Writers Talk About Writing
How to Survive Until You're Famous or Successful
People I know sometimes talk about writing a bestseller. They usually say it in a joke-y kind of way, but in their secret hearts, I can tell it’s something they desire.
Your own goals may be more modest. Perhaps you want to finish your book? Or publish an article somewhere prestigious like Fast Company or the Harvard Business Review? Or maybe you want to make your hard-to-please boss happy with your words? Whatever your writing goal, I know it’s hard to exist in the liminal space between what you can do and what other people recognize you for.
Have you ever thought that actors face the same type of challenge, only to a much more daunting degree? After all, it’s possible to write without being published. But it’s not possible to act without being seen.
Ann Dowd is a 66-year-old actor achingly familiar with this particular problem. You may know her today as the fearsome Aunt Lydia on the award-winning Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale. But she was 56 years old before her acting career could be called successful. She started her working life intending to become a doctor and instead, switched to acting, spending several years performing in regional theatre in Chicago before moving to New York City.
She had large roles in small films (e.g. Shiloh) or small roles in bigger ones (e.g. The Manchurian Candidate) and guest appearances in many TV shows like Law & Order. Even though she did Broadway three times and earned a rave review from the New York Times for her role as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, her career didn’t take off until she was cast in the 2012 film Compliance.
Reflecting on fame’s late arrival in her life, Dowd spoke at the 2018 Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year Summit held in Los Angeles that year. I think her words might offer reassurance to many writers.
For example, consider Dowd’s “origin” story, which shows her (unwisely) comparing herself to others.
“When I was a young actress,” she recalled, “I was on the way to my waitress job in my black pants and my white shirt and my black tie—glamour is not the word that would come to mind at all. Feminine? No. Nothing. I looked across the street, and there were several limousines parked outside the theater. And I looked at the marquee, and it said, “About Last Night starring Elizabeth Perkins,” who was my classmate. I was going to wait on tables, and she was going to a premiere of her film that would launch her into stardom. I got through the shift, and I went home on my porch, and I wept and screamed into the night, “When?! When is my turn?”
Her turn wasn’t until 26 years later, and here is her advice for anyone struggling with the in-between years. I think it’s equally useful advice for writers:
- “Keep your love story alive—and by love story, I mean the love you have for the work that you do—for it is a pure and powerful dynamic, and it will sustain you. Pay attention and take care of it. We are here to do the work we are able to do, the work we love to do.
- “Celebrate the small victories. Every time I got a role, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I didn’t care if I had two lines or if it was a Broadway opening, which was thrilling. I thought, Oh, my gosh, someone said yes. Someone said, “I see. I agree with you. Go on now.”
- “Stay humble. Stay grateful for every single day and for all that goes on in that given day. I can tell you from experience there is nothing worse than an ego gone wild."
- “Take many trips out of your head and into your heart and soul. That is where freedom lives. That is where lack of judgment lives. And that is where hope and love thrive. It’s a very good compass, that heart and soul. Consider it as often as you can."
- “Put [your phones] down. I promise you this: The answers come with the silence. In the quiet. The answers for you and the secrets that are yours alone to know come in the silence. You don’t find them on the phone or in the computer or on the television."
- “Let the world know in no uncertain terms what you plan to do. Don’t obsess about the details of how. Just let the universe know, “Excuse me. I’m coming. I’ll be here in a minute. And thank you.”
- “[Finally], you do not have to be the best. That’s a whole lot of pressure, darlings. Say no to it.”
I found Dowd’s advice so wise and her story so inspiring I decided to share it with you. (You can see the whole piece here.)
As a writer, always remember that you cannot control how your work is published or how readers react to it. You can only control what YOU do, what YOU create. Don’t let the reactions (or lack of reaction) from others have any impact on you.
And pay particular attention to Dowd’s advice about putting down your phone. The answers to your writing problems always come with silence, not with text messages, emails or games.