Why “em dash” and “elbow grip”?

I’ve not had many strong identities throughout my life. But I’ve always been a writer.

I started as many writers do—as an avid reader—but I’m not that archetypal bookworm you see in movies and on TV. You know, the one that’s reading Kafka for fun at age thirteen. I mean, I’ve read Kafka, but never outside of the classroom. And certainly not for fun.

I read my very first book before I could actually read. It was Bathtime for Biscuit, which I distinctly remembering acquiring from the elementary school Scholastic Book Fair (gosh, do you remember Scholastic Book Fairs?). Though I couldn’t read it myself, Bathtime for Biscuit was read to me so many times that I memorized not just the words, but the words in their page order, so that I could flip through and pretend I was reading along. And I still remember most of them to this day. I’m twenty-seven.

I read a lot of Junie B. Jones, probably long after I was too old for the series. And I devoured the Clique novels, multiple times over, eventually graduating to Gossip Girl and The It Girl—probably long before I was old enough. Also, I read a lot of formulaic court procedurals à la Jodie Picoult and James Patterson. I read what I found entertaining, what I found to be true about the world, what made me cry, and what made me feel understood.

Because, you see, I wasn’t quite the literary snob back then that I am these days (that’s what happens when you go to college for capital-L Literature). But I read a lot, and I think I also read differently. Sure, I loved the entertainment these stories provided, but I was “reading as a writer” before I even knew what that meant. I was appreciating sentences not for their lyrical beauty (or, not only for their lyrical beauty), but also for their underlying construction, the behind-the-scenes work that went into crafting them. Good writing, to me, is writing that doesn’t call attention to itself—but can be dissected by those who want to emulate it.

Margaret Atwood stands out in my mind as having been the writer to teach me how to use punctuation effectively. I read The Blind Assassin for the first time in twelfth grade. Open that book up and read just the first two pages. Look at what she’s doing with colons. I’d never seen colons used that way before—seemingly a simple one-for-one replacement with semicolons, but no, not quite. The phrases on either side aren’t equal. This isn’t how I was taught to colons in school—certainly not in formal writing—and yet Atwood’s usage fits perfectly with the definition of a colon: it illustrates or amplifies the thing preceding it (and there’s a textbook example for you).

Unfortunately, I do not remember my first encounter with my favorite piece of punctuation, the em dash. (Is it weird to have a favorite punctuation mark? To want to know what other people’s favorite punctuation marks are?) This little mark is so versatile. It can interrupt a sentence without derailing a thought, or it can illustrate a point—much in the same way a colon can, but in a softer, less formal way. If I’m not careful, I might just employ an em dash in every sentence. But I am careful, meticulously—perhaps even detrimentally—so. I agonize over these little decisions, changing a comma to an em dash and back to a comma again, before ultimately changing a different em dash so that I can keep the first one.

And I like it, a lot. I don’t just enjoy writing. I enjoy crafting writing.

So why “elbow grip”?

Sometimes it scares me to think that I could love something as much as I love writing. In this case, that something is pole dancing.

Writing is what I decided to go to school for. It’s what I told myself I would make a career (and money) out of. And as far as the trope of the starving novelist goes, it’s the thing I’m supposed to eat, sleep, and breath…so how can I possibly have all of this spare time to throw my body around a vertical metal pole?

I’m sorry to state it so crudely, but: I fucking love pole dance.

It’s exercise, it’s expression, it’s self-improvement. A long-term project and a short-term project, instant gratification and a dozen daily frustrations, sore muscles and purplish bruises, a split that can always be that much more impressive, a hobby, a job, a motivation, a purpose. A thing I blow off sometimes, and a thing I trek for miles through rain or freezing temperatures to get to do. It’s going to the gym and yet absolutely nothing like going to the gym, in the best way possible.

Elbow grip is a way of grabbing the pole. Can you guess with which body part? It’s probably most commonly thought of in combination with ayesha, and ayesha itself is a goal that many pole hobbyists spend months or even years working toward. It never fails to impress. You are upside down, holding onto the pole with nothing but your two hands.

Elbow-grip ayesha was the first ayesha I mastered. It took me about two years—which might sound like a really long time to some people or a really short time to others. That’s the beauty of pole. Some of us are former gymnasts and ballerinas who pick up these moves instinctively, instantly. Others have no athletic background. I had no athletic background. After I graduated from college, I started to run, but running didn’t translate into flexibility or upper-body strength. I could touch my toes, but I certainly wasn’t anywhere close to touching the ground in a split. I couldn’t do a pullup. Hell, I couldn’t even do a pushup. Even my bodyweight squat questionable: every drop of my butt into that invisible chair was a chance I might tip over backwards.

The beautiful, strong, fluid way my body moves now, on and off the pole—that’s all because of pole. Would it have helped to have been a child gymnast? Sure. But if I came to pole with a different background, with any background, maybe it wouldn’t have imprinted on me as deeply as it did. Maybe I wouldn’t have found my progress, as great or as quick as it could have been, as rewarding. Maybe I wouldn’t have stuck with it. Maybe I’d have moved on to yoga and then Pilates and then boxing and then CrossFit.

In the last five years, I’ve become a pole dancer. It’s a new identity, one that I can hardly admit is just as strong as my identity as a writer. How many MFAs don’t end up as authors? How many MFAs, sitting in their creative writing workshops right now, have made a vow that they’ll never be a failed writer or—worse—a writer who woke up one day and realized they hadn’t written in months, in years?

I’m scared of this, but the difference between me now and me as a teenager is how much I needed writing then and how much I need pole dance now. Writing got me through the traumas of my childhood, and pole dance gets me through the pain of navigating the adult world, one that values work that can be clocked, a paycheck that can be collected, and bills that can be paid on time. We tell writers they must write but we also tell them they must contribute to society in an approved way, and those two things aren’t always reconcilable.

This blog is an attempt to marry my two identities. To explore pole differently, more deeply, in the way that I explore best, through writing. But also, to give me something to write about. Because sometimes, we writers need a little boost.

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