I wanted to be a writer. Always. Yet when I was graduating from college, I remember sitting on the steep back stairs to the yard of my family’s house in Johnstown, Pa, and thinking “I can’t do it. Who am I fooling? I could never be good enough to get published.”
It didn’t help that a faculty member had tried to discourage me—not because he thought I couldn’t write but because he thought writing would make me unhappy. He said, “Look at women writers. You’re not bad-looking enough to be a writer. They all look terrible and they’re very unhappy.” He implied I would never marry or find love if I pursued this ugly-making profession.
I sat on those back steps and decided I would take the invitation to join graduate school in theatre. Theatre, at least, wasn’t lonely. From painting scenery to doing coffee runs, there was group effort all around.
Little did I know as I directed plays, got an MFA, then a PH.D., that I was training to be a writer. Theatre, it turns out, is terrific training. You learn that every word counts, that there has to be a significant motivation for characters to do anything and there have to be obstacles. You learn that there needs to be enough at stake.
And you learn that there must be a role for the audience. That is, the audience has to be engaged, either because they are dying to know what will happen next or because they know something a character doesn’t know and they are worried about that character’s finding out. You learn that people will fall asleep if the tension doesn’t mount. And you learn not to spend all the passion on the first moments because you have to keep building the scene. And then, in theatre, almost nothing that is said should be taken at simple face value. There is the subtext or the real meaning going on underneath.
Theatre takes energy and commitment to each moment. So does writing. Complex motives work best on stage. Ditto in novels. If a character is self-pitying, we lose pity. If that character soldiers through, we care deeply. On stage. On the page.
All that time, I was training. I didn’t know it. But the lessons stuck. One summer, with nothing to direct, I sat with a pen and paper and began to tell stories that sprang from my imagination. I tried various voices. I explored my history. I mined the stories of relatives. I did all the things new writers do.
One summer, I said to myself, “What would I write if I wrote something dramatic and highly plotted?” I started to make notes. The notes turned into paragraphs and then to pages. I called the police, then the FBI for information. Soon I had a lot of pages and eventually a novel. But it was as if all along I were directing scenes. I knew the staging, I saw it. I heard the voices as if I were coaching actors in those one-to one sessions I was known for.
Many doctors and lawyers and journalists write novels. And they have their ways into the craft. But an awful lot of novelists come from a theatre background as well. Storytelling gets into the blood and muscles as you work in theatre. You don’t want to waste an exit or an entrance. Those moments need to be sharp. They need to mean something.
Sometimes detours are the best way to get someplace.
Kathleen George is the author of A MEASURE OF BLOOD, just out, and the forthcoming novel THE JOHNSTOWN GIRLS, due in April. She is also the editor of PITTSBURGH NOIR. Previous novels are TAKEN, FALLEN, AFTERIMAGE, THE ODDS (Edgar finalist, best novel), HIDEOUT, and SIMPLE. She teaches theatre and writing at Pitt.