Rachel Michelberg: How acting made me a better writer

My writing teacher, Laura, looked up from the paper, incredulity in her eyes. “This is a first draft?”

Uh oh. I flinched. I’d just started my writing journey; this was the second of a monthly memoir writing class. Several of us, mostly women, were nestled on large pillows on the floor of a lovely cottage space in Santa Cruz, California. I had no training or experience as a real writer and fully expected my first draft to be shitty.

“Y…yes,” I mumbled, fearful of the impending critique. But Laura was smiling. “This is wonderful. So many great sensory details, and really natural dialogue. You brought us right into the heart of the scene. Well done!”

Needless to say, I was thrilled. Since that day ten years ago, I’ve pondered how and why scene writing was my favorite aspect of the process. Musing, transitions, summary–not so much. But give me a scene to write and I’ll gleefully roll up my sleeves and dig in. Why? Because I’m an actor.

I’ve been on stage since I was five and played the Little Red Hen in kindergarten. I cried because I didn’t get to play one of the pigs and wear pink, my favorite color. My mother convinced me that being the lead would make up for not wearing pink and what do you know, she was right. The acting bug bit me hard and I still haven’t recovered. As a singing teacher and vocal coach, I’m much more excited by exploring motivation, expression, and intention with my students than the mechanics of vocal technique.

Read Her Like an Open Book has moved to Substack. This account will become inactive on April 30. Please visit the new home at billwolfe.substack.com.

So how does the craft of acting support me as a writer?

1. I know how to create a vivid character.

We need readers to connect with our story on a visceral level. There’s no question that creating distinctive characters is a crucial element to that end, particularly in fiction but also in memoir. When sitting down to do a table read (usually the first rehearsal of any play), the actors are expected to have thought through–though not necessarily fully developed–several elements of their character: backstory, motivation, physical characteristics, vocal patterns. The words on the page are just a starting point.

A thoughtful writer will also flesh out each character in the same manner. In memoir, we are re-creating our cast of characters from memory, usually inventing (while staying as close to recollection as possible) what might have been said or thought. In fiction, those scenes need to be created from scratch. Either way, consider these factors when developing your characters:

  • Background/Backstory: In addition to the obvious (i.e., age, gender identification, occupation), what kind of family is this character from? Siblings? Did they have a happy childhood? Traumatic events? Relationship with others in the story?
  • Motivation/Intention: What drives the character to make certain choices? Why? What feeds their soul, and has that need been met?  Most of my stage work and that of my students (I’m a vocal coach) is in musical theater. In virtually every show there’s an “I Want” song. Ariel wants to be human in “Part of Your World.” Tevye wants a different lifestyle in “If I Were a Rich Man.” I love to watch the light bulb go on for my students when we determine motivation; it’s truly a game-changer. 
  • Physical vocabulary: This one is a personal favorite. What is their posture, slumped or straight? Would this person fidget with their clothes, play with their hair, chew on their fingernails? We all have mannerisms, some more pronounced than others. Assigning unique gestures and/or idiosyncrasies–nonverbal communication–will bring focus to that character’s humanity and individuality, whether on the stage or on the page.

When I sit down to write a scene, I won’t necessarily walk around the room as if I were on a stage. I will, however, say the line I’ve written out loud and observe what my body does, my facial expression. In my upcoming memoir, Crash: How I Became a Reluctant Caregiver, my husband David has sustained a traumatic brain injury. I’m overcome with emotion as I’m surrendering his driver’s license at the DMV:

The clerk looks like he would rather be anywhere else. “Do you need to sit down?”

God, I’m making a scene. “No thanks, I’m OK. Sorry.” A little snort escapes, a laugh/cry. Pull yourself together.

I’m not sure I would have thought of the snort if I hadn’t acted it out while writing that scene. In fact, I don’t know if I actually snorted, but it can happen when one is blubbering, so I utilized it to create a vivid sense of my conflicting emotions.

  • Diction/vocal patterns: Is the character’s voice scratchy, deep, nasal? Do they mumble? In the film Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger’s character of Ennis mumbled to the point of almost incomprehension. Why did the actor choose that vocal device? Ennis was blocked, terrified of revealing himself and his sexuality – literally afraid of opening his mouth for fear of what might come out. As writers we too can bring great definition to our characters: “The nasal, piercing timbre of his voice annoyed me.” “Her sing-songy intonation lulled me into a trance-like state.”

2.  I employ subtext by examining internal monologue. 

This device is so critical to developing character that I’m giving it its own category. It’s all about subtext: what is this person really thinking vs. what they’re saying. Another of my writing teachers, Susan Brown, encouraged her students to dig deeper by asking, “Who am I kidding? What I was really thinking was…” She had us make a chart by drawing a vertical line down a piece of paper, with “External plot” on the left and “Internal monologue” on the right. Here’s a sample from my chart for Crash,when David and I were both in different hospitals; an infection had landed me in the hospital six weeks after David’s accident.

External plot: I’m still in the hospital on David’s 45th birthday. We have a phone conversation.

Internal monologue: I should call him on his birthday, but I’m dreading it. Will he remember me? He is amiable but we have nothing to say to each other, he’s like a complete stranger. Afterward I feel terrified. This person is my husband? How is that going to work? I can’t carry on a two-minute conversation with him without feeling like I can’t wait to hang up.

3. I set the scene.

As rehearsals (and drafts) progress, we need to imagine what happened before and what happens after the scene. No one just walks into a room (or onto the stage) without an intention. Where were they going and why? Where are they going when they leave? What’s happening in between appearances?  When I’m about to make an entrance on the stage, although I’ve been hanging out in the dressing room, I need to get into character.

As the title character in Carmen, my first entrance is after a fight with another worker in a cigarette factory. I need to imagine…Did she pull my hair? Do I have painful scratches? Am I smug that I hurt her as well? Answers to those questions will define Carmen’s attitude, state of mind, and physical vocabulary.

Every single one of the devices that I listed can and should be applied to writing as well as acting. Both are the process of storytelling, of creating realistic, organic characters and situations that the reader–or the audience–won’t forget. I’m grateful that I have two platforms for self-expression that complement each other so beautifully.

Rachel Michelberg grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and still lives there with her husband Richard and their two dogs, Nala and Beenie. She earned her Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from San Jose State University and has performed leading roles in musicals and opera from Carmen to Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Crash: How I Became a Reluctant Caregiver (She Writes Press) is her first book. 

Author photo by Alicia Telfer


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