Balance and Writing (part three): "Ballast, not Balance" by Jill Moore

Earlier this summer, the Clockhouse Writers Conference (CWC) at Goddard College hosted a keynote session on balance and writing. This is the final essay in a three-part series by the keynote panelists.

by Jill Moore

We’ll begin with a disclaimer. If you are expecting to hear anything enlightening, inspiring, or informative about how to find balance in your writing life, or any aspect of your life, you will be disappointed. I am the last person to give anyone any advice about balance. I don’t do balance.

I know I’m supposed to eat a balanced diet. A typical breakfast for me: four cups of coffee, red licorice, and handful of cookies, or cold double olive and anchovy pizza (what can I say—I like little hairy fish).

I know I’m supposed to balance my checkbook. I haven’t done that since I figured out how to pay all of my bills on-line years ago. I just click a box, type in a few numbers, hit “submit” and there you go—bills paid. Because I usually can’t find my actual bill statements, I estimate and tend to round up. So every now and then I get a notice that I have a credit of $37 at Kohls or Best Buy, and I feel a little bit rich. I do go on-line to check my balance once in a while, but I certainly don’t dissect it the way others do because I assume that 1) the bank is right, or 2) if the bank is wrong, they will never admit it.

When I was in junior high, back when they called it junior high, I joined the gymnastics team in an effort to balance out my social life—in other words, to get a social life. You didn’t have to try out for the gymnastics team, you just had to show up after school and see what you could do. I tried out the balance beam because it looked so easy. It was just one long piece of wood. I could, with some assistance, stand on it.

There was a contraption we had in the gym that was pretty brilliant and was designed to let us practice tricky, dangerous moves without falling. It was a kind of combo belt/harness you strapped on, like the guys who trim trees or climb up light poles. It was attached to pullies on the high gym ceiling and had long, heavy ropes hanging down to the ground. Two big guys would pull on the ropes, activate the pullies, and haul the girdered gymnast into the air to practice flips and handstands while suspended above the beam.

I climbed onto the beam, got strapped in, and told the guys I was going to try a flip. We agreed that I’d do a prancing little one, two, three quickstep then my guys would pull me a foot or two above the beam to flip. I was sure that after two or three practice flips I’d be ready for the real thing, sans antigravity belt. I danced out what I thought was a kicky little one, two, three step, and my brain said FLIP! And my body said SHIT NO. I froze, then nearly choked as the antigravity belt lifted me up. I resisted, arms windmilling and feet kicking frantically at the empty space between me and the beam. I tried again, OnetwothreeFLIP/SHIT.

After the third failed attempt, my guys had had enough and hand-over-hand hauled me all the way up to the gym ceiling amid the iron beams and trapped volley balls and left me dangling there like a fly on flypaper, unbalanced for all the world to see.

Balance—I think not.

The first time I was invited to crew on a sailboat for a race on Lake Michigan, I arrived at the dock early on a gorgeous June morning. The lake had been draped with a net of sapphires and diamonds, the wind was warm and strong, and sailboats were circling just off the breakwater, prepping for the race. Half a dozen of us climbed aboard the boat and got our crew assignments. Jib man. Spinnaker team. And me—movable ballast. Movable ballast. A polite term for “dead weight.” When the boat tipped too close to the water, the skipper would shout an order, and my job was to run to the high side and hang my ass as far overboard as I could without actually falling off the boat. For the next three hours I was a perfect Pavlovian seadog— “Ballast port” the skipper yelled, and I dove to the left side of the boat and hung off the side like a paper umbrella in a frozen daiquiri. This was not the most dignified way I have ever been called on to serve.

But what I provided was ballast. A form of balance, perhaps. You don’t want a sailboat to be perfectly balanced, with the wind equal on both sides, or the boat will slow down and eventually stop, the sails will luff, and you will be dead in the water. That’s what perfect balance will get you—stuck in the middle of the lake with no natural energy to move you forward.

Now this I know about: ballast and being dead in the water. I have always considered being balanced to be a kind of death.

Admit it. A balanced diet is just plain boring. There are no buffalo onion rings, no hot fudge lava brownies, no five cheese nachos topped with guacamole and sour cream. Those things are the ballast, the weight that keeps things moving.

My most recent writing project was a memoir. If I were to try to find balance in that, I would, I suppose, have striven to be evenhanded. I would have balanced what I recall with what I researched. I would have tried to be historically accurate. I would have written what really happened instead of what had felt like happened.

Instead, the great ballast of my imagination took over. I shifted memories from bow to stern, tossed people, events, entire histories overboard. I created my own crew and assigned them whatever role I felt like assigning them. You, dad, no longer skipper, I’m afraid. I’ve taken over that job. You can be a pirate. You, mom, down from the crow’s nest. I’m on lookout now. Shellie, well, you can still be my first mate, but be small about it. Andy and Bill, movable ballast! And Jill, floating face down in the water, for God’s sake climb aboard, you have a storyline to flesh out.

So I write 1) what seems like it might be true, 2) what will make a good story, and 3) what my imbalanced memory and ballistic imagination haul up from the depths.

In the first draft of my memoir, I was just a little bit pissed off, and I wrote that way. Bad pirates all, bad bad bad. But after working it with my now-defunct writing group, reading it aloud to my now-defunct partner, and getting feedback from a now -efunct friend who knew about said partner’s wanderings and didn’t tell me (yes, it has been a wretchedly imbalanced year) I could hear perfectly well what was missing and what ballast the book needed. I had told good stories and been more or less accurate in what I wrote—except for the nouns and verbs—but the book had missed the greatest balancing act of my life, the most mighty and unmovable ballast, which is the unfathomably huge love I have for my family. Those five people—father, mother, sister and brothers—go everywhere with me, not like barnacles stuck to my hull, but like constantly shifting winds that keeps me from ever truly being dead in the water. I discovered that I can write love into my stories and still tell the truth about unlovely things.

In writing this piece, as promised, I didn’t tell you anything you don’t already know. But I have uncovered what might be my own saving grace in this rather bleak year. I need to remember love and write it into my daily stories. I need to keep my own master narrative truthful and whole. Yes, there’s pain. Betrayal. Grief and mourning and disbelief and raging anger—but the story of my life is a story of love. Remembering it, finding it again, and letting myself feel it may be the thing that finally brings me to appreciate and embrace true balance.


Jill Moore is a professor of communications and technology at Alverno College.

2 replies »

  1. That’s what perfect balance will get you—stuck in the middle of the lake with no natural energy to move you forward. Now this I know about: ballast and being dead in the water.

    Thanks for the revelation, Jill. Then harmony requires us to be somewhat out of balance.

  2. I am in the process of writing a memoir. I can relate to how she is piecing together her story to show the truth at the center — in order to do this, I have learned like Jill one needs to be a little off kilter.