Lee Wilson on Memoir, Ballet, Broadway, Editors and Choreographers

The Book Doctors met Lee Wilson at a Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) at a fantastic bookstore called pages: a book store, in Manhattan Beach, California. She was so warm, funny, passionate and professional. And she had excellent posture! Turns out that was no accident. She had been a professional dancer at the highest level. She blew us away with her pitch. We helped her with her proposal, and with the help of the amazing Toni Bentley, we hooked her up with a fantastic publisher, University Press of Florida, who does the exact kind of book she was proposing. And now, the book, Rebel on Pointe: A Memoir of Ballet & Broadway is coming out. So we thought we’d pick her brain about books, publishing, writing, and dancing.
Wilson, Lee - credit, Lesley Bohm Rebel_on_Pointe_RGB
The Book Doctors: Is it harder to be a professional dancer or writer?

Lee Wilson: I made my professional debut as a classical ballet dancer when I was sixteen. At that time, and for the next ten or fifteen years, it would have been harder to be a writer. I didn’t have the life experience, the perspective, the knowledge, or the patience I have today. At sixteen, I wanted to be financially independent. I wanted to tour the world with a ballet company and work with great dancers, like Nureyev, Bruhn, and Hightower. And I did. I danced for royalty in Monte Carlo, gun-toting revolutionaries in Algeria, American aristocrats at the Metropolitan Opera, and a galaxy of stars on Broadway, and I loved every minute of it. But the highpoints of my dance career are past, so today I would find it difficult to be a professional dancer. On the other hand, as a writer, I’m just getting started. I’ve written for TV, but Rebel on Pointe is my first book. Everything about publishing is new and exciting. Every day brings a new challenge — every day a new thrill. So today, I’d rather be a writer.

TBD: What made you decide to write a memoir?
LW: People have been telling me ever since I was twenty-one that I should write my life story, but I didn’t think about it seriously until 2008 when I was finishing my degree in Performing Arts through St. Mary’s College of California. I was writing about the subculture of dance and the great dancers and choreographers of the late 20th century, and I saw how my personal story intersected with the story of women’s rights and the transformation of American dance during the 1950s and 60s, and I thought that was a very interesting story.

TBD: What were some of the difficulties and pleasures of writing about your life?

LW: The biggest difficulty was getting a balance among the stories — personal, political and dance — because they’re all intertwined: I decided to become a dancer not only because I loved to dance, but also because I wanted to live in a community where men and women were equally respected and equally paid, and in the 1950s, that rare community was dance. While I was writing the book, I wanted to make sure that even young readers would understand the culture of the 1950s when the majority of American women were housewives, and it was legal and common to deny women jobs simply because they were women. Getting the right balance of information was tricky.

The greatest pleasure of writing about my life was reliving and reassessing the highlights of my dance career and recognizing how very fortunate I was to be a professional dancer and to live in the multicultural community of dance.

TBD: How did you go about finding a publisher?

LW: The publisher found me — thanks to you! I went to Pitchapalooza at {pages} bookstore in Manhattan Beach because I knew that when you heard my quick pitch for my memoir, you could make it better. You not only improved the pitch, but after we refined my book proposal, you sent the proposal to Toni Bentley, who sent it to the University Press of Florida. Bingo! I had a publisher.

TBD: What was it like working with your editor and publisher? How did it compare to working with a director in your dance career?

LW: I loved working with both of my editors. My acquiring editor, Meredith Morris-Babb, is the Director of the University Press of Florida. She worked with me on the big picture–content and tone. She also sent the manuscript to dance historians and gave me the benefit of their comments. After that, my project editor, Nevil Parker, worked with me on the details.

The writer/editor and the dancer/director relationships are both collaborations, but the dynamics are different. As the writer of a memoir, I was telling my own story, and the editors advised me on how to tell it. As a dancer, I was working with directors to help them tell their stories or someone else’s story.

TBD: What life lessons did you learn from being a dancer?

LW:1) Hard work is essential for success. If you don’t work hard, you can’t compete.
2) Auditions are never a waste of time. The job you don’t get today might lead to a job tomorrow.
3) Find your passion. Passion will give your life meaning and direction and will lead you to a community where the passion of others will reinforce your own.

TBD: What life lessons did you learn from being a writer?

LW: 1) Writing about a subject–no matter how well you know it–gives you greater insight.
2) Make sure the big decisions are right because if they aren’t, the little ones don’t matter.
3) When you start down a road where you’ve never been, find people who know the road and let them guide you.

TBD: What advice do you have for dancers?

LW: Dance will enrich your life whether or not you have a career as a professional dancer. I’ve never met anyone who said, “I wish I’d spent less time dancing,” but I know many who say, “Dance is the joy of my life.”

TBD: What advice do you have for writers?

LW:In his iconic book Screenplay, Syd Field wrote, “The ending is the first thing you must know before you begin writing.” For me, this has been excellent advice. I know that some writers like to throw their characters into the ocean and see what happens. I don’t. When my characters hit the water, they’re swimming toward a specific point in the distance. They may take interesting detours; they may flash forward and flashback, but the end is a defined place, and my characters are moving toward that place from the moment I write “Chapter One” or “Fade In.”

Lee Wilson made her debut as a classical ballet dancer in a command performance for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monte Carlo. She toured Europe with the Hommage au Marquis de Cuevas, was première danseuse of the Bordeaux Opera Ballet, and danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Her Broadway shows include Hello, Dolly!, How Now Dow Jones, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and Meet Me in St. Louis. Lee wrote and produced the award-winning TV movie, The Miracle of the Cards. Her website is leewilsonpro.com

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010).

About David Sterry

David Henry Sterry is the author of 16 books, a performer, muckraker, educator, book editor, activist, and book doctor. His first memoir, Chicken, was an international bestseller, and has been translated into 10 languages. “As laconic as Dashiell Hammett, as viscerally hallucinogenic as Hunter S Thompson. Sex, violence, drugs, love, hate, and great writing, what more could you ask for?” – The Irish Times.

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