Please welcome Elizabeth Huergo to Writer Unboxed today! Elizabeth is a new WU contributor, and we’re thrilled to have her with us. She was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States at an early age as a political refugee. A published poet and story writer, she lives in Virginia. She is the author of THE DEATH OF FIDEL PEREZ.
Please join me in welcoming her, and enjoy her first post–and her wonderful voice. Welcome, Elizabeth!
Writing as Tango
Perfection is stasis, and both dancing and writing require us to move in time, vulnerable to failure and limits, aware of the difference between where we are and where we wish to be, between love lost and love found. So when Estampas Porteñas, the Argentine tango company founded and directed by Carolina Soler, came to a DC-area venue, I was in the audience. I had to be. They were performing “Deseos,” the story of Margot and Charlo, who realize their love for one another only at the moment of parting, when Margot leaves her rural village for the big city, Buenos Aires. The rest of the dance is the story of their reunion, which ends with “Los Pajaros Perdidos” (“the lost birds”) finding each other again and an enormous celebration.
“In Spanish deseos means desires or longings,” I told my friends. “The tango is all about desire. It’s all about writing,” I insisted. They smiled and listened, the way generous friends do. To be clear, I’m not referring to the tango performed by a B-list celebrity in a televised competition, a distracted, melodramatic grimace stretched across his face as he counts the basic eight steps of the dance: slow, slow, tan-go close; slow, slow, tan-go close. I mean the tango as an expression of infinite desires against finite human limits. For despite the delusions imposed on us by Madison Avenue, (bodies sans wrinkles, age-spots, and any number of unresolved appetites), there is no perfection.
The night I watched Estampas Porteñas perform the earth rose through the dancers’ feet. I thought about the ghostly darkness, the duende that fascinated García Lorca, who described it as a rupture of form, a breaking away from the intellect, a moment when the artist is inhabited, consumed; and who liked to quote an old guitar master: “‘The duende is not in the throat [of the singer]; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.” While all art forms are capable of duende, for García Lorca the greatest expression of this haunting darkness occurred “in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.”
Before the tango became bourgeois, the movements stylized and performed by the higher social circles of Buenos Aires, it was the milonga of the lower classes–loose, fast, and bawdy. It was an expressive process before it was either a form (the Tango) or a formula (slow, slow, tan-go close; slow, slow, tan-go close). However far-fetched it may seem at first, we can draw an analogy to the difference between drafting and revision: drafting as an expressive process that precedes and perhaps even resists formalization and revision as a delimiting process, one that requires us to “look again,” to judge our work as a performance, and to discern those points that need improvement.
I don’t mean to suggest that drafting is more important than revision or revision more important than drafting. Both are important and necessary–as separate intervals in the writing process. As writers, however, we move from drafting to revision too quickly. Too often we confuse revision with drafting, insisting that we are drafting when in fact we are polishing a handful of sentences that have barely had time to settle on the page. It’s a little like placing one foot on the accelerator and another on the brake and then berating ourselves for getting nowhere–and ruining the engine. We judge ourselves too soon, which is to say unfairly. Why?
I suspect it’s this dangerous business of dancing with the duende, of setting aside the fantasy of control and allowing ourselves to be possessed, consumed by our own creativity. Consider Susan Neville’s description of the writer as a tight-rope walker: “Every day begins like this for a writer: with the vain attempt to try to get to, in words, something that’s just beyond where words stop. This is your job—to throw the rope of words out and try to catch it, then to walk across the rope until the air gets tired of pretending to hold you up and the imaginary rope dissolves and you’re plunged into a canyon.” Neville describes the quotidian act of writing in relation to the infinite. She does not sit safely at a desk; she balances on a rope stretched over a canyon. Her life depends on her ability to “throw the rope of words” and “try to catch it.” And those attempts are contingent on something arbitrary, the moment when “the air gets tired” of pretense.
Drafting is the dangerous process of failing. It is intimate, close to the psyche, and frightening because to draft and to stay at this stage of the creative process for as long as possible is to welcome an intimate dance with the duende–the darkness of our personal limits, our mere humanity. We rush through, confusing revision with drafting, rigidly counting the eight basic steps of the tango when we have barely discovered the expressive possibilities of the milonga. I recognize this mistake because it is mine: I want to be done at the very beginning; I want the duende to move through me without the confrontation with my deseos.
Do you allow yourself to draft fully without judgment? What would that feel like? Better yet, do you have any tales to tell about meeting the duende?
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