David Hallberg, Random Penguins and Things that Give Me Hope as a Writer

Writing has always been a solitary profession. There is nothing new about that. With notable social exceptions like the Algonquin Round Table and the circle of poets surrounding Oscar Wilde, writers, unlike actors, have generally been a solitary lot.

Even so, these can be particularly lonely times for writers. The publishing world seems destined to condense into one giant corporation called Random Disney Harper Penguin House. The “Big Five” devote their advance money and marketing savvy to authors sure to generate a great ROI. Justin Beiber is a New York Times best seller meanwhile midlist authors find it harder to build a career.

Not only is it harder to get a less obviously commercial work traditionally published it is harder to make money in the ebook era if you do. That is, unless you’ve written 50 Shades of Gray, which is apparently now the best selling book of all time in England.

Self-publishing, in spite of all of the hype, is not yet a substitute for the traditional publisher. The average indie book sells less than 100 copies and most of the authors– a few outliers aside– end up spending more than they take in. The rules are all changing and no path is clear.

As an intelligent person, any writer given these facts has to say, “This is not a career. It’s too hard. I should give this up and do something practical.” This is perfectly reasonable and wise. If you’re blessed or cursed with a writing calling, however, you will only manage to remain wise and reasonable for a few moments before falling into a complete existential crisis. At which point you must admit that not being a writer is simply not going to be an option, and therefore, you need to find little things to keep you sane as you slog on.

Lately ballet dancer David Hallberg has been keeping me (relatively) sane. In case you have not heard the name, David Hallberg is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater and the first American to be invited to dance as a principal with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.

Watching ballet, in any event, is a great palate cleanser for a writer. It is the non-verbal anti-novel– the part of the human experience that words on paper can’t express. (If you could capture Swan Lake with text there would be no reason for it to exist.) I firmly believe human life is large enough that it needs every form of art to give it full expression. No one form alone is capable of it.

I happen to be just quixotic enough to have tried to fund my writing career with a ballet career. Or maybe I try to fund the ballet with the writing. Either way, it’s nuts. When I say “ballet career” I should make it clear I am not a dancer. I suspect that people might be willing to pay me not to dance. I am a ballet manager/organizer. I spend half the year on the road with Russian ballet dancer Valery Lantratov conducting a geographically broad educational program which I put together with a view to eventually producing performance tours. Seeped in the world of Russian ballet as I have been for the past decade, I felt a swell of American ballet patriotism watching Hallberg join the Russians on their home turf. (It happens all the time the other way around.)

In the clip above from PBS Newshour, Hallberg talks about some of the challenges of a professional ballet career. In particular, he talks about the bullying male dancers often endure when they start to hit the teen years and how it never crossed his mind that dance was the thing he should give up. Stubborn writers should be able to relate to this.

The clip also talks about Russia’s ballet culture. The other day as my Russian counterpart and I drove across the vast expanse of South Dakota where Hallberg was born, I got to thinking about how different it must be to pursue a dance career in the United States than in Russia where ballet stars are regularly featured on television, where there are schools with historic ties to top theaters that serve as training grounds. If you’re a Russian kid with a bit of innate talent, you know where to go. There is cultural and government funding and support for the classical arts on a scale that simply doesn’t exist here. The Russians are fortunate in this.

As a writer looking at the publishing options available today there is no clear path. But there is no clear path from South Dakota to the Bolshoi Ballet either. Today Hallberg was the spark giving me that nudge to keep doing the literary equivalent of my barre exercises.



  1. A million years ago, I did dance when I was a kid, and I’d actually seen that PBS snippet before, but it’s interesting to think about that determination in light of writing. I am very much a fan of doing something because you love it and/or because it’s a part of who you are and, yes, sometimes that won’t be practical, but being “impractical” is sometimes more manageable than we think. Sounds like you have a lot of creativity in your life! 😉

    1. Have you seen the film “Man on Wire” about Phillippe Petit? I found that movie to be quite inspiring. Walking a tight rope between the two towers of the World Trade Center is not in any way practical, but it was incredible, and what I took away from that (I wrote about this in Broke is Beautiful) is that what is “practical” depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Petit spent a lot of money scoping out the WTC and planning and buying the tools to carry off his stunt. If your goal is to do something no one has ever done, then that is the most practical use you can make of your resources.

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