Writing Life

What Katharine Hepburn Taught Me about Writing (Or, Why I’m Not an Actor) by Tibby Armstrong

Some people are in the right place at the right time. Some are given the right time and place, but walk blithely past without noticing. The latter is exactly what I did as a teenager when I was given entrée to the inner sanctum of Hollywood royalty. For many years I thought of myself as stupid for passing up the opportunities given to me. Now I understand that my younger self was far more intelligent than I gave her credit for being.

But, let me start at the beginning…

When I was eighteen I spent an exorbitant sum on a portrait at a local antique show. The painting was hardly an antique and likely not worth the sum I paid; however, I was infatuated with its subject and everything she represented to me. The portrait was of Katharine Hepburn, and I wanted to be an actress.

For most people, this is where the story might have ended. I was in a unique situation, however, because I knew someone very close to the indomitable Kate: her sister. Ms. Hepburn’s sister was my town’s librarian and a legend among locals herself. That summer I worked at the library and “happened” to mention the portrait to Mrs. Perry—“Peg” to the adults. To my delight, I was summoned to a private afternoon with Mrs. Perry and asked for a private showing.

Mrs. Perry didn’t recognize the portrait, but we both surmised that it was done from a photograph probably taken around the time of Ms. Hepburn’s film A Lion in Winter. I lent the portrait to Mrs. Perry as she wanted to show a curious Ms. Hepburn the discovery. In the course of conversation I revealed I wanted to be an actress when I graduated from high school, and this information was shared, along with the portrait, during a Sunday afternoon lunch.

Lo and behold, I was invited to yet afternoon in Mrs. Perry’s company on her farm. Probably the most charming place I’ve ever been, it was a real, working, Yankee dairy farm. Complete with turkeys, wandering barn cats, and a brook over which you could swing out and dip your toes from a rope. I was in heaven. Eventually, the conversation turned to the painting. No, Ms. Hepburn didn’t recognize the artist. Yes, she had been delighted to see it. Also, she had some particular advice for me.

Wide eyed, and not a little star struck to actually be known to my idol, I listened to this sage advice: “Do not, under any circumstances, become an actress. Not unless you can’t be happy doing anything else.” To a high school senior this bit of wisdom made absolutely no sense. Over two decades later, I count it as the best advice I’ve ever been given.

What Kate meant, and what I take to heart every time I write a manuscript is this: art is difficult. It will bloody your spirit and bruise your ego. Why live your life in misery if you can find happiness elsewhere? Do not live a life of precarious balance and uncertain success unless your soul absolutely cannot be happy without your art. Then, and only then, will you have the strength to persevere past all obstacles and find personal, if not financial, success.

When I was eighteen, I moved to New York City, intent upon following that dream of walking in the great Ms. Hepburn’s footsteps. After three months of acting classes, successfully landing an agent, and spending a lot of money on actor’s head shots I hate to this day, I was back home and having Sunday lunches with Mrs. Perry. You interpreted that correctly. I landed a New York agent and within two weeks I moved back home.

The truth was I didn’t have enough passion to get me through the competition from and backstabbing by other actors. My acting teachers browbeat us all, and I took it very personally. There was no pleasure in learning the craft. Only pain. For every moment of joy I received practicing this art, I received twenty of misery. I was not, in short, cut out to act.

Dreams shattered, I went to college, received a B.A. in English Literature, and began writing. It took me fifteen years to finish my first novel. In contrast to my three month acting career, this was a lifetime. In fits and starts I applied myself to this craft and read everything I could—spoke with everyone I could—about how to put a story together from beginning to end.

There were periods of disillusionment when I wondered if it was all worth it—coming home after a day at work and writing until I couldn’t see straight, only to face rejection and peer criticism—but I kept coming back to the craft.  I would take a bruising and then pick myself up and start again, always unable to remember why I had vowed to give it all up. To put it simply, I couldn’t not write.

When people ask me what it takes to get published, I have one answer—one I’ve seen echoed by many other authors. It’s a sentiment I didn’t understand until I’d lived it, but it all comes down to this: If you want to get published, keep writing. Keep learning. Sit in the chair and write. If you are willing to commit to the craft, the craft will commit to you.

For some reason, I, and most authors I know, began with the idea that the mere act of sitting down to write would produce story. We have read wonderful books and seen fantastic movies all our lives, and have been treated to theory on structure and criticism from high school through university. Of course we should know how to tell a story. But the story teller’s art, like any other craft, is made to look simple not because it’s a snap to learn, but because our favorite tales are told with such skill by people who know the tools of their chosen art not through osmosis but through tireless work and a commitment to excellence.

None of us is ever finished learning. Every novel I write, I learn something new. I recently completed a two year writing stint where every word was self consciously written and hard-won, and I despaired some days that I’d never get past this hurdle. I wondered if I should just give up trying because writing wasn’t fun anymore. I pushed through, and lo and behold the novel I recently completed—Public Relations, due out at the end of the year from Loose Id—was my turning point.

Recently, I began editing novels for others. Closely examining their successes and mistakes cemented my understanding of good prose versus mediocre prose, and good story versus mediocre story. Notice how I didn’t say “great” prose versus good prose? Or “great” story versus good story? That’s because I am still learning, and I do not count myself among the greats—only the happy.

In case you’re wondering, I did get to meet Kate. Several times, in fact. She was as regal and brilliant as you might expect. The thing that struck me most strongly about her, however, was how much she simply sat back and watched everyone and everything. She listened. She observed. I like to imagine she was studying human nature and tucking the information away to use in growing her own skills as an actor and, of course, a story teller.

And now, I’m passing on to you, in a manner of speaking, the advice that was given to me. Write, but only if you must. And if you do? Never stop learning or growing. Only then, will you show promise of being as great as Kate. Only then will you truly love your life and live it to the fullest.



Tibby Armstrong loves meeting kindred bibliophiles like you wherever she travels!

Writing stories with strong relationship threads, Tibby enjoys her romance with a healthy helping of steam. Her Covert Attractions series follows spies, lies, intrepid heroines and their sexy guys. Her Hollywood series is an inside look at what it’s like to come out despite the pressures of fame and family. Tibby’s complete backlist of traditional romance and GLBT romance titles is available on Amazon.com.

Tibby’s favorite novels include Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study, C.E. Murphy’s The Queen’s Bastard, Nalini Singh’s Angel’s Kiss, Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire series, Connie Willis’ Bellwether, Elizabeth Moon’s Vatta’s War series, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. You might wonder at such a long list, until you consider that Tibby is also a librarian. Please visit her profile on Goodreads and share what you love. She’s always looking for a new book to devour!

You can find out more about upcoming releases and latest projects at her website,  or correspond with her by email. For social networking you can follow her on Twitter as TibbyArmstrong, or on Facebook as Tibby Armstrong.

As a child Angel Leigh was quite often found curled up with her nose buried in a book. By her teen years, she was writing as much as she was reading. ...