Life Into Fiction: Writing and Swing Dancing

At the outset, I promised that this blog wouldn’t be only about law. I do have another employment law entry in the works, on the Ontario Court of Appeal’s recent decision on the Metron Construction tragedy (Torontonians will remember the workers who plummeted to their deaths on a faulty swing stage on Christmas Eve, 2009). Today, though, I feel compelled to turn to the other two interests that I intended to use this blog for: creative writing and swing dancing. I want to talk about both in the same post.

Yes, that means what you think it means.

Ever since I started dancing more than a decade ago, I’ve wanted to write a novel about the experience. The prospect is at once enticing and overwhelming. How do you leave one of your greatest passions untouched, unshared? But at the same time, how do you confine one of the most important parts of your life to a printed page? How do you turn life into fiction?

Fantasy makes that easy. With Gateways, I’ve written a story that takes place in a different world. Yes, the characters need to be human, the plot realistic, the players’ actions and reactions believable, but fantasy still carries with it an enforced separation. You don’t worry, when a fountain of shimmering light is cascading among two lovers kneeling in a magical cavern, whether you’ve strayed too far into the autobiographical. Debates over the fate of the New Empire’s colonies may have similarities with the settlement negotiations I engage in all the time, but there is an important difference in character.  

Writing about college students in Kingston, Ontario is more immediate. If it’s less epic, that only makes it more personal. That may be why I’ve never been able to write more than three or four pages of swing dance fiction. Lately, I’ve been thinking of trying again.

The problem is that swing dancing doesn’t translate well into fiction. It’s just too happy. Novels thrive on conflict and drama, while swing is about letting go of cares, losing yourself in the music. It’s about open, welcoming communities. Fun and laughter. Awe and joy. The petty differences that sometimes arise between organizers just don’t cut it as drama that people would actually get invested in reading.

I’m sure lots of other dances have that joyful character, but you don’t see stories about that. Dance movies are usually driven by perfectionism, competition, or both. A classic plot is the girl admitted to the Intense Academy of Dance Intensity, where the teachers are mean and the classmates are meaner. She has to work herself harder than she’s ever worked before without losing her old friendships, her sense of self, or that guy who keeps getting better-looking as the movie goes on. The climax is a performance or audition, where she bravely throws away everything the school has taught her and gives a brilliant performance from her heart, with Mr. Suddenly-Attractive watching secretly from the balcony.

It may be a great story, but it’s not a swing dance story. In a swing dance story, you spend the entire movie hugging lots of people, clapping while others dance, changing your shirt because you sweat too much, and trying to figure out how many times you can really afford to go to Rochester in the same year. Even if you set the story at a dance competition, your characters are still going to spend more time dancing socially, drinking, and posting updates on Facebook than they will training or competing.

So I came to the realization that if I ever want to write a story about swing dancing, the first step will be to make sure it’s not about swing dancing.

Swing can be a backdrop. It can be a setting, a world, the thing that draws the characters together. It can almost be a character itself, in the sense of a mirror that shows you who the other characters are in the way they relate to it. It can even be a plot point, or two or three, the syncopated beat of a song, hesitating before pulling the reader forward to the next breath. 

What it can’t be is the focus. The focus has to be on the characters, and the characters have to have their own stories outside of the dance, out in what some of us like to call the real world.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking about what those stories might be. The ideas are circulating in my mind. I have some great characters, and more and more jolts of plot and story. In fact, the entire ending sequence — which is always the first thing you need to map out — is taking some significant shape. It’s enough to make me wonder whether such a story might actually work.

There’s a lot more I could say about this idea, but let’s save some fodder for future posts. Besides, nobody likes spoilers, right? 

But I don’t want to get any hopes up. The vast majority of fiction writing projects that I start never get finished. Even Gateways was abandoned more than once along the way, before I decided to pick it up, dust it off and keep it going.

Just as important, Gateways is going to be my major writing project for some time. I really think it’s a great story that you’ll all want to read once it’s ready, and that is coming closer — I just heard today that I should expect to receive comments from my editor within the next week. But it’s nice to have another project percolating. It’s nice to know that there is a story, a story that’s kind of but not really about dancing, that’s bursting to be told.