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Writing fiction vs directing plays

A friend recently asked me how writing novels compares to directing plays. A fair question. Here’s my best attempt to answer his question. If you don’t know me very well, I directed plays for forty-three years, but I’ve only been writing for three, so that’s obviously a big difference.

Also obvious is the fact that, if I spent more than four decades in the theater, there must have been something very special about it.

It’s hard to imagine anything that quite compares to directing and mounting a theatrical production. Think of it: you rehearse the play for somewhere between five and eight weeks, depending on the scope of the piece – and then, at the end of the rehearsal period, you have this incredibly beautiful product to present to an audience. Where else can a person create something so tangible and so special in such a short time? I used to wonder if house builders felt like I did when their project was complete, but I’ve recently been observing the construction of a beautiful home in our town, and I would guestimate the project took a good year or more, from start to finish.

Writing a novel is more like building a house. My first novel took me a year to write and my second novel took me two years. The good news is the book is now here forever, making it very special. The process of directing a play, accomplished in a much shorter time period, is ephemeral. The day after “closing night,” the play is gone forever, which is, in its own way, a special quality about the theatrical experience.

Another big plus for theater is that it’s a true collaborative art. As a director, I enjoyed working with actors, musicians, set designers and builders, and costume and prop people to make my vision a reality. My memories of the teamwork involved are good ones with very few exceptions. Very few indeed!

And then, still another plus, is when the play is ready, a live audience comes to see it, sometimes hundreds – and we who created the production are given immediate and tangible feedback through a custom known as a curtain call. 

Writing is certainly a more solitary process. Thankfully, I get to collaborate with a few people like my editing/advising team as well as a cover designer and other folks I seek out to assist me with research or to contribute as beta readers who offer valuable input about my book. If you know me, you know that my wife Fran and I started out as partners in directing plays. When our daughters entered their later teenage years, they began to collaborate with us on the directing side of the table. That hasn’t changed. These days, my daughter Mia is my main partner in writing, working alongside me as my editor, and Fran is my main beta reader, giving plenty of helpful input on my work. My oldest daughter Gina and even my grandson Michael are involved as well, giving me their input on marketing and the use of social media.

As far as writing feedback goes, it’s lovely receiving positive reviews or messages from supporters, but not everyone who reads a book takes the time to review a book, unlike theater where the entirety of the audience shows their appreciation during the curtain call.

As far as the actual creative experiences of mounting a production versus writing a book, I would have to call the processes equal for me. In fact, I might give writing a higher score in this case because the plays I directed were written by someone else. In the case of writing, the characters and the stories, even if they are loosely based on real people and situations, are a product of my imagination. There is something very special about that.

Also, while directing plays was, more often than not, an emotionally enriching experience, the writing of fiction has provided more catharsis for me. Both of my first two novels brought me to tears on a good many occasions as I sat before my computer composing. You see, as a play director, I felt connected to the characters, like Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha or Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, but as a writer, there is a much deeper connection to characters I have created myself. I love this quote I recently found, which is by a very wise man called “Unknown”:

I am a writer.

The characters I create

aren’t me.

They are a part of me. They are the part of me who is

the adventurer

the romantic

the warrior

the princess

the hero

the villain

the freak

the friend.

They are the parts I hide.

The parts I wish to be.

The parts I have been

and the parts I will be.

So, my conclusion is – the two activities have important similarities and profound differences. If I sound like I miss directing, the truth is, I don’t. Forty-three years is a long time, and I had my fill to be sure. The truth is, I am now seventy-one years old, and I don’t feel it’s in my body to direct a major theatrical production. I also don’t feel I have the stomach for it – because directing a play can be a pressure cooker! 

That said, after retiring from the theater in 2019, I knew I still had plenty of creative juice in the old tank, and writing has filled the void quite nicely. Retirement and writing go perfectly together. I can set my own schedule and work at my own pace. I feel that writing keeps my mind sharp and healthy, and I like working with my own imagination. You might say that I have reinvented myself in retirement! 

I love this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.”

I’ve learned that I am two things: a creator and a storyteller. For forty-three years, I told stories written by others, and now, using my imagination, I am writing my own stories.

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