In A Time to Dance, a novel in verse set in contemporary India, a young dancer loses part of her right leg and re-learns how to dance.
1. Go “Method”
Veda, the protagonist of A Time to Dance, looks like me (she’s of Indian heritage too) — and doesn’t (she’s differently abled). Yes, her “voice” often spoke in my head, but when she wasn’t haunting me, I wanted to do all I could to understand and empathize with her experience of losing a limb.
I invested in a pair of crutches and spent a good deal of time hobbling up and down the basement stairs on them, with one leg scrunched up. I even bound my leg loosely on some days so I would be forced to hop on one leg.
The inspiration for the gripping scene in “Nails and Spears” came one night after I’d spent a grueling day trying to make my way around the home on one leg without crutches (crawling, basically), and then forcibly sending my leg to “sleep” (because people I’d interviewed said phantom pain felt a little like pins and needles).
Going “Method” the way actors do, to “get into character” is painful and time consuming. But for me, for A Time to Dance, it was worth the pain.
2. Play Party Tricks
Or, maybe the real lesson here is read, read, read. As part of the background research for A Time to Dance, I read V. S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain. Ramachandran describes experiments you can do to experience something similar to an amputee feeling a “phantom limb.”
These experiments also work quite nicely as party tricks. For a while, whenever someone came home, I experimented (played this party trick) on them. I watched their expressions, noted their feelings, and of course made them do this experiment with me as the subject, too.
The end result? One of the women who’d had an amputation and kindly agreed to read my novel draft and give me feedback, kept starting at my feet when I met her. Then suddenly burst out, “You’re two-legged! How did you know so well what it feels like to have Phantom pain?”
Is that a compliment, or what! I felt so honored and so humbled when she said that.
3. Interviewing is listening, not asking questions
As I wrote A Time to Dance, I interviewed numerous dancers, musicians, scientists, doctors, prosthetists (people who manufacture and fit patients with prostheses), and of course, people who had had amputations.
I started off with a sheet of questions, but soon realized that interviewing is not about asking the right questions. It’s about creating a bond of trust and then allowing the other person to open and up and listening, as well as you can, to what they share with you.
4. Be bold
Few novels explore a character’s spiritual awakening and growth — one of the main themes in A Time to Dance.
At first, this didn’t scare me at all. But sometime in the murky middle of writing the novel, I got cold feet for a while. Because I realized the reason why hardly any protagonist questions and learns about spirituality.
Writing about spirituality without religiosity is tough. It’s incredibly hard to write it well. What’s more, even if you do it well, it’s risky, because it’s not a fast-moving action-packed type of story, the kind of story most readers (young and old adults) gravitate towards, these days.
Luckily, I was strong enough to keep going and committed enough to Veda to tell that important aspect of the story. And one of the greatest rewards was the magnificent review a remarkably perceptive teen wrote of the novel, at LitUp reviews in which it’s clear that she loves the novel because of the depth it achieves through the exploration of spirituality.
5. Aspire to Achieve Agapé
Veda, in A Time to Dance, reconnects with the world after the tragedy in which she loses a limb. She becomes more compassionate and starts to share her gift with others as a dance teacher. She opens up enough to let romance into her life. And, as she grows, her love of dance deepens. She awakens to the power of her art and understands that dance isn’t about winning awards. Dance becomes, to her, a way to touch something spiritual.
I don’t write for external recognition and validation. But Veda isn’t a saint, and I’m no saint, either.
I’m ecstatic, elated, honored, humbled, pleased, proud, that A Time to Dance was released to starred reviews in Kirkus, Booklist, VOYA and SLJ. And what amazing reviews each of those was — I was moved to tears by each one of them.
And some of the other marvelous reviews the book got — online at LitUp reviews and in newspapers such as the Denver Post — also made me weep with joy. Because it feels like out there in the ether, there are some people who really, truly, “got” the book, and love my work.
But then, I keep reminding myself — and I hope I’ll never forget — that for me, as for Veda, art is and must remain a way to stay in touch with something above, beyond and vaster than my puny self.
I’m not sure I’ll ever lose the immense relief and gratification and sheer joy that I feel whenever my work is sincerely loved and praised. I even admit I yearn for even more recognition and even greater honors and awards than my work has already got. I admit I think my work deserves and I hope it attains far higher levels of success, even though I feel incredibly grateful for all the blessings people have showered on me and my work thus far.
But, despite that rather materialistic craving that overcomes me every now and then, I know I need to nurture the deeper aspect of my love of writing.
Ultimately, I love writing the same way Veda loves dance. Writing is my art. Even if (heaven forbid) no one ever published my work again, I’d still keep on writing. Writing is my life.
So I never google myself or any of that. Instead, I try to stay centered, and write for and from that centeredness.
Because when I write, despite all I’ve said, I realize the books are like gifts given to me. I’m lucky I can transcribe the voices I hear in my head — and those voices aren’t “mine.” Stories possess me. I don’t own the world of words.