Every mid-month, we have a guest writer on After Five, a voice from a historically underrepresented community or identity group in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem. So far this year, we’ve featured Chovwe, Shingai, Tlotlo, Rafeeat, Akilah, Veronica, Chido, TJ, and Tobi.
Today’s letter is from Tariro Ndoro, a Zimbabwean writer, poet and storyteller. She received an MA in Creative Writing from Rhodes University. Her debut poetry collection, Agringada: Like a Gringa, Like a Foreigner was the recipient of a national award in Zimbabwe. Her work has been shortlisted for the BN Poetry Award, DALRO Poetry Award, and Intwasa Short Story Prize. She was a Spring ‘22 resident of the International Writing Program. You can find out more about her and her work on her website as well as connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.
“Eva! You don’t like him very much, do you? I don’t blame you. He’s impossible, Headstrong, egotistical, Unforgiving. Arrogant as all hell. The thing is, you’ll be hard pressed to find any choreographer or company director who isn’t like that. The unwise dancers blame them. ‘He didn’t like me, she was unfair. I should have had that part…’ The smart ones know where to look when things get rough, it isn’t there, it’s here [the barre]
No matter what happened in class, in performance, last week, five minutes ago. If you come back here, you’ll be home.”
Those are the words of Juliette Simone (played by Donna Murphy) in Center Stage, my favourite ballet dance chick flick slash bildungsroman. On bad writing days and days for giving up, I find myself glued to my laptop screen as I watch my Centre Stage DVD on my laptop. Yup, you read that correctly. The movie and I are both old enough that I can watch it on DVD, and even though the world has moved onto streaming platforms, I prefer it that way.
So, back to the story of Center Stage, the movie follows the journeys of three young ballerinas, Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull), Eva Rodriguez (Zoe Saldana), and Maureen Cummings (Susan May Pratt), as they try to distinguish themselves at the American Ballet Academy. And now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with you and your writing journey? We’re getting there. Jody, Eva, and Maureen were all the best ballerinas in their high school classes, but now that they are dancing with the big boys, they are all failing for different reasons: Jody has bad feet, Eva has a bad attitude, and Maureen is bulimic.
As an emerging writer, this is something I can relate to all too well. I dominated my high school English classes. Hell, my O-Level English teacher used to read my compositions to the rest of the class, my Literature teacher gave me extra readings because she felt the syllabus didn’t challenge me enough, and (this takes the cake) my 3rd Grade teacher has all my English composition books to this day. That should prove that I’m a phenomenal writer, and publishing houses are lining up to publish any words I vomit out, right? Wrong.
Unlike most overnight successes, my writing journey has been long and arduous. I can boast more than 100 rejection slips from literary journals, and although my debut poetry collection was released to literary acclaim, I would never go so far as to call it a bestseller. Far from it; like most poetry collections (Rupi Kuar is an exception), my book was bought by my mom, a few members of the literati, and like five of my friends (ok, maybe twenty), but the point of me sharing this isn’t to get people to buy my book but to have an honest conversation with you, writer to writer. Overnight successes and instant bestsellers are often the exception, and not the rule. I’ve been writing poetry and short fiction since 2015/2016, and I’ve had some amazing wins, but I’m not yet a household name. Like Jody, Eva, and Maureen, I am often reminded that raw talent is important as an artist, but raw talent alone does not make an artist. Passion and perseverance take you farther.
Back to Center Stage… Eva Rodriguez has a hard time adjusting at the American Ballet Academy. She’s talented, but her talent counts for nothing; she is cocky, irreverent, and has a case of potty mouth that would shock a seasoned sailor. Good for her, but in the world of competitive ballet, that attitude is enough to tank her career. She is one of the most graceful dancers at the ABA, but none of the choreographers will cast her in a production, which means no scout will ever see her dance and, basically, she’ll never be hired. Bummer.
Cue my favourite scene in the movie: late one night, even though her career is over, Eva is practicing at the barre, and her mentor, Juliette Simone, walks in and tells her that, no matter how bad she feels about the business and politics of dancing, she must always return to the barre, feet up in first position, because that is where the real dancing is:
Eva! You don’t like him very much, do you? I don’t blame you. He’s impossible, Headstrong, egotistical, Unforgiving. Arrogant as all hell. The thing is, you’ll be hard pressed to find any choreographer or company director who isn’t like that. The unwise dancers blame them. ‘He didn’t like me, she was unfair. I should have had that part…’ The smart ones know where to look when things get rough, it isn’t there, it’s here [the barre]. No matter what happened in class, in performance, last week, five minutes ago. If you come back here, you’ll be home.
As a writer, I come to you in the name of Juliette Simone, not to speak of specific dancing terms like timing, or turn out or first position, but of coming home. While Eva Rodriguez the dancer returns to the home of the barre, I return to the home of the page, and that’s why I watch Center Stage on quitting days, because that’s the most important lesson in passion, patience, and perseverance I’ve ever received. As an emerging author, I’m aware that I must be on the constant lookout for an agent, enter and win writing competitions to increase my odds of being picked up by a big publishing house, regularly attend writing festivals, and give interviews to stay relevant. Sometimes all that is fun, but at other times…At other times I’m stressed because my (supposedly) phenomenal story wasn’t shortlisted for an award; I’ve applied for X fellowship/residency five times, and five times they’ve picked someone who wasn’t me; I showed up for a writing event with a bag full of my books, and not a single copy was purchased. It’s gruelling and any author worth their salt will attest to this, but that’s not why we write.
We write because we love words and stories. Because there are stories within us that cannot be suppressed. Sometimes etching out a single sentence is incredibly difficult, but to continue, I can’t be motivated by book sales or awards; I must return to my nine year old self, whose only religion was the written word. Roald Dahl. Rudyard Kipling. G.K Hozo. Any written word that transported her from the mundane.
There will be time; there is always time for sending short stories to literary magazines or short story competitions to receive rejection letters from the publisher who loves your work but doubts this is the correct time or place to publish it. The theatre director who feels your play is too edgy… or not edgy enough. No, no, no, no. That is the one word you will hear most frequently in your writing career. Your family members will look at you and then at your biological clock. They’ll tell you to let go of your useless hobby, they’ll tell you that if you were going to be the next great Chimamanda Adichie, it would have happened already.
My message to the young writer (or any writer, actually) is that when it comes to success, talent isn’t the greatest defining factor; craft is important but not decisive. The real stuff is perseverance. Knowing how to return to the blank page after receiving countless rejection letters and battling plot holes the size of Texas. So, your story didn’t hit the right note, Publisher X isn’t looking at children’s fiction, and the audience’s only reaction to your slam poem was crickets? The good news is that you can always come home to the pen, the typewriter, the MacBook, the blank page and the playground for imaginations.
P.S. Yes, “Writing Down the Barre” is a play on Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which you should totally read if you ever struggle with writer’s block.
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