An Interview with Sara Greenberg in Dallas, Part 1

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.

Sara Greenberg 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: As an actor, you enter the psyche of the character you are portraying. As a memoir writer, you turn the microscope around to inspect your own innermost thoughts and personal history. What do you find most challenging about working in an artistic mode that exposes your private life and requires you to be introspective?

Me: Actors have someone else providing a story. Hopefully, it is in three acts. A clear beginning, middle, and end are luxuries the memoir writer does not have. I would argue the central element to any scripted entertainment is revealing what is hidden. This principle is as true for Oedipus learning the tragic truth of his family history – to Bill Murray realizing time has stopped in Groundhog Day. When you write a memoir you often don’t know your own motivations. As you write, you may be delighted or horrified by what you have hidden from yourself. I believe this is why all writers drink.

I think one of the most important elements of writing a memoir is to be truthful and not clever. If you endeavor to tell a true story, the story can continue. In My Adventures with God, there are three longer storylines that have surprising “third acts.” They only exist because I told truthful first acts and I lived long enough to see the surprising reveal of “what was hidden.”

Obviously when you act, teachers always hammer students to be “truthful.” That doesn’t happen sometimes in Hollywood. Writers or directors may want you to produce a phony response to help prop up a hastily patched together logic. Being able to lie with a straight face may be one of the greatest talents a professional actor can possess.

Sara: Are there any creative devices/exercises you use as an actor that help you as a writer, or vis-a-versa?

Me: I never think of anything I do as tricks. At a certain point I started calling them life choices. I like to work on acting parts or write stories early in the morning or late at night. Quiet is the most important part of the creative process. I work in my sleep. I always keep pen and paper by the bed in case an idea comes to me in a dream. If you let them – they will come.

An important element of narration I learned when I began writing is that you don’t often know the story you are telling when you start. If something taps you on the shoulder, write it down. Don’t censure. After I finish writing a piece of the puzzle I have been surprised that I wrote the ending first! Sometimes it is act two. I have worked with young writers who are stuck on the first page. They can’t craft the beginning. You don’t have to. Just write. Once you start, the story will take over and instruct you as to what comes next…or what came before.

Whether writing or acting, the main attribute you must cultivate is trust. You must trust your process and respect it in either discipline. Give yourself the time you need. The quiet you need. The space you need. Trust is like a great love in your life: inspirational and joyful while she is there – devastating when she is gone.

Part 2 coming up next week. If you are in Dallas April 18 please come by and say hello. If you are interested in the programs they run at the Dallas Museum of Art information is here:


  1. Stanley David Williams on March 27, 2017 at 5:50 am

    Good advice, Stephen. I finished a memoir 18 months ago, and followed the advice you suggest here. What fun. They were my stories, my life, but it was the process of writing that I discovered what those experiences were really about. Today is my 70th birthday, and this morning in bed my wife and I reminisced about our childhood. She kept telling me the most horrific stories about such and such tragedies and then finished the story (with great sincerity), “but I had a very happy childhood.” Meaning, it was the disasters (minor my most standards) that illuminated the good times. She needed that contrast to appreciate what she had. But she had to be honest in the story’s telling to see the light. The same thing happened over the last three weeks during which time I wrote a 100 page quirky, indie, romantic comedy. It came out so smoothly, and Pam (my wife) cried with laughter at all the right spots as we tabled read it last night. Again, the reason was honesty, and starting the story, not knowing exactly where it was going…but telling the truth. Very satisfying therapy—writing in this way. I think that is the source of your good humor and insight. Truth telling and openness. There’s no true vulnerability, there…just a good, satisfying life. Thank you for sharing over the years.

    • Stephen Tobolowsky on March 27, 2017 at 10:15 am

      Dear Stanley
      I was in Seattle a couple of years ago riding with a cab driver who had just come to America from Africa. He told me his homeland was like “Eden in the Bible.” It was paradise. Then he proceeded to relate how his sister was murdered a few years back. His family was wiped out in tribal disputes. He lost a child to disease. I had to stop him and say, “Wait…I thought you said it was Eden?” He smiled and said, “Oh, it was.” Maybe he was talking about the weather. The horrors we face become quite lovely and we look back with pride that we survived them. One I side note. I warn you about the writing thing. It can be addictive.

  2. Lita on April 1, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    So relieved to find new Tobolowsky files podcasts on my phone. I’ve been listening for a long time. Your new book comes out on my birthday.

  3. Zach Brutsche on April 3, 2017 at 11:39 am

    I cracked open a collection of John Steinbeck’s short novels shortly after reading this interview and the comments following it, and a paragraph in the introduction by Joseph Henry Jackson stuck out. This was written in 1953:

    Looking back, one can see that, like “In Dubious Battle”, the shorter “Of Mice and Men” pointed straight to “The Grapes of Wrath”. But the development of any artist’s purpose is frequently a spiral. And for a year or two what was to be Steinbeck’s biggest book germinated and took shape while he did other things.

    • Stephen Tobolowsky on April 3, 2017 at 1:06 pm

      And I read George Eliot wrote Silas Marner while she was writing Middlemarch!

  4. […] the entire interview, you can visit Stephen’s website, where he posted the exchange in two parts: Part I and Part II. The Museum is excited to welcome Stephen back to DMA Arts & Letters Live, so go […]