Dance, Dance Revolution

How do You Finish a Book? #2

I’m staring at three bloody teeth in a bag.

They are my wisdom teeth, and they are disgusting: the surfaces striated with black rivers of decay, the roots flecked with clinging bits of blood and bone.

The seven-year-old placed the baggie under his pillow last night, and the tooth fairy left him both the teeth and a note that read “grown-up teeth are disgusting!” The tooth fairy did this mostly out of concern for parental welfare. If Ike thought there was money in adult teeth, Katie or I would doubtless wake up to find him wielding a pliers in one of our mouths.

Instead of a photo of this gross and useless trio, I offer another disturbing marker of my age. Thanks to the hybrid in-person/remote classroom setup we used on campus this year, I was able, for the first time, to see the not-quite-bald spot on the crown of my head, and to capture it for posterity:

This preamble is just to say that I’m writing you today from atop a cloud of ibuprofen and amoxicillin. And, as I am newly without wisdom (har har), I’m pleased to be able to offer this chat with Ellen O’Connell Whittet, whose memoir, What You Become in Flight debuted a year ago, just after the pandemic and just before her first child. Truly, she’s had a year.

Ellen and I met, as I recall it, over breakfast at a writers conference nine years ago. She was working on the manuscript that would become this book, and I was working on the manuscript that is still on this computer.

Here’s the third sentence of What You Become in Flight: “That was the winter I decided to stop eating, and began to be noticed.” Whittet is 19 and on the verge of a promising career in classical ballet when, in a rehearsal mishap, she suffers a career-ending injury. Suddenly bereft of what had been her means of creative expression, Whittet is forced to ask herself what she’ll do now, and to reckon with the ways she’d had to give up control over her body in order to “succeed” in ballet. (“As an object, I knew my angles, and I knew how to hid the parts of myself that weren’t as pleasing to the audience.”) For me, it was a fascinating look into a world that had been completely foreign.

Ellen O’Connell Whittet is an essayist and lecturer who teaches in the writing program at UC Santa Barbara. Ellen has written for The Paris Review, Buzzfeed, Vulture, The Atlantic, and dozens of others, which you can check out at her website. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Thanks again, Ellen!

(This is Number 2 in my How Do You Finish a Book? series. See the first conversation, with novelist Marc Fitten, here.)

How Do You Finish a Book?

No. 2: Ellen O’Connell Whittet

Sebastian Stockman: So, just before this, I was doing yoga, which is a thing I do now.

Ellen O’Connell Whittet: Oh. [Ed. note: this is an “Oh” of bewilderment.]

SS: I’m just saying that for applause. But, no, I have a point here. You write early in the book: “Ballet and language are always linked for me.” And that couldn’t be more opposite from my thinking. Like writing, writing happens up here for me <points to head>, not in the body.

And with yoga, and therapy, and stuff like that there are all these things that are supposed to get me in touch with my body, and I don’t want to think about my body. I live in my head. [babbles some more about his body — gross]

ANYWAY, the premise of this, section in my new newsletter is to ask how do you finish a book?

And you confront it in your book, explicitly, that question of where to end it, how to end it.

Ellen O’Connell Whittet: That's the hard thing with memoirs, where do you end it? You know, you keep living, but you're not writing your life. You're writing some small, slice of the pie of your whole life. And you know … My agent, bless her, read it so many times and I think probably lost a little bit of the freshness that you want a reader to come to your book with. Like, she just saw every single change, and [so] she gave it to somebody else to read.

And the other person said something where I was like, “okay, this, this is the secret to where you end a memoir.” <interviewer leans in attentively> She said, “I finished this. And I don't know that the author is OK. I'm worried about her. I don't think that this has concluded.”

I just thought, Oh, OK. That's what she's looking for. She wants to know that I'm OK at the end. And then I have to figure out what narrative point will show this.

That's particular to memoir. It’s different from doing reported nonfiction or a totally different genre. But in a memoir, they want to come away knowing that you're okay, you want to know the protagonist is okay and what okay means.

I just this morning finished … Adrian Brodeur’s memoir called Wild Game. It was riveting. Her mother enlisted her to keep her affair a secret when she — when the daughter — was 14.

SS: Oh, Ok, yeah I’ve heard of this! You enjoyed it?

EOW: Yeah, but it seems like it ends now, you know, but it’s so much about her adolescence. It's interesting that we get all these scenes in her adolescence, and then it just speeds up, and it's like, “I met my husband and we had two children.” That was so rushed over, but not everything can take the same pace.

And I was thinking, we need to know that she’s going to be OK. And she’s not going to be OK until she doesn’t need her mother … to mend their relationship in specific ways. The realizations that she comes to that would heal the teenage wounds come so much later in her life — so we don't need to know that much about her marriage or where she went to college or whatever.

And I think that's what I was looking for [with my book]. How do I know that this particular wound, this particular ballet wound, has healed? And … well, I have to feel like I’m safe in my body. That’s the answer for my memoir, I have to feel like I have some kind of agency and like I’m not moving or living or thinking about my body in relation to how other people see it. I’m just a body in the world experiencing things, rather than like trying to stay safe or trying to look good or trying to be thin or all the things that I thought about so much as a ballet dancer.

We're always trying to say something that's impossible to say. I mean, there are so many times that I've written "I can't say this in words" or "I feel more than words can express" or something, and then you're like, I gotta delete that. That's not what you want to say.

SS: And your realization of agency also then ropes into the [snake] phobia, right?

EOW: Exactly.

SS: Overcoming the phobia and then taking control of that.

EOW: Yeah, which is something I added in so much later. It doesn't necessarily fit except the reason the phobia developed was because of a sexual assault. That was the ultimate loss of agency. [And] I didn't recognize [it as] a sexual assault because of the lessons I thought about myself in ballet.

Those things, ballet, sexual assault, my phobia, all live together. At least the way I experienced them. So it's weird because assault is so different from ballet and yet the lessons are the same.

SS: Yeah, and the other thing occurring to me now is that you’re trying to recoup, you’re trying to recover this loss of agency. But with ballet… it’s just interesting because in ballet you have to have this immense control, but that’s not necessarily agency.

EOW: Exactly. You have control over the individual muscles in your body, but not over your career. So it’s easy to focus on those tiny moments that you do have control over and feel as though you're the one making the decisions. And yet you’re not the one casting yourself. You're not the one choreographing, choosing literally what it is you dance. You’re not the one deciding what steps come next for you.

And there are so few careers, I think, that actually have so little input from the person who is, you know, the agent. That is a strange thing, but it doesn't feel very good to always … have to see myself through someone else's eyes.

I was the paintbrush. I was never the artist.

SS: Yeah. Yeah! You can't, like, freelance ballet on the side or anything.

EOW: Right. Freelancing in general is like, you feel you have a little more control, but then also you don’t because you don’t have any stability or benefits. In ballet, the model is that you’re in a company and you progress from corps de ballet to soloist, to principal, hopefully, and then you retire and I guess become a teacher or, you know, whatever.

SS: Just to go back to the agency thing — you write “At no point in any ballet class I ever took was there a chance to revoke or rethink my implicit consent to teachers, choreographers, and partners who must, for the aesthetics of ballet, touch women’s bodies to perfect positions or movement…” So it's that paintbrush thing, right?

EOW: Or just you're being sculpted or manipulated by everybody in the room. And do you know that that's what you're signing up for?

It’s like when you nail the sentence or you nailed the paragraph or you figure out the structure for your memoir or the end point for the book that you're writing. You feel that kind of excitement of an 11-month-old who’s like “Oh,‘dog’!”

SS: I just keep coming back to that idea of writing and dance or writing and ballet are linked for you. I know that ballet has formal steps and a language. But I think that where I’ve gotten hung up so often is that that language isn’t, or isn’t often, used to make a narrative. Or at least not one that I can understand. So then can you talk about how ballet and writing, or ballet and language are linked? Or I guess that’s me being up here <points to head>. Like you understand something about… Or maybe that's the problem of like translating it into words? Because it’s, it’s a language, but it’s some sort of physical language rather than …

EOW: Yeah, but we're always trying to say something that’s impossible to say. I mean, there are so many times that I've written the words “I can't say this in words” or “I feel more than words can express” or something, and then you're like, I gotta delete that. That’s not what you want to say.

And so I think that we try to write beyond language constantly. Dancing certainly feels like movement beyond language and is probably how we feel when we confront any art form, when we see a beautiful painting or hear a piece of music. It's something beyond language. And yet we're always looking for the language to express it, to communicate that experience.

SS: And I guess language is what we have.

EOW: It’s the first thing we have. You know, I’m watching my baby accumulate language now. And she’s feeling something she can’t express, and yet it’s my job to teach her to express that. And when she recognizes a word and attaches it to something, I see how excited she gets. It’s like when you nail the sentence or you nailed the paragraph or you figure out the structure for your memoir or the end point for the book that you're writing. You feel that kind of excitement of an 11-month-old who’s like “Oh, ‘dog’!”

SS: Oh yeah, that's really good. That's a really good way to think about it. So: the ending. The ending as it appears in the book happened way after you started writing the book, right? What was the arc of the story when you first started?

EOW: Well, I first submitted it to my agent confident that it was pretty close to done. It was in 2016, before I got married, — which is [now] sort of an end point in the book, though there's a lot that happens afterwards.

But at first I didn't see my own love story as something that needed to be included in this story about ballet. After that, my mom got cancer, and I found out that I had a high chance of getting cancer. So all of a sudden there were all these things where I'm really confronted with a lot of the same questions about agency and decision-making. It doesn't really feel like a true decision that I can make — you know, do I really have choices around these kinds of questions?

I felt like I was confronting something that I had already confronted and that I had a chance to maybe face it or respond to it differently than I would have as a dancer. And then I was like, well, that’s kind of a narrative conclusion.

I say this explicitly in the book: I should go to therapy so I can end this book. Like I should figure out this terrible fear that I have about something that's illogical [the snake phobia], but also resides in my body.

I felt like I could not acknowledge that I'm doing this for my book in the book, but then I was thinking, well, that’s what’s interesting.

SS: You really are bringing us up to “and now it’s the book you’re holding in your hands.”

EOW: Right.

SS: Which is good. I think it works. … On the therapy front — and I know this is your interview, but I’ll just say — I've gotten this new therapist, and he’s been great and has helped me go back to my bloated manuscript and sort of approach it with warmth and compassion for what I was doing instead of raking myself over the coals …

EOW: That's the thing about therapy that is, I think, really helpful for writing. I can't imagine writing without having gone to therapy. I was just thinking the other day, “I want to work on the second book; I should probably go back to therapy.”

It helps you, first of all, be honest — which is a good quality for a person, but a writer as well —and especially it helps you see the whole story. … You're trying on different perspectives. You're trying on different endings. All these things that I think are really useful exercises for writers turn out to be things that just naturally happen in a therapist's office. …

I think it can be really easy to just be a broken record when you tell your story [as a pitch], because you’re like, this is the way that I'll make it palatable to other people, and they'll understand my very quick premise, and you know the responses you're going to get, you know the follow-up questions, you know all of it.

And then eventually you're like, okay, this is how I would say it to an editor, but that's actually not good for writing a book — it’s lazy. It’s like a little groove that you just kind of nestled into without ever trying to claw your way out. I think you have to claw your way out of that groove in order to finish the book. Because… we want to honor the pain that we were in in order to make a series of bad choices.

It’s surprising to me who did read my book, and it’s surprising who didn’t read my book. People in my family would say they started it and they liked this one thing, and then I never heard from them again. I had an ex-boyfriend tell me he was going right then to buy his copy that just came in at the bookstore. And then I never heard from him.

SS: Yeah. Wow. That's really good advice. I appreciate that. And, uh, you know, I’m not trying to do the Marc Maron interview where he talks about himself mostly…

EOW: No, I'm so interested in yours.

SS: I feel like sometimes I can't even go to it, the manuscript. I’ve got, like 100,000 words or something, which is way too long. It’s this bloated thing. And I can't approach it. Katie, my wife, helped me see — like, I've had this thought that it has to, it has to go win prizes in order to justify its existence to my mother. But then that’s also just a way to stop yourself from writing.

EOW: Parents are tricky for the thing you're saying. Actually you should read this book Wild Game, because her relationship with her mother is super-complex and her mom comes across looking really bad.

SS: I mean, the premise is bad.

EOW: Her mom just seems so selfish and totally unaware of her child as an independent person — which like may or may not be relevant [to you] — but she struggles a little bit with when to write this and she ends up writing it when her mom has dementia. That’s when she was going to be okay with kind of throwing her mom under the bus.

SS: Whoa.

EOW: I remember some early readers [of my book] saying “you were 92 pounds or something, how did your parents not do anything?” And I had to ask them and they were a little bit defensive about it, and I just put it in the book. And, you know … whatever, they've read it. 

But people are uncomfortable being written about. It’s surprising to me who did read my book, and it’s surprising who didn’t read my book. People in my family would say they started it and they liked this one thing, and then I never heard from them again. I had an ex-boyfriend tell me he was going right then to buy his copy that just came in at the bookstore. And then I never heard from him.

I think there are a couple of chapters at the end that my husband has not read, because he’s in them so much. But he’s read the first three-quarters of that book, like, 20 times. 

But you know, I didn't really have that problem because I changed people's names and they were not people who were close to me. … But if it's somebody that you're close to — I don't know. I mean, you can just say this is how I experienced it.

SS: Yeah, that’s good.

EOW: There’s so much that can freeze you from writing. I feel like that about something else I want to write right now. I feel frozen about it and I can give myself a lot of excuses or I can just write something that’s bad. And then, you know, the good stuff comes in revision anyway.

SS: Can you talk about the new project you’re wanting to work on?

EOW: I want to write about women saints, whom I find weird and fascinating. I was raised Catholic and saints loomed large in my childhood, but the women in particular.

And a lot of them had this faith that manifested physically, like in starvation, which affected women more than male saints. I think politically and religiously that’s interesting: the sort of self-erasure that they did.

SS: Oh yeah, OK. I see the through-line!

EOW: I want to compare that to motherhood and the whole culture around conceiving, being pregnant, giving birth, immediate postpartum — that sort of self-erasure that happens when you’re putting somebody else first, and what we're allowed to feel about our babies’ births or encouraged to express about them.

And there’s the self-erasure and sort of self-editing with these early models of womanhood — this sort of holiness that I think moms are also held to, to some extent.

SS: And then there’s the “success” or the “honor” deriving from what you do to or allow to be done to your body, right?

EOW: Yeah, exactly. Especially in the medical world, the choices you have to make around pregnancy and birth feel very passive or like someone else is making a decision for you.

SS: OK, so who are your favorite saints? Which of the women are you looking at?

EOW: Oh, what a great question. I really love the Virgin Mary, but not in the way you're thinking. I think that she is quite revolutionary. I think the Magnificat is revolutionary in the same way that someone like Emma Gonzalez is revolutionary, just like a really bad-ass teenager who was not meek and mild. She was subversive.

And then she's also written out of the story of Jesus for big chunks of it, which is interesting.

SS: What is the, uh, Magnificat? Is it the conception, or? I grew up Lutheran, so I don’t know all the…

EOW: OH, that’s unfortunate. No, the Magnificat is like the song of Mary, it starts “my soul doth magnify the Lord.” But then she does this bit about destroying hierarchies. 

And I really like Catherine of Siena, who was one of the saints who starved herself and got the stigmata, which is what I knew about her as a child. But then she's also the earliest woman doctor of the church. And she was really instrumental to healing the great papal schism and all these really incredible things that I was like, why is that not more known? These women operated in a patriarchal system through sneaky shows of power. 

SS: I’m happy to talk more about saints, but I wanted to talk about teaching, and working with student writers, which is a thing we both do. You talk in the book about working with writers who are dealing with themes that you’re dealing with. And, well, I’ll just speak for myself here: I teach a class called Publishing in the 21st Century, and I have sometimes felt fraudulent. Like “Well, I'm still working on actually doing that here in the 21st century.” And, I don’t know — do you respond to that feeling?

EOW: Yeah, I mean, in university settings in general because of the sort of hierarchy of MFAs and Ph.Ds, I feel like a fraud most of the time at meetings, especially with other departments. They just know the ins and outs of the university world, so well, and the language to talk about that.

I also feel like that when I teach magazine writing, when I teach feature writing. I mean, I have written features, but they feel really forced. Those get the most editing out of all of the things that I've written. And also I haven't written that many. I worry I write features just so I don't feel like a fraud when I teach them.

SS: But the editing, that’s just standard stuff, right?

EOW: That's the thing — I always feel I have this moment where I'm like, should I apologize that they had to move entire paragraphs around? And then I'm like, well, that’s what they’re paid to do.

I wish people shared pictures of their drafts that had been chewed up by editors because this is a question that I always have: how much red is normal?

SS: What’s also funny is that I’m really good at preaching “This takes a long time. It’s iteration. We do the work in revision.”

EOW: It's also collaborative, which is really hard to actually feel.

SS: Yeah, it’s like, I’m preaching that and then I get an edit back and it’s like, Oh, I thought … I thought you were just going to tell me I did a good job.

EOW: I feel like that with rejection, too. I got one a couple of weeks ago where I was like, “Oh, I really thought that that would be a sure thing.” And it just makes you feel not good enough. But you know, if a student ever came to you with that, you would be like, “listen, there are so many factors that go into these decisions.”

SS: One more thing on the student front, and this is just my curiosity so we can either have this in or not, but you had Chanel Miller as one of your students, right?

EOW: Yeah, she was one of my writing students.

SS: I thought I saw that on your social media when she won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Know My Name. I was mostly curious, because there are weird dynamics here, right?

EOW: The fact that she was in a position to blurb my book was so meaningful. She is somebody who, I was not surprised that she became famous.

I wish that she had a different story to tell. I mean, I think that this made her who she is now, but I wish that she didn't have to suffer as much as she did in order to tell a story and have the platform that she has. But she was always so talented that… you know, you have those rare students where you don't feel like you actually teach them anything and you just kind of encourage them and say “you’re beyond anything that I can give you right now, other than just time and space and support and encouragement.”

And that was certainly Chanel, even at 18, 20.

SS: That’s so cool. It must feel great, but also it feels like cheating as a teacher sometimes.

EOW: Right. I actually just found some note from her in my room, at my parents’ house, thanking me for another great quarter or something. And I don't know why I kept it — it’s several years old at this point. And I was like, oh, that's interesting that I kept that.

But I probably kept it because Chanel’s an incredible person and it meant a lot coming from her. And this was years before, you know.

SS: Maybe you were saving it for when she sells her papers to some library.

EOW: Oh yeah. When you can go visit her house, on a tour.

SS: And so that’s a case where you are really just actively rooting for someone. So that’s not the writer envy sort of thing. It’s different because you literally had her as a student. How do you deal with that other thing?

EOW: Well, yeah, I mean, I'm jealous that she probably had like a huge book advance, but you know, I also think of anyone she worked really hard for that. And “deserves” is such a strange word, but you know, she deserves her success because she has really made a piece of art from what she went through.

And she's also such an amazing activist. I follow her on Instagram now and she’s just so good at what she does. And she’s so good at the public-facing part of writing, which can be really difficult.

But envy, yeah. Envy is a hard thing as a writer, but now, my belief about it in my better moments is that, when I feel jealous of somebody, whatever they have, it just makes what I want more clear.

So if I'm jealous that somebody was published in a certain place or with a certain kind of piece, or has fans that are certain kinds of people, I think, okay, that's the thing I want. And it doesn’t mean tha

t I can never have that. It just means that that’s the thing I want. And it’s sometimes really hard to actually identify what you want.

SS: Wow. That’s … really healthy.

EOW: But I get it. I mean, I woke up at two a.m. the other night, really jealous of a writer who just published a book, feeling like, you know, we started off in the same place, but she worked harder and it's because of X, Y, Z, you know….

[Off-the-record gossip about people we envy. If you want to know, like and share this post with twenty-five people!1]

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This is a joke. I will not share this off-the-record gossip