Unveiling Authors

With Ellen O’Connell Whittet

Ellen O'Connell Whittet (@oconnellwhittet) | Twitter
Photo from Google Images

Ellen O’ Connell Whittet writes about ballet, literature and feminism. She teaches in the Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara. Her memoir What You Become in Flight was released in April 2020. Ellen has written for Paris Review, Buzzfeed, Vulture, The Atlantic, New York City Ballet, Allure, Teen Vogue, The Rumpus, Lenny Letter, Bustle, Catapult, Literary Hub, Salon, Post Road, Prairie Schooner, where she won the Virginia Faulkner Award, Redivider,The Nashville Review, the Harper Perennial Anthology The Moment (2012), and on the Ploughshares Blog.  She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

BL: Your memoir What You Become in Flight is about your body and mental health, but it’s also very much about the bodies of the women in your family and even stretches to the mental health around trauma and violence in society. I was impressed at how all of these themes moved, grew, and weaved organically throughout the book. How did you decide which moments to include and where?

EOW: One of my early edits from my editor was that I needed to include more about my family and their relationship to ballet, and once I did that, I realized they were integral to my own experience. They began to take up space in my writing they hadn’t been able to fully inhabit in their own lives, so I let them become what they needed to be in order to tell my own story. I couldn’t have untangled my own beliefs about myself and my womanhood from them, it turned out. The second half of the book, after my exodus from ballet, I chose the moments that shaped my ideas of efficacy and that also packed a narrative punch. These moments in which I realized, I wouldn’t have been able to handle something like that when I was a teenager when all my ideas about my body, and who it belonged to, were shaped by ballet. Everything, from eating to falling in love to going to grad school, seemed important in narrativizing how it feels to radically shift my identity when I lost ballet. 

BL: In What You Become in Flight, you become quite magnetized to the floor during your recovery after falling in flight. I love how over time, you literally rise up from the floor—quite the phoenix moment! I just picture you there being the “diarist” you describe yourself as being. How has your writing process evolved since then?

EOW: During the pandemic I think my writing process has become, in lots of ways, more incidental—texts to friends, lists of books I’ve read, ingredients I want to get for some meal. Part of this is that I had a baby during the pandemic, and part is stress, lack of creativity, and isolation. [So] I think I’ve reverted back to that diarist recently! Before pandemic parenthood, I was intentional and methodical about my writing. It’s hard for me to focus on anything else when I’m excited about a project, so I’d write with purpose and deadlines and feverish excitement. That’s how it feels when I really have something to say. I’m mulling over exactly what I have to say again, in new projects and new obsessions, and feel more dread because starting something that feels important is always intimidating. I’m grateful for this reminder that I was once a diarist, wrote a book, and am in the diarist phase again!

BL: Ballet is such a paradox; it can use and neglect the body. Regardless, it seems like you have such unconditional love for the art, as though it’s a family member. Does that feel right? Are there parts of the dance you still admire and/or are there parts you protest despite your admiration?

EOW: I’m so glad you read the book that way—this was very important to me to convey, and is something I say every time I talk about ballet. Yes, I still love it! I went to a New York City Ballet performance a couple of years ago and was utterly transported, even though that company has undergone some real challenges recently and historically. Watching the ways the dancers made patterns across the floors, and the ways Balanchine defied every expectation I had for what steps or sequences would come next make me feel alert, engaged, enraptured the whole time. I find ballet moving and beautiful to this day. But I think part of loving something fully is seeing it fully, its flaws and all. And because I know ballet so intimately, have lived within its warped logic and broken free from it, I think I love it much more fully now that I don’t aspire to it.

BL: This is sort of a follow-up to that last question, do ballet instructors inform students about limitations and safety in the body as with compression and tension, or is it “bend, flex, extend, etc., as much as possible”—don’t ask don’t tell? I only took ballet for about a year when I was five and only recall the texture of costumes and shoes. 

EOW: The good, responsible instructors do, the ones who see young students as whole people with full and long lives. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s always the standard of teaching. Turn out comes at the expense of hips, knees, and ankles. Pointe comes at the expense of toes and feet. Because there is a right way to do everything, that means you can only fit the ideal mold if you won the genetic jackpot. Everyone else has to force and cheat their way into positions and through steps sometimes. In my experience, even with caring teachers, there was a culture of trying to outperform other dancers to stand out. This often meant forcing extensions, forcing turnout, forcing feet to look right. And all those things meant injury that didn’t always show up immediately, but would hurt a dancer down the road.

What You Become in Flight by Ellen O'Connell Whittet: 9781612198323 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

Photo from Google Images

BL: Since leaving your laces behind, have you explored other forms of physical movement?

EOW: Since I stopped dancing ballet, I’ve taken modern and hip hop, and find both incredible difficult and so much fun. In other genres of dance, I think it’s more common to learn lots of styles, but ballet dancers often only know ballet, and look pretty clunky doing other forms of dance. Learning to tilt off-balance in modern, or a completely new vocabulary of movement in hip hop, has been a low-pressure way to feel the joy and release of dance without any expectation or ambition other than to enjoy myself. I wish I could do it more, and it’s one of the things I look forward to most when the pandemic ends and I can get back in a studio.

BL: And lastly, where do you think your writing will take you after this unprecedented pandemic?

EOW: I hope it takes me into another book project, and that I can keep making sense of my own experiences through the craft. I always worry I’ve run out of material, but there are always more ideas. Nothing feels real until I think about how I’d write it—then I can see the connections, metaphors, and the revelations are everywhere. 

Follow Ellen on Twitter @oconnellwhittet

Writing Right

“Bending Moment” becomes a poetry finalist for Adelaide Literary Award 2020

I have some exciting news to ring in the week with! This afternoon I received the Adelaide Literary Award 2020 Anthology and one of my poems has been selected as a finalist! Around this time last spring, I found myself inspired– and somewhat paralyzed–by chalk messages on the corner of a neighboring sidewalk. Fingerprints of children (“shelled-in babes”) contributed to this moment of awe while simultaneous moments of illness, politics, and hate were happening. I was fascinated with the strength behind the soft chalk (“I’ve turned the corner only to be cut open by powder”).

I’m so proud of this piece because I constantly felt compelled to create something and make meaning of all the ingredients in front of me on the pavement. It wouldn’t let me go! I knew the experience needed to be shared on a platform in some way, someday. Had I kept walking past something that made me so grateful, whether it was walking on that sidewalk or walking away from bubbling connections, I would’ve missed the opportunity to reach out to others who *still* need peace during the pandemic and struggles in society ❤

…And I think that’s everyone over 300 days later…

“But this leg running alongside the road, with colors of purity, makes me want to tell you to turn the corner, this corner-where children ground our steps along the edge, innocently cracking our shells. […]” Read “Bending Moment” in its entirety here

To read the other creative and inspiring authors, you can purchase a copy of the anthology here.

Bellydance

“To still have the urge as an adult to hide my arm in its shell reinforces not only the outside pressure that says I have to hide what is different, but it also says that it’s ugly.”

Scroll down to continue reading my essay “Southpaw Belly Dancer” from The beautiful Iris Literary Journal. It has been the seed of a beautiful project in the making….!

Southpaw Belly Dancer

meditation

Oy to the Vey (Musings)!

Our Bird Named Pangolin

Quarantine has brought some odd conversations but what makes them odd is the quirky memories that make them possible. (Insert: “From viewers like you-” pointing toward loved ones) Don’t you think?

A few conversations I’ve had are as follows:

-My husband asking: “Honey, can we get a sugar glider?”

Me: (After Googling a sugar glider…) “Um… well… … Let’s revisit your request last year: You asked for a for a Pangolin…Well, the entire world pretty much got your request, whether directly or within 6 degrees of separation. That “cute and funny animal” is basically why we’re unemployed and afraid of other humans right now. So I’m not keen on getting a Sugar Plum Glider at the moment. Ask again later.  

~ ~ ~

Now, my husband married someone just as out there, don’t worry. I’ll gladly make fun of myself. I come from a family that taught me to put aluminum foil on the stem of a banana bunch to keep it fresh longer (thanks, Dad). This same family had 5 guinea pigs, a story that includes my mother explaining where one disappeared to: “We had to let Cyrus go in the woods, sweetie” (But that’s a whole other story that may need to make it into my memoir-sorry mommy, not sorry!)

I’ve also had a lot of features on my Life List such as rock climbing and yoga, some common goals other folks have…but there are also a few experiences that are there that’ve caused confusion in my friendships and marriage: going trick-or-treating. Yup. You heard/read that right. Trick-or-treating. It’s okay, I went once, I went once! I’d just like to go with nieces or nephews to get a bit more of the experience.  I don’t have much of a defense except that I thought it was boring since chocolate was already a staple in the house. Why walk for hours when my favorite snack since pre-embryo was in a container?

Added to my life list is a ‘spiritual walk’ across broken glass. My husband, too, walks- walks with his fingers through broken egg shells. Why? Because it’s a way to heal our snail, by ingesting calcium and healing the rest of our aquarium.  He may not get his pangolin or sugar glider but he has his African Dwarf frogs who socialize like him and take after me doing yoga against the leaves of bamboo plants. In all seriousness, we can all learn so much uber-creative lessons from my husband.

~ ~ ~

Some of the best “Oy to the vey moments” however, have stemmed from my Jewish side, my mother. I’ve grown past being the Scapegoat behind them and they’re here now as karma. And Jewish Guilt.

The list is as follows:

-My mother accusing me of breaking the laundry room door AS SHE WAS BREAKING IT OFF THE TRACK HERSELF (I can actually call a witness to the stand for that!)

-Mom again accusing me of keeping the receipt for my wedding dress because she couldn’t find it. Spoiler alert: she found it a few hours later in her bathroom. But honestly, I can only judge so much- I found a Seal CD in my bathroom closet one time (This was back when I had a cd player for the shower, though, so it does make a bit more sense.).

-Mommy still accusing me…this time of having an article that she wrote 30 years ago only to text me 400 days later saying, “I Found it. My bad.”

-And lastly: Mommy Dearest recently accusing me of muting my phone because she couldn’t hear my texts come through on her own…my wonderful 17-year-old niece fixed the settings for her. I did get an apology. And multiple screen shots of the conversation’s inability to evolve.

It’s no wonder that most “Oy to the vey moments” come from my mom-my awesome and hysterical Jewish side! And I totally embrace it. The best part is, we all have those “oy to the vey moments” whether we’re Jewish, standing by the Christmas Tree, or neither!  

So, what are some of your “Oy to the Veys?”  

~HAPPY HOLIDAYS~! ❤

meditation

Un-Trim Forgiveness in 2021-Can we Forgive 2020?

Angel on Christmas tree in between lights.
“I can’t tell if this artificial tree is becoming my altar for forgiveness or if it’s asking me to be the altar for holding and placing items of forgiveness[…]”

My eyes relax and fall into the multi-colored lights across the 3-foot artificial Christmas Tree and I fall back into my first few Christmases on this earth. These were several years before my original family turned into a Rubik’s cube- something that kept shifting into a different pattern.

My index finger glides into the loop of a string like a spoon that glides into a child’s mouth during an hour of nourishment.  Hanging from the loop is the most delicate Christmas ball we have, made of thin glass. A souvenir from my honeymoon. My thumb presses into the image of the B&B that’s painted on it.  Our first week as a family.  My fingers curl around the cap as though it’s a lightbulb. I don’t want to break this. Then I gently place it on the carpet under the bough of the tree. With that removal, I forgive my original family for shifting through the years as it has. Because it happens.

My fingers reach for another ornament, this time a mini burlap stocking with fake prickly pine and cotton wrapped presents peeking out from the opening on top. This was a gift from an old co-worker. I set the warmth the size of a jewelry pouch in my lap. My palms squeeze and knead through its rough and varying textures. My breath changes a little bit. I don’t think about the beginning of this year because I don’t want this breath. But I decide to work on forgiving the corporate office that let go of me. Because it happens.

My index finger and thumb pinch a nearby lightbulb. The warmth sandwiches in my skin and reminds me of the initial sprays in the shower, warm and safe rain. The tree and I interlace cold fingers. Skin and plastic. Our fingers may look different but the tree wants to be seen and felt and so do I. Our presence to each other is all that matters.

I can’t tell if this artificial tree is becoming my altar for forgiveness or if it’s asking me to be the altar for holding and placing items of forgiveness: delicate forgiveness, soft forgiveness, rough forgiveness.

I take another item. Don’t worry I’m not un-doing Christmas, this is not my intent…although this is the ultimate on-the-go, give and take Christmas we’ll ever see as we plan our doorstep delivery swaps, so we’re already somewhat un-doing Christmas and the rest of the holidays as is…. May as well play with decorations a bit, I suppose….

I play at my altar, or as an altar, like my niece plays with toys at her altar of a coffee table: lining characters up from smallest to tallest; removing them one by one; holding each one; and placing them on the floor, only to line then up again one by one. She takes her actions seriously, being fully present through each stage of movement. I’m merely acting out a lesson that I’ve noticed from the innocence and curiosity of a child. She recycles her toys. She recycles her routine. But because she loves it and is present every time, it becomes her ritual.  

The blue and white ornament that reads “New Home 2018” is the next ornament I reach for. My exhale could easily be mistaken for a grunt. I haven’t been able to love this house the way it deserves and I know I need to apologize and forgive myself for that. I need to apologize and forgive myself for letting dishes slide around viciously in the thirty-year-old sink, and blaming the floorboards for being imperfect. I need to treat this house as a person with its own bones, imperfect foundation, and tendencies from neglect that was not through any fault of its own. We need to teach it to bring in warmth by opening curtains to let the light in.  No house or home is perfect. It’s a constant Rubik’s Cube. Because it happens.  

One thing’s for sure: my reaches take effort.

The highest, most strenuous reach for my shoulder is for the origami angel made out of clay from a best friend. There are so many triangular points to this angel’s anatomy but there’s no real sharpness when I lean the tops of my fingers into them.

I hold her for a while. Each hand cups a pointed wing as each thumb’s direction parallels the direction of its wing. I question forgiving my father for getting sick over 2 years ago. Are others forgiving their own loved ones for getting sick?

This most physically challenging reach turns out to be my most challenging mental reach as it stretches toward another question: can we forgive ourselves for playing games through this year of illness? Can we forgive ourselves for playing Russian Roulette as we’ve wandered out to see each other? The tagline of this game being “It can’t happen to me” whether its “me” or “my family.”

I’m so grateful for this angel. These wings.

The tree looks a bit bare, yet pure, open. Green is the color of rebirth, renewal. In saying that, this can be one of the most beautiful colors, and the most beautiful reminder to understand what forgiveness is. What it means to give ourselves away- the right way- because what we gain is love and kindness for ourselves and everyone, everywhere else.

I invite you to make a list of who or what you hope to start forgiving. You don’t have to actually complete the forgiveness. Just start trying for yourself. When you un-trim your tree in 2021, maybe you shed the weight off of what rebirth looks and feels like. Maybe you hold and release forgiveness, too. And If you’re not sure of an item, just take in its texture and temperature. Know that either way, you are unburdening and simultaneously opening your heart and someone else’s. A twinned open heart is so beautiful and so rare.  

And you may just see yourself as that beautiful pure renewed Christmas Tree.

Because these invitations can be so intimidating and personal, I’ll start with my forgiving:

– My Rubik’s Cube Family of 1998-present

-The parts of my body that don’t work so well

-The crayon line on my pant leg and ball of masking tape in my hair from the blond girl in 2nd grade

-The blond girl, herself

-The new owners of my Dad’s house for erasing our pool

– My own doubts; fears; unmotivated hours; addicted creative hours; crunched nose toward the house

The pattern in my list shows that I can find compassion within these items. I think if there’s an area of understanding then I can find my way to compassion. This is where I also have great difficulty because there are a few people I cannot begin to forgive due to not emotionally understanding the violence behind their impact. Logically we can forgive mental health issues, but emotionally forgiving takes a lot of time, team members, and growth in order to be far enough away.