Writing Better First Drafts: Alive is Better than Observant

Lesson 2: Alive Is Better Than Observant My second lesson about approaching first drafts came onstage in Portland. Like lesson one, the experience had nothing to do with writing. As a writer, if you are drawn to writing, then you are a natural observer of people, situations, and conflict. You can cleverly connect what you observe and what you know about the world to abstract situations. You have an ability to phrase things in fresh, new ways, as you create stories and characters, while you’re hidden away in your room at your desk, that’s near a window, looking out on to the world. All of which is very safe. Acting on stage, in contrast, is scary. When polling people about what they fear most, acting or public speaking statistically places second-after test pilot and before death. So, slightly less scary than piloting untested planes and slightly scarier than death. Death: Less scary than stage acting. But if you actually delve into acting, you learn to trust those nerves (they never go away). You begin to gain wisdom from those nerves. What you learn onstage is the value of risk. What do I mean by risk? In theater, you are seemingly naked and exposed up on that stage. Even when reciting the playwright’s words, it’s you out there. And you must express something truthful and honest about yourself or you’ll come across fake…and you’ll crash and burn (like a test pilot). On stage, you have to be so clear on how you feel about what you’re saying, or what you say will seem false. And you’ll know it. The audience will know it. And it will be an excruciatingly painful experience. Beyond knowing how you feel, you also have to mean it—you have to commit physically and emotionally to telling your character’s story—or you’ll fall horrifically flat onstage and in public. There is an upside, of course. Stage acting teaches you that the more you commit, the more clear you become. The more you risk and expose, the more you feel the audience takes your side. They’re rooting for you. They’re with you. Instead of crashing and burning (death), you now feel incredibly alive. And so was your performance…evidenced by the audience standing in applause. Acting on stage teaches you what storytelling needs to be: risky, dramatic, emotionally truthful. So many storytellers hide safely behind technique. Yet it’s not about pretty dance moves—ask any choreographer. It’s not about hitting high notes—ask any conductor. Nor is it about subtle turns of phrase or about being a fly on the wall reporting what you see. Storytelling is about exploring how it feels to be alive. If writing your story doesn’t inspire conflict in you, your audience isn’t going to feel any tension. If your characters don’t surprise you, there won’t be any mystery in it for your audience. If your story doesn’t feel emotionally dangerous to write, your audience isn’t going to feel much either. Put yourself (your writing) out there “onstage.” Tell the truth in a way that exposes some truth about you. Be dramatic, so that others can feel what you feel. Let your voice come through. And if you’re not sure what that means…take an acting class, or an improv class, or a comedy class. I dare you.    

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