Spencer had almost quit ballet nine times in the last two years. Invariably, he’d think of a reason not to: his mother’s disappointment, Gianna’s pleas, his determination not to let an injury decide the course of his life, or the simple fact that he loved ballet. He loved its freedom balanced by precision and how he finally felt like himself when he danced. However, he didn’t love that his knee had chosen to thwart his lifelong ambition of dancing professionally, nor that he could only regain control of his life now by quitting before his blasted joint forced him to.

So he’d planned to not even audition for the winter show, to ignore Gianna’s wheedling and his mother’s tears. But then his high school conservatory had announced they were going to perform Act II of Swan Lake, and how could Spencer waste the opportunity to dance in the best ballet of all time? He would leave the dance world with a bang, he decided, after he auditioned and landed the lead role of Siegfried.

Kara Molnar

Kara Molnar is a junior at BYU, where she studies history, mathematics, and several languages. She spent most of high school inside a ballet studio, and her love of the art form has woven itself into all facets of her life. When she isn’t doing homework to the tune of classical music, Kara can be found reading, writing, hiking, or searching for cheap flights. She dreams of exploring the world and collecting stories as she goes. This is her debut publication.

Patrick Ryan on “Free”

Spencer is a talented young man with dreams of being a great ballet star—only, a knee injury is thwarting his ambitions. Madeleine is a talented young woman who longs to be a concert violinist but suffers from a lack of confidence. Their first connection—from afar—comes through mutual admiration. But something much more powerful than fandom is at play here.

Kara Molnar’s “Free,” one of the winners of this year’s Teen Writing Contest, is about the expansive power of art to inspire across disciplines and barrel through challenges both physical and psychological. It’s also a wonderful reminder that passion is infectious. We hope you enjoy Kara’s short story as much as we did.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
KM: The seed of this story grew from a ballet performance I saw a few years ago. The joy emanating from one of the dancers inspired me, and I knew I’d stumbled upon something that mattered. I tried several times to write this story, but for whatever reason, it always fell flat, and it ended up lost in the many files of discarded ideas on my phone. However, cut to the summer of 2018—I was living in Central America, and my phone was stolen. For whatever reason, one of the things I was most sad to lose was the first few paragraphs of this story, even though I had given up on it long ago. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and over that summer, I began to develop it again. The characters gained a life and a depth they didn’t have before. When I returned to the US, I hunted down another copy of what I’d written when I was sixteen, and within a few weeks, I had my rough draft.
PR: Music and dance both play prominent roles in “Free.” Were they part of your creative process as well? How did your experience with these art forms impact the story?
KM: Music and ballet were both integral to writing this story. Every piece of music mentioned in “Free” was chosen intentionally, and I listened to it over and over again as I worked. When I wrote Spencer’s sections, I would listen to my favorite ballets, and when I wrote Madeleine’s, I chose violin concertos and caprices. As far as dance goes, I figured out the second half of Spencer’s story while I was on my way to my own ballet class—the whole of it just flowed through me after I’d been stuck for over a week. I remember frantically typing everything that was coming to me while I waited at a bus stop, my own dance bag at my feet. (And while all this happened, I was listening to Les Sylphides, of course!) I don’t think this story would exist if I didn’t have my own relationships with these art forms.
PR: How did the story you ended up writing differ from the one you set out to write (if at all)?
KM: I always knew that this story was about the connection between Spencer and Madeleine. That never changed. However, once upon a time, Madeleine didn’t play the violin, Gianna was a major character, and Spencer’s performance of Swan Lake went horribly. Having said that, I don’t believe that the story I set out to write actually changed; I merely came to understand it better.
PR: If you think in terms of protagonists and antagonists, who or what are the antagonists in “Free”? Did those antagonistic forces do anything that surprised you (or function in any surprising ways) as you worked on the story?
KM: I often forget about the concept of antagonists because most of my characters deal with internal challenges. In “Free,” both Madeleine and Spencer need to confront a part of themselves to grow. In a sense, Spencer’s injuries are an antagonist—they are rather persistent in their desire to ruin his life. There were many endings I toyed with for him, trying to reconcile his struggles with the happiness he is seeking. Ultimately, the resolution he gets is the one that seemed most true to him and his growth as a character.
PR: Have you thought past the ending of the story to what lies in store for Spencer and Madeleine? Do you see them as forging a lasting friendship—or something more romantic?
KM: Of course I’ve thought past the ending of the story! However, I ended it where I did on purpose (and not just because of word count limitations). I’m happy for readers to decide on the ending that satisfies them most. There’s something beautiful about finding lasting connections as you discover yourself, yet there’s something equally beautiful about someone stepping into your life just long enough to alter its course.
PR: One of the things I love about “Free” is how the main characters seem to be both driven by their own artistic ambitions and inspired by each other’s artistic passions (from afar). Can you speak a little about how that helped fuel the story?
KM: I wouldn’t say it helped fuel the story so much as it did fuel the story. It became clear to me early on that Spencer’s and Madeleine’s artistic journeys are intertwined, even though there is little interaction between them in the text itself. Whenever there was an opportunity to create a parallel in their journeys, I did, but my characters did the rest. I just had the privilege of watching the process.
PR: Finish this sentence in just one word—the word you think best captures it: “This story is about __________.”?
KM: Discovery.
PR: What are you working on now?
KM: What am I not working on now? I’m about ninety thousand words into the rough draft of a YA epistolary novel, I’m editing a short story about Cassiopeia redeeming herself in an American high school, I’m worldbuilding for a dystopian trilogy, and I’m always searching for more stories that need to be told.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
KM: “Whenever you have the option to sit in your room and write or go off and try something new, go for the adventure.” This has been my philosophy for a long time, but it was validating to find it in Paper Hearts by Beth Revis. You never know what will spark an idea, and you never know which ideas will unfurl into something real. I try to live my life as fully as I can, and then I squeeze my writing into the cracks that remain.