How Writing is Like Acting

Writers and actors are a lot alike. Sure, the professions play different roles in the American imagination: actors are cast as sun-kissed faces of California dreams, and writers are portrayed as solitary, often curmudgeonly creatures; actors conjure ideas of red carpet wishes and designer-clad dreams, writers a wooly cardigan and a cozy cabin, or some similarly hermetic locale. But though actors peddle in scenes and writers work in syllables, the mechanics and business of these professions are very much the same.

And while the most obvious parallel is that actors and writers are both entertainers, which explains there are so many actors who are also writers — Tina Fey, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, and Jamie Lee Curtis, to name a few, there are more nuanced similarities, as well.

Preamble accomplished, here are 15.5 ways writers are like actors.

[Note, this is not an exhaustive list. If you have a suggestion, let me know in the comments.]

1. Proceed with Caution — There’s an old joke that every LA waiter has a headshot at the ready. The same could be said about New York baristas and novels. Yes, the waiter could have a novel and the barista a headshot, but you get the gist: Just as there are scads of young, bright-eyed ingenues vying for acting gigs, there are just as many young, bright-eyed literary types trying to get published – all absolutely sure they have “it.”

In other words, writing and acting are both crowded, competitive, and all together quixotic career paths. Success is rare, and so is financial payoff. Nantucket? More like a cramped apartment. Designer dreams? Try a thrift store knock-off.

Considering the odds of success or monetary security, it’s therefore best that aspiring writers, like their theatrical counterparts, find a plan B. Unless, of course, you want a lifetime of debt, deadlines, nary a retirement plan and, most terrifying of all, writer’s block!

2. Mission: Audition — The process is different, but actors and writers both audition for their roles/bylines, and I dare say writers’ pitches are more difficult. While actors must undergo the nerve-wracking experience of auditioning for a room full of strangers, they at least have outlets like Backstage or agents who can tell them more about the part, i.e. “Sally, a twenty-something waitress waiting for her big break after fleeing her alcoholic mother.”

Writers don’t have such luxuries. We do have Submittable, where editors post editorial asks, or maybe an outlet will announce a specific theme, but for the most part writers stumble around in the rhetorical dark, sending cold emails to editors and hoping against hope we get a reply — which is essentially an audition without the script, name recognition, or the benefit of a face-to-face meeting.

Even when you do have name recognition or a previous relationship with an editor, that’s no guarantee of publication — I was just rejected by two editors with whom I’ve worked for years.

On that note…

3. You Have to Hustle — Joan Rivers would panic if she didn’t have eight weeks of work lined up. Even decades into her career, after she was a household name and rich beyond her wildest dreams, she knew she had to keep her nip-tucked eyes on the prize, as all actors do – and writers, too.

In the same way actors must always have a new role in mind, writers must incessantly brainstorm, pitch, plead, line up work, and, as always, trust it will lead to more.

Whatever it takes, we writers, like actors, gotta keep moving, like a shark, or else we’ll sink straight to the bottom.

4. Gig Life — Along the same lines, most actors and writers can’t be particularly picky about the jobs they accept.

Sure, some writers are talented or connected enough to get staff positions at places like The New Yorker, like some actors have the chops or fan base for marquee roles. In reality, most actors survive by scraping together cameos on CSI, NSIC, FBI, SVU, and SWAT, and most writers scrounge together a hodge-podge of blog posts, features, reviews, taglines, excerpt, blurbs.

I’ve worked at national magazines and published in renowned publications; I even wrote a book. But I’ve also written sales copy for bulldozers, edited church websites, and written speeches for corporate execs — almost anything to keep the lights on and feed the cat.

That’s just the way it is, especially in this day and gig-economy age. Though it can get discouraging, always remember: these small pieces keep you sharp for the next big thing.

4.5. Day Job Required — This is the same but slightly different than “Gig Life,” because sometimes the efforts don’t add up, forcing actors/writers to take a day job to keep their dreams afloat. That’s why Geoffrey Owens used to grab shifts at Trader Joe’s, and I have no doubt he’s not alone.

5. “Know Your Audience” — Actors and writers both cater their performances to specific viewers/readers. They alter their tone, delivery, and cadence for the role’s needs. An actor wouldn’t channel Shakespeare in a slasher flick; nor would a reporter go comedic for a piece about sexual assault. Not ideally, at least.

As with auditions, this process is often a bit more complicated for writers, for there are two audiences. The first is the outlet: You must read their previous pieces to get a sense of their purview and overall voice. And the second audience is the reader themselves: Are they educated, young, old — what’s their deal, and what do you want them to feel? Do you want to make them laugh at life’s absurdities, rage at social injustice, or do you want make readers weep until snot runs down their faces and into their mouths, leaving the salty tinge of sadness and regret?

And that brings me to the next point…

6. Emotion Pushers — In the same way actors deliver emotion-evoking performances, guiding audiences with an array of feelings, writers must imbue in readers the thrills, chills, ups, downs, joys, and sorrows of their narrative. They must transport them mind and body into the scene, like a linguistic Meryl Streep. Without impacting your reader, your work will flop worse than [insert your box office bomb of choice…]

7. Find Your Voice — Writers and actors tailor performances to specific audiences and emotional needs, but it also helps to have your own voice, or even shtick. Some actors are wonderful at physical comedy; others can cry on cue. Some writers excel at lyricism, like Nabokov, others at eliciting visceral responses, like King.

Whatever your special skill or perspective, hone it and let it shine. It’s this unique tick that sets you apart from the aforementioned crowded pack. The trick is finding a balance between your unique point of view and the market at large.

8. Take a Note — Editors are basically directors. A director guides the actor through their role, and editors do the same for writers. They’re there to improve a writer’s performance, eliciting the specific mood, timbre, or subtext a piece requires. Theoretically.

Like directors, each editor has their own style: Some are explicit in direction, others more abstract; some enjoy bombastic writing, others more nuanced… And, unfortunately, some are maddeningly hands-off.

Whichever type of editor you work with, consider, and most often take, their advice – they typically know what they’re talking about. (That said, bad editors, like directors, can impede a performance; that’s rare, but possible.)

9. Improv Helps — Again, this may not apply to all writers, or all actors, but rudimentary improvisational skills come in handy in each profession: in acting, improv can add extra dynamism to a scene; in writing, it can help break free from inspiration-draining outlines or help move an interview along: the “yes, and…” can be magic at fostering organic flow.

10. New Experiences Acquired — This doesn’t necessarily apply to all writers, or to all actors, but for people who pen/take immersive pieces/roles, you’re likely to acquire a new skill or two: A writer on assignment at a dairy farm would learn to milk a cow; an actor playing Robin Hood would learn how to shoot a bow and arrow.

I can’t say I’ve done anything as exciting as milk a cow, but my career’s exposed me to some unique situations: I’ve toured Yellowstone when it was closed in winter; I went to a Swiss watch making institute – in Texas; I’ve investigated political corruption; I’ve interviewed artists, politicians, curatorsphilosophers, and my own grandmother. I’ve traveled to New Orleans, and I even once went the firing range with the Pink Pistols – I can’t say I particularly enjoy or support guns, but it was an experience nonetheless, and one made possible because of my sick compulsion to write.

11. Numbers Matter — The phrase “You’re only as good as your last role” also applies to writers. Books sell ideas and fantasy, but always remember it’s a business that cares about dollars and cents — and not to mention pageviews, Twitter followers, Instagram admirers, SnapChats, press mentions, review stars, Amazon stars, Good Reads stars… That is, digits are integral to the authors’, essayists’, and journalists’ success or failure, and, for good or ill, most writers today find themselves thinking about numbers more than they ever imagined.

12. Blockbuster Curve — On a related note: Publishers love a blockbuster as much as Hollywood. That’s why they reserve huge budgets to splurge on huge books, leaving less for unknown authors. Some writers see this as a completely atrocious betrayal of high art, others view it as more of a Catch-22*.  Yes, splashy advances suck up resources for the rest of us, but those blockbuster books also keep the whole show going; without them there’d be no industry at all.

(*FYI: Catch-22 flopped when it first came out; it wasn’t a hit until the paperback was released, after four hardcover editions. I doubt today’s publishers would be as patient.)

13. “Call My People” — Continuing the theme of publishing being a business akin to that of show — writers, like actors, often have a support team working behind the scenes, especially when they’re working on a book. Maybe there’s a publicist and sales team, or cover artist or fact checker, but there’s almost definitely a copy editor to catch a stray comma and the like. Books, like babies, often take a village.

Some writers, especially those of the book and screenplay variety, may also have an agent. This is basically the industry insider who walks writers through the business side of things — they negotiate advances, royalties, rights, and other corporate-minded minutia.  And, just like actors’ agents, literary agents get a cut.

If you have the right agent, it’s a cut you’ll happily give, because agents are more than money negotiators. They’re early readers; they’re trusted advisors; they’re steady shoulders to cry on, using the most soothing words to keep their neurotic talent from losing their minds. In essence, they’re there to make their writers feel like the best in the business with promising careers ahead, even if that’s straight-up fiction.

Like editors, agents’ words should be heeded — if only for the ego boost.

(Relatedly, though not even worth a half-point: some publishing houses are like studios – both sign exclusives with their talent, an arrangement that has pros and cons. I suppose record labels are much the same, too.)

14. Rejection Comes Standard— This has been alluded to, but it bears repeating – again and again and again: actors and writers must deal with a hideous amount of rejection. Like, an inhumane amount. Over and over and over and over — and more after that. Even after you’ve made a name for yourself and gone viral, sold shelves full, and been on talk shows, there will be rejection.

It stinks; it hurts; it makes you wish you’d never learned the alphabet in the first place. But, sadly, you did learn the alphabet and, even more sadly, at some point you contracted writing bug. Now you’ve got dust yourself off and hop back on the horse — er, keyboard — and get back to it — because it’s either keep writing or quit, allowing yourself to be haunted forever by the dreaded “What if?” And that’s hardly a satisfying ending.

15. You Gotta Have Hope — Also alluded to above, but — Yas! After dozens of rejections, you receive an assignment. It’s small — 150 words on a vegan tote— but it’s there, it’s real, and it’s paying a whopping .03/word! You’re on top of the world!

Cherish that feeling. Fan that ember of excitement; it’s this thrill that keeps you, and all writers, as well as all artists, from sinking into complete despair. And, who knows, that hope may finally payoff: there are some writers who make a mark early in life, and others who aren’t recognized until their later years. Raymond Chandler didn’t publish his first novel until he was 51. Geoffrey Chaucer wasn’t famous until way after his death, and today millions of children across the world read his Canterbury Tales every year. Just think, in 600 years, that could be you!

Joking aside, even if you don’t “make it,” whatever the hell that means, remember that writing isn’t about the spotlight or pay check; it’s as Annette Benning said about acting – and this is a paraphrase: “It’s not about being famous; it’s about exploring the human soul.”

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