“Was I replacing one language with another, one way of communicating with another?”
I went to Florence, Italy in the fall of 1988 after having had a second surgery to remove a bone tumor in my leg. It wasn’t cancer, but it was weakening the bone. I had been dancing at least four times a week since I was a child. Now the doctors warned me that the tumor could return if I continued. My dream of dancing professionally was over.
café latte. Taking out my new hardbound green notebook with its many lined pages, I started to write.
Did part of me already want to be a writer, before Italy? If so, it wasn’t a desire I publicly claimed. For years, dance—classes and rehearsals—had occupied all of my free time. The focus and intensity of training had kept my curiosity contained. But in the absence of dance there was a growing of something—a new, tentative curiosity about the world and myself. Before this semester in Italy, I had enjoyed writing for school, but now for the first time I was driven to write for myself. I began to need to write like I had needed to dance. Was I replacing one language with another, one way of communicating with another?
It was in these movements in the churches and cafés of Florence Italy, those afternoons spent wandering and writing, that I wrote about feeling invisible—about struggling to feel worthy after the loss of a physicality that had defined me. I discovered that words could give me a power over experience. I found ways to describe my sadness, and found new moments of compassion. I discovered the material that would, decades later, become Girl Through Glass, my novel about a young girl’s coming of age in the ballet world.
That fall in Italy was a turning point for me. Gradually, I made new friends—artistic, eccentric, and opinionated—who questioned rules that, as a dancer, I had accepted without question. Before I returned to the States, I went to a barber and asked him to cut off all of my hair. One of my new friends filmed the haircut.
I had left for Italy as a long-haired dancer who could no longer dance—sullen, angry at a broken promise. I came back, with hair as short as an Army recruit’s, more curious and open, bringing a hardbound journal everywhere.
Sari Wilson has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a Fine Arts Work Center Fellow in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and has received a residency from The Corporation of Yaddo. Her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in literary journals such as Agni, Oxford American, and Slice. Her debut novel, Girl Through Glass, is out now with Harper.