I have never in my life been a professional actress. I'm just a run-of-the-mill theater nerd in the grand tradition of Waiting for Guffman. I did high school theater and attended college on a theater scholarship. I've done a bit of community theater, including singing and dancing with a bunch of mildly intoxicated people in a church basement. While I did win an acting scholarship endowed by the actress who played Granny Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies (that's another story), my theater experience is nothing to write home about.
But I've noticed recently that a lot of my fellow authors are also theater nerds, and it occurred to me that, despite the fact that I have a Master of Arts in English, and despite the fact that I have been a children's librarian or secondary English teacher for the past sixteen years, the one thing that truly taught me how to write a novel was theater.
My training as a writer began in 1988 when I sat in Mr. Steinberg's Introduction to Theater class as a Freshman in high school. I remember, very clearly, the day he taught the Aristotelean plot structure. I was the kind of maniac who actively enjoyed diagramming sentences in English class, so applying exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, and denouement to any and every story deeply appealed to me. The fact that I could find these elements in nearly every book I read or movie I saw, no matter the plot, fascinated me. Millenia ago, Aristotle understood how stories worked, how human beings are hardwired to understand plot and to achieve intellectual and emotional growth through the process of catharsis. (Until a bunch of pretentious Post-Modernists came along and destroyed it all. But that's another story, too.)
My debt to Mr. Steinberg doesn't end there. I was not the most socially acceptable teen in the world to put it mildly. Forgive me if I'm repeating myself here, but during my teens years, I appeared to be doing my level best to look exactly like Weird Al Yankovic. I put the AAAAHHH!!!! in "awkward." Among my peers, I was tongue-tied or, worse, spewing ill-considered jokes.
But on stage, I could be someone else. The words were already written. All I had to do was step into someone else's shoes for a bit and say them. And Mr. Steinberg, may his generous heart and glorious sense of humor rest in peace, got that about me like no one else. That wonderful man put me on stage time and again. He taught me how it felt and what it meant to be someone else. Essentially, through theater, he taught me empathy. He taught me conflict. He taught me motivation. He taught me how action and how the things we say (or choose not to say) propel a story forward to its inevitable conclusion.
The best thing I learned from theater, however, was the power of vulnerability. Theater, like any art, forces the creator to make themselves vulnerable. As an actor, you put yourself on stage in front of a room full of people. And those people, in turn, are either suspended in disbelief (which means you're giving a great performance) or judging you (which means you suck). It is so, so hard to put yourself in a situation wherein another human being has free reign to decide that you suck.
Fortunately for me and for anyone who has learned the valuable life lessons theater has to offer, I learned to embrace criticism. I was far less likely to suck on stage if I listened to what my director and my peers had to say about my performance. I was far less likely to suck if I trusted that they were giving me honest feedback with the intent to help me improve. Criticism isn't personal. Criticism, especially when it comes with good will, can push us to be much better than we are. It's no different with critique partners, or beta readers, or sensitivity readers, or agents, or editors. When we receive feedback, it doesn't have to be crushing. Criticism, more often that not, provides opportunities to create something even better than what we had to begin with.
The person most responsible for teaching me this last lesson is a gentleman named Alan Newton. Alan was a grad student in playwriting at the University of Kansas while I was working on my master's degree. He wrote a play called Whiteout, and I was cast in the original production. After the first few rehearsals, I found myself thoroughly impressed with Alan's work ethic. He came to rehearsal each night and took notes as we read through the script. He listened to feedback from the director and the actors. He asked good questions. He carefully considered our answers. Sometimes, he just tweaked a line or slimmed something down. Other times, he would completely rewrite a scene. Sometimes, he stuck to his guns if he felt strongly that our suggestions would take the play away from his overall vision. It was stunning to watch that script grow and evolve and improve. And every step along the way, Alan was thoughtful, gracious, and just plain classy. I remember thinking, even then (and that was a loooooong time ago, I can tell you), "If I ever write something, this is how I'm doing it." Thanks for that, Alan.
Actually, I can't tell you how many times in my life I have been grateful for the skill set I gained via theater. If I have to give a presentation at work, it doesn't faze me; I'm comfortable standing up in front of people. When I've interviewed for jobs, I've been able to think on my feet thanks, in large part, to my theater and improv experience. When I do story time at the library, I don't just read the books. I perform them. And I encourage kids to perform with me. And when kids are encouraged to act out stories, that builds their understanding of narration, an early literacy skin that will aid them when they are ready to learn to read. (I feel compelled to mention here that I am very proud of my Floyd Peterson voice when I read Quit Calling Me a Monster! by Jory John and Bob Shea. Just saying.)
So to writers everywhere: embrace your inner theater geek. That'll get you through the next draft and the next and the next. And your book will be the better for it.