Last night, I discovered a streaming series entitled, “The Movies that Made Us.” In its first season, the series explored the making of “Dirty Dancing,” the iconic coming-of-age story of a young woman who falls in love with a dance instructor during her family’s summer vacation at a Catskills resort.
“Dirty Dancing” was released in 1987. I had just moved to Stamford, Connecticut, when the movie came out, but I didn’t know that the studio responsible for “Dirty Dancing” was also based in Stamford or that this studio was known at the time for adult videos, not feature films. I also didn’t know the driving forces behind the movie were two women, or that at least part of the movie was based on the experiences of one of the women, or that they’d ended up with the now-defunct Stamford studio because literally every other studio had turned it down, many claiming it was “too girly.”
I love what I call “process stories”—stories revealing the process of how a particular creative work came into being. One of my favorites is Sam Wasson’s wonderful Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, a beautifully-written account of how the movie came to be and what it meant. My most recent acquisition is James Lapine’s Putting it Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George, which includes transcripts of conversations, photographs, and Lapine’s narrative in between.
The first process-story movie I remember was the original “That’s Entertainment!”, which was basically a love letter to MGM musicals. My parents took us to see it one summer while we were on the Cape. They’ve always loved old movies; as a result, many of the stars and film clips were familiar. I adored hearing the people who’d starred in the movies talk about their experiences, such as how Gene Kelly used to do his own stunts even when they were indisputably dangerous.
Last night, as I watched the story behind “Dirty Dancing,” it occurred to me once again that there is a vast difference between what ends up on the screen or in the published work and what came before. Process versus product, as it were. The gritty, disorganized, frantic, heartwrenching quest to craft an idea into a glossy, seemingly effortless finished presentation. The rewrites and revisions and rehearsals, the seemingly unending stream of rejections, the reworking of the idea until that moment when the creator can say, “Here it is,” holding their breath as the public responds—or ignores (or reviles) this labor of love.
Sometimes, the process takes us in unexpected directions. My upcoming novella, My Brother, Romeo, was born of my experiences as an utterly clueless drama club director at a suburban high school. I knew next to nothing about putting on a play, but as a new teacher hoping to gain tenure, I was expected to take on an extracurricular activity. Since the only alternative was coaching the debate team (and I had even less experience with debate than with drama), I agreed to direct the drama club. In the end, all the credit for anything good and worthy in those productions belongs to the generous students who tolerated my fumbling and worked tirelessly in whatever capacity I needed them. As for me, it took a long, long time before enough dust settled around that experience for me to look back, but when I finally did, I found the germ of the idea that blossomed into Romeo. A lengthy process, indeed.
Last year, I published my debut novel, State v. Claus. The process of taking the spark of an idea, developing it into an actual manuscript, and figuring out how to convert that manuscript into a book took years. Talk about fumbling along: I can’t even begin to count how many hours and dollars and workshops and classes and conferences and interviews and writing books and internet searches went into creating that one novel—not to mention all the struggles and stumbles along the path to deciding how I wished to publish it.
Most times, we see only the result, not the process. We cheer the valedictorian, the ballerina pirouetting at astonishing speed, the basketball player making a three-point shot from half-court, but we don’t see the bleary-eyed student guzzling coffee at 3:00 a.m., the beat-up toe shoes and bandaged feet, the kid bouncing a ball alone in the driveway. We see the beautiful clothes on the model, but not the seamstress bent over her sewing machine. We marvel at the violinist’s virtuosity, but we don’t hear the child sawing “Twinkle, Twinkle” on a half-sized instrument or the parents’ arguments over the cost of lessons.
One reason I enjoy process stories is for the reminder of all it took to produce a piece I love or a performance I admire. Not only does it prompt me to be grateful for the labor that went into this experience, but it reassures me that my own struggles are far from unique. In Hilary and Jackie (formerly A Genius in the Family), cellist Jacqueline du Pré’s siblings tell not only of their famous sister’s extraordinary talent, but the nurturing and polishing that talent required of her as well as the entire family. If a genius like Jacqueline du Pré must work and study and practice, why should I expect to do less?
I suspect another reason for the popularity of process stories is that feeling of being an insider. When those who lived through the creative process share fun snippets of gossip, such as how Jennifer Grey didn’t want to work with Patrick Swayze on “Dirty Dancing,” we get to feel a tiny bit special because we know something other people don’t. We can watch for clues, such as the barely-visible bandage on Charmian Carr’s ankle when she and Daniel Truhitte are dancing in the gazebo in “The Sound of Music,” and we know that it’s because she sprained her ankle while filming “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”
These days, probably the primary reason I revel in process stories is that—for better or worse—they give me hope. In the midst of muck and mire, of sorting out plot lines and conflicts and characters who refuse to play nicely together, process stories remind me that others have slogged through their own creative messes and have emerged with gems. If they can do it, maybe I can, too. So I’d better keep on slogging, to paraphrase the old saying.
Working through the process is an indispensable aspect of the creative life. Nothing happens in a snap, nor should it. It’s in the process that we wrestle with ideas and images as Jacob did with the angel, declaring, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” It’s in the struggle that the story becomes clear, the relationships deepen, the details grow richer, and the author finds out what they’re really creating.
In the process, we come to understand not only the work we’re doing, but the depth of our commitment to the project. Sometimes this means we walk away from a piece. There’s no shame in the choice to call a halt, and it doesn’t mean the time and effort expended on that piece were wasted. To the contrary: walking away means we’ve traveled a bit farther down the road toward producing the work we want to share. Some projects deserve everything we have; others, not so much. Some stories develop into wise and compelling tales; others will never have legs. Knowing the difference is a sign of a different process—the process of learning how best to spend our creative resources.
Some projects flow easily. Others require enormous devotion and labor and leaps of faith.
But when those long-shot projects work out, they make for one hell of a great process story.