Friday, January 2, 2009

Writers vs. Actors

Hi diddle dee dee
An actor's life for me
A high silk hat and a silver cane
A watch of gold and a diamond chain
Hi diddle dee dee
You sleep till after two
You promenade a big cigar
You tour the world in a private car
You dine on chicken and caviar
An actor's life for me!

Nahhh, not for me, though, thanks. Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I thought I wanted to become an actress. To my immature, adolescent heart, it seemed the easiest way to meet David Cassidy. Back in school I tried out for every play, with the "highlight" of my career having been when I was cast in the role of "a gypsy" in a play called Dracula, Baby. I went so far when I was 18 as to get head shots and go to a few auditions. Ultimately, though, an actor's life really wasn't for me.

For me, acting was a flirtation; my true love was writing. I've always found it interesting that writers and actors have a lot in common, but they're also worlds apart in many ways.

For one thing, both the writer and the actor are insecure creatures. This may be a generalization, but from my experience that seems to go with the territory when you're a creative person. Writers and actors endure years of very painful rejection and criticism, the likes of which most people in their right minds would think it crazy to put up with. And they would be right, since you have to be a little crazy to be in either profession. Most actors will never become box office gold; most writers will never be on The New York Times Bestseller List. But many actors will work when they can as long as there is an audience to entertain, and most writers will write until they pry our keyboards out of our cold, dead hands, as long as there is an audience for whom to tell a story.

Over the course of the 10+ years since I've been writing professionally, I'm taken by how many writers want to be writers living the Actor's Life. We're not talking about the actress who plays "a gypsy," either. They don't want to be co-stars or walk-ons or minor players. Some writers go into this with the idea that they're going to become the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of writers. gold, the Oprah Book List (or whatever it's called), the book that sold millions of copies that now bears the words Soon to be a major motion picture on its cover. And if those things don't happen, they decide their failures and throw in the towel. (Incidentally, many of those "overnight successes" that I've seen are like Roman candles--shooting high but burning out pretty quickly. Those who pay their dues are the ones who seem to really endure in this craft.)

But I was guilty of that, too, earlier in my career. Hey, there's nothing wrong with dreaming. Writers should aim for the stars. More than that--all of that passion should be poured over, overflowing right over the brim of, their work. The problem is when writers gauge success by their sales rank on Amazon or the fact that nobody's offering to buy film rights to their beloved baby. They learn that the Angelina Jolie of their given genre, they're not. It's uncanny, but how you feel about your work and the loss of belief in your work does eventually affect the quality of your work.

Seasoned writers know this, but for those starting out, here's the dirty little secret about writing: The best parts of being a writer are not glamorous. We're. Not. Actors. We don't wear Armani on the red carpet while adoring fans cheer us. We're usually eating Campbell's soup out of a coffee mug and wearing some ratty old T-shirt when we come to that scene in our book where we deliver the happy ending for the reader. Unlike the actor, it doesn't matter if our faces are lined with age and maybe we're not as slender as we once were in our youth. Even if the actor can still get roles, the leading man/lady roles go to the young and synthetically gorgeous.

The muse couldn't care less about those outwardly things. She'll keep coming to us for as long as the doors of our imaginations are open, and the readers don't care as long as we tell that story like we're going to die tomorrow and we won't be around to tell it then, so let's tell it with some fire and depth and soul. Neither the muse nor the readers have to travel to Hollywood to meet us, either. They meet us through a more mysterious medium, within the pages of a story, where our characters will do all the talking for us. The best parts of being a writer are found without fanfare, when you know, as one writer recently told me, "you nailed it" after a story just flowed to its conclusion. You may be nibbling on M&Ms when you come across a book reviewer or a reader's blog, where it's mentioned that your book brought someone enjoyment.

Personally, I've always preferred the taste of M&Ms to caviar. No matter what shape success comes in, it's the writer's life for me. Besides, how many people really look good in a high silk hat?