An Interview with Ellen O’Connell Whittet

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

When I first tried to recapture my experiences as a dancer in writing, I learned, as Ellen O’Connell Whittet writes, “only dance can give me those feelings without embarrassing me with their ardency.” In her debut memoir, What You Become in Flight (Melville House, April 2020), Whittet reminds readers of choreographer Pina Bausch’s observation, “There are situations of course that leave you utterly speechless. All you can do is hint at things. Words, too, can’t do more than just evoke things. That’s where dance comes in again.” In my early nonfiction writing workshops, I similarly recognized that dance, and my attachment to it, resided in the ephemera and abstraction of feeling, rather than the precision of language.

Whittet returned to dance class while drafting her memoir, because, she recalls, “I felt like dancing was able to unlock something that writing couldn’t, or that I needed to capture in writing, but couldn’t until I danced.” Whittet’s sixteen-year ballet career came to an abrupt end when her dance partner dropped her during an intricate lift, resulting in multiple spine fractures. She recaptures her feelings of loss in the memoir with awareness of the cost that ballet exacted; ballet represented a connection with the women in her family over generations, as well as belonging, purpose, and identity. She reckons with the certainty that the form necessitated her complicity in a kind of violence against her body, and rebuilt her sense of self and her artistic life through literature and, later, writing. The Los Angeles Review of Books notes that Whittet “argues that words and dances, bodies and stories, are inseparable.” A prolific essayist, Whittet also contributes to Ploughshares blog and has written for a multitude of outlets, from Allure to the Atlantic to the Paris Review. She was the recipient of Prairie Schooner’s Virginia Faulkner Award in 2014.

Whittet and I discussed how coalescing dance and writing in her creative process revealed her interiority as holistic, her approach to both art forms as driven by commonalities within the psyche that reveal the essential themes in her work—the kind of themes that recur over one’s creative lifetime, drawing themselves together, as John McPhee writes, “in a single body in the way that salt does underground.” No writing life is linear, no life is linear. We make connections—between our past and present, to ourselves and to others—through writing. Whittet articulates how a plurality of modalities might sustain and deepen that practice.

TQ: Are there certain things you wanted to capture in writing about dancing and performing that felt elusive? If so, what were you after? What aspects of your writing about dance were you satisfied with?

EW: Writing about dance really exposed the limitations of each art form. I think plot-wise what’s interesting is the darkness—the way dancers are competitive with each other, or the injuries. But what I actually have a much harder time with, but is even more important, is why I loved it. It is such a profoundly beautiful feeling, and it made me feel so beautiful in a way that really nothing else has, not in the same way, anyway. The way it feels to dance is so hard to understand, myself—let alone to communicate to other people. And that’s where metaphor is actually helpful and not superfluous, when it helps you get across that sense of something so elusive.

Especially in my early chapters, I struggled plot-wise with why I wanted to do something that seems like I needed to get away from it, or run away from it, and couldn’t—because it was so wonderful to do, when it was wonderful to do. People understand why little girls love ballet, but it’s a little bit harder to understand why, once you’re twenty years old and know more about the world, you would return to something that is so brutalizing. It is brutalizing, but it’s also so much more beyond that, and that’s what made me return to it, and also what made it so difficult to write about.

TQ: How does being a dancer shape your approach to writing? Does your history as a dancer inform your relationship to sentences and language?

EW: Because of the daily practice of dancing, I’ve been able to just do the writing work, whether it’s good work or not. When I feel like I have something that I’m trying to work out or say, it’s like going to the ballet barre— I return to thought exercises at my desk. I’m also in tune with how my body feels while I’m writing, which means I’m fairly embodied in my breaks, like taking a walk or going to dance or yoga class, and things move a little differently after that.

I’m very aware of the sentence; I have this internal rhythm of eight counts, and I think that carries over into sentences. There are repetitions and rhythms within the sentence that to me make a paragraph complete. I find myself trying to include a surprise in every sentence or paragraph, something unexpected, a gesture to personalize, as you would with a movement of your head or arm. I guess another way to think of that is as voice, but I think of it rhythmically.

TQ: Did revisiting your experiences in writing inform the way you moved in dance class?

EW: It made me able to stop competing. I let go of what used to really stress me out when I was dancing seriously, like competition, and the way my body looked in the mirror. Knowing or seeing it from a slight remove, like an editorial or a journalistic distance, allowed me to observe myself and the feelings I had, and to notice that what came up had to do not so much with the steps but with the culture, and my feelings around the culture. There’s a transcendence that still happens for me, when I am dancing in a group and all of us are doing the exact same thing in our own way to the same music at the same time. Maybe in a way it’s more possible, because I’m a writer and have that distance. When I was focused so much on the actual dance, I was focused little on how I felt while doing the dance. Writing also gave me something to say about dance that I felt like I wasn’t finished with, and allowed me to “leave it all on the field,” or something. I didn’t have to keep that inside of me anymore—my complicated feelings about how I still love dancing even though it had been so difficult. Now my relationship to it is different.

TQ: Is there an intersection of the two forms? What do you return to writing with, when you make space for dancing?

EW: I don’t think you can separate the parts of yourself, because I think that those are the parts of yourself that you’re trying to express, and they come out in different ways. In my observation, people who are creative in one area are often creative in other areas, too, without the same ambition or pressure.

I am currently working on a project about women saints, and the ways their holiness and faith were really embodied, and manifested through their wounds, their starvation or fasting, the ways they died, and the ways they felt they experienced God. Bodies are always both the subject and the reason that I return to the page—to try to say something that I can only really feel with my body. That project doesn’t have to do with dance but with bodies, which I think is what I carry over into my writing from dance. Dancing still allows me to access what I feel. It’s like I need those two parts in order to come to any kind of clarity. Nothing creative has ever totally overtaken dance, because it’s such an important part of my writing and daily living. I attribute that to dance being my first means of expression, as the ways our bodies are trained to move become a muscle memory stronger than any other.

TQ: When you shift from part one to part two of the book, the focus shifts from your burgeoning ballet career, and reflects a deepening connection to writing. Was the writing process for the two parts very different?

EW: Part two required less editing and less rearranging or expansion, and was cleaner in its mission, which was to examine how ballet acted as a pressure cooker for so much of womanhood. It was much harder to understand how the [earlier] pieces of ballet fit together. For example, there is a chapter where I had to leave a ballet summer intensive program because of an early back injury. That was one of the hardest chapters to write, because I remembered so little of that time other than being sixteen and being in pain.  

TQ: In the book there is a parallel between choreographer Martha Graham’s work with Helen Keller and your time with Kayla, a visually impaired student whom you worked with as a teaching assistant. Is this parallel representative, or metaphorical, of the change you were making in your artistic practice, from dance to writing?

EW: Definitely. I thought, there’s so much more that the body is capable of that I have not seen, and so much more I want to capture that is profound about the experience of living in so many different bodies. And what are my limitations, in terms of how I am experiencing my life differently than somebody who doesn’t have those? It was a profound reckoning with the different possibilities of embodied experience, and the ways that I could write about those.

TQ: The focus on Martha Graham seems like one of many bridges between dance and writing, particularly in your reading of Graham’s autobiography, Blood Memory.

EW: Martha Graham is a really compelling figure, and she’s also really flawed. She’s very literary in the dances she made, in that she did a lot with Greek dramas and mythology, and other classical figures that draw from a literary background. That’s why I was drawn to her, like, what an interesting, strange choice for a ballet. She also made a space for her way of moving—she didn’t see the style of dance or the sort of inclusion of her own body’s abilities in the dance world, so she just made that. It felt like a road not taken, in the choice that she made versus the choice I made. I wondered if I could have done that, if I had been exposed to different things.

TQ: What does writing offer you that dance cannot?

EW: What carries over from dance is the discipline, where dancing unlocks something that is really difficult to express verbally, or that is an embodied experience. Writing offers me a sense of permanence, and my own authorship. I think in part because I never choreographed anything, it felt like I was speaking someone else’s words. Writing gets rid of that sense and allows me to tell my own story in a way that I know will be preserved. Dance only existed as long as I was doing it, so when I stopped doing it, I feared I’d spent years doing something there was no record of. Writing is different.

TQ: You write that the body is a text. How so, and how does this idea manifest in your writing?

EW: For so many of the early chapters of the book, I felt like I was reading my body; I traced the origin of each injury to make up the chapters of the book. I don’t write about every injury, because there are so many for every dancer that it’s impossible. I thought about what the bigger ones taught me that might be relevant to the greater story. Once I wrote about life after ballet, I had to consider how ballet had trained my body to respond to the rest of my life, and the violence women face.

I think about [the body] as something that writes a story, like when I think about the birth that I recently went through, and the stories I told about it later. I think about the way something felt and my reaction to that feeling more than I do about the logistics of what happened. It was such an embodied experience, and I was very aware that I was moving through a story I was writing as I was having contractions or physical sensations—as I was in it, I knew the story was going to end with a baby, but I didn’t know how it was going to end with a baby. My body was the one going through the story, or writing the story.

TQ: I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and loss because of the pandemic. I’m wondering if writing about the arc of your ballet career has changed your relationship to grief?

EW: I think that I experienced real loss, and that’s certainly what we’re experiencing now. And I see loss as the reason for grief. For me, because I was physically injured, there was physical stuckness, and that sort of emotional circling the drain, like, what is it that is keeping me from sinking and what is keeping me fixated on something? That’s something I thought a lot about during the beginning of the pandemic. Like, what is it that keeps you from a complete loss of hope? And, we were physically stuck the way I was as a dancer; it felt like a vague connection that I was reliving as I was promoting the book.

I think that maybe we’re moving as a broader culture through different stages of grief, now, and are angrier then we were in the beginning. That’s something that’s really hard to write about, especially as a woman. Our anger, and expressing anger, is so socialized out of us. It’s scary to go there, but then I think we feel safer being angry when everybody is angry, and you see that it’s sort of a righteous and justified anger. Writing about anger feels more accessible and more productive. Writing about grief, all you can really do is acknowledge it, but writing about anger makes you feel a bit more mobilized.

TQ: Do the two art forms overlap as you make discoveries about the next steps within your artistic, creative life—for example, when you find yourself wanting to write about the saints?

EW: I used to have recurring dreams that suddenly I would be able to do five pirouettes en pointe in class—and I was constantly having breakthroughs in pirouettes because I was always looking for them, or putting work into them. I don’t think breakthroughs happen without working really hard to find them. The same thing happens in writing. When I have a breakthrough, it is often because I’ve read something where another writer does something that I’ve been trying to accomplish, and I figure out my problem. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I feel a little bit haunted or obsessed with the sticking point and it’s like in everything—every podcast I listen to or every conversation I have or every book I read—I’m searching for the answer to what is tripping me up. Taking that time away and not just trying to write something that I don’t know how to say yet, but looking for the answer elsewhere and sort of externalizing the problem helps me come back to it with slightly fresher eyes. I think when you look for those moments of revelation they are everywhere—they can’t leave you alone. It’s not so much about the intersection of writing and dance, but I learned in ballet that things don’t come to you passively, that you work every single day to have the breakthrough, and that idea has carried over into writing.