A most intriguing paradox

Boys in ballet have it very easy, and also very hard.

Hello, dear readers —

I don’t know how I did it, but this week I wrote 800 words a day, every day. Five eights are forty, and so, if you write 800 words a day for five days in a row, well, you have 4000 words. I’m not great at maths, but I’m fairly sure that’s right.

Somehow, I have 4000 words about ballet and masculinity, about the experiences of boys who dance, the paradox of privilege and persecution that they experience as a result of being rare and precious commodities the moment they walk in the ballet studio and targets for homophobic torment the second they leave it. It’s one of the chapters I’ve been looking forward to writing most, because of the tension between these two truths: boys in ballet have it easy, and also very hard.

This is a chapter where I get to go deep on how the patriarchy screws us all, although it screws us all differently. Outside of ballet, boys who do ballet have their masculinity questioned, and are bullied in homophobic and misogynistic terms, because they participate in a highly feminized activity. Once inside the ballet world, though, they are prized and coddled because they’re boys in a culture that depends on the presence of men both to tell its very traditional and very straight stories, and to grant the artform legitimacy.

That is, ballet needs men not only because there are princes and dukes and warriors for them to play, but also so that ballet isn’t “just” something that “only” girls do.

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It’s a tension — or, as one dancer I interviewed put it, and “mindfuck” — that’s fascinated me for years. One way I knew that I had it in me to write this book was that, when I reported this story about boys, ballet, and bullying, I told my editor I could get it done in 1000 words. The original draft, if I recall, clocked in at about 3000 words, and there was still so much more I wanted to say. Now I have 4000 words, and I’m not even close to done.

I don’t know if those words are any good, because it’s very hard for me to focus right now. The world has been turned upside down, my family is very far away, and my other job is to edit breaking news, all of which is bad — except for some of it, which is terrible. I am anxious almost all the time.

On a good writing day, 800 words fly out of my fingers and onto the page with little effort. On hard days, and they all feel like hard days right now, I have to break it down into 400 and 400, and sometimes, I have to break that second 400 into blocks of 100. Whatever it takes, I get the words on the page. Then I can cry, or nap, or watch Call the Midwife, or do all three. 

If all you can do is cry or nap or watch Call the Midwife right now, I hope you know that’s okay. You don’t have to use this frightening, stressful, destabilizing time to write a screenplay or read Infinite Jest or learn how to make sourdough. If all you’re doing is the bare minimum, that’ll do for now. One day this week, I got to 783 words and then ground out the remaining 17, resulting in a paragraph that contained a lot of adjectives and a wordcount that was precisely the bare minimum and not one word more. This weekly newsletter is going out on Sunday rather than on Thursday, meaning it is still, technically, barely, going out this week.

The bare minimum is all some of us can muster right now, and that’s fine. Take care of yourselves and each other. It turns out the bare minimum is actually a lot to ask, and right now it matters more than anything else.

Thanks for reading, and see you next week.

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