Stick Figures, Smarts and the Other Arts
“You have so many extraordinary gifts; how can you expect to lead an ordinary life?” – Louisa May Alcott
My parents were very young when they had me; my mother was just eighteen. She also lost her mother at a young age (I never knew my maternal grandmother), so she didn’t have a lot of guidance as far as kid-raising was concerned. My mom had to wing it a lot. To her credit, she’s a sharp cookie and was able to juggle the trappings of single motherhood in the late sixties and early seventies with relative aplomb.
My mother has many worthy talents, in fact. She’s a born seller and a fantastic conversationalist; she’s got a charming natural wit and a warm magnetism that has served her very well in life. She’s also crazy pretty. Even now in her late sixties, she’s still the hottest babe on the block. As her only child and a female, that particular quality of hers didn’t always work out well for me. Case in point: all my guy friends in high school wanted to hang out at my house—not to be with me, but to be around my ‘hot mom’. Yeah. Not really a confidence booster for a girl who was already ‘the weird artistic kid’.
I was always a huge admirer of my mother, in spite of all that. You could say she was my very first idol. As a child, the first of her many talents that I recall noticing was her spectacular artistic grasp of stick figure drawings. She would put them in my birthday cards and on the notes she left in my lunch box—these adorably lifelike scratches of lines and circles that somehow elicited tangible emotion and humor. My favorites were the stick figure kitties and the little girls with the triangular dresses. She still draws these for me if I ask her nicely. I have never mastered the stick figure skill, or any other practically art skill for that matter. But I was given a leg up with the other four arts: drama, dance, music and writing. I was given the chance to explore all of them in my youth.
When I was in second grade, my mother got a call from my school administrator saying they wanted to pull me out for some ‘special testing’. They thought I might have some sort of academic acumen far and above my fellow students because I was very ‘verbal’ and ‘active’ in class. These days, such behavior isn’t seen as an asset so I’m glad I was in school back in the 70’s. If I were a kid now, I’d probably be diagnosed as ADHD or land somewhere on the autism spectrum.
But back then, they thought ‘active, verbal’ kids were special somehow and put them through a series of tests that determined not only a person's IQ, but also the direction their specific education should take.
I was anxious about these tests. I was only seven, after all. I expected them to be scary math and spelling and such, since their purpose was to determine how ‘smart’ I was. But the tests weren’t anything like that. Not an equation or flash card in sight. I remember sitting in a room with a man with dark hair and round glasses who basically played games with me all day, and then scribbled notes in a big book on how I played. Once the tests were completed, my young mother was told that she had a kid with a very high IQ who should be pushed into higher academics. You know, like rocket science and stuff.
Remember, this is the same kid who has been talking to her imaginary friends at night for two years at this point.
My mother dutifully went along with the school’s recommendations and I was put in the advanced academic classes. I soared in English, History and Art and tanked in Math and Science. More than tanked, I capsized. It was then that the educators noted that the indicator lights of my high IQ only glowed for words, ideas, music and dance. And puzzles. For whatever reason, I am a flippin’ demon at puzzles. If there was a land called Jigsawpuzzlandia, I would be its king—or at least a high ranking politician.
This prompted them to nudge me toward the more esoteric educational pursuits. Some smart person in charge at the time created a program that catered specifically to those smartie-pants kids who hated traditional learning but loved to express themselves creatively. This proved to be the right thing for this particular kid. They still taught me math and science, but they disguised it as puzzles and games and therefore, I didn’t feel like I was being schooled—just playing. I was doing okay with the academic junk, but it wasn’t long before the teaching staff discovered I liked to perform—and further, that I wasn’t half bad.
In late junior high and all through high school, I channeled my creative energy into the performing arts. I sang an a cappella version of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” with two friends that won us the eighth grade talent show. I sang lead. Then one day at an orientation for what would be my future high school, our 8th grade class was treated to a performance by the high school’s modern dance company. It was there that I first saw the young woman who would become my first idol to whom I was not related.
Her name was (and is still) Laura Dunlop. She was a lithe sprite with blonde hair and sparkling eyes and she appeared to be made of air for as easily as she flew and twirled. I’d never seen anything even close to her as I watched her dance and I knew right then that I had to be like her. My determination was so strong that my intrepid mother had to lie about our physical address that first year just to get me into Laura’s high school where that dance program was offered. I knew I had the goods and I knew I would be accepted into that company. Luckily, I was right.
I was able to dance with Laura for only one year as she was an upper classman and graduated my freshman year. She was always so cool and gracious—such an inspiration to me and to the other young dancers in awe of her, while still being the edgy little rebel she was at heart. I’m still privileged to know her through social media, but every time she pops up on my page with a ‘like’, I get the same thrill of admiration I did all those years ago. I hope she knows how she influenced me and how her encouragement resonates to this day.
For a while, I thought I would dance professionally and geared my higher education toward that end. But the fates had another plan and I was injured in my sophomore year of college—injured in a way that made a career in dance impossible. It took me nine years to get over that sadness and to finally let go of being able to fly and spin like I could before. At the end of that long run of sadness and loss came the seed for Arabesque.
I’ve found the greatest challenge in this book has been writing about dancing. There’s a great quote in the film “Playing by Heart”: “talking about love is like dancing about architecture.” Well, writing about dancing is like building a house out of the concept of love. I’ve had to find ways to describe spinning and turning and bending so that a reader who has never seen the ballet can relate to it. Arabesque is not about ballet or dance at all, it’s a love story that is simply set in that world—but being in that world does require describing it for the reader so they can see it and feel it and touch it. The ornate sex scenes in these books have been a creative cake walk compared to that.
I often marvel at the ways my life has always circled back to writing. I’ve traveled and loved and performed and done many things that I thought at the time would be the true purpose of my life. But in every instance, the foundation of that false purpose inevitably fell away and I was left standing on that ever-present pile of words and ideas once again. In many ways I feel a slave to writing as I do not have a choice about doing it. It is who and what I am. I have accepted that it is my purpose.
That said, I have never felt greater joy from any of the talents I explored than I do from singing. My mother spent lots of money on years of lessons for me and my teachers were all very enthusiastic about me becoming the next Streisand (or so they said). But I never wanted to do it professionally. I thought being paid for it might contaminate it somehow. I knew that singing was a source for me—a giving well from which I could draw forth the other energies of my creativity. Singing frees my soul. Writing—when I do it well—stabilizes my confidence and sense of wellbeing. But I will always be grateful that I was able to dance while I could. Nothing I’ve ever done since has compared to it.
My characters in Arabesque are all young ballet dancers, but I never danced ballet myself. I was too undisciplined and ornery for such strict, accurate form. But I always adored seeing the ballet—the amazing, expanse of the choreography and orchestra. It’s utterly thrilling. And dancers in general have always fascinated me since I know firsthand how incredibly difficult a life it is. I poured all that love and fascination into Arabesque and its dancers as a way of continuing to live with it around and inside me. When I finish the third book, I know I will miss this world terribly.
I’ll be putting up the first chapter of Arabesque here at the end of this week. I do hope you’ll all take a look and let me know your thoughts. The first chapter is the only one that’s remained mostly unchanged in all these years of writing and tinkering on this project. It was not the first chapter written, but it is the tent pole of the entire story.
The first chapter called 'Cherry' is where my lovers meet and where their future fates are sealed. Ah, romance. And here I wish I had one of my mom's stick figure hearts.