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Choreographing the Narrative: Three Questions for Mylène Dressler
Mylène Dressler

by Joni Rodgers

 

I'm so delighted to introduce the lovely and lyrical Mylene Dressler.

Mylene (pronounced Milan, like the Italian city) was born in The Hague, the Netherlands, and began her multi-faceted career in the creative arts as a professional ballet dancer. She studied lit at the University of San Francisco and wrote her first novel, The Medusa Tree, as a doctoral student at Rice. Pulitzer winner Robert Olen Butler described it as "haunting and splendid." Mylene followed up with The Deadwood Beetle (Christian Science Monitor 'Best Books of 2001' list) and then The Floodmakers, a comic play/novel hybrid.

Mylene's traveled all over the world (as have her books, which have been translated into French, Dutch, and Turkish) teaching the craft of writing and inspiring the spirit of creativity. And she's lived in Carson McCuller's house. That alone is pretty cool, but it's just a small part of why Mylene Dressler is one of the most fabulous women I know.

Welcome, Mylene! We're so glad you're here. The Medusa Tree is one of those books that stayed with me for years after I read it. And it made me love you. How are you feeling about your firstborn a decade plus after its publication?
It's funny you should ask; I've been thinking a lot about that book lately and how much I learned, and still learn, from having written it. Like many first novels it's quite inward-looking, and yet I'm surprised by how it still manages to reach out, particularly in those passages about looking for the still center in life, finding that "blood-red light"--this is an image taken from the world of ballet--that keeps you steady. I posted one of those sections of the novel recently on another blog, and couldn't believe the response I got. So that makes me feel good. The images are holding up; the story and the ideas in it still seem to have the power to move. That's what I'm after. Not some transient reference point, but something that hums for a while. How nice of you to let me know the book stayed with you. As far as I'm concerned, that is the greatest compliment anyone can give a writer. And the book and its characters and images work that way for me, too. The Medusa Tree is still a part of me. I don't repudiate or pooh-pooh any part of it. I'm very proud of my firstborn.

I've tried and failed on several occasions to explain why your writing feels like dancing. Help me out?
Probably you get that sense because rhythm, cadence and narrative choreography mean so much to me. Early on, lyricism was a big part of what I strived for, too, although that's a bit less noticeable in my work these days. I like a slightly harder edge. But my essential biases are intact. I love writing that pays attention to rhythm and sound and the music of a sentence or a paragraph. I don't like wasted movement in dance or in language, so my writing also has a "tight" feel to it--not in the sense of being constricted, I hope, but in the sense that I'm not going to make you, the reader, wade through a lot of unnecessary words just to pad a chapter or make a book thicker so it will cost you more. The great choreographer Balanchine once told his successor, Peter Martins, that when you choreograph you need only so many gestures, and you have to know when enough is enough. Then the question simply becomes the arrangement of those movements. I've tended to cleave to that approach all my life. Make every move count. Waste no breath. It's probably one reason my novels are fairly compact. It's hard to keep that up for five hundred pages. But for the kinds of novels I like to write and the stories I try to tell, it seems to work well.


I'm determined to catch at least one of your workshops this year, and I hope we'll be hearing a lot about them here on BoxOcto. What do you hope participating writers take away from those experiences?
That's a great question. I'm leading workshops both in writing and, more generally, in creativity these days, and I think my hope is always the same. It is above all that you come away inspired. There is a great deal we have to teach each other, and so much that we can learn from each other, but none of it matters a hoot if it's presented in such a way that it seems like work and not like joy--and I mean sustaining joy. Succeeding in a creative field can be so challenging that I see one of my primary responsibilities as a teacher as firing people up, larding them with stamina, giving them the energy and will to persist. "A might will," Henry James has written. "That's all there is!" So the key for me is helping writers see not simply the value of a given exercise, but the part it plays in the overall wonder that is the pursuit of craft. As in, "It's not do this and you will learn this, but do this and you will learn this, but more important you will understand process and how to really grasp it with both hands." Because process is everything. If you can't learn to create an ongoing workshop inside your head, how to inspire yourself day after day to keep going, you won't keep going, and you won't learn the essential things no teacher can teach you. What is my voice? What is my subject matter? What is it I'm trying to discover by undertaking my story? I always hope people leave my workshops thinking, "Not only did I gain one or two useful tools here, but I can really see that devoting myself to this kind of work is stupendous. It's magic. It's tough. It's beautiful. It makes me feel awake. Alive. I'm going to go go go." I hope this because we need good storytellers. Humankind has this need, for people with the patience to figure out what moves us and what matters to us and how to structure it in such a way that we'll remember and that it will mean to us. So we get together in workshops, as we do here on this blog, to make sure there will always be plenty of good storytellers around. My hope, always, is to enlarge the tribe.--MDI'm reading: Choreographing the narrative (3 Questions for our new blogmate, author/creativity guru Mylene Dr