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. 😉