Writers! Actors! Betty White’s Advice & Process

Betty White's book

I just finished reading If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) by Betty White, comedic actress best known for her television roles, such as that of Sue Ann Niven in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and recently Elka Ostrovsky in Hot in Cleveland. I’ve been a fan of her comic timing and advocacy for all animals since forever.

In the book she admits her favorite activity is writing. She writes in longhand. Her advice on humor is the best. Since acting and writing is so similar, it works for people in both careers.

            “For me, humor is about rhythm. It’s like an ear for music. It’s hard to explain. For instance, at the table reads each morning for Hot in Cleveland, you listen to learn the timing. You hear the other characters, and you know where they’re coming from, and it helps you map out the show—it puts you way ahead of the game for rehearsal. It’s listening for that beat, like with music. You go through the table read, and you just feel, Wait one beat. Or, No, less time, don’t wait that long beat—say it quickly.”

Other literary trivia:

*She was a friend of John Steinbeck

*Betty tells us Steinbeck wrote in longhand, standing up at a drafting table.  

*She writes in longhand, too.

            “Well, if it’s good enough for Steinbeck, it’s good enough for me! I really can’t communicate to a machine—the thoughts want to go from my brain down my arm to my hand to the page. After I’ve written that first draft, I copy it over again onto another page. That’s when the most changes are made, as I polish and rewrite the original—once again, in longhand.”

And finally this: she’s got beautiful handwriting!

Writing Prompts:

  1. The creative process of acting and writing is so similar; it’s often helpful to explore both areas to strengthen your craft. If you’re a writer, take a beginning acting class. If you’re an actor, take a beginning writing class.
  2. Humor is harder than it looks. Remember Betty’s tip: it’s in the timing. To improve your technique, read your work aloud.  Tape yourself if it’s difficult for you to “get” the rhythm.
  3. Still having a hard time? Read your favorite comic authors out loud.  This can train your ear.
  4. Perform your writing as you would a scene, only you get to play all of the parts. Have your writing group act it out. This will let you discover if you need more beats within your writing. Syllables matter! Sounds of the words are important too.

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