Monday, June 7, 2010

Talent's Not Enough by Karin Gillespie

Acting was my first love before writing. When I was a child I saw an audition notice in the paper: “Wanted actors to try out for Alice in Wonderland. Must be twelve and over.”

I begged my mother to take me. She said, “But you’re only eight.”

I said, “Who cares? I want to be Alice. I was born to play her.” Plus I had the requisite long, blond hair.

My mother reluctantly took me, figuring I might get a part as a hedge hog or a playing card, but no, at the end of the day, I got the part. I was Alice.

From then on I kicked butt at auditions, snagging every part I tried out for. In college, I landed the part of Girl in "Hot L Baltimore." My director wasn’t happy with my performance. Not nuanced enough, he said. At first I was defensive. After all, I got every role I’d ever tried out for. What did he know?

But the more I thought about it, the more I knew he was right. I’d been relying solely on talent, but talent can along take an actor so far.

After Hot L Baltimore, I read dozens of books on acting. I read plays aloud constantly, trying hard not to go for the obvious interpretation of a character. All if helped me to become a much better actor. I tried out for another play with the same director and when he cast me he praised my growth. It was an extremely proud moment for me. I felt like I had the right to call myself an actor.

I tell this story because something very similar happened to me in my writing career. When I became a mother and could no longer take time for community theater, I focused on writing. I had some very early successes: cover stories in my local alternative newspaper and a positions as a freelance theater reviewer and editor of a parenting magazine.

When I tried my hand at novel writing, I wrote one practice novel that I stuck under my be to live with the dust bunnies, but my second novel was published. I’ve heard that’s unusual—that most people write several novels before getting a contract.

My first novel also ended up being a lead title, (also unusual) and it was optioned for film. My publishing company took out full-page ads in several publications and sent me on an eight-city book tour. The novel was part of a series, and the support continued. The whole time I felt a little bit like an imposter.

When I was done writing the series, I wrote a stand alone novel, It was incredibly difficult to write and took two years and countless revisions to finish. Then I wrote another untitled novel that I toyed with for three years. I kept working on it, but, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t ever get it right. I didn’t know what to do. Why was writing getting harder instead of easier?

Before I put another word on paper, I decided it was time to go back and get some schooling. I enrolled in an MFA program, which has been invaluable but I also started to devour books on fiction writing, especially on structure and character motivations. I found John Truby’s Anatomy of a Story to be a lifesaver as well as The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler. I also think Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog is amazing.

Now I know exactly what’s wrong with my untitled, unsold novel and one day I’ll go back and fix it. In the mean time,armed with all sorts of new knowledge, I wrote another novel, which I hope will be my next published work. Although the writing was difficult (that’ll never change) at last, I finally feel like I know what I’m doing. I also fell in love with writing all over again. Even if I never publish another book, I can unequivocally and proudly say: I am a writer.

If you're a writer, what happened to make you feel validated? Did you ever have a writing setback that ended up being a blessing in disguise?


Susan Cushman said...

Great post, Karin. I've got three unpublished books hanging out with the dust bunnies--one finished novel and two unfinished memoirs. Now I'm writing book number four, which I hope will be the one that makes it into the world of published books. But I think getting essays published made me feel validated as a writer. Someone once told me that being published makes you an author, but writing makes you a writer. Your thoughts?

Karin Gillespie said...

Thanks for commenting, Susan. I felt like a writer when I first got published, but it was funny, when people asked me what I did for a living, for the longest time I had trouble saying, "I'm a writer" even though my writing did support me.

I still feel weird saying and I can't say whey exactly as my husband, who is a musician, has no trouble at all.

Anonymous said...

Great blog from a great writer, Karin.

Peggy Webb said...

Any career in the arts is a roller coaster ride - the peaks, the valleys, the fear of being derailed.

The key to a great book, a great movie, a great play is to create characters who will take the reader/audience on an interesting, unexpected journey that leaves them satisfied at the end.

Lisa said...

Hey dts great...nice read...

Check this talented guy mimicing/acting like Shahrukh Khan

JLC said...

I still have trouble with the claim that I'm a writer, and I could never have made a living at it, I imagine. Now in my eighties, I feel validated less by my published stories and novels, than by my unpaid essays and reviews that appear on The reason is the company in which I find myself. If you're one of a group of real pros and talented amateurs, it's heartening, to say the least.
Your blog is a constant inspiration, and thank you for it.

Anonymous said...

Hey, good for you, returning to school! Life is a continual learning process, I always say.
As for me, I felt validated as a "writer" when I began writing travel articles for Bonjour Paris. BUT didn't feel validated as an "author" until that call came 2 yr. from Kensington for a two book contract.
Wishing you all the best, Karin and keep us posted.

Ad Hudler said...

You know, Karin, it might be interesting to have the blog topic some month be "MFAs: Helpful or Hurtful."'s a question that many writers face at one time. And both sides have great points.