My first job may have just been my best job. I was ten, and I got to dance in the San Francisco Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker. Not only that, I got to be a party girl in the first scene–the pink party girl, no less–and then cavort in the Chinese dragon in the second act, with all my friends.
It’s great when you’re a kid and people take you seriously. We were in charge of getting our costumes on, getting ourselves over to makeup in time, arriving backstage at the appropriate moment, and knowing exactly what we were doing at all times. There were chaperones, but not much hand-holding, and, consequently, not as much goofing off as you’d expect.
I learned a lot from that experience, much of it very useful for a writer. First of all, and most importantly, I learned that it’s possible to have a life doing what you love. Not easy–one look at the company members’ threadbare practice clothes and ragged toe shoes told me that–but possible. And, secondly, I learned what goes into putting on a show.
With books, as with a full-length ballet, the audience only sees about a tenth of the work. The pretty parts, if you will. But before the book hits the stage, there are the years the writer’s spent training, the months of practice and drafts, the editors, publicists, and marketing people organizing the sets and setting the scene, and a host of other souls the audience probably never thinks about: independent booksellers, distributors, reviewers, bloggers.
And just like a dancer waiting in the wings, a debut writer is just as nervous. Is anyone out there? It’s kind of hard to see with all the lights in your face. Are you going to screw up like you did in rehearsal or will you hit your mark on time? Before you know it, the music starts and it’s time to step out there in what feels like your underwear, your heart going three-sixty.
I don’t think ten was too young to learn those lessons. It was a good age, in fact: old enough to appreciate the adult truths going on backstage but also still young enough to believe that what we were doing was magic.
Finally, I went back to see the Nutcracker with my family this Christmas. They’ve changed it all now–no more pink party girls, the Chinese dragon is completely different–and that was sad, but the music is still the same, the Opera House seats are the same scarlet velvet, and once the lights went down I learned that I’m still a sucker for the wonderful world of make-believe.