How I Became a Writer by Deb Danielle Younge-Ullman

All week I’ve been wracking my brain for something clever and/or deep to say about stereotypes. The Oppressor (aka my husband, Michael) suggested I turn it around and talk about “types of stereos” and earlier today I seriously considered haiku or possibly writing in iambic pentameter.

But finally, just as I’ve run out of time and must write something, I’ve realized I could tell you about how I came to be a writer.

I was the stereotypical actor. (see? there’s the tie-in.) I was working as a waitress, a temp and (most depressing) an extra between acting jobs. I wanted to do classical theatre–Shakespeare, Chekhov or perhaps a bit of Pinter, Sartre, Caryl Churchill. And of course I wasn’t averse to TV stardom or even Hollywood, should such a wondrous thing occur. What I ended up doing was lots of romantic comedy, farce, the occasional commercial or indie film and thousands of hours of dubbing English for a Japanese TV network.

Even though I wasn’t getting the work I aspired to, I loved the theatre. I loved the people, the rehearsals, the buzz on stage when everything came together and started to cook. I even loved travelling to small towns in the middle of nowhere to perform for audiences that were mostly made up of senior citizens. I loved not having a “regular” job.

But I started to see the gap widen–the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. I watched Michael blow into Toronto and get into Stratford on his very first try (after I’d auditioned for four years in a row without even a callback) and I lived, vicariously, an experience I was dying to have myself. And I watched him work on characters and texts and not-so-secretly envied him because he had so many gifts I coveted.

I was exhausted and in a continual state of desperation.

Of course, I was in therapy.

And one day I was sitting there talking about giving up acting, maybe going back to school, and my heart was breaking. I was about to become a failure, give up my dream. But my dream was making me miserable.

I’d talked about writing, but in an offhand sort of way, “Maybe I’ll write…” (every actor says this at some point, usually when they’re out of work) But then there was this moment where I said it again and knew I meant it. I realized if I could write I’d walk away from acting without a second thought. It wouldn’t be a failure, it would be my dream, the one I’d kept secret forever, even from myself.

A few days later I sat alone in front of the empty computer screen in Michael’s Stratford apartment while he was doing a matinee. I had to do it: write something. I didn’t believe I could come up with anything original so right next to me was a book, one of those books that made me think: “this isn’t very good–I’m sure I could do better”. As an exercise, I was going to write a book with the same premise but totally different places, characters, etc, just to see if I could write at all. (Don’t try this at home.)

I must have taken a deep breath and started to type. And I must have continued to type because three hours later I looked up and there was Michael with his stage make-up still on, having died seven times in The Three Musketeers and come home. I blinked and swallowed. My face was flushed and my bladder was full and I had not moved from the computer. I looked at him and thought about how easily he could slide into a character, how things I had to fight so hard to “get” were so easy for him. And I finally understood how that must feel.

For me, acting was like repeatedly throwing myself against a wall but writing…writing was like breathing, like something I already knew how to do and had been doing all along.

Since then I have written two books and three plays (and married, got a dog, had a child) and here I am on my way to being published. Writing for a living is no easier than acting which means perhaps, that I am a great fool and a glutton for punishment. And on a daily basis writing is bloody hard work, not some kind of mystical, magical thing that lands on me and then flows like spiderwebs out my fingertips and onto the keyboard. But I’m a little better at it than I was at acting and, more importantly, much happier than I would have been at Stratford…though I occasionally pine for a corset and the chance to play Lady M, Katherine or Beatrice.

Thanks for reading and wish me luck. Or tell me to break a leg–I still speak “actor” now and then.

Deb Danielle


13 Replies to “How I Became a Writer by Deb Danielle Younge-Ullman”

  1. If you were half the actor you are the writer, it’s their huge loss, then…
    But glad you switched over or we’d have never gotten to know you!
    And once people get hold of your book, look out world!

  2. Danielle, you just gave me chills. And this: “writing was like breathing, like something I already knew how to do and had been doing all along.” nails the feeling.

    Break a leg, although I know you won’t need luck.

  3. Jenny: back at you! Thanks.

    Cindy: Well, I’m quite please to have you thinking I’m emotionally and intellectually healthy!

    Joanne: We all need luck! Thanks!

    Gail & Lisa, you’re making me feel all warm and fuzzy here.

    And you’re right, Eileen, that’s a great description. And when it’s not going well, it’s like being locked out of your house in the winter, at night without proper clothing!

  4. I love reading how you got this point! You are an amazing writer, and I’d be willing to be you were an amazing actor, too. (But I’m so glad you chose this!) You rock. 🙂

  5. Wow, what a great story. I had a stupid grin on my face the whole way through. I was definitely feeling those magical words flowing like spider webs out your fingers. As Jenny said, acting’s loss is our gain.

  6. Oh Danielle – that makes me so sad – and proud of you at the same time, having been there, and also having had the huge pleasure of watching you on stage! But you know…you can always get a corset and put your acting skills into playing anyone you (or Michael) desire! (Didn’t I give you one?) Love your blogs!

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