You’ve Got To Live The Moment

By John Gilstrap

There was a time in my life when I thought I wanted to be an actor. As I mentioned in a post back in January, I was cast as Lamar in one of the world’s first amateur productions of “Godspell.” (In the picture, I’m the guy with the striped pants and socks.) Every performance was sold out. In fact, we had to add additional performances, and those, too, were sold out. My solo song was “All Good Gifts” and every performance got a standing ovation. I even got a fan letter from a freshman cheerleader–much younger than I, who, at the ancient age of 17, could not be seen fraternizing with a lower classman (classperson?). It was very heady stuff.

I didn’t think I was very good in the role, but who was I to judge, right? And what a rush! Applause was SO way more exciting than lots of speaker points from the judges of debate tournaments. I was writing stories pretty steadily even back then, and I remember speaking to my buddy Steve (he’s the guy in the yellow pants and sport coat) that maybe one day I could write a play and star in it.

The next play on the schedule was Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”–quite a pivot from “Godspell”–and I won the role of George Gibbs. Buddy Steve (who went on to a wonderful career on Broadway and later in TV commercials) was the Stage Manager. Those are arguably the two male leads in the show.

For those who are unfamiliar with the “Our Town”, the titles of the three acts pretty much describe the story, which is set in Grover’s Corner New Hampshire in 1901: Act One-Daily Life; Act Two-Love and Marriage; Act 3-Death and Eternity. George Gibbs (my character) falls in love with Emily Webb, who ultimately dies, leaving George bereft.

Yeah, the feel good play of the year.

(I hear you purists out there already, warming up your computers to tell me how superficial my interpretation of the play is, but stand down. If you read on, you’ll see that that’s kind of my point.)

In “Godspell”, I got to perform. I got to sing and dance and do pantomime, but I never really had to act. Sure, there’re the crucifixion scene, but that was designed as a scene-chewer. Plus, it was sung, and ultimately danced.

“Our Town” flipped that formula solidly on its head. That role was all acting. I was expected to make other people’s words come to life, and I had no idea what I was doing. There’s a scene in Act 3 where George is alone at Emily’s gravesite, speaking to her, and he comes unglued. This is the Big Moment of the play, and I had nothin’. Not only had I never experienced real loss–hell, even my first dog was still alive at the time–but I grew up in a family where crying was shameful.

Now I was supposed to cry in front of all my high school buddies? I couldn’t do it.

Full disclosure: I guess I faked it okay because we got more standing O’s from the audience and no one kicked my ass for my performance. (Full disclosure redux: Parents and friends are not the most punishing reviewers.)

I hated the whole experience. I hated the emotional exposure, and I hated the notion of making a fool of myself live and in color on the stage. It wasn’t the crowd that bothered me–hell, I’ve always liked a crowd. It was the notion of someone seeing behind the curtain to reveal the real me, who was far different than the me I worked very hard to project.

Did I mention that I was 17 years old?

As an aside, about 25 years later, I was on the staff of the Virginia Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. It was a monthlong residential program where rising juniors in high school gathered at the University of Richmond with the best fellow singers and dancers and actors from high schools throughout the state. I was teaching screenwriting at the time, but we had to teach an interdisciplinary course as well, so I developed one called “Truth and Labeling” in which kids explored the differences between who they pretended to be and who they really were. The course was a big hit. Just sayin’.

So, what does any of this have to do with writing? Here it is: Just as actors have to learn to bare their emotions and their feelings to the audience, we fiction writers have to find a way to do that on the page. If the sad parts don’t make us cry when we write, and the funny parts don’t make us chuckle, then we’re just phoning in our performance, and the reading audience will see right through it.

To be believed, you need to live the moment on the page. We talk about first lines and inciting events and characterization, and all of those things are important, but none of them are as vital as true emotion spilled onto the page. On those rare occasions when you find yourself squarely in the zone, the words are flying onto the page and you know that you are channeling something raw into the characters on the page, understand that you’re flirting with your bestseller moment.

Once it’s committed to the page, save it, print it, do whatever you have to do to preserve it, and then promise yourself not to touch it. Not to edit a word. That is your heart, as recorded live and in color as it presented itself. It’s important stuff, even if you never use it in your story, because it documents you. The real you.

When you return to the WIP and you write the second (or fifteenth) draft, you can edit and change that magical piece however you want, or not at all, to fit the story’s needs, but treasure the raw source material it came from.

Now that I’m more than a few years older than 17, I think that I would like to try my hand at acting again. I have a lot more life to tap into, and after a few million words in print, I think I’ve pretty much peeled the curtain away.

That audience is very enticing. I still like the sound of applause.

Now, if I could just find a way to edit my performance live on the stage.

What say you, TKZ family? Do you have it in you to get honest on the page?

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in Fairfax, VA.

20 thoughts on “You’ve Got To Live The Moment

  1. Thanks for the interesting question this morning, John. I think that writers really don’t have a choice when it comes to showing emotion. Thomas Wolfe, for all his sins, did that very effectively in Look Homeward, Angel. I read that at a somewhat early age and passages still echo in my head after lo these many years. He may have used thirty words when two would do but I remember every one of those thirty. I identified with a lot of it. I still do. He let it all out there and we have to do it too.

    Have a great week, John!

  2. So true. I believe actors — like lawyers — have one leg up when they turn to writing. They’re projecting imagined personalities, convincing their audience of their believability. Look at Mishima, Robert Shaw, Tom Hanks.

  3. It took a long time for me to be willing to put “me” on the page, because it wasn’t really “me” but I was afraid readers would think it was. But if you can’t tap into emotions, your characters are cardboard.

  4. Interesting post, John. Good points to probe our writing. Just as our characters connect with readers via emotion, our characters are built with emotions that are part of us. If we don’t “get real” while building the characters, they won’t connect with the reader.

    Interesting history of your acting carrier. I hope you can find your way onto the stage again.

  5. Love this, John. This part is easy for me – I started writing TO spill my heart. I’m sometimes surprised by what ends up on the page. I realize what I really think when I read what I wrote. It helps, getting all the confusion out and on the page – where I can see it clearly.

  6. For a long time, when I submitted to agents/editors, a recurring criticism from them was the characters felt “distant.” Huh? Finally figured out what they were missing was raw emotion.

    Writers have to dig inside a character’s head (what are they thinking?) AND heart (what are they feeling?).

    Easier said than done. Thanks for the reminder, John.

  7. Good morning, John. Very thought-provoking post.

    I find some characters are much easier to write than others, and I’m sure it’s because I identify with them and know what they’re feeling.

    Understanding how to take the reader on an emotional journey through a puzzle-solving mystery is very hard for me.

  8. This was a tough one for me, John, and a big reason why I think it took me as long as it did to be able to write fiction that worked. I was afraid of exposing myself. I’d had a traumatic childhood in many respects, and it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I came into my own. It took a lot longer to be able to connect with my own feelings. When I was in college, I devoured Dorthea Brande’s “On Becoming A Writer,” doing her well-thought out exercises on getting to the heart of who I was at a writer, but I wasn’t successful. It took more time.

    But it was worth it. Our voice(s) as writers springs from who we are, and how we feel, and we have to be willing to expose those feelings and experiences on the page.

  9. I have no problem slipping into a character’s skin and spilling emotions on to the page. It’s funny you posted this today. Just this morning a reader asked me how much of me, how much truth, is in my thrillers. My answer: The emotions are real, but not necessarily the circumstances that surround them.

    Those striped pants remind me of Robin Williams as Mork!

  10. John, I love this post.

    I’ve read some novels that I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t like. For a few, as I think about it, it’s because the scenes that should have been tearjerkers . . . weren’t. I remember one scene in one novel where a husband and wife were driving separate cars to the same destination, and she witnessed him being t-boned in an intersection. He died right in front of her. And for some reason, the author did not have her react realistically, like with tears.

    I’m so glad to say this: my two WIPs I’m finishing up have spots in them that bring tears to my eyes, and other spots I still laugh out loud at, because I’ve lived the scene in real life.

    So, I guess I’ll carry on. Thanks for the encouraging word this morning. 🙂

  11. I had the honor of being at an interview between Thom Christopher and a college senior with a major in drama. Thom’s career included Broadway, prime time TV, soaps, and movies. Lots of major awards including some Emmys. They were talking craft and getting into characters, the research, etc., and what they do is very much what I’ve always done to get into my characters. Except I’m all the characters in the scene, I design the set, I’m the director, and I’m God, all at once. Poor sad actors.

  12. Thanks for the thought provoking post. Those raw source moments have only happened a handful of times for me so far. But at least now I recognize them and know enough to save and cherish them for inspiration.

    p.s. Godspell is one of my favorite musicals and “All Good Gifts” is an awesome song. I hope you get to reprise your role again soon.

  13. He’s written 22½ works for the stage. Obviously, he loves theatre. At 15, his first role was Wally, in Our Town. Wally dies. In the cemetery scene, listening to Emily’s good-bye speech, a blue spot irritated his eyes and made them tear up, he told himself. Many years later, he took an acting class, where his first side was a cornered killer. He thought it would take a half-minute or so to get into the mood and read, but he was there in an instant. He’s played many roles since, and has had to wipe his eyes on stage on several occasions.

    So he should be able to put that on the page, right? No. He writes emotions with great difficulty. He writes with a different part of his brain than the one he feels and acts with.

    The two are more separate than most, perhaps because they need to be. When he was 17, his dad passed away and left him frozen in that moment of unending grief.

  14. Very interesting. I thought I was going to be a musician of some kind when I was in High School. Even went to a high school dedicated to the art.

    In my case, I find it funny since I have worked the last 25 years in Industrial Construction. 21-year-old me would never believe how I live as an adult. And I’m the Safety Manager of the company-yikes!

    At least I can do an impressive set of Jazz Hands.

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