A Love Letter to the Library that Built Me. Or How Bad Acting Made me a Decent Writer.

2011

First, beware. This isn’t your typical testimonial to the benefits of public libraries. By reading my blog, you are most likely a writer or illustrator, so I’m preaching to the choir by reminding you how important libraries are to a community. Today, as libraries face paramount transitions caused by budget cuts, and a move toward more electronic publishing, libraries need us as much as we need them.
This “cause” is quite personal to me.

***This post is dedicated to ways my local library has shaped me as a writer and as an individual. But, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out one special writer/librarian’s creative idea has endured to help fund services. After you read this, please consider joining your local library “Friends” group. Get creative. Get involved.

In 1994, I was a busy, divorced mother of a very young child and co-owner of a thriving corporate business. Having left behind my writing/publishing aspirations, along with my shortened college career, my feet were firmly planted in the ground of responsibility. Yet, every other weekend, as I packed my youngster off to his father’s, I faced unfamiliar free time. It was a time of great transition for me, personally. On a whim, I picked up a two week old newspaper and re-read a small “call for actors” ad. I’ll never know why I reached for the phone. What was I thinking? My acting experience was limited to cool restraint when dealing with the occasional difficult client. Oh, and the theatrical prowess required of motherhood.

I nervously made the call, fully prepared to be laughed at for my incredulity. I learned that playwright/librarian Barbara Vance had a slew of mystery night theater productions under her belt, and the Friends of the Library were thrilled to produce the fundraiser annually. Barbara was preparing the current year’s play and had already cast every part. Except one. That first phone call went something like this:
Barbara: “You wouldn’t happen to be in your twenties?”
Me: “I am…for another few months.”
Barbara: “You wouldn’t happen to have long blonde hair?”
Me: “Um…yes. Waist-length.”
Awkward pause.
Barbara: “You’re in!”
Suddenly, I was an actress. Yikes!

My debut in Mystery Night was in the character of Lotta, a rather sleazy and slinky young woman who wins the lottery but loses her life to her greedy, estranged husband. In all,  I was strangled about thirteen times. On opening night, as I dramatically fell to the ground, just the right breeze turned my dress into a flapping flag, revealing my, ahem, secrets. Fortunately, my gentlemanly foe quickly rescued my dignity. Three years later, I married that man. You see, for me, falling in love really was murder.

Winning Lottery ticket in hand
As the victim in my first Mystery Night.

The years that followed found me in different characters for Mystery Night. I’ve played bimbos, goody-two-shoes, old women, a country “twin,” an Elvis backup singer, and other character types. I’ve been secondary characters, murderers, and victims. Each one has been a joy. Surprisingly, each one reintroduced me to plot, character, setting, reactions, voice, story. Every moment propelled me back to the page—back to my own writerly soul. I didn’t realize at the time, just how much this new acting hobby and it’s connection to the library were becoming a catalyst of change for me.

 

Careful what you ask for. I asked for a less sexy role.
Of course, we were lip-syncing to Elvis.

 

Yes, I shot him.  (Rehearsal on left. Performance on right, this time benefiting the Literacy Council.

Barbara, the Mystery Night cast, and the staff of the library became another family to me. And to my son, who was immediately introduced to story time, puppet shows, special performance guests, library-sponsored parties for kids, and a weekly haul of books that turned him into the voracious twenty-year-old reader he is today. Funds raised by Mystery Night helped support those services. I felt pretty good about that.

On the set of True Women with friend, Dalonna Hunt

Mystery Night inspired me to step even further outside my comfort zone by working as an extra in three movies and a TV mini-series. In those roles, “wearing” a character gave a different perspective when I sat down again to write. Next came four Victorian plays I wrote for a large local church.

One of my Bellfest casts in full regalia. I think I swiped my hat from hubby.

And a return to journalism as a freelance writer for a local newspaper, which led me to write articles for some of the best children’s magazines in the country. I was reminded how much I love the scavenger hunt that is research. I’m not sure how my writing would have unfolded if not for the catalysts of Mystery Night and Round Rock Public Library.

By the time I announced my second pregnancy on stage, during Mystery Night rehearsal in 2000, I knew the direction I wanted my writing to take—children’s literature. Today,  I’m deep in the journey and can finally see the light ahead. I’m confident that my books for young readers will be published some day. I most look forward to walking into this special library and seeing my own name on the shelves.

As of this posting, we are in the final week of rehearsals for the 20th annual interactive Mystery Night production. This year, my character is an 89-year-old firecracker named Ms. Sissy—a far cry from my first role, sixteen years ago. What a hoot! I can’t reveal any details about the play, of course. Because if I told you, I’d have to…well, you know.

So, thank you, Round Rock Public Library family, the R.R.P.L. Friends Group, Barbara Vance, Chip Hadley, Gretchen Pruett (now Library director for New Braunfels Public Library), Janette Johnston, and the numerous cast members who return as volunteer actors for Mystery Night. You’ve made me who I am today.

1994-95 cast photo. Today,  I wish I was still THAT size and still had THAT hair.
Then again, I didn’t have THIS experience at the time.
Category Writing & Publishing Journey, Writing process

10 thoughts on “A Love Letter to the Library that Built Me. Or How Bad Acting Made me a Decent Writer.

  1. Oh, Donna, I am tired and almost bypassed reading this. I am so glad I decided to read it. What a wonderful story! And I think you look just great. I can hardly believe you have a post-teen son.

  2. Thank you Linds and Brian. I'm feeling a bit exposed with this post. But, my current sentimentality toward the library is overpowering my modesty this week.

    Mary, you're far too kind. Remember, these photos date back as far as 16 years. That oh-so-young first child of mine will soon turn 21.

    Thanks for stopping by, y'all.

  3. We were both built by the Round Rock Public Library…for me that includes 23 years as 'Miss Barbara' doing storytime and getting to raise the library snake, as well as 20 years of Mystery Night. I, too, love our supportive, creative, zealous, and sometimes dysfunctional Mystery Night family. Thank Heavens that you made that call that night… for both of our sakes!

  4. Thank you Miss Barbara. The library isn't the same since you retired. Thank goodness you've kept Mystery Night so strong.

    I cherish you. Truly!

    See you at rehearsal.

    Repeat after me. No stress. No stress. No stress.

  5. I was moved to tears while I read your post – a testament to both the story and the storyteller. To be a small part of the libraries that create these stories day after day, I am very grateful. This is why I am passionate about what I do. When asked to write a six word memoir, mine was, "I change lives every day, you?"

  6. Great post, Donna. I love the trade-off between "that size" vs "this experience." Next time I look in the mirror at my saggy eyelids, I'll try to be grateful for the experiences that caused them. Break a leg!

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