There’s the famous quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” which has always struck me as indisputable. It’s just so difficult for one art form to truly comment on another. That said, I just stumbled on quotes about dancing the tango that perfectly describe the process of writing a novel for me.
Consider this quote:
Imagine telling a beginner man he has to learn to find the rhythm of the music, watch out for navigational hazards on the dance floor, develop a strategy on the spot for dealing with them choosing from a repertoire of movements he has learned, then lead the woman to move in the intended direction with the intended speed while maintaining the connection, and then… He has to follow the woman’s response to his lead to determine the next move (within a millisecond, after all, this is not chess), and take responsibility for whatever goes wrong.
Somebody named Jay Rabe said this. I feel exactly the same about my novel at the moment—that success relies on doing five paradoxical things at once. I’m trying to find the rhythm of the music (that lyrical flow of the storyline) while also navigating a few steps ahead—i.e., making all of the key plot connections—and thinking maybe I’ll move this way, or maybe I’ll move that way, and I’m leading, yet following, pivoting, yet tripping. I’m all dressed up in other words, trying to look like I’m the real thing, but I’m sweating under my collar. And my partner, the woman in this quote, is my main character, who I have to lead and respond to and feel.
The novel is a game of chess. Except it’s dancing the tango while playing chess.
And then there’s this one on that ever beguiling notion of achieving perfection (italics mine):
Tango is a dance in which it is easy to become obsessed with perfection. The taste of heaven that is found within tango may encourage some to seek perfection. Others may bring their own perfectionism to tango. But we should never confuse heaven and perfection. They are very different. The path of perfectionism often leads away from heaven—as we find ourselves accompanied and driven forward by demons that become all too familiar. If we pursue perfection in our practice, we are likely developing the demons that seek to keep us from effective dancing. In tango, heaven is found through the simple gift of grace. That comes from getting out on the dance floor with the person that happens to be right for the moment, opening one’s heart and falling in love again.
Somebody named Stephen Brown said this. I love the way he articulates the dangers of perfectionism, which can constrict a good story or stifle a good dance. A good novelist and a good dancer have to find that mysterious zone of serving the story like a child—to dance with one’s partner rather than with an aspiration. This is where our quest as creators resides. Not in the striving, but in the release, in the openness—in the falling in love. To dance with the notion of perfection is a dance of separation, isolation, ego. There’s no grace in that.
I’ll posit that learning to tango holds lessons for learning to write a novel. It’s a dance that is rife with narrative tension and drama. Tango steps vary in timing, speed, and character, and follow no single specific rhythm, allowing dancers to vary the dance from moment to moment to match the elements of the music and their mood. Movements are sometimes slow and slithery, and other times sharp, a quick foot flick or a sharp head snap to promenade position. You might say the dance if full of plot points.
The next time I sit down to write, I’ll think of the tango, and try to listen to the music of my story, my various partners, and chant to myself to not confuse heaven with perfection.
Johannes Punkt says
This is a really nice metaphor! I had no idea people wrote such poetry about dancing tango, but it makes sense. And regarding the dancing-about-architecture quote: I think a lot of good literature has been written about other forms of art. Many of my favourite albums are about or inspired by books, too.
forrest smith says
What luck to have lurched onto this site and discovered this lustrous gem of “Dancing the Tango. Writing the Novel.” when I am writing a novel and literally in the middle of a critical scene in which the protagonist, a physician, and antagonist, an ex-gangster girl, are communicating through tango.
Thank you so much, Mr Faulkner, for this unintended pep talk and, according to Amazon, your book of that name is even now appearing on my Kindle. And what makes discovering you even the more satisfying is that we’re both SFSU products.