What’s In A Category?

Gail Willwerth Upp, actress, writer, editor, director, lover of the mountains and lover of life.

Gail Willwerth Upp, actress, writer, editor, director, lover of the mountains and lover of life.


In all my social media accounts, I am asked to categorize myself.  What is it I think I am, what do I do, how do I wish to present myself to the thousands (all right, tens) of people who want to read what I have to say?  In all of them, I say, more or less in this order, that I am an actress, a writer, an editor, a director, and (to be totally soppy about the whole thing), a resident of a mountain paradise (more or less, but don’t ask me what I think of it in January) and a lover of life.  What in the world do I mean?  It’s not like there aren’t whole scads of people out there using some of the same appellations about themselves on their Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts.  So this (rather self-serving) blog is about what I do mean when I characterize myself by those terms.

Let’s look at them one by one:

Actress.  First, this usage is deliberate.  I know it is considered politically correct these days to call a female who acts for a living a “female actor”.  This drives me wild.  There is nothing wrong with the term actress.  As people are divided into two sexes (and many more preferences), so are the casts of plays, movies, television shows and videos.  Calling those who portray female characters who are themselves female (this is getting complicated in today’s world, isn’t it?) “female actors” is like calling a wife a “female husband”.  Actors come in two genders because the work they do comes in two genders, so let’s stop being weird about this and go back to using the perfectly understandable and respectable term “actress,” okay?

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet — not my role of choice but she was quite an actress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That said, why do I consider myself an actress?  I am, as we all are to some extent, what I do.  What I spend my time doing I’ll get to later, but it’s not acting.  So how can I call myself an actress when there have been few times in my life when I was actively pursuing acting as either a profession or an avocation?  (Of course, let’s realize this, that for most actresses and actors, they are not spending most of their time acting, they are spending their time trying to get acting work while doing other things to keep body and soul in calling distance of each other.)  And yet, I’m an actress.  So, for me, it must be a state of mind, a way of looking at the world, a way of defining myself.

And so it is.  Acting is central, in my judgment, to the experience of being human.  One of the ways we learn our culture, how to be human in our world, is through watching actors (and dancers and singers, of course, but to a lesser extent because those are more stylized art forms) show us human beings going through human disasters and triumphs, solving problems, reaching (sometimes) epiphanies, or simply getting the guy (or girl).  As a minor example, random research on my part indicates that most of us learned how to kiss from watching actors kiss in the movies or onstage.  When I got my master’s degree in theatre, I was asked in my final written exams to explain the purpose of theatre.  I remember very little of that horrible day, but I do remember the central thesis of my answer:  theatre is life with the irrelevancies taken out, a mirror held up to us so we can see ourselves with meaning.  It isn’t just entertainment, like a circus, a way of passing the time in laughter instead of drudgery for a moment.  Acting can be that, and there is nothing wrong with it.  But acting, at its finest, helps us learn, helps us understand, can even help us adjust our behavior, our insights and our goals in a way that is more useful to others and more fulfilling to ourselves.  Acting–whether in movies or plays or TV shows–doesn’t often reach that halcyon height, but it does so aspire.

And so I am an actress, because I believe, with Victor Hugo, that if one must steal bread to survive, steal two loaves and sell one to buy hyacinths for the soul.  To me, the theatre (in whatever media it comes) and the people who create plays, movies, TV shows, and all their wonders, are the hyacinths for the human soul and even if I am a very junior colleague in so exalted a group, I am deeply proud to be of their company.

The photo of me at the top of this essay is my new headshot, by the way.  I didn’t really plan on it being quite this size, but computers and I have some little issues and inserting photographs into my blogs is definitely one of them.

Writer.  This is what I genuinely do.  I sit down at the computer ostensibly to look at my emails and see if any of those I’m following on Twitter have anything interesting to say (Russell Crowe always does, even if I don’t understand most of what he’s talking about) and wondering what my Facebook friends are up to, just a few minutes, tops, and the next thing I know, it’s three hours later and I’ve started a blog (that’s how this one came to be) or edited one, or opened my novel to the  “start here” place and worked on dialogue or a new chapter.  Writers write.  That probably ought to come first on my category list and yet it doesn’t.  You see, I have acted, I have felt that magic touch me and reach out sometimes, if not often enough, to touch the audience.  But I have not sold anything I’ve written beyond one story that became a television movie (called “Bluffing It”, a movie about adult illiteracy).  So for some weird reason that has no logic whatsoever, I am an actress even though I have never in my life been paid for acting but not yet a writer because I have not been published and earned royalties.  And yet I write all the time.  I have spent over 40 minutes polishing a Tweet (I really hate that term, as my reader knows from prior blogs) so it will say exactly what I mean it to say within the 140 character allotment and I have five (count ’em folks, five, followers (persons of discernment, each and every one)).  I spend time I really don’t have trying to come up with something funny or pointed or at least on topic to comment on Facebook friends’ postings.  And it can take me weeks to get one of these blogs to a place where I’m willing to have anyone read it.  You might notice that not one of these activities can be said to be remunerative, but they sure are writing and I write, even emails to friends (or perhaps especially emails to friends) as if for publication, as if these scribblings, no matter how ephemeral they are, will be in some sense my legacy to this world.

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

The cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And so I am a writer, even if I say it tentatively, as if it were presumptuous of me to try to edge into the great consortium of writers in the world.  How can I possibly ever consider myself to be a peer of my most admired writers?  I am all too aware that nothing I could ever write would approach my favorite “good” novel, The Great Gatsby.  Worse, I am just as aware that I’m not likely to write something as good as any one of Dick Francis‘ thrillers (I’m currently re-reading Under Orders and it’s just as terrific as I remembered it).  Of course, on the other hand, I have read or tried to read books which I cannot believe have actually been published, they are simply so bad.  How do the authors (using the term quite loosely in this context) manage to combine turgid, boring plots, uninteresting characters that all seem like the same person, and poor grammar all at the same time?  But then, they’re published and I’m not, so maybe I shouldn’t be so sniffy about them.

The novel I’m re-writing now is entitled Crawfish Blues.  I am deep within the second act, miring my heroine in mud up to her lavish hips (since she lives in the Louisiana Delta, this is not entirely metaphorical), re-structuring her problems to make them, I fondly hope, more cogent, deeper, and more interesting to the eventual reader, should such there ever be.  When I am working on Crawfish I’ll realize that all of a sudden, I’m hungry and it’s time (past time, probably) for a shower, and five hours will have passed without my noticing except for the increasing ache in my upper shoulders from crouching over the keyboard.  Oh well, if I wrote as Jane Austen did with quill and parchment, I would have writer’s cramp.  Writing is, for something one does sitting down, quite physically taxing.

So I am a writer, no matter how tentative.

Editor.  This category is a little more complex, because when I worked in the film/TV industry, I did so as either a picture or sound editor or as a teacher/trainer of picture or sound editors.  Leave it to me to manage a way to remain obscure in this most flamboyantly public of industries.  But you find your niche, sometimes.  Film editing is a vitally important craft to the creation of films whether feature or TV, narrative or documentary.  In fact, in many ways a lot of films are created, not just finished, in the editing room.  And nowadays, with digital cameras giving filmmakers virtually no limit on the amount of footage they can shoot, even on low-budget projects, the editor is vital to organizing and making sense of the footage, carving out a story from all that, well, stuff.  For me, editing is like writing or acting:  it is something into which I lose myself and all track of time.  Some part of my psyche loves the intricacy, the puzzle-like quality of editing film footage, the ability you have as an editor to create the timing for a comic moment that the director (evil grin here) totally missed or the chance to build an almost unbearable tension out of quite simple, ordinary elements.

Director.  I directed plays at various schools in which I taught and worked, I directed plays for summer theaters (and also produced), I directed plays for community and small professional theatre.  Directing led me away from acting.  I went to film school to be a film director.  Unfortunately, I discovered that the job of film director is different in both quality and quantity from that of play director–it almost never has to do with the fun part of play directing, working with actors, and it mostly seems to consist of not having enough time or money but having way too many questions that need to be answered right this goddamned minute.  It also has a lot to do with pleasing people who have no understanding of the craft of filmmaking whatsoever, they only have money.  I also discovered that if I didn’t suck at film directing, I was only about two steps up from that nadir.  That’s when I became a film editor, which I got pretty good at.  (The other reason I moved away from film directing is that work on a film set is only slightly less tedious than watching paint dry.  I have been on movie sets where watching a board warp was almost intolerable excitement.  An editing suite is a carnival ride in comparison.)

The Music Man

The Music Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I was a director, but now I’m not and I’m okay with that.  At least for a while.  One of the problems that comes with ever having directed a play or even a student film is that it is almost impossible to watch somebody else’s work onstage or at the movies without wanting to do this most complex of tasks once again.  I went to a concert in Estes Park a little while ago, two choirs of locals put together to sing some of the more well-known songs from Broadway musicals.  They did a good job with a medley from “The Music Man” and by the time they had finished Lida Rose, I had cast the whole musical from local talent, figured out who would do the choreography and music direction, and designed the basic set.   By the time I was applauding their efforts, I had figured out how and from where to get the musical instruments and how I’d do the big march at the end (winding through the auditorium).  It gets in the blood, directing.

But then I remember all the things that go with directing a play, especially in a small town where everyone is a volunteer with other demands on their time:  finding the personnel, getting the costumes sorted out, building the set, searching thrift shops for props, forcing busy people to rehearse.  Often it comes down to one person and that person is you (well, in this case, me).  Plus, to direct anything in a small town, you are also the business manager, the publicist, the seller of advertising, the sweet-talker getting donations, the saleswoman finding sponsors or even a spare bit of window where they’ll let you hang your poster (first, design your poster and sweet-talk the printer into giving you a huge discount).

You may have noticed reading this essay (and my social media headers) that nowhere do I consider myself to be anything having to do with selling, marketing, publicity, or shilling of any kind.  Which is probably the most important reason I’m not actively an actress, or a published writer or a working editor or, for that matter, a director.  The part of the job that can be the most important part is getting the job, forcing yourself past the wall surrounding all these professions to reach the inside where the casting directors are, the agents, the publishers, the producers, the directors, the people who make decisions about which actress, which writer, which editor and which director they will hire.  And if I sucked at film directing, let me tell you I really sucked at selling.  When I was a little child, my mother would end up buying all my boxes of Girl Scout cookies because I could not, just really could not, bring myself to go from door to door actually asking people to buy them, no matter how good a cause.  I found it humiliating and I still do.  No, I have postponed necessary phone calls and mailings to get auditions, meetings, whatnot in Los Angeles, New York and here in Colorado for reasons that reach from the sublime (must take a drive around the national park RIGHT THIS MINUTE) to what even I recognize is the ridiculous (I really have to clean the escutcheons behind the doorknobs because they have fingerprints on them–seriously?).  I hate this part of the business of show business with a genuine passion, as much as I love the acting, writing, editing and directing parts of it.  That work I can do.  Selling?  Not so much.

Long's Peak

Long’s Peak

Lover of the Mountains.  This one isn’t, of course, a profession, although many of my friends up here in Estes Park have made it a profession by working for the national park or being a tour guide or hiking instructor.  Me?  I like to look at mountains, not get them all untidy with hiking trails and footprints and litter.   For me, being a lover of the mountains has more to do with the fact that I was born within sight of the Rocky Mountains and that I don’t like flat places and I’m not madly in love with oceans or jungles or humidity than that I want to be out there putting my stamp (literally) on a mountainside.  I’ll walk around a mountain lake and I’ll do some hiking during total eclipses of the sun (that’s a metaphor, folks, er, folk), but mostly I just like to look at the mountains, specifically and mostly Long’s Peak, and feel the peace of wildness enter my soul.

Lover of Life.  Okay, this one is sentimental tosh and I know it.  But it’s true.  I’m one of those who gets a huge kick out of just the simple things, eating and drinking good wine (and better gin) and laughing with friends (I had a dinner party this week during which I forgot to put the oven on to bake the potatoes so we had microwaved potatoes for dessert, which thankfully my guests seemed to find funny) and seeing blue sky and dreaming my (still adolescent and proud of it) dreams and knowing I’m still around and wondering what’s coming next and hoping we all survive it.  I still think in my heart of hearts that this death thing is optional.

As a final word, it seems to me looking back on this essay that apart from the great delight of talking about myself exclusively, what I’m really saying is that I’m a storyteller.  I come by this honestly.  My father never met a story he couldn’t improve upon and I never heard the same version of one of his stories twice.  He also, come to think of it, directed all the plays at whatever high school he was principal of at the moment (which is amazingly true–he had a temper and a definite sense of values that didn’t usually match the conventional wisdom of the time which usually ended up trumping keeping his job, so there would come a time where he got on the wrong side of the school board and we would leave town just ahead of the tar and feathers–luckily this was in Colorado, where there was always another small town that needed a high school principal too desperately to listen very hard to the complaints of the prior school board and that is one of the longest parenthetical phrases I’ve managed to include in this set of blogs so far).  At the end of this essay is a photograph of him from long before I was born or even thought of.  He died far too young and I miss him still.

I am, like him, a storyteller.  I don’t consider, ahem, modifying a story of my youth (or for that matter, my last week) to make it funnier or more interesting or create a bigger point lying, I consider it enhancing, eliding the irrelevancies, just like theatre.  Storytelling is how we became human long, long ago and how we change and get a little better (very very very slowly unfortunately) as humans now and how we will always do so.  A while ago, okay a long while ago, there was a Star Trek episode in which the plot centered around the Enterprise taking a traveling acting troupe from one outpost to another.  I loved that episode and found myself thinking that, should there be such a thing as reincarnation, that’s what I’d like to come back as–a member of a travelling troupe of players being ferried around the galaxy on a starship.

All I ever wanted to be or ever hope to be in this life or in any other I  may be fortunate enough to live is one of the hyacinths for the soul that we poor players are and all we can be.  Well, I’d also love to share such a life with the love of my life (this life or any life I’m given), once I meet him.  But as a profession, make mine storytelling, whether it’s writing it, directing it, acting it or (if in some lifetime I’m given the gift of a singing voice) singing it.  Just don’t make me have to sell it.

Arthur Charles Willwerth, my father



itch (Photo credit: brontosaurus)

One of my favorite writers, Connie Willis, in her funny and insightful “Bellwether“, coined the term ‘itch’, as in “I feel itch.”  And it means just how it sounds:  when something is coming, when something is going, when something is changing, but you’re not quite sure what it is or what to do about it.  Kind of like being “restless as a willow in a windstorm”, which is from some song or other.  (And no, I’m not going to look it up.)

Bellwether (novel)

Bellwether (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s where I am these days.

There’s an aspect to itch that might be called boredom.  There’s an aspect, for me, that is particularly Estes Park.  This time of year (winter, that is) is very hard to cope with up here (gee, like it’s easy in Minnesota).  We used to call it ‘cabin fever’, which is a lot like ‘itch’, except that cabin fever can result in some pretty spectacular responses.  Just like the Santa Anas in Southern California.  There’s a quote in Raymond Chandler: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. . . . Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”  Here in Colorado we call such winds ‘Chinooks’ and they’re a proximate cause of cabin fever.  You feel like if you’re cooped up with whomever or whatever for ONE MORE MINUTE, something really awful is going to happen.  And you can’t get out.  Not until spring.  What with cable and Internet and DVDs and better cars, we don’t see so much cabin fever these days, but itch?  Oh my yes.  I think you’d call it situational itch.  You’re going nuts within your own four walls and you want to be anywhere else.  Anywhere.  Else.  Even Arizona.

But there are other aspects to situational itch, too.  Some of it, I suppose, is the new year.  January was so promising, wasn’t it?  After all that holiday excess and celebration, we were all going to lose that weight, get in shape, de-clutter our houses.  And, of course, figure out what our lives are supposed to be about and go out and DO things.  And here it is February already, and how many of those wonderful promises have we kept?  One-twelfth of our chance to become The Best Person We Can Be is gone for another year.

Everybody goes through these times and, yes, they’re good for you if not very much fun.  It isn’t that your life has turned upside down because you won the lottery or lost your best friend.  It’s just that something within you needs to change.  You feel kind of stale.  You know that anything you think of to do–isn’t it time you folded the laundry?–is displacement activity, yet you can’t just turn into a mushroom growing out of your most comfortable chair.  Even retail therapy doesn’t work because you’ve tried to ‘fix’ whatever is going on by buying something, and it turns out when you analyze it that what you were trying to do was to fix your life.  And now you have to let the well refill before you can buy something else to distract you from itch.  And by ‘you’, of course, I mean ‘me’.

When it gets down to it, itch is about something deeper.  It is about finding your purpose in life, your reason for being.  It’s about engagement, not distraction.  This is existential itch.  Whether purpose is something we create for ourselves or comes from Somewhere Else, our deepest minds and hearts always search for it.  If you’re fresh out of purpose, that’s your itch.

Have you ever listened to a lecturer who is in love with his subject?  I remember one in particular, who taught the history of Ancient Egypt.  This man is absolutely in love with ancient Egypt.  For him, this is not a job, or even a life’s work, it’s fun, it’s a lot more fun than working.  Find something you like that much and you’ll never work another day in your life (that is, if you can figure out how to get paid for it).  So that’s one way to deal with existential itch.  Find that something.  Whew, that was easy.

Except, of course, it’s not.  Because if you’ve figured out, hooray and hallelujah, that what you want is a glorious job or a glorious partner or a world cruise, that’s wonderful, I’m happy for you, but there’s one little hiccup.  You still feel itch.  If you know what you want, then itch comes from not knowing how to get from here to there.    I guess we could call that procedural itch.

Procedural itch lets you know that your tactics and strategy are off, not your target.  Let’s say you want to star on Broadway and you’re doing everything you should be except you’re doing it in Michigan.  You may have to face up to several years of waiting tables in Brooklyn.  Or maybe you want something internal like wisdom.  Then your strategy must be more indirect.  You need to treat an abstract inner itch as if you were trying to catch a butterfly.  Crush it in your hands and it is gone, all its luster lost.  But if you hold your hand out, open, perhaps it will land, so lightly that unless you look carefully you can’t even be sure it has touched down.

Butterflies seduction.

Butterflies seduction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then there’s a simple fact.  Itch keeps on itching when we think we know what we want because we often fool ourselves about what we need.  Aesop was a wise old Greek when even Greece was young.  He told the story of the fox who wanted the grapes growing at the top of the arbor.  But no matter how the fox leaped and snapped and tried to climb, the grapes stayed out of his reach.  Finally, disgusted, the fox said that the grapes were undoubtedly sour and he didn’t want them anyway.  We all have a tendency to give up, to say the grapes are sour, not worth having.  And that’s probably not what the itch was trying to tell us.  You see, sometimes the grapes that are out of our reach aren’t sour, particularly, it’s just that if we reach them, actually get them, we find out in the process that what we really wanted was an orange, not grapes at all.

English: My own Work کار شخصی

Itch can be about holding on, even to a fixation that all around believe to be foolish or even crazy (we look at Steve Jobs‘ success, and we don’t remember how long everybody called him that crazy geek with the weird ideas), and yet itch can be about letting go of the grapes we didn’t want after all, and finding the orange we did.  But what itch is never about is giving up.  The real world may slap you down, may force you to face that this one particular thing, a starring role in a particular play on Broadway, a best-selling novel, the one person whom you just know would fulfill all your deepest needs (which doesn’t happen, no one person can do that and it is unfair to ask it), a teaching job at a university, is not going to happen.  Just not.  What do you do then?

That’s where itch is your friend, your subconscious working to bring you home and give you what you really want, way down deep, which is what you really need.  Itch will keep you discontented until you find your own distinctive path, and itch will push you, pull you, down that path.

If you are fixated on the one person you can’t have, then itch will let you know what you can do about it–if anything.  Victor Hugo once said, “Loving another person is to touch the face of God.”  Sometimes that has to be enough.  Eventually you may realize that your love embodies what you need in a partner, and by accepting your love of the unattainable (the grapes) you may open yourself to the attainable love that is waiting out there for you (your orange).

Sicilian oranges

Sicilian oranges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And itch will keep on itching until you find your life’s work, or until it finds you.  Then your job is to notice that your itch has gone away and you are content.  Or something odd that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what you think you want will happen and only by looking back will you realize that your itch helped you find what you’re really supposed to do and now you’re doing it.  Blessings.  And a tiny bit of advice.  Even as much as love, you need work to do, your real life’s work, so don’t ever give up on finding it, no matter how far away it may seem.

Or you may just have to get used to itch.  I am coming to the disconcerting conclusion that while discontent is uncomfortable, it is a much more normal state of mind for me than content.  I keep looking for a life that will make me content and since I have some (small) financial resources and good friends and a few smarts, I have been able to create that life time and again, and each and every time I do, I become discontented by that life or I screw it up.  Recognizing that I am basically discontented and that I need to be so was a big revelation to me. A good deal has happened in my soul this past year, and I feel that I have woken up in several ways.  Portions of my life that I thought I had successfully and rightly shut down are awake and itching again. But I hold onto the hope that this time I’ll find the wisdom not to engage in displacement, or distraction, or excessive retail therapy.  (Let’s be realistic here, after all.)  This time, I hope I won’t exclude the oranges in a fruitless (pun intended) quest for grapes.

There’s a tarot card called The Moon and it’s a tough card to get in a reading, because it usually means inner work, a pathway to understanding that is going to be a hard climb.  I’m on that pathway, itching all the way.  And nothing I can do will get me off that pathway until I reach the top and find what it means for me.  If itch is filling your thoughts and feelings, my only suggestion is that while doing laundry is a good thing in itself, if you’re folding the clothes only so you won’t think about what is bothering you, maybe you should stop and sit down and really ponder your itch.  See if it will let you know what it is and what it wants for you, and let it give you what you need.  And may you find your orange.

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al...

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, also known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)