The Elemental Art of Composition
This story also appears in the official National Writing Month publication on Medium.
That took a long time. I apologize. You see? Writing on a digital platform means that my fingers go much faster than my brain. I like to compose with a certain cadence in mind. It’s the same cadence that I use in the way that I speak or in the way that I move through space in general.
This is my first time LiveStreaming what I am writing digitally. Should I say writing digitally, or is it truly composition?
When I was younger, I was confused about what I should do with my life. I think this is a familiar lull that many of us experience after college and in our mid to late 20s.
I started college at the University of Utah as a Modern Dance major. Dance was my passion from the first time I took a class in Girl Scouts when I was 5. We did a routine to Rock Around the Clock and we wore poodle skirts for the school talent show. I remember learning the routine in the musty basement of a church in the small city where I grew up. The spark was struck. And it wouldn’t be extinguished for years to come. (Considering my obsession with the TERRIBLE and TRASHY reality TV show, Dance Moms, perhaps it still isn’t.) I begged for three years to take dance classes. When I was 8 years old, my mother relented. Like a spinning top, the string was pulled and I didn’t stop spinning for over a decade.
At university, I couldn’t believe my luck of being able to dance all day and not simply sit in lecture for hours on end. At the end of the first quarter, the dean of the school of Fine Arts sat down with me. Her message: you can stop the program right now, audition for and be accepted into a Modern Dance company. It was everything that I had ever wanted. And suddenly, in an instant, my obsession fizzled out.
Perhaps most people start out doing something more traditional, say engineering, and then they cross into the arts, finally pursuing Jazz Flute or painting. I was the opposite. New obsession: Journalism. I wanted to write for magazines. It came to me suddenly. I changed majors. Writing was always something I’d done for fun, but now I wanted to be the best writer at a top magazine.
I started working at the university newspaper penning soft news articles, slice of life pieces. I had this theory, one to which I still subscribe, that everyone is interesting. Everyone has an incredible story to tell, but you have to listen closely for it. I became known as this incredible listener. So much so that sometimes I wouldn’t turn on the audio recorder. (This was pre-smartphone.) Ill-advised to be sure because I found that at times I would fill in the bricks of the story with a bit of imaginary mortar. As I said, ill-advised. Sometimes, even now, when I really take it all in and focus on someone — their words, their facial twitches, their pregnant pauses, their word choice — I interrupt them in the process of thinking. Taking active listening to an extreme form of active listening. I try my best to reign this in.
What I noticed once I learned how to fashion stories was that the process was all too familiar. It was eerily similar to the act of choreography or even improvisational movement. The pace of the writing, the word choice, the textures, the layers, it’s all found in choreography. The pace of the movement, the song choice, the textures, the layers, it’s all found in composition.
And suddenly, things shifted into focus. No more sparks, no more candles. Someone had turned on the lights. More, even. The sun had come up and I saw that what drives me has never changed even if the medium had.
I live to tell stories, to evoke emotion and convey big ideas. Dancing, writing, creating performance art: it’s all the art of composition.