From the Stage to the Page: Lessons Learned From Acting

Argh. Want…to…go…home. What is this? Apathy? Grrr. Why? I don’t want to be here. Wish he’d stop talking. I used to love this! Don’t get it. My screenplay…is that it? No—done. So now what? *angry scribble* *more angry scribble* *hole in page from angry scribble* Maybe…

I doodled that in my notepad during an acting class about five years ago, just before my “divorce from acting.” Yes, that sounds dramatic. But I severed a relationship with an entity I loved with my whole heart for years and never believed I’d see an end to. I fell out of love, stopped growing and was in desperate need of change. Having been through a divorce, I can tell you—the feelings were scarily similar. In both cases a spark remained, assuring me that was something more, that something in the now wasn’t right.

That same summer, slow-season in the acting world, I wrote a short film based on my experience with anorexia. It featured a role I wanted to play, and I’ve always believed in creating work rather than waiting for it. One day at an audition, a producer asked me what I was reading. “A little something I wrote,” I said, clutching my short film like a security blanket. “Tell me about it,” he said. After a long chat, he offered to produce the film.

As production plans trumped on, I felt hollow rather than delighted. I was giving up my work (writing) in order to do work (acting) I had no desire to do. Sitting in acting class, it finally struck me. Maybe… I missed writing. No—more. I…am…a writer! The spark ignited into a flame. I went home giddy, plunked down at my laptop and have barely moved since. 😉

Soured relationships with friends, lovers and careers, can be launchpads for exciting fulfillment and dreams we never knew we were capable of having or achieving. I’m grateful for the whole mess of ’em.

Performing in “8 Shades of Layon Gray” — with dilated eyes

Lessons I learned from acting:

1. The show must go on. If you look closely at that photo above, you’ll see that my pupils are small. I’d told my boyfriend at the time, a doctor, that my eyes dry out in the theater. I found a bottle of drops in his place the next morning, and assumed he’d left them out for me. Little did I know they were eye-dilating drops—ancient ones. Minutes after the play started, my eyes throbbed and I could barely see. But the show had to go on. (I can probably thank acting for my quick come-back in the plane incident.) Anything can happen on stage. If we stop, cry, laugh or lose focus, the magic dissipates. We pull the audience out of the story with us. No matter what happens in our lives and careers, it’s up to us to keep the momentum going. Some of the biggest mistakes turn into the best shows (books, promotions, relationships….) ever. No matter what happens, write/live/dream on.

2. Writing is my job, and far outweighs acceptance/rejection. I was sixteen when I went on my first modeling casting. The next day my thoughts were fixed on the phone. Any moment they might call and give me feedback, tell me if I’s landed the job. HA! Never happens. The old Don’t call us, we’ll call you (and we probably won’t) holds very true in the fashion and film industries. I stopped caring about the outcome of auditions. When I landed jobs, it was tasty frosting. When I didn’t, I namely cared that I brought my best game. Writing is the same darn way. Writing is my job, regardless of financial compensation or industry approval. Great stuff follows when we stick to the path.

3. It’s seldom personal. I was this close to landing a huge campaign my whole person would have been molded in glass to look like an alien, all in the name of vodka marketing. (Total dream job, right? ;)) At the last minute, the advertising execs decided to “go Asian.” Not personal. An agent or publisher might read your query and opt out because they personally don’t like frog-eating vampire stories, because they already sold one relatively similar, or because they’re simply having a lousy day. It doesn’t mean you’re not an awesome person and writer. It just happens. Recognizing that can keep us from feeling down on ourselves and even stifle our work.

4. Comfortable shoes are priceless. I was a body-double (more like leg-double) for a print campaign for a feature film, and spent hours walking up and down a runway in shows 2.5 sizes too small. I tried to get out of it and was promised the shot wouldn’t take long. But the shoes would barely come off afterward. My feet haven’t been the same since. I’ll never buy cheap or un-comfy shoes again, however. There’s a huge blessing in that. And I was much more cautious and assertive at remaining jobs.

5. Falsity shows. There is little worse than watching an actor perform and fixating on the fact that they’re acting. Nervousness, self-conciousness and trying too hard makes the audience nervous. And trying to cry never works. (This is one of the most common questions people used to ask me, by the way: “Can you cry on command?”) In real life, most people fight tears. We don’t force them. Putting ourselves in the story—on stage, in film and on the page—creates an authentic experience for everyone. The same applies to life in general. Presenting ourselves authentically rather than trying to be someone we’re not doesn’t lift us up. More often we feel and appear foolish.

6. Instincts never lie. The best directors, in my opinion, allow actors to take scenes and dialogue in unexpected directions. If something doesn’t feel right, there’s a reason. I’ve been learning this more and more as I move forward in novel-writing. In my first book, I denied numerous instincts; it’s tough when we’re new and don’t know up from down. We listen to others’ input and sometimes take it too seriously. Much of what I felt strongly about gut-wise in that first draft yet avoided or removed, ended up in the final draft. This time around, I’m listening.

7. Passion breeds success. When I loved modeling, I steadily booked work. Shortly after my heart and commitments leapt to acting—without any backup plan (that’s another blog topic…), I started booking TV and film work. When my heart fell out of acting, that bookings slowed a bit. And jobs I did land were miserable, feeling more like punishment than success. Within days of committing to writing, I had freelance gigs lined up. A year later, I was supporting myself through writing. This isn’t to say I am or was awesome at any of these careers, particularly at first. But when we go after something with our whole hearts, success is practically inevitable.

On a related note, check out Ingrid Schaffenburg’s inspiring post, Dreams Really Do Come True.

What have you learned from your former jobs? Do you tend to follow your heart and take the leap? Any career turning points to share? 

**If you LOVE being a writer and would like to submit your photo, I’ve decided to extend the deadline to August 1st. Thanks to those of you who’ve submitted! You’re at the top of my list. 😉

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59 Comments

  1. Strangely, I think this is why I love writing so much. For the most part, everything i’ve ever wanted has come pretty easily: friends, grades, boys, the cheerleading uniform. I was allowed speaking parts in plays (when I wasn’t even in chorus: a rule in our school, which pissed people off.) I got to travel, I found a good man. We sold when the market was high and bought for a steal. We bought two awful homes which we tranformed into fabulous. We conceived on the first try. Most recently I won Adjunct of the Year! When it comes to writing, even there I’ve been lucky. I’ve been published! Won contests. Charmed, I say.

    Except.

    I’ve always wanted to write a book.

    And this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because fiction is hard for me. And I am pretty unsupported in real life. (Thank goodness for cyber buddies or I would have quit a long time ago!) And it is such a passion that I’m having a hard time finding balance. My son is at summer camp for 9 more days. Draft one must be finished. It must. So I can begin to revise. And get it to betas. If I wait too long, school will interfere. Again. I can’t do mommy, teacher, wife, winter. So I’m hammering this thing out. Using my gymnastics stamina to just keep going. Using my teaching skills to stay up late and push through the create the best damn lesson plan I can. Only now this is for me. My dream.

    Off to tweet you. And then to write!

    Reply
    • I LOVE your honesty and passion, Renee. The toughness of what we do is a perk I tend to overlook. For me, ignoring it would be much harder… In either case, MUST DO. 😉 Finding balance can be tricky, but I’d rather be off-balance and writing more than writing deficient. Not sure my eyes are as happy. *inserts drops*

      Go, Renee, go!!! (My own cheerleading skills are best conducted sitting. LOL) Thanks for the awesome support.

      Reply
  2. I love the way you integrate your various lives. I can feel your experience as you do.

    Reply
  3. EllieAnn

     /  July 20, 2012

    This was all good, but I especially liked the paragraph on falsity. You really can’t hide who you are, even online, or even through your art. It doesn’t take a good person to create fantastic art but it takes a real one.

    Reply
  4. I loved the sincerity and the way you shared your message today! Thanks for sharing yourself and some great tips for others!

    Reply
  5. mgedwards

     /  July 20, 2012

    Brilliant! Thanks for reminding us that it’s about the passion, not the success, fame or fortune. Sometimes those come with time and perseverance, but without the passion, none will ever happen. Thanks for the encouragement!

    Reply
  6. I love #4! When I traveled to NYC recently I noticed a ton of women in shoes that simply did not fit. I don’t get that. Life is too short to go around wearing shoes that don’t fit! It just looked painful. Is it a size thing? Is it they don’t want to admit they really wear a size 9? It’s just a number! I have such hard-to-fit feet, that I nearly cry when I find shoes that are comfy. And I wear them until they fall apart lol

    Awesome post August 🙂

    Reply
    • I have trouble figuring that one out too, Melinda. Tiny, fashionable shoes may look cuter on the shelves, but they make for some seriously ugly, pained feet! I’m much happier clomping around in comfy boots. 😉

      Reply
      • I’ve got size 9 feet. It’s the most common one out there (true). Just try to find any size 9s on a Nordstrom sale rack 🙂 I think wearing comfy shoes and being who you are (Falsity Shows) go hand in hand.

        I know your memoir turned into a thriller, August, but one day I hope you write that memoir!

  7. Passion…one of my favorite words. And that’s not quixotic! 🙂

    Reply
  8. Hi and thanks, August,
    Your article encouraged me today. It was good reading for my soul.
    Ciao,
    Patricia

    Reply
  9. Kourtney Heintz

     /  July 20, 2012

    Thank you for #2 and 6. Somehow you say exactly what I need to hear when I need to hear it. 🙂

    Reply
  10. Running from Hell with El

     /  July 20, 2012

    Yes yes yes!!! What a fantastic blog my friend!!!

    For me, I take so many of my lessons from sports. I won’t quit. I won’t give up. The whole point is not winning: it’s striving for excellence. Be gracious in victory and defeat. Be a good teammate. Suck it up. Dig deeper. Fight harder. Play (write) for the love of the game. The equipment, weather, color of your uniform, temperature . . . nothing is an excuse for poor effort or preparation. Rely on your hands, your feet, and your friends.

    So I identified with this so very much!!

    Reply
    • I’m touched, El. Thanks! It’s remarkable how some of the most (seemingly) glamourous and competitive industries aren’t either deep down—or shouldn’t be, IMO. Success is in the joyful journey, which then leads to other kinds of success. I love your lessons on teamwork and digging deeper. We simply can’t embrace either enough.

      Reply
  11. I just LOVE LOVE LOVE this post! As an actor, I really get it about the “it’s not personal” but also agree that the best directors allow for the actor-process creativity that just happens. Same holds for writing–listen to your instincts.

    Reply
  12. Passion in our work and who we are help ground us in what we do in the present & also for the future. I can feel some of my passion drain & the self-doubt easily takes its place. I know it is temporary, but it’s draining. Thankfully I know to start doing things that makd me feel good rather than waiting to feel good.
    Great post, August!
    Monique

    Reply
  13. I have always held low-paying jobs. Either I lived in the wrong place, didn’t have the right skills, or I am just not the kind of person employers want to pay much money. Whatever the reason, never in my life have I made more than 20K a year.

    Lesson 1: Understand your employer’s expectations. Example: Don’t work somewhere that pays $300/wk. and expects you to wear designer clothes while you answer their phones.

    Lesson 2: Eating out at lunch is expensive. At the very least, you’re going to spend $25/week (if you order from the dollar menu). Figure out what percentage of your paycheck you’re spending on lunches and decide if it’s worth it. If part of the job expectation is that you eat out in order to “network,” be sure you make enough money to do that.

    Lesson 3: Periodically assess the state of your life. As it turned out, we didn’t need the money I earned to make the house payment, keep the utilities turned on, or even to pay the cable bill. We spent the money I earned on a maid (because I was too worn out to clean), on gas to and from work, and on clothes to wear to work.

    Lesson 4: Never let people who don’t live your life tell you what to do. Our society expects everybody to have a job, no matter how low paying that job is, no matter how little it helps financially, and no matter how crazy it’s making the person who has it. The only reason to work is because the person working loves what they’re doing or because the job pays enough to be worth the time and energy spent doing it.

    Lesson 5: Things happen for a reason, so always hold your head up. I would have never gotten this far with my writing had I continued to answer phones for $20K a year. There is no way I’d have had the mental energy to even consider writing, much less blog and write fiction stories.

    Lesson 6: Never give up on dreams, no matter how much of a loser you think you are. I think this one is self-explanatory.

    Reply
    • Fantastic thoughts, Catie. (And by the way, I think you’re too wonderful and creative to work conventional jobs. Big time author, now THAT I can see… ;)) I especially love #s 3 and 4. I think many people ignore internal angst over jobs, relationships and other aspects of life because they aren’t fun to face. It’s not unlike eating mindlessly and well beyond the “I’m full” feeling.

      I also love the fact that you recognized that your added funds weren’t necessary. I’m quite happy working for less money if it means I can pursue my creative and life dreams. It can be tough to embrace this in a culture that over-emphasizes materialism. And though people are often well-intended, comments from the outside can really hold us back. Brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing.

      Reply
  14. Great advice! Like Kourtney, #2 and #6 are ones I need to keep in mind. And I’m definitely a proponent of comfortable shoes. How many leg and foot ailments in elderly women have a root cause in “fashionable” high heels? I dread the few occasions when I have to wear heels—I know my feet will be sore for days!

    The chance of a new position led me and my husband to move from Illinois to Maryland, even though we didn’t know anyone out here. It meant leaving behind everything and everyone familiar, but our gut feeling was that it was the right move.And we don’t regret a day of it. Sometimes we have to make that leap of faith. I try to remember that when it comes to my writing.

    Reply
    • Congrats for listening to that inner-voice and taking the leap—also for taking that lesson further by applying it to your writing. Sounds like you’ve made some wonderful decisions. 🙂

      Reply
  15. Shannon Esposito

     /  July 20, 2012

    You sure have had an interesting life so far! And you’re so right about the fact you have to have passion for something to be successful. I had a wedding photography business, which I loved at first. But eventually, I got so burned out by all the emotional conflict that comes with “the big day”. I learned that I’m way too empathetic to be around that kind of stress as a job. Since then, I’ve been writing full time and I learned that being able to control my work environment is very important to my success (and sanity!)

    Reply
    • I’m sure many are grateful for your decision, Shannon! Emotional well-being and passion definitely trump opportunity—in my book, anyway. 😉

      Reply
  16. Hey August,

    Not blowing smoke up your derriere, but what haven’t you done 😉

    I bow down to your work ethic, but not your choice of travelling pillows 🙂

    Reply
  17. Raani York

     /  July 20, 2012

    Hi August,
    This is one of your many blogs I’ve read and loved! It’s your honesty, the truth and to the same time encouragement that is incomparable and that I want to thank you for!!
    You are such an unbelievably gifted writer!!

    Reply
  18. You are a fantastic writer! As an actor, I understand all the above points very well ..

    if passion is gone in any relationship, it’s time to make space for a new one..

    love & light

    el

    ps – to answer your question — if it wasn’t for my “acting” I would have never gotten my atm card back in Zanzibar : )

    –> http://mselenalevontraveling.com/2011/11/17/zanzibar-tanzania-solo/

    Reply
  19. I’m a firm believer in trying not to stray from your own voice, nor from who you are. As you reference in Falsity Shows. Too often we try to be someone else because that person is successful in a certain way. Only one person can be the best “you.”

    I’d like to add disciplined consistency. Your blog is a perfect example. I know I can expect something thought-provoking, encouraging, and/or educational each time I come to your site. Keep up the great work, August.

    Reply
  20. This is a really beautiful post, August 🙂 I’m a firm believer that no experience need ever be wasted, even if at the time you feel like you’re on the wrong track. Great lessons can be learned in the most unlikely places. For me, now, I always joke that after many employment mistakes, I’ve rendered myself unemployable (may or may not be true 😉 ). But that’s as good a reason as any I know to get on with the business of writing for real 🙂

    Reply
  21. Great post. And a question that really resonates with me. What I learned from my past career is how to recognize when I’m on the wrong side of an issue. People (and me) tend to defend their employers or associations without giving any consideration to other points of view. I bring this up because I used to work with political campaigns, and so many times I wound up representing a candidate that, deep down, I found unqualified, or a position I thought was wrong. I did it because it paid the bills. Now that I’m writing, I have more opportunities to look at all sides of things, and for that I am grateful.

    Reply
    • Wonderful insight. Seeing all sides of issues seems pretty vital for creating characters with varying viewpoints and from a publishing standpoint. With so many options available to authors, it’s important to recognize that different strokes work for different writers.

      Reply
  22. I’ll say this, you’re one smart cookie, August!
    Your mind is ever-expanding, isn’t it?

    Reply
  23. wonderful post August and so true in so many endeavors – especially comfy shoes

    Reply
  24. Great post, August. I could feel your heart and soul in your words (it was oddly moving for me…). Am happy for you that you found something to so brighten your energy and your life. More individuals need that. :-]

    I tend to follow my heart and take the leap, so to speak, in just living my life (I’m in the “second-half” of it). It’s turned out quite different than I’d planned, but would I change it? Negative. It is what I’ve made it and it is ME. MY energy. And I’ve done my best–continue to do so–in living it in the best way possible. I am a writer, a tech writer by day, a fiction writer by EARLIER (and weekend) day. What I’ve learned is to “follow the fall line of one’s life.” Sure, you can “push” things, issues, but I think our lives take us where we need to go, heinous weirdness and evil nothwithstanding (there are serious issues there that go far beyond this blog). I think for the average person, we need to listen to our lives and make the effort to find out ABOUT OURSELVES. I think a lot of dischord comes from not listening to ourselves (caveat above), and coming to terms with who we are, why we’re here, and not go into competition with every other individual out there.

    And that…is for each and every one of us to decide.

    Reply
    • I love your thoughts on looking inward, rather than simply pushing. Our instincts and thoughts will take us far if we let them. Thanks for the encouragement!

      Reply
  25. I love this post August. I, too, used to be a professional model and remember those feelings. While I walked away from that industry (it did not bring me joy) I learned a lot about following my passions and what truly satisfies my soul, instead of my pocketbook. I have taken some acting classes as well and had a blast and learned a lot about myself. I believe acting classes can bring out something positive in someone regardless if they ever do it professionally!

    Reply
    • Modeling certainly can seem glam from the outside, right? I enjoyed parts of it and it brought me some valuable opportunities. But it’s funny how growing more secure in myself made modeling lots less comfy. Hmm… 😉

      So glad you’ve found and pursued your passions. And you’re so right about acting classes. They can be helpful for most anyone, IMO. Thanks for the support!

      Reply
  26. When I decided to “retire” from waiting on tables 11 years ago, even though I had a huge pay cut at the time, a whole new world opened up for me. I am a successful business owner and finally started writing, and now am the author of 5 books!

    Reply
  27. Such a beautiful and inspiring post, August. I think of all the years I denied who I was – I didn’t write for many many years – caught up in a life I thought I couldn’t extricate myself from (though I did at last); caught up in what some people had been telling me “I was” instead of figuring out if that person had changed, grown or maybe even never was as they saw/told her. The recognition that you’ve been seeing yourself through the eyes of others and it isn’t really “you” but their fun-house reflection is a huge thump upside the pea-head – but it’s the start of, sounding cliched, the authentic life. I recognized my gifts as a writer, stopping thinking of it as a “hobby” and instead as a job/career and as what I was always meant to do -and that’s when my innards clicked. Many other things fell into place as well.

    Reply
  28. Ah. This has to be one of my favorite posts I’ve read this year. You’re so inspirational, August. And I’m so glad you’ve decided to follow your heart.

    Reply
  29. I worked very few jobs prior to going full time as a writer and editor. I worked at a horse stable for six months, then at a vet clinic for a few years, and finally as a part-time gardener. The first two were during high school, so I’m not even sure they count 🙂

    Last year, though, I had to take a job writing grants and doing client management because of my husband’s immigration situation. I don’t think I’ve ever been more unhappy. They treated me like crap and, even though they called me a freelancer so that they didn’t have to give me anything they’d owe me if I was an employee (like benefits or vacation pay), they expected me to always be available to them at a moment’s notice and fill in their employee time sheets. I guess you could look at that experience two ways. The first is that sometimes you’ll have to take a really awful job in the short-term for a greater long-term good. The other is that there comes a point where the money really isn’t worth it.

    Reply
  30. Arggh! The writing photo ~ must put that at the top of my list. Thanks for extending it. July has been insane.

    Your posts always inspire and this one especially so. Lovely advice not just for us creative types, but for life in general. Especially the comfy shoes and not taking things personally. Well, all of it, actually.

    Reply
  31. LOVE these posts!!! Amazing and such great insight. I loved:
    It’s seldom personal – this is an amazing truth to not just read but embrace entirely. In all aspects of our life, it’s seldom personal and I think if we recognize that more often than not, we’ll save ourselves a lot of heart ache and confusion. In my work as a writer and communications person, dealing with criticism is part of the deal. I’ve learned that doing my best is good enough for me and if I don’t hit the mark off the bat, there’s always revisions. You can’t take things personal…gotta learn to let go and just get the job done!
    Instincts never lie – I’ve learned this one the hard way and gotta say, it’s huge! Always trust your gut – it never steers you wrong!
    Passion breeds success – any time I’ve taken a job that I’ve loved and been passionate about, success was as easy as breathing!
    Wonderful lessons learned to share August! Beautiful!

    Reply
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