On writing and finding time

Sometimes it all feels like too much:

A full-time job.

Teaching two pole classes a week.

Subbing classes. Taking classes. Preparing for a competition.

Running.

Physical therapy.

The many books I want to read.

A blog that doesn’t write itself.

An unfinished novel that reminds me constantly what an imposter I am.

Twelve months ago, I started a new job: a freelance gig that was supposed to last no longer than two months. But as fall turned to winter turned to spring, and I remained steadily employed, I started to blame my lack of novel progress on my new job: Since becoming a full-time writer, I simply didn’t have time to be an extracurricular writer.

One hour a day, I told myself: Sit down at your computer, open up your Word doc, and write. Just. One. Hour.

I had a clear task ahead of me, so it shouldn’t have been that hard. Five months ago, I made the decision to change my novel from third person to first person (perhaps in a fit of self-sabotage: I was just one chapter shy of a finished first draft). I calculated that, at one hour per day and one chapter per week, I could get through the entire thing in fifteen weeks.

This was in February. Twenty weeks later, the three-year mark of this project has come and gone, and I’ve gotten through just one and a half chapters total. The first-person change, as it turned out, was not as simple as a find-and-replace. I’d begun something I couldn’t see finishing, and instead of making a decision one way or another, I froze. I closed Word, and I stopped coming back to it.

Well, actually, I started a blog—which filled my need for accountability and words-on-the-page, and (more importantly) tamped down the guilt I feel for not writing.

Then, finally, I revisited my novel a couple of week ago. I was inspired after reading If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, which me realize what change I actually needed to make. (Do you see why I can’t drop reading from my list of weekly commitments?) It was a drastic change—far more laborious than a perspective change. It meant starting over, albeit with a really good outline. It was the first time in a year that I was excited to return to the novel each day. Suddenly, one hour wasn’t enough.

Writing regularly—extracurricularly—means making choices. In that hour slot, I have to give up something else that is important to me—reading or exercise. It means constantly feeling guilty that something is being neglected. But if you’re a writer (or an artist of any kind), you know that there’s no greater guilt than calling yourself a writer when you’re not currently writing.

Writing always feel good. But writing fiction feels cathartic. I want to keep at it, but I feel obligated to put out a blog post. One way or another, it’s hours of unpaid labor, which detracts from the time I could be spending on another form of unpaid labor.

(And don’t get mad at me for phrasing it that way, just because I claim to love writing. Artists deserve compensation for their time and energy, even if they enjoy creating the art.)

Either way, I’ve failed. And obviously, if you’re reading this, you know what choice I’ve made this week.

Find time, they say. As if time is hidden, not already accounted for. This is not the blog post I wanted to write—after all, I’ve barely mentioned pole dance in all 600 words—but it’s time I’ve spent not working on my novel.

It’s the twenty-first of the month, and I’ve gotten a blog post up.

This time will be different: PSO Northeast 2022

I’m competing in November.

In some ways, it feels like a first, though it’s not. I’ve competed twice before. Yet I’m not proud of those performances, and that’s a horrible feeling. I love pole—and have nothing to show for it.

Hello ego, my old friend.

I competed for the first time at PSO Northeast in 2019, three years after touching a pole for the first time. Three years isn’t an insignificant amount of time, but in retrospect, I was very much a “baby” pole dancer. I didn’t know what I didn’t know—which was what I was good at. I knew only what I thought I should be good at.

In the end, I placed tenth out of the eleven performers in my category. I was devastated. I came off stage so happy to have made it through my routine—without falling or forgetting my choreography!—that I couldn’t believe the judges expected anything more of me. Their commentary was eye opening. It was my first time receiving technical feedback, and also the moment it first occurred to me that I was supposed to be performing. That’s right: I made it all the way to comp day without asking myself, “Am I prepared to entertain this audience?” As a result, my first routine was a string of tricks, executed at varying levels of success, set to a song that was more of requirement-cum-nuisance than a theme.

The competition was a success in that it made me understand my shortcomings in a way I hadn’t needed to previously. It gave me ideas and motivation for the next one. I was crushed, but I was ready to do it again.

But then a pandemic arrived four months later. Studios closed, and I ended up pole-less for a full three months. During that time, I replaced in-person pole classes with Zoom-based floorwork classes. I moved apartments, and though I didn’t have a lot of furniture, I did have a folding metal chair. These things—the floor and the chair—became my new apparatuses. When my studio announced it would host a virtual showcase in October, I submitted a piece using them. I had a lot of fun putting it together. Neither the floor nor the chair required as much physical strength as pole did, so I was able to focus on my transitions, lines, and musicality. I felt successful at what I was trying to do, rather than like a desperate imposter.

To my surprise, the studio scheduled my piece to run in the second half of the showcase, behind a “Warning: Sexiness” disclaimer. Sexy wasn’t my intention, but that third-party label was an indicator that, after four years of searching for “my style,” I’d finally stumbled upon it—organically.

The following spring, I entered PSO Taurus with an exotic* submission. Though I’m more proud of this routine than the first one, I’m still embarrassed by my timidity. I know that I hold myself back. I’m scared to be vulnerable in the way that a good performance requires. I feel stupid playing the part of a confidence pole dancer, when I’m anything but.

I tell myself it’s acting, but I can’t commit. Is it because I hate my body—a hatred that’s routed deeply in anti-fat bias and my own experiences as a fat child—and feel that I have no right to get on a stage and pretend otherwise?

Yes. Maybe. Partly, at least. But I’ll never be proud of a routine if I can’t push past my self-hatred. It may not sound like my ego at work, but in a way, it is. It’s my ego telling me I should be doing more, which is ultimately what prevents me from showing up as I currently am.

The only way I can think to tackle this is to get very clear on my intentions. So I’ve reflected on what I don’t like about my previous competition experiences, and I’ve come up with a definition of “success” for this time around:

  • I will perform for the audience and not my ego. A routine that’s exciting to watch is ultimately a routine that’s impressive.
  • I will commit to the role. I will be present on that stage, in body and in facial expression.
  • I will base my routine on moves I’m able to do, not moves I want to be able to do.
  • I will not panic-add “impressive” moves to the routine at the last minute. Every trick will compliment the routine, not be a display of ego.
  • I will let music inspire my movement. If something isn’t working, I’ll let it go sooner rather than later.
  • I will finalize my routine at least a month in advance—by October 19—so that the final weeks can be spent finessing the details and overall presentation.
  • I will ask for help when I’m stuck. I will not feel that I have to do this alone in order to be successful.

I’ve got five months. Let’s see how it goes.

*I used the word “exotic” here because that’s what PSO (still) calls it. I recognize that this word is outdated and offensive.

Pole dance, pain tolerance, and privilege

My physical therapist once said to me, “You have a really high tolerance for pain.” I was lying on my back on her treatment table as she kneaded a stainless steel scraping tool into my shoulder. As she worked, she implored, “Just let me know if this is too much.”

I was at her clinic for my cranky shoulders, a not-uncommon gripe among pole dancers. My first reaction to her assertion was a polite, “Oh, really?” I had no idea if my pain tolerance was any higher or lower than the average person’s, and no reason to think her observation was anything more than just that: a neutral observation. Your fingers are cold. Your arms are freckled. Your hair is brown. Yet I was proud. In a way, I had been training my body for many years to receive a comment like this—and not just through pole dance.

I grew up a fat, sedentary, depressed child. My body was a stranger, a thing that happened to me—all of its aches and pains, its weight meted out in gradually increasing numbers on the bathroom scale. It wasn’t until college—out of my parents’ house, alone in a new city—that I stumbled into bodily autonomy. Able to feed and dress and move myself in ways that had no baggage or expectations attached to them, I did. I became higher-educated, and I became un-sedentary for the first time in my life. The college gym gave way to outdoor running gave way to the pole studio.

With each new endeavor, I developed a greater familiarity with my body. My eating and exercise habits changed. The aches and pains that I didn’t understand began to disappear, replaced by aches and pains that had a clear source. Sore calves? That’s from the 18-mile run I did on Saturday. Headache? Oops, I forgot to drink enough water yesterday. I found control over, and comfort in, the body that used to control me.

Pole is an inherently painful sport, and pursuing it has taught me the difference between good pain and bad pain. I know, for example, that the searing pain between my thighs in superman or across my stomach in a hands-free cradle should not worry me the same way that shooting pain in my shoulder should.

Contorting myself around a hard, inflexible metal bar and using my skin as friction to prevent sliding, my nerves have become peripherally desensitized. The initial, brutal shock of the pain that is pole dance has become less and less. I wouldn’t call it a completely painless sport—not by far—but the sensations are comfortable, familiar. They throw up no red flags.

By this alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if pole dancers did have higher pain tolerances than the average person. But my complicated relationship with pain goes beyond this.

This past week, my brother graduated from college, and I went “home” to visit my parents. A couple of days into my trip, a pain like no other pain I’ve ever experienced settled into my bones. It was an all-encompassing, my-bones-feel-like-they’re-exploding-and-nothing-gives-me-relief pain. Not foam rolling, because the pain wasn’t in the muscles. Not stretching, which was impossible: just bending over slightly sent searing pain down the backs of my legs and through my pelvis. I didn’t know what was causing it. I didn’t know how to make it stop. I felt like my body was malfunctioning.

The fact that I was staying at my childhood house complicated this. My mother is very into alterative healing. Growing up, if I had a headache, a cold, a cavity, a stomach ache, eczema, or even acne, I was shamed for it—especially if I chose to treat the discomfort with over-the-counter medicines. In her view, suffering is result of something you’re doing wrong. If only I wouldn’t eat the things I eat. Or if I’d just take the supplements she recommends, or stop “letting” myself be anxious. She has the answers, and I’ll always be less knowledgeable about my own body than she is.

So when the pain started, I didn’t tell her. I’m an imperfect human, raised by an imperfect human, and instead of saying, “It’s my body, and only I know what I’m feeling, so please refrain from offering unsolicited advice,” I waited in agony for her to go out to her garden so that I could scour the house for Advil, in hopes that it would allow me to sleep through the night.

As much as I disagree with my mother’s methods, I don’t want her to be disappointed in me. It’s never been easy to earn her approval—and it’s not even something I’m sure I want. I have a high pain tolerance, but it’s come at a cost.

This experience has given me just a small glimpse of what it’s like to live with chronic pain. It was scary, not knowing the cause and not knowing how to make it better. I never felt more thankful to feel nothing than when the pain lifted—whether briefly, thanks to the Advil, or finally, when after about a week, I started feeling like “me” again.

Yet, who is “me”?

“Me” is the person who makes choices without having to consider her pain level, but “me” is also the person who was waylaid for a week by pain she didn’t choose or even see coming.

She’s proud to have a high pain tolerance. But she’s also ashamed for once believing this made her a better person.

I don’t feel sexy when I pole dance

Sure, I can perform it. But I don’t feel it. And I’m wondering: Is there a difference?

People start pole for different reasons. Some are drawn in by the crazy athletic feats; others want to find a home within their bodies, which means getting in touch with their sexy side. And others still may not have a reason. As Devin Lytle so perfectly put it, “Men go golfing all the time, and no one asks them to explain why they do what they do . . . Pole dancing is my golf.” We don’t owe anyone an explanation—and yet pole seems to demand one more than any other sport.

Pole as a modern-day art and sport comes from the strip club. Pole dancers emulate, borrow from, and build on the movements that strippers give us. The “pole sport” movement has demonstrated why it’s unhelpful and dangerous to sever pole from these origins: Because it contributes to the whorephobia that hurts strippers, all while taking what they do, repackaging it, and championing it as “sexiness.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be sexy, but I struggle to relate to pole dancers who come to the sport for this reason. The implication of wanting to “get to know yourself” is that your unfamiliar side is your sexy side. Which is totally fair. Haven’t women always been expected to give sex to men, all while getting shamed for any sexual desires of their own? Pole—as long as it recognizes its roots and fights for the de-stigmatization of SW and the safety of SWers—is a way to reclaim “sexy.”

But I don’t feel it, so I feel like I’ve failed. After five years of pole dancing, I still don’t “know myself.”

I had a lightbulb moment recently when talking to a friend. She ventured the suggestion that the word “stressed”—as in, I’m so stressed!—is meaningless. The term has become a catch-all to describe society’s collective, modern-day ailments. Are you stressed, or are you exhausted because you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in three months? Are you stressed, or angry that your boss has ignored your concerns about your creeping job responsibilities? Are you stressed, or are you grieving? This is a pandemic, after all, and as a society we’ve lost routine, control, purpose, and our loved ones.

I think the word “sexy” is similar. I don’t know whether it describes an internal feeling or an external action. If it’s innate or bestowed. Whether it must be one or the other, or if it can be both, simultaneously.

Probably the reason I don’t feel sexy when I perform sexy is because I know I’m being watched. I don’t know if it’s possible—or possible for me, with my unique background, experiences, personality, and influences—to feel sexiness from within, separated from the views of the people observing me. And this is always going to be a dilemma, because I share my personal pole practice with the world via Instagram.

Pole is not just a sport, after all; it’s a performance sport.

I recognize that not every dancer may feel as conflicted about this as I do. For those who say, “Pole dance makes me feel sexy,” I believe them. Sexiness is connected to empowerment—to a reclamation of movements that have historically been used to control womxn. This is the closest I get to “sexy”: I feel empowered when I pole dance. (Even if I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “I’m jumping on the pole today to feel empowered.” It’s just golf.)

Here are some other words I use to describe how I feel when I pole dance: Challenged. Creative. Strong. In control. Bad ass. None of these feelings are bestowed upon me by an audience; they’re all internal. Maybe they’re synonyms for sexy, maybe they’re not. Maybe I do feel sexy, even if it’s not a concept I fully understand.

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.