An Acting Lesson That Teaches You to Write Well

Wizard of Good MagicI was at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival last week. You should all be warned that I will probably be having a lot of fun with play titles for awhile here. Also, should anyone happen to be out in Oregon for whatever reason (like, because I told you to), there’s a play called Equivocation by Bill Cain that will blow your mind.

Titles aside, that was less of a completely random introduction than it seemed, because I’m about to discuss persistence. There is nothing that will remind you of persistence like really, really good acting.

No actor gets to be good by doing it once in rehearsal, calling it a day, and telling the director to call him back in for opening night. Actors do it over and over and over again. Until they get it perfect.

That’s what we’re talking about here: the persistence to get it right.

I need you to brace yourselves for a moment. What I am about to say may shock you, but I believe in your ability to withstand. If you should happen to faint, I will send a very nice young lady around (her name is Jenny) to revive you with smelling salts and a bucket of water. If she slaps you, you should know that it is only out of concern for your health.

There you go. You have been warned.

So here’s the revelation: I am not very good at some kinds of writing.

I KNOW. I’ll give you a moment to gather yourselves. Me, the darling of the Men! Not perfect? Astounding, is it not? Some of you will be thinking, “No, I can’t believe it> Never!”

Calm yourselves. I do not intend that it should be so for much longer.

Why? Because I am learning persistence, damn it.

The natural inclination of many writers is to try a style of writing once or twice. If people do not immediately bang down our doors with piles of the most touchingly written letters of adoration, we think that style is not worth pursuing. “Well, I tried blogging, but I really couldn’t get much of a readership together . . .”

“Oh? How long did you have the blog for?”

“Couple of weeks.”

“Huh. What was it about?”

“Oh, you know. Everything.”

“Did you try marketing it?”

“Huh?”

We don’t learn to do better every day. We don’t approach our writing with the goal of getting one thing right today that we didn’t get right yesterday.

What’s more, if we fail at getting that one thing right, we think that it can’t be done at all. “That’s it. I’m giving up and going back to retail. I’m not cut out for the writing life.”

Persistence, my friends.

I was watching this group of actors and they amazed me. Probably every five seconds, they had wrung some new nuance out of the script. You don’t get those little moments of comedy and tragedy by giving it one shot and giving up. I’d be willing to bet each of those many brilliant moments came out of a single day of rehearsal.

Which is why there are so many damned days of rehearsal.

If they had only gotten one of those moments right and left it at that, the play would not have been anywhere near as good. It might actually have been terrible. One moment is not enough. You need a thousand.

It has to be so in your writing. For me, sales writing is not my forte. But every time I approach a new project, I have to seek out every place where I can make it just a little more brilliant. I go over it again and again. I eke out the extra details.

Persist. Persevere. If you’re not good at one kind of writing, work your butt off to get as much of it as you can, and go over it a thousand times looking for ways you can make it better.

You’ll screw it up. So did those actors, I’ll bet you. They probably had a hundred things they tried out that simply did not work. But they went and found something else to try. What eventually came of it was brilliance.

This can happen for your writing. Business, blogging, fiction, any kind of writing at all. Persevere. Persist. Make it just a little better than it was five minutes ago, and then again, and then again.

At the very end of it, if this play was any indication, there’s applause.

Editor’s note: For our French-Canadian friends, bonne fête pour la St-Jean!

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. Tei,

    Absolutely, agreed 100%. And if I might add: in addition to being a hard-working, stubborn ol’ cuss, practicing daily and determined to get it right—read the work of other stubborn ol’ cusses who do get it right. Working on your own while absorbing the ways of pros in whatever type of writing is a super one-two punch.

    Regards,

    Kelly
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Inspiration Points: The Gap, According to Rupert Murdoch—How to Stay Above the Fray =-.

  2. I started off as mine as an online home for my write-ups and advice on writing. But now, can’t resist putting up my fiction and poetry there….Still wondering if that would be a good idea!
    .-= write a writing´s last blog ..Mental Makeover 1 : Thinking Like Cats and Writing Like Dogs =-.

  3. You’re not called the rogue for nothing Taylor. Your first draft may be crap but your final draft is excellent. That makes for some excellent writing.

    Persevere and persist is indeed the secret ingredient to writing. Sometimes we get too comfortable in one style of writing and stick with what comes easily.

    Like the play’s rehearsal, our first drafts (second, third…) are our own little secret.
    .-= Samar´s last blog ..How to be an interesting blogger the Remarkablogger way =-.

  4. Persistence is definitely the key to success.

    Just so happens I’ll be spending the next few days in Ashland, Oregon myself. It’s where Mount Shasta area residents like me go to get some culture.
    .-= John Soares´s last blog ..Cautionary Note for Freelance Writers and Editors Who Work on Textbooks =-.

  5. Perseverance indeed is the key, but what makes it difficult is that I don’t always know what’s working and what isn’t. Feedback and popularity are certainly one measure, but as you point out, a writing style may not be an immediate hit, and self-appraisal is a little tricky.
    .-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Zen – what it is =-.

  6. What’s fun about practicing is that eventually you get so good at something that it comes out pretty darn good the first time.

    I’m always thinking about my other life as a musician. 95% of the time, when I get a wedding gig in a string quartet, when I sit down with the other 3 musicians for the wedding, we’ve never played together before. But we’re good at what we do and wedding music is EASY (I hate you, Pachelbel), so we don’t need to practice together to be able to pull it off in a way that leaves grandmas crying tears of joy.

    We did have that one guy asking us for drugs (father of the bride)… but that was BEFORE we started playing…

    I guess what I’m trying to say is with practice, everything gets easier and you can whip stuff out a lot faster, which means you can a) do more stuff or b) slack off and Twitter all day.
    .-= E. Foley | Geek’s Dream Girl´s last blog ..Happy 30th Birthday to Me! I Want Souls… and Minions! =-.

  7. You ought to find a community theatre troupe in your area and see about attending some rehearsals from the first weeks with script in hand through to the final dress. You can learn so very, very much from that process! I had written creatively for years before falling in love with technical theatre, but after a couple shows, my writing improved as well. Huge characterization, setting, movement as well as persistence lessons there.

  8. As someone who has been in the theater as an actress and a director for over thirty years I can say this is 100% true. I find I approach my writing the same way I approach my theater, especially the fiction, going over it and over it and over it again, looking for the subtle emotion, the nuances that will keep it right on the edge and looking for the connections between the charactors that may not have been obvious at first glance. There is always something to dig deeper for if we are willing to look and sometimes it is that one more time…that one more glance after you thought you had gone as far as you could go that shows you the light you were looking for.

    As a director, I am always telling my actors to look deeper, it isn’t just words. What do those words convey, how do they make a person feel, where did they come from, what is their history?

    I find that as a writer I try to do the same thing. In the end, it comes down to one thing, on stage or or on the page. Does the audience care?

  9. Perseverance is the one thing that got me through many things in life, one of the important things was getting my Bachelor’s Degree. It took many years while working full-time, but I persevered and walked away with a degree.

    As for my writing, it isn’t the best, yet I can honestly say it improved over the past few years. I kept writing, read up on my weaknesses, and in time they’ve strengthened.

    Nice article!

  10. It took me about a year to start to really incorporate the lessons provide by this website into my own writing – like not sounding like a stuffed suit and actually speaking directly to people. But it eventually came, recently as of the past two weeks, actually – my last three blog posts are much better than all the ones before. It’s very much like something finally clicked.

    It all comes down to experience. Writing well is just like any other occupation. It usually takes about 2 years in an occupation to start to actually get “good” at it. Writing in any particular style is no different – you need to put in the effort to get the experience.

  11. Writing is a lot like athletics. Mastery of it takes time and dedication.

    In fact, I view writing very similar to sports.

    A very insightful analogy you’ve shared.
    .-= Bamboo Forest – PunIntended´s last blog ..7 Things to Do Before You Die =-.

  12. Ohh! I’ve been wanting to go to the Shakespeare festival!
    Great post, and of course you are right!
    -Jenny (with smelling salts.)

  13. With my second novel, I’ve been working a totally different style from the first and it’s a real challenge because I want to write like I always do, so the first draft I’m letting myself write as I normally do, then with the second draft (and third and fourth and fifth) I’ll work on getting the style just right.

  14. Great post as always! Anytime a feel a little writers block, I visit this site and find something that will inspire me.

    Thank you

    “It was the work of the quiet mountains, this torrent of purity at my feet” Jack Kerouac
    .-= Jonathan | EnlightenYourDay.com´s last blog ..Inspiring Tweets and Zen Retweets from my Twitter Contributors =-.

  15. RhodesTer says:

    Hmm.. Oddly enough, we lived in Ashland through most of the 90s and saw quite a few OSF productions. Of course, we knew a lot of actors too. I was hoping for names but that would have distracted from the point, which was.. uh..

    ..oh yeah. Final drafts and all of that. Right on.

  16. Apart from persistence, one needs the art of creativity while writing that will excite readers – this will be the key to success as far as blogs are concerned.

  17. Persistence really pays off. And success, however small or great, is really more enjoyed when there is hard work, persistence, dedication, and time involved. Makes you appreciate everything a lot more because you’ve worked hard for it, you’ve invested time and effort in it, you’ve had failures and encountered problems, but still managed to get up and move on. In the end, there is more than just applause for you, but a standing ovation. 🙂

  18. Kelly – That’s true, but so often I find myself procrastinating by reading the work of stubborn ol’ cusses. I get really geared up and then go . . . man, I’m tired. I’ll start in the morning.

    Write a writing – Sweetheart, for the second time now, I can’t figure out what you’re responding to in the post, so I’m not sure how to respond. I can say that in general, putting up fiction and poetry on a blog meant to be about writing tips is not advisable.

    Samar – Drafts and drafts and drafts. The nice bit is that no one ever judges the drafts, just the final performance.

    John – Equivocation. Cannot recommend it highly enough.

    Kaushik – It is a little tricky, and it does help to have peers who can judge you. Often your readers aren’t quite what you need, because they’ll only judge once you’ve finally decided something is “finished”, and you really want someone to judge while you’re still in rehearsals.

    GDG – Everything does get easier, but that also can mean you aspire to higher things. I’m sure those actors are capable of doing a scene very well, enjoyably well, on the first pass because they have practiced so long and become so good at what they do. It’s persistence that gets you to genius.

    Stacey – I’m thinking of playwrighting, actually. We’ll see if I can get a handful of actors to read what I write.

    Wendi – The audience is the ultimate, of course, but those peers are so essential. Helping each other find what’s there and what’s not there yet, but should be.

    Bea – Thanks! Congratulations on your own personal perseverance!

    Patrick – That’s very true, putting in the effort is half the battle. Getting that extra little edge . . . that’s a hard thing to remember sometimes, especially when what you’ve achieved seems to satisfy.

    Bamboo – Except writing very rarely causes massive bruising. Unless you’re REALLY hardcore.

    Jenny – There you are!

    Alex – That’s a hard thing to do. Good luck to you! I’ve read about other writers who did things like write each draft out longhand, or Don Delillo, who apparently writes each sentence about ten times before moving on to the next. Crazy man. Brilliant. But crazy. And persevering.

    Jonathan – Thanks very much. Glad you enjoyed!

    Rhodester – Anthony Heald, Richard Elmore, Jonathan Haugen, John Tufts, Gregory Linington, and Christine Albright. Stunning cast.

    Online Printing – It does make you appreciate it more, true. It also makes other people appreciate you, which I think as artists is what we’re all after, after all.

  19. RhodesTer says:

    We knew Anthony (Tony) Heald and knew *of* a few of the others. Tony’s been a fixture up there for years, dividing his time between OSF and LA. Shortly after we’d moved to LA I was doing background work (extra) in TV shows and I got booked on a “Boston Public”.. there he was, on set. Small world. He is best known as the smarmy Psychologist in “Silence of the Lambs.”

    Ashland is an interesting little town. In LA you’re likely to see a celebrity or two if you’re out and in the right spots, but in Ashland the OSF actors, including Tony, are always around town – in the supermarket, the Black Sheep Pub, at the library, etc. Everyone knows everyone because it’s basically River City Iowa. There’s even a billiard table.

    I hope you made it into the aforementioned Black Sheep Pub, Tei. I cried over many a pint in there.
    .-= RhodesTer´s last blog .. =-.

  20. I miss Oregon. I spent many years in Grants Pass, AShland, and Coos Bay. This post made me call my friend in Medford and make him swear to go to Ashland this weekend.
    .-= B J Keltz´s last blog ..Tribute Week – Authors Who Share =-.

  21. I’ve recently been trying to find some great writer’s blogs and I came across this blog.

    I find this to be a great example of sticking with something. Personally, I learned the value of perseverance by practicing illusions. I kept trying to make a card disappear, day in and day out, whenever I had free time on my hands (no pun intended), and one day, the card disappeared with such a beautiful fluidity. I was astonished! In the same way that these actors screw up a thousand times before finding that one method that does work,
    success in many things, be it magical effects or writing, comes from a string of failures. I’ve known this for a while now, but it’s encouraging to read about it in a different light.

    Thanks for the inspiration, I’ll be writing a blog post about perseverance next week thanks to this post!
    .-= Wistful Writer´s last blog ..Fiction as Reality in Frank O’ Hara =-.

  22. You should go to college, but there are performing arts schools. Or while your in college, check out if there are any local productions or the theatre club. There is a way to get your education and be an actress and I’m sure many of the performing arts schools will give you the foundation to get your career off the ground.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Now, there are writers with an innate ability to understand which words flow together and which do not. However – and it’s a big however – just as there are natural dancers and singers and all the rest of it, there are also dancers and singers who became good at it through practice. […]

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