The XX Factor

I Used to Act Private in Public, Now I Act Public in Private

I’m frequently asked about my transition from actor to writer, the assumption being that these two vocations are poles apart: one a gregarious career (acting), the other more solitary (writing). I haven’t found this to be true. As an actor, I spent inordinate amounts of time alone between gigs, isolating, thinking, fretting, while carrying on desultory conversations in my head with the many voices and characters of my inner-world. Nowhere to go with this material, I just kept it on an endless loop, festering in the far reaches of my unconscious, as if being out of work much of the time didn’t make me crazy enough.

After 20 years of slogging it out, my “acting career” hadn’t materialized the way I had envisioned, but other things had: a life, with a husband and a baby girl, living in the city I love. And all of a sudden, I began to feel very brave; I started to think about what happened with my failed career and why. The thought terrified me, so I knew I was onto something. I would sit nursing my baby, thinking of all the stories I had to tell her-stories about my life, some funny, some sad-and finally, one day while my daughter was sleeping, I sat down and typed one into my computer. Then another, and another, until I had a few stories completed and the idea for a memoir. I remembered a free developmental writing group with an open admission policy from my days in the theatre called Naked Angels Tuesdays@9 wherein each week, playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, memoirists, short-storywriters, singer-songwriters, and actors would get together to hear new work “hot-off-the-presses.” There was no feedback, no “industry” types invited; Tuesdays was all about providing a safe place for writers to get a sense-sheerly through audience response-of what clicked. I signed up, and as often as they would have me, read my pages aloud to 100 people I didn’t know.

My drama school mentor David Mamet had taught that acting isn’t about magic; it’s about exercising your will. I found the same to be true for writing. And the acting techniques he taught me applied as well to the writer’s craft: What is the character doing? What do they want? What did it look like, taste like, smell like? How did you feel? How did you really feel? Though many people think that to be a good actor, one has to be a good liar or a good “faker,” the opposite is true: A good actor is expert at telling the truth under imaginary circumstances. It takes a lot of work to get to those truths, a lot of faith and trust, and I can’t think of any better standard for writing-or any art-than to be duty-bound to excavate the truth.

Two years after I started writing down my stories, I showed three of them to a writer friend who enthusiastically recommended that I send them to her literary agent. Amazingly, he took me on, then helped me shape a proposal he sent out to publishers. A month later, I had a book contract. As I stood stunned, crying tears of joy to my reflection in the mirror, I suddenly realized that my home office (and by “home office” I mean walk-in closet with a makeshift plywood plank cum desk that sits atop two mismatched file cabinets; it’s cluttered, way too dark, with décor best described as Morocco Meets New England Tag-Sale, With a Soupcon of Hindu, and it’s absolute heaven …) would not suffice. It was one thing to write a few stories in a closet-but a whole book? Besides, by that time, my toddler knew how to open the closet door. I looked into office space but quickly discovered it to be unaffordable, so I joined a workspace for writers in the Village called Paragraph , where, for a reasonable fee, I could have a desk and a lamp. I set up my schedule according to when I had babysitting: Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, from 10-5, I would spend the day at Paragraph. Later, when my daughter was in preschool or on play-dates, I would also work on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a few hours in my groovy, little closet. I tried not to work at night or on weekends, but there were times it was unavoidable-like when I was finishing the first and second drafts of the manuscript and on a tight deadline. Not having all the time in the world was a good thing for me: It made me focus, concentrate and commit-to my book and to myself. Did it mean that every day, every hour was well spent? No. There were plenty of times I thought I was kidding myself; that I was wasting my money, time, and precious moments with my kid.

“Ohhhhh! You’re the mother!” a neighborhood mom squealed one day when I took my daughter to the park. “We only ever see your husband and the babysitter …”

I worried so often that I was a terrible writer and, worse, a terrible mother, that I frequently wanted to fling myself onto 14th Street. But, as a writer I’ve learned that even more crucial than discipline is self-forgiveness. The more I can forgive myself for falling short of my expectations-something, by the way, I was never able to do as an actor-the more I know that I will show up day after day to face the blank page and at the same time, my own insecurities.

If acting is “the art of behaving private in public,” as one of my acting teachers once put it, then perhaps writing is the art of behaving public in private. Either way, the idea is to put it out there and then … let go. So now, instead of the convivial rehearsal rooms of my days in the theatre, the good (and bad) performances between curtains, the camaraderie of the greenroom, or the post-performance revelries, I spend my days at my desk, where I sit in front of a computer, by myself but certainly never alone. I am with the people I write about, the people with whom I have shared my life and experiences, and most of all, I am with myself, finally able to connect to feelings long ago buried, daring to answer questions I had once been too afraid even to ask.

Photograph of Nancy Balbirer courtesy of the author.