Acting Like a Writer

You’re a writer – you know how it goes. You work, work, work, and write and create and think and write and… wait a second, does that mean you ARE a writer?

A long time ago – let us not count the years – I had a fairly successful community theater career, doing play after play with one particular director. I knew how to work with him, and we put on some pretty good shows.

I got brave at some point and auditioned for the role of Atticus Finch in a much larger community theater production of To Kill a Mockingbird. A theater in Los Angeles County. You know, where the real actors are. Gulp.

Trust me, there’s a writer’s story in this.

So, I didn’t get cast as Atticus Finch, but as Heck Tate, the sheriff that works with Atticus in finding justice for Tom Robinson, the African American accused of raping the very white Mayella Ewell. It was a beautiful production, but I had an impossible time with the director. He never gave me any direction at all. Not even where to stand to deliver my lines.

I got so frustrated that finally I spoke to him, asking him why he wasn’t working with me.

“You gotta decide if you’re an actor or not,” was his curt reply.

Okay, Mister Big Pants, I thought to myself. You want acting? I’ll show you acting. I’m going to do this character the way I think it should be done, so watch out. Of course I didn’t say that, choosing something more demure, like “Okay” instead.

BUT, the next rehearsal, I reached right down there inside of Heck Tate’s soul and delivered the lines the way Heck Tate would’ve said them, feeling how I would have felt if I was the sheriff and the problems he faced were my own. Whatever the director thought, I didn’t care. That’s how I was going to do it.

“I’ve been waiting for you to get there,” was how he responded. That’s when it occurred to me that I’d been doing the lines, but relying on the director to tell me how to feel. I had been acting like an actor, but never really acting.

The show, and my Heck Tate, was all great – rave reviews, yadda yadda yadda. During the last week of our production, I got invited to read for the role of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, which I got and played to sold out houses in an even more prestigious theater. And on to a series of leading roles and cool stage successes, including Harvey, for which the portrait in the header was painted.

So, the writer’s tale?

You’re a writer, right? You know how it goes. Here’s how it went for me:

The first draft of my first book served to prove that I could write a book. I was so dang thrilled that I’d written a book.

It was a very bad book – I cringe to think of it.

I was acting like a writer. Slaving away, spewing out scores upon scores of words.

So, I found a literary agent who read through my rewrites, three or four of them, each time saying “it has no heart.”

Finally I got that I had been writing about the characters, but not as the characters themselves. I had been acting like a writer – doing everything but writing well. Writing as the characters, seeing the universe through their eyes, was actually writing.

Are you picking up what I’m laying down?

I’ve just finished the last rewrite of the rewrite of a novel I’ve been trying to rewrite for years, understanding that the original is lackluster. Because. It. Has. No. Heart.

The new version features a character with whom I totally identify – the seventeen year old version of myself. I like this kid, and now the story has heart. And legs, because I can see the world through his eyes. And peering through his heart has led me to see the heart of each of the other characters. It’s so much fun, but so much work!

On a side note, my sweet border collie/cocker spaniel is speaking to me with his deep brown eyes, telling me that I’ve spent too long at the computer. Wouldn’t I rather scratch his belly? He’s fifteen, and I don’t know how many more requests I will get…

Anyway, until you can write from inside the heads of your characters, and really, inside their hearts, maybe you’re only at acting at being a writer.

Now, I get some time with my dear old friend.

Author: John D Reinhart

Author, technical writer, videographer, actor, and naval historian John D Reinhart is a very busy guy. You can find his novels as

2 thoughts on “Acting Like a Writer”

  1. From the heart of a writer comes the truth of his convictions. Well said. I admire your courage and appreciate your honesty. Please reference your latest book. I’d like to read it.

    1. Thank you for the kind comments, Buzzard. The newest version to which I refer hasn’t been published yet – it’s in the hands of my favorite editor. I’m sure she’ll send it back into the garage for a new engine, but we can hope! Thanks again!

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