An Interview with Sara Greenberg in Dallas, Part 2

I am performing April 18 in Dallas, Texas at the Dallas Museum of Art in the Horchow Auditorium (which is beautiful) Here is the link.

Below is the second part of the interview with Sara Greenberg, who asked me a series of questions to promote the event. I found them very entertaining. I thought I would share our exchange. Her questions go to the heart of acting and writing.

Sara: While My Adventures with God is largely autobiographical, you provide a framework for others to use when examining their own life. Did you write with the intention of guiding others towards deeper self-discovery?

Stephen: This is a slippery slope. I will walk it back one step. I have learned when you write a true story, people feel the story is theirs as well. In the story “Conference Hour,” in The Dangerous Animals Club, I wrote about a professor who was determined to do me harm – either by kicking me out of acting – or keeping me from graduating from SMU. She used every trick at her disposal. The story details our three year battle. SPOILER ALERT: I won. (That’s why I’m the one writing the story!) I have received emails from all over the world from people who read the book telling me the same thing happened to them. They often go on and describe the event to me and the facts are completely different! Doesn’t matter. They felt it was the same story. Survival.

When you tell the story of the spiritual evolution of a person it may appear that I am saying, “Do this. Self discovery is down this path.” I am not. In this world, the way we see beyond the obvious is very personal. You can’t see something if you can’t see it. However, I do believe that if I can tell a true story of how my spiritual life changed like in “The Afflictions of Love” in My Adventures with God, I can see the possibility of someone reading what I wrote and seeing life differently as well. All art, be it theater, painting, dance, sculpture, music, or writing are windows that try to bring light to a certain darkness. Not every window is to everyone’s liking. If you don’t believe me, watch House Hunters.

Sara: How was writing My Adventures with God, your second memoir, different from your first experience writing The Dangerous Animals Club? Did you learn anything the first go-around that changed your process or approach when writing this book? Would you say one was easier than the other was?

Stephen: Last part first. My Adventures with God was more difficult to write than The Dangerous Animals Club. There are several reasons. In The Dangerous Animals Club I wanted to write a series of stories about my life and show business that appear to be disconnected at first. As the book progresses, a narrative develops. The catalyst is when I meet Beth, my girlfriend in college. Our romance creates the momentum that ties the stories together and leads to a conclusion of unexpected triumph.

In My Adventures with God, instead of random stories, I divided stories into thematic sections to match the five books of the Old Testament. As “Easter eggs” for people who love the Bible like I do, I attempted to write the stories in a style that reflected the structures in the Bible. For example, the Genesis section has stories that are short and focus on revelation and family. There is unexpected violence and loss. In contrast, the Exodus section contains stories with long flowing narratives. These stories depict a journey that includes the heights of spiritual joy and eventual degradation.

Instead of something tangible like a love relationship, My Adventures with God uses stories about life, love, and show business to tell the larger story of the evolution of my spiritual life. That alone is a challenge in an age where the religious experience is sought in virtual reality goggles.

The final challenge was that I wanted to give an additional Easter egg to the people who read The Dangerous Animals Club. The stories in the second collection interconnect to the first and give more context and depth. For example In The Dangerous Animals Club I tell the story of the day my mother passed away in “The Alchemist.” In My Adventures with God I relate the story of what happened a few weeks before her death and the surprising events that happened after her funeral in the story “The Two Accidental Goodbyes.”

What did learn from the process? Don’t write unless you have to. I say the same thing to young actors. Don’t act unless nothing else gives you joy. Acting and writing are costly pursuits. They both consume you. Both seem like a lot of fun in theory but in application they change you. You may not like the change.

Sara: In this book, you continually return to Judaism as a kind of grounding force throughout the vicissitudes of your life. Can you speak broadly about how you understand the role of faith, religious or not, factoring into one’s lived experience?

Stephen: This is the question from which all questions come. We like to think that we are fixed quantities that move through time. We are not. We are equations with more than one unknown. I think this fundamental uncertainty about our existence is why we cling to things we feel are certain. Like science. Like art. It’s why people like cats. We are certain of their uncertainness.

The only protections we have from false prophets and the despair that grips us all at one time or another is beauty and in embracing a good philosophy. Judaism provides both.

We live in an age that popularly views religion as primitive and elevates science. I like science, even when it is wrong. I find the pursuit of answers inspirational. But for my money, I don’t care how smart Steven Hawking is or how interesting a black hole may be, if he doesn’t understand the Holiness code of Leviticus, not to curse the deaf nor put an obstacle before the blind, it doesn’t add up to much.

Judaism is a layer cake built over thousands of years. The different layers reflect that age’s relationship to truth. In some ages it was popular to think that truth can be known. You end up with the Ten Commandments. In other ages it was popular to think the truth was hidden. You end up with mystical works like the Zohar and the Midrash. There are very few creations of man that have existed through so many conflicting times and have survived so many hardships. The wisdom embodied in Judaism has endured. The philosophy in a nutshell? From Hillel over two thousand years ago: “What is hateful to you do not do unto your fellow man. The rest is commentary. Go and study.”

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