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NewsApr 8, 2021

Mining art from discomfort

Dancer, author Candice Iloh ’17 says ‘embodiment’ is the key to storytelling

Watch the video of Candice Iloh's Finnegan Lecture

To create something beautiful, dancers subject themselves to bodily strain, even mortification and judgment. The consumer sees only the grace of the artist, none of the discomfort.

The same is true in fiction writing, according to Candice Iloh, a first-generation Nigerian-American dancer and author who was the guest speaker of last night’s Evelyn M. Finnegan ’48 Children’s Literature Lecture Series.

A 2017 graduate of our MFA in Creative Writing in the Writing for Young People genre, Iloh’s first novel, "Every Body Looking," was a 2021 Printz Award Honoree and a finalist for a 2020 National Book Award. The book tells the story of Ada, chronicling moments of her young life, including coping with her mother’s struggle with addiction, the shocking pageantry of a Pentecostal church and its paroxysms of possession, and the challenges of her first year at a historically Black college.

The key to developing her protagonist’s character and the whole storytelling of “Every Body Looking” was Iloh’s process of “embodiment.” Leading the virtual lecture audience through her creative process, Iloh challenged participants to think of a decisive moment in their lives and then view themselves objectively as a character, focusing on that character’s feelings, the surrounding stimuli and the “takeaways” from the incident.

Feel everything.

“I believe your body is the best place to source” the ingredients of fiction, Iloh said. “You have to begin with your own body.” She referred to her body as a “guidance system” directing the words she puts on the page.

“I believe the body holds things long after our brains forget,” Iloh said.

Lesley professor Tracey Baptiste, Iloh’s teacher and mentor in our graduate creative writing program, and also a dancer as well as an author, agreed with the assessment. Acting as the lecture moderator, Baptiste discussed how physical movement spurs the writing process.

“That was an amazing way to think through character,” Baptiste said. “It’s something people would not be able to access through observation.”

Both authors stressed that discomfort is crucial to the creative process. While Baptiste said, “Learning is uncomfortable … my goal is getting a student where they want to go,” Iloh described the art of dance, its physical discomforts compounded by the judgment of teachers, audiences and, through the studio mirror, oneself.

But, over time, the dancer learns how the dance should feel. The writing process is similar.

“Writing is therapeutic, but it’s not therapy,” Iloh said, and when the work goes out into the world, it belongs to readers and is subject to their assessment and judgment.