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.
The news was devastating for me. Dancing had been my creative life. I was more at home at the dance studio than anywhere else. I had more leotards and tights than actual clothes. For a dancer, as we all know, the body is everything: the instrument, the vehicle. The body transcribes, translates. Mine had betrayed me. Muscles are one thing, but bones are the very nature of the thing. I had lost a mode of expression, an identity, a sense of power. I had lost something like a language, though the correlation is not exact.
The previous spring, before my diagnosis, I’d applied, in a moment that felt like courage, to study abroad in Italy. Now, recovering from my second surgery, I was a nineteen-year-old college student living in Florence with little knowledge of Italy or Italian, no longer a dancer. I was adrift with—for the first time that I could remember—time on my hands. I read novels in English hungrily. I started taking notes in the margins.
After my three-hour Italian class in the morning, I would wander down narrow cobblestone streets, emerging in one piazza or another. At one piazza, sun-baked, there was an old stone fountain, a café on one side of it with some desultory outdoor tables. Across the square there was a whitewashed church, whose immense wooden door was open.
One day, I wandered inside the church—chilly, dank. I sat down and thought I was alone. The silence of this space comforted me. When an old lady, shrouded in black, shuffled out from among the pews, a nervous jolt sent me back across the piazza to the café. I ordered, in my faltering Italian, a café latte. Taking out my new hardbound green notebook with its many lined pages, I started to write.
I had been so isolated and low, but in that moment, words mattered again. I described the sunlit plaza, the dimness of the church across the way. Its cavernous interior was now reduced to a black archway in the distance. I wrote. I described the feeling of not being able to speak Italian well, of being misunderstood. I described, in detail, the other Americans and the Italian woman I was living with in a tiny apartment .
An Italian man came up to me and asked directions. In Italian, he told me he was a dentist and that he came from a large family. Somehow I understood him. When he wandered off, I wrote about him, each detail like a treasure. I wrote about the shadows reaching, like fingers, across the piazza. I wrote about the feeling of dancing, the memory of it in my body.
When the old lady closed the ancient church door with a bang that reverberated across the piazza and shook the tin café table, I wrote about that. Finally, from some inner feeling, brand new, that my work was done for today, I closed my notebook, put it in my bag, and started wandering again.
What happened in the church, the café? Whatever it was, it would be repeated during that semester. I adopted a ritual of wandering, seeking out lonely piazzas, unfrequented caf és, abandoned churches. What did I find in these spaces? What was I looking for? I could have hung out in large groups of Americans, or with Italian students, drank, laughed, felt young and carefree, shopped, gone to the museums.
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 caf és 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.