It’s important to be more than a writer. More people need to cultivate other skills – and also write. ~~ Merritt Tierce
“So what do you do?”
It’s the question I dread being asked at a party. I mean, where do I begin?
“I started out as a classical singer…” (they immediately envision me in a helmet and breastplate, holding a spear);
“…then I worked for a while as an actor,” (now they’re wondering if they’ve seen me on Law and Order SVU, perhaps as a corpse);
“…and I was a private voice teacher,” (now they picture me as a little old lady with my glasses on a chain);
“…but now I’m a writer.”
You see the problem.
By this time, their eyes are crossed or they’ve made a bee-line for the punchbowl.
I suppose I could dodge the question by calling myself an artist, but then they’ll want to see my paintings.
Confusing as it is for everyone else, my convoluted path has been great for me. My ability to think like a musician and actor has given me tools and paid unexpected dividends in my writing. No one in their right mind would design a writing program like the one I’ve had, but the benefits speak for themselves:
Self-discipline: As a performer, I got into the habit of daily practice, even when I didn’t feel like it or didn’t know where the hell my practice was leading. It was purely a matter of self-preservation. Because no one notices – or even cares – when you work at your skills, but they sure can tell when you don’t.
A musical ear: You wouldn’t think this would be important for writing, but not long ago I was sitting in a workshop listening to someone read from a draft of his novel, and it suddenly hit me that he couldn’t hear the monotony in his writing. Every sentence was the same length, with the same emphasis. The story was interesting, and I wanted to hear more. But the writing itself was leaden, which is likely to put off any reader, no matter how well-crafted the plot.
Those who sing or play an instrument become attuned to rhythm and phrasing. They develop a feel for when to press forward to create tension and when to pull back to release it. I came to realize that because of my musical training, I hear shape and structure in writing. I’m aware of the flow of language and thoughts, even more so when those elements are missing. It’s something any writer can learn, but I feel fortunate to have come to writing with that skill already in the bag. It more than makes up for all those lonely years in the practice room.
An ear for dialog: When you learn lines for a play, especially a good one, the speech style gets into your head. During rehearsals you start to see where a pause can create tension, or where you can point up words and phrases that are important to the plot. You develop a feel for the ways in which people talk to each other, and how they express or conceal their feelings and thoughts.
It wasn’t until I started talking to other writers and learned the trouble they were having crafting dialog, that I realized how fortunate I am to have been in so many well-written, well-directed plays. I rarely have to edit dialog in my writing. (Descriptive passages are another story altogether…)
A feel for scene structure: In a play, every scene has a beginning (something that sets the action in motion); a middle (where the action develops); and an end, which (gently or abruptly) brings the scene to a close and often leads to the following scene.
Sounds obvious in theatre, but in writing? Well, what is a story but a succession of scenes also known as chapters? When I treat my writing as a sequence of scenes, the story becomes much more present and visceral. It’s as if I’m taking dictation as I watch the action unfolding before me. Plus, it’s a cool way to work.
Character development: Yes, writing builds character (learning to handle all those rejections, for instance), but that’s not the kind of character I mean. My years of singing and acting taught me to create living, breathing characters from another’s words or music. I learned to look beneath the text of a play for the character’s intentions, and to hear what the music was telling me about the character’s emotional state. I also wrote lengthy biographies for the characters I portrayed — first as an assignment, later for the fun of it — having no idea I was developing a skill that would later transfer directly to creating characters for the page.
A well-developed imagination: The engine that makes all art go is imagination. One of the main objects of arts training is to help students recover the inventiveness they so easily accessed as children, and so easily lost when they got older and more invested in fitting in. When I finally figured out that most of what happens in art is made up – fashioned from the whole cloth of imagination – not only did my creativity blossom, I stopped caring what everyone else thought I should be doing and began to walk my own artistic path. It also helps that I love making stuff up.
So even though I feel I’m lying by omission, the next time someone asks me what I do, I’ll guess I’ll just cut to the chase and fess up to being a writer. If I see them again, I can always dole out tidbits from my sordid past and spread out the confusion over time. It seems the humane thing to do.
Then when they ask me where I get my ideas, it’ll be my turn to flee for the punchbowl.