Being a productive writer is quite a feat. Combining publishing with another art form is something else all together. Two Santa Barbara writers have recently put out books that showcase not only their acumen with the written word but their mastery of other, more amorphous arts. With Finding Your Best Angle, writer and actress Mary Rose Betten uses poetry to shine a light on her life in theater, while Ernie Witham juggles comedy and prose in his humor writing.
Subtitled (give this to an actor), Betten’s collection draws on memories from her long career. All actors, aspiring or established, will recognize these themes. “The difference between seeking the part and being rejected for the part is so formidable, only a poem can dignify it,” Betten wrote in an email. Her poems are meditations on the often intense emotional experiences of the actor’s life. “Feelings in acting are projected,” she explained. “In poems, they are experienced.”
Yet Betten does not restrain her poetic voice to her profession. The book’s pieces touch on other elements of her personal history, revealing a career integrated with her life. “Had I not been a teenager forced to relinquish my child at birth,” she recounted, “I would never have become an actress.” The twin pursuits of acting and poetry provided the channels she needed for self-expression and self-determination. “I had no education, no skills,” she wrote. “Family, faith, and society said I had no choice. A poem is a choice.”
As focused as these poems are on the pleasures and sorrows of acting, what might a non-actor find here? “A deeper appreciation for their true self,” Betten wrote. She noted the actor’s condition of being employed to effect certain emotions while concealing their own. “The real self is not seen, only known interiorly,” she explained. “Non-actors can read these poems and consider their own emotions. When we don’t trust emotions, we choose anger. Ultimately, it is better to be true to one’s self than to survive as an actor.”
Meanwhile, Montecito Journal columnist Ernie Witham writes to achieve what many consider to be the highest of all arts: generating laughs. His new A Year in the Life of a “Working” Writer lets readers live for a year in “Ernie’s World,” both the title of his long-running humor column and his own state of mind, where everything is a potential source of jokes. His “location humor” finds laughs in the people, places, and things around us. “There are more than 40 different locations in my book, many that Santa Barbara readers will recognize,” he wrote in an email. “The setting does not have to be exotic. I believe there is humor everywhere.”
As his fans know, Witham’s brand of comedy has a strong experiential bent. “Whether I am foraging for inspiration in the kitchen pantry, having water fights in the pool with the grandkids, or making friends with ‘Mr. Avocado’ at the Carpinteria Avocado Festival, the key element is visualization.” He wrote. “I want [readers] to feel like it’s happening as they read it. When I go wine tasting, I want them to get a bit tipsy. When I go to Costco, I want them to reach for a shopping cart.”
What began as a standard column collection became a book of travel stories which then morphed into a manual on humor writing. As a veteran leader of Santa Barbara Writers Conference humor workshops, Witham is better-placed than most to address the much-argued-about issue of whether and how comedic skills can be taught. “Writing is a craft,” he wrote. “Humor writing is no exception. Most people have great, funny, personal stories they want to tell. I enjoy helping them get those funny stories out of their head and onto the page.”