Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Writer On Acting... or a former actress on writing

Meredith wanted to know, "I was intrigued to read you were an actress. I know some writers act out their characters (if only in their heads). How has your theater background influenced your writing?"

Funny you should ask... I got asked a similar question at a conference not too long ago, and actually did a blog post on it not too long after. (And no, I’m not simply posting it here, although some of what I say will be the same.)

Here’s the question I got, from the wonderful Laura Bradford, AKA Elizabeth Lynn Casey, one of my fellow Berkley Babes and author of the Southern Sewing Circle mysteries: “Why do you think so many writers started out in acting and switched over?

And it’s true. A lot of us did. Just ask Kelli. So here’s what I’ve decided. Or rather, here’s my story:

Growing up, there were a couple of careers I considered. Journalist was one of them, because I liked to write and I was pretty good at it. (Author wasn’t something I considered, because I didn’t think normal people could do that.) Same with art; I was, and am, a fair artist. Not as good as some, since I never actually developed the skills, but the talent was there. I also considered archaeology, until my mother told me that if I went that route, I’d dig up skeletons. This was when I was ten or so, when skeletons were one of the creepiest things I could imagine. I still don’t want to find one, but I’m also a little upset that she talked me out of it, because I think archaeology would have been fun. And of course I had no idea that skeletons are pretty rare in archaeology, and that what I was more likely to be dealing with, were potsherds and buttons and such.

Anyway, round about fourteen, I discovered acting. Adored it, of course. I got to be someone else, and that was good, since I wasn't all that exciting on my own. After high school, I headed to New York City to be an actress. Studied, auditioned, got married. Realized pretty damn quick that although I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes aspects of the work—the rehearsals, creating the character, learning the lines, figuring out the backstory and the mannerisms and all the little things that made the character unique—I absolutely abhorred auditioning. Performing in front of an audience was bad enough, but getting up in front of all those people, putting yourself on the line, having to prove your worth for every job you wanted, just didn’t agree with me.

So I went back to writing. Where I get rejected in my email box instead of to my face. Where—yes—I rehearse dialogue in my head as well as out loud. Where I basically act out every character I write.

Because the thing is, to my way of thinking, acting and writing are two sides of the same coin. Actors and writers both get into the head of their characters. We both figure out the character’s backstories, their ways of expressing themselves, their mannerisms and habits, the little things that make them tick.

Writing, like acting, is basically just another way of getting to be someone else for a while. I never became a journalist, following clues and breaking the big story, but when I write, I can. And I never became an archaeologist, digging up skeletons and unearthing King Tut’s tomb, but when I write, I can. In fact, I did. Sort of. In DIY-2, Spackled and Spooked, Avery and Derek found a skeleton. And like me, Avery didn’t like looking at it. But she did it. And now that’s one thing I can scratch off the list.

I wonder if the acting background isn’t also the reason I have an easier time writing in first person POV. When you’re acting, you become the character; you get into his or her head. He or she doesn’t say the words; you do. With third person POV there’s that one step back; you the writer don’t actually become the character in the same way.

Or maybe I’m crazy. What do you think?


Mike Dennis said...

You're not crazy at all, Jennie. I get it. I was a musician for over thirty years, during which time I never held another job. For about fifteen of those years I did a single, meaning I had to get up in front of strangers, alone, five or six nights a week and prove myself all over again, every single night.

That kind of thing does train you to express yourself, so when I took up writing in a serious way a few years ago, I slipped right into it, even though I had never aspired to it before.

Like you, I have no trouble writing in the first person, and I think that springs from all those nights letting myself go in front of a microphone.

Good post.

Jenna said...

Thanks, Mike! Good to know I'm not the only one. You must have had a lot more fortitude than me, though, to last in music for 30 years. Good for you!

Sure is quiet here today, isn't it? I guess it's a Saturday, and a holiday weekend, and I bet a lot of the Criminal Minds are in NYC for Thrillerfest...

Shane Gericke said...

Nah, I don't leave till tomorrow for Tfest. I was just lazy on Saturday and slept late.

There's lots of "once was" folks in writing ... musicians, artists, journalists. Some of it was day job necessities, some was that was the first love and this is the next. Some of the best writers, like you, came from a background other than writing school. I think it's because we know something about life before sitting in the chair and making stuff up.

And, since you're an actor, can you get a movie for my book? I'd really really like that :-)

Jenna said...

I'd really, really like that, Shane, but sadly, no I can't. I think you're right about the "once was" folks, though... it's hard to write when you have no experience to write about, isn't it?

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for being our guest, Jennie and answering my question! I was not at T'fest, just roasting in Virginia and forgetting about everything I had to do this week...

Jenna said...

It's been hot everywhere this week, hasn't it, honey? The poor people in NYC are up over 100, I think. We're in the upper 90s here in TN. Icky.

Thanks so much for having me; I enjoyed hanging with you guys!