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Writing is Acting

July 27, 2012, 11:55 AM
Big-think_theater-final

Writers can spend days, weeks holed up in a room, churning out words, not knowing if their work is any good—engaging, or just shallow “busy work.” Actors, on the other hand, have the benefit of the mirror, studying recordings of themselves, or the reaction of any sized audience to immediately know whether they’re being honest. In this regard, it’s better to be an actor than a writer. The instant feedback—communicating with the energy your spoken words, movements, and choices are creating—improve a craft faster than being confined to a desk and chair.  

On the rare occasion someone asks me for writing advice, I always say to take an acting class. While working at a giant corporation, I was asked by someone in our communications department who came across a YouTube video I was in, as a favor to a friend, to be a spokesperson for the company, and go on live television. To combat my massive stage fright, I began taking acting classes and immediately saw my writing for fun and for work improve. (And I got through each live television appearance by making a Star Wars reference as a way to relax.)

Unlike the one formal writing class I had previously taken, the acting class taught me how to connect with people, and to cut out what’s not essential. The regular instant feedback of the instructor and the audience of a dozen students tethered me to the responsibility to simply be. Studying acting is at first scary then it becomes invigorating; it’s physically challenging and head-clearing.

Shakespeare of course was an actor. And Charles Dickens too studied the craft and wrote his stories to be performed on stage. From an 1883 article published in the New York Times over a decade after his death, it is written of Dickens: “Nor could he ever relinquish his old fondness for the actor's art; for he scarcely did himself justice when he spoke of the stage as being to him but a means of getting money. He obtained great applause as an amateur actor, and he became famous as a public reader of his own books; his readings, in truth, closely resembling actings, or suggesting rather the readings of an actor than of an author." The stories he read on stage, the article says, had as many stage directions written on the pages as one would expect to find on the script of a play.

Reading this reminded me of a conversation I had with a veteran Hollywood script doctor who often worked with Sidney Lumet. This script surgeon said that the secret to a good screenplay is to write characters that actors are dying to play. In order to write those characters, like Dickens, like Shakespeare, one has to inhabit them like an actor would. Susan Miller, the world-famous astrologist I just profiled for Purpose, Inc., told me in conversation and recently announced to her Twitter followers, that when she writes a monthly horoscope—which takes her seven hours for each of the 12 signs—she inhabits each sign she is writing for, she becomes it for those seven hours. This is acting-based writing, embracing empathy, embracing one’s audience.

Every writer, regardless of the type of writing—business, dramatic arts, a goodbye letter—writes with a certain voice. This voice is more than just unique. “Style is not neutral; it gives moral directions,” said British novelist turned Brooklynite Martin Amis. The businessman of the millennium, Steve Jobs, would agree. Jobs’ presentations had their special trademark of simplicity and enthusiasm for the next wave of a revolution. To find that voice, imagine whatever it is you are writing being performed on stage, feel the excitement and energy of the live audience. No writer is ever truly alone in a room; there’s an entire world out there waiting to unite with unique energy. Writing is not a solitary activity; it is acting and as one of the finest actors and writers said, “All the world’s a stage.”

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Writing is Acting

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