should anyone have to choose? If one had the talent, wasn’t it a matter of simply making time for each medium—and if one was reasonably smart and organized, couldn’t one inevitably master and practice both? Sure, the artist might naturally have to give more attention to one form over the other now and then, but certainly not have to give up entirely something he or she excelled at. Not to mention the Biblical quote seemed a bit off-target; we’re talking art here, I thought, not the question of serving God vs. the material world.
A few years have passed since that afternoon’s conversation, however, and now I’m not so sure.
When I joined the cast of the Orlando Bellydance Performance Company two years ago, I had just begun shopping my first novel to literary agents. I had just started publishing essays and book reviews at The Paris Review Daily and Kenyon Review Online. Exhausted by the novel, I worked on short stories and applied for grants and fellowships. I wasn’t teaching, so rehearsing at the dance studio until eleven a.m. in the weeks leading up to a show wasn’t a strain, but a welcome release from the realm of words—neck aches from hours at the laptop, eyes watery from staring at the bright screen. This was the role dance had claimed in my life ever since I had taken my first class in January, 2008. I would return to my writing clear-headed from the heart-pumping cardio of the night before. My high-achieving personality thrived under the higher-stakes pressure of drilling choreography for the dance company; almost immediately I developed more poise and confidence, and could see a greater stage persona shining through.
But somewhere these past few months, what I so loved about dance began to be undermined by feelings of frustration, even resentment. When I got to the studio, I found it difficult to focus and caught myself glancing at the clock, something I’d almost never done before. Whereas I used to put on music and dance around the house, and enthusiastically rehearsed on my own for shows, I all but stopped. I began to regard my Thursday night commitment as an obligation rather than an opportunity. This would have been unfathomable behavior to me just a few months before. What had happened, and why?
Interestingly enough, if I trace back my waning enthusiasm for dance and when I began to notice the change, I arrive at a rather telling point—my commitment wavered after getting my agent in September of 2012. With marching orders to complete a significant revision before sending the novel manuscript off to major publishers, I set to work. My eye was on the prize, as they say, and prize turned out to be singular. In addition, I won a significant literary fellowship which opened up a travel opportunity for the following spring: five weeks at the fabulous Banff Centre, on the heels (i.e., the day after) the spring dance show. Still, I muscled through rehearsals and against my better judgment, auditioned for the 2013 season. For now that I had made the dance company the year before, I couldn’t very well drop out, could I?
No surprise, my audition didn’t go as well as the year before. I was told I ought to take ballet classes, that I needed to dance more from the core. Ballet classes, I thought, driving home. I’m thirty-three years old, am I really going to take those? Yet that was what I needed to do, what was expected of me by my fellow dancers if I was to improve. A nagging feeling told me I shouldn’t have auditioned, and at least told myself I was taking a year off. The feeling was proven about a month later. I was in the middle of grueling final edits on the novel for my agent when good literary fortune struck once again—a small press made an offer to publish my debut collection the following year. Now I had two book-length editorial projects on my desk, and a dance show looming in April. What’s the big deal, I can handle it, I thought.
Artistic ego is a very real and very irrational bitch.
So here’s what happened. My resentment and impatience with dance grew, but I hung in there. What about the joy and freedom I used to feel while dancing? Did it just disappear? Well, no. But the positives became increasingly hampered by so many layers of distraction and the ever-pressing desire to focus on my chosen livelihood—a literary career—that the dance challenges I used to welcome morphed into irritation. The truth I had been running away from for months, that I couldn’t keep up both a career as an emerging author, and all the efforts that come with promoting a book, and a glorified vocation of dancing at a professional level, collided in a glaring and temporal way at the end of April. I was leaving forBanff,Canada, at 5 a.m. following the dance show. On a surge of adrenaline fueled by performing and packing for a dream residency, I stayed up for two days straight—the longest day of my life, a great manic never-ending high that began with loading costumes and coin belts in my car to run-throughs on stage to scrubbing off my makeup at one a.m. to gazing out a few hours later at the sunlit plains outside the Denver airport while scarfing down some oatmeal to trudging through Customs to riding a shuttle into eerily-jagged mountains to smiling through an orientation dinner and realizing I was the only American there and—
That was when I knew I had to quit dance. Maybe another time will open up when I might love it again. But if you can’t sustain it, you’ll eventually come to despise it. To my credit, or maybe foolishness, I kept my commitment and danced the summer show, telling myself that the performance would be my last. With that in mind, I did my best to enjoy the rehearsals, the nervous energy in the wings and the strangeness of bright lights on you as you gaze above the dark audience. I enjoyed it, but I couldn’t ignore the relief, this time, when the show was over—able to think all I wanted about my return to teaching college in January, and my story collection proofs. I don’t hate dance, not at all. But I love writing more.
Master, I bid you adieu.
Vanessa Blakeslee's debut short story collection, Train Shots, is forthcoming from Burrow Press in early 2014. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Visit her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.