The Actor Who Realized She Was Actually a Writer

From studying Shakespeare to authoring a weekly sex column to directing a film about river blindness, Lacy Warner’s love of storytelling has taken many forms—and her own story has much to offer those just setting out on a creative path.

The Actor Who Realized She Was Actually a Writer

In 2007, 22-year old Lacy Warner moved to New York City to become an actor. She had been immersed in the performing arts from a young age. Life in New York, however, did not unfold as she expected. Lacy wrote about the struggles of her early years in the city in a 2014 piece for Narratively called “The Secret Life of a Fashion Week Peon” which details a terrible temp job she took on in order to make ends meet. After years of rejection in the acting world, and facing a dwindling bank account, Warner found inspiration and guidance in an unexpected place. Almost immediately after deciding she was actually meant to be a writer, those constant ‘no’s’ became a string of ‘yeses.’ 

In this interview, Lacy talks with Narratively about writing a sex column, how growing up in seven different countries has influenced her writing, and what it means to be a “story hunter.”

In your first piece for Narratively, published back in 2014, you mention you moved to NYC to be an actress. You later shifted from pursuing acting to writing, eventually getting an MFA from Columbia University. I am curious how that shift came about. 

While at the Conservatory program at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, I realized that I loved being an actor, but I wasn’t getting an education beyond Stanislavsky and Shakespeare and such. I decided to transfer to a state school in Florida called New College. I studied gender and literature and read a lot of Foucault and Andrea Dworkin—and loved it! By the end I was really not sure what to do. I loved the academic world, but I also really missed performing. I ended up attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London; they had just started a program that brought together actors, performers, playwrights, dramaturgs, academics—all sorts of performance people, to understand and create new methodologies of performance. 

After completing that program, I thought I could not truly be fulfilled unless I knew I had given this acting thing a real shot, especially after spending my entire life dedicated to it. I then went back to New York City and proceeded to audition for seven years.

And it was really, really hard. I was a professional auditioner! I never got cast in anything, but I would have four auditions a week. There were so many times when I walked out of, for example, the HBO building, thinking, “I’m going to be on TV.” And then it just didn’t happen.

So there I was in my late 20s—approaching 30—and I was a babysitter, and broke. I started thinking: what am I going to do with my life?

My therapist at the time kept telling me to do The Artist’s Way, [a book that helps individuals better access and express their creativity], which initially I resisted, thinking it was far too hokey, but eventually, after needing to move back to stay with my parents for a while, I decided to give it a shot. 

I really drank the Kool-Aid. I love The Artist’s Way; it totally changed my life. I went into it wondering how this would help my acting career, but by the end of it I thought: I’m a writer. It made me realize that I loved telling stories. Every date I went on, every stop at a coffee shop or ride on the subway had the potential to become a great story. My parents value storytelling above anything else, and my dad still always says, “I married your mother because she was a great storyteller!” It was a big deal in my house that if something interesting happened, you then had to translate it for an audience at a dinner. Once I finished The Artist’s Way, I just thought maybe I should try to turn this instinct into something more substantial.

Once I had committed to that idea, two things happened almost immediately. The first was that there was a magazine called the L Magazine—like the L train in Brooklyn. It was a free magazine that you could pick up on the street. They had a competition for a sex columnist, and I won! At the time, it seemed like a great fit because for years I had worked at Babeland, which is a feminist sex shop in NYC. So I felt like I already had a lot of great stories about the subject matter. I think what made me win is that my piece was really funny. For a long time I considered myself a humorist, or wanted to use the column as a way to examine the loneliness that my single female friends and I felt. I believed it was spurred on by a kind of generational misuderstanding of feminism—that lots of casual sex equaled liberation and eqaulity. But I tried to do it with humor. So I started a weekly sex column for a year about my own life!

What kinds of things were you writing about?

Any idea I came up with about sex. At one point, the magazine sent me to several different sex parties to write about the “sex party scene,” which was fun. But for the most part, they were basically personal essays. It was a bit like Sex in the City—but updated.

Then the second thing happened: I was accepted into Columbia’s MFA program. I remember receiving both of those emails, from L Magazine and Columbia, and being in shock because I hadn’t heard yes to anything in so long!  

Columbia was amazing for me. I really learned how to write while I was there. I went in with a great instinct for storytelling, but then I learned how to use language in a beautiful and different way, or how to think about plot in the context of a personal essay. That really was the starting point for my life as a professional writer.

Your second Narratively piece, How Theme Parks Kept My Globe Trotting Family Grounded, touches on some of the complexities of being a “third culture kid,” [or TCK, a term that refers to “people who were raised in a culture other than their parents’]. You grew up in seven different countries before returning to the U.S. as a teenager. How do you think your TCK identity has influenced your interests and your writing?

It’s influenced every part of me. When you move every two years to a different country and you’re meeting completely new people all the time, which was something I really thrived on, you learn to use your best assets, and one of them is the art of conversation, charm and storytelling. Those are the things that will immediately give you a social circle.

They’re also the things that make you a great writer. I think my parents wanted to be part of that lifestyle because of their sense of adventure and their endless curiosity, and those are qualities that make for an incredible nonfiction writer. You are always looking around wondering, “What’s the story here?” You also need to be incredibly interested in other people, other cultures. The lifestyle encourages and prepares you for that.  

My day job now at Epic magazine is incredibly journalism-driven. I’m endlessly interviewing people, trying to find their story, which is amazing, but you cannot do that unless you’re fascinated by other people.

On your LinkedIn Profile it says you are a “Story Hunter.” Is that exactly what it sounds like? You hunt for good stories?

The term “Story Hunter” was made up by Epic magazine, but hunting for good stories is exactly what we do. We get a brief saying, ‘we are looking for these kinds of stories,’ and then I have to go out into the world and find them. I feel in some ways like I’d be an amazing private investigator because I can find anything about anybody.

The internet of course makes us all connected, but it’s also about being able to get on the phone with somebody and convince them to connect with you, or connect others to you. 

While Colombia taught me to get closer to literature, and about the beauty of language and how to be vulnerable on the page, my job at Epic magazine has taught me the tenets of journalism. They really trained me to understand how to do reporting and conduct research. New York magazine came to me, for example, and said they wanted to tell the history of New York City through its office life. They said we’d love to find somebody who was perhaps a window washer and saw the office life of some bigwig through window washing. And I surprised myself, but I was able to find this amazing writer who had been a big punk star in the 80s, with a day job as a window washer. He later wrote a memoir about his experience and it was incredible! 

You also found Suzanne Verdal, the woman who inspired Leonard Cohen’s famous song, and you wrote about it for Guernica. There were a number of themes addressed in the piece, some of which you mention not anticipating prior to your actual meeting with Suzanne. Can you speak to what that was like–walking in with an idea of what the interview could accomplish, and then bumping up against Suzanne’s complex reality?

First of all, I think the most interesting stories are the ones where the writer has an expectation that is drastically changed by the subject.

There is something I try to remember as a writer, and I want to tell anyone out there reading this, that if you’re like, “oh my God, I went to write this thing” and then it doesn’t work out as planned, the problem you encountered is likely the interesting thing. Put the problem on the page. Any time there is tension, don’t try to solve the tension—put it on the page.

I will also say that this piece was originally commissioned by a different magazine. When I turned in this version of it they said to me: “This is not what you pitched us. We are not interested in this.” It then went to an entirely different magazine that held onto it for about a year and then killed it the night before it was supposed to be published. So, it took two years from having written it to getting it to Guernica. I was very lucky that my editor at Guernica–Eryn Loeb–supported me when I realized that I needed to go back to the original idea which was about what it means to be a muse and in my own search for an answer to that, reckoning with the fact that I too was exploiting Suzanne in the way that she had fought against for so long. 

The first publication really wanted it to be this simple storyline: she’s a muse who has been forgotten by the artist and she’s had a really difficult life. They didn’t want the less glamorous aspects.  And that’s what I went in thinking, that I would save her from this difficult life with my wonderful publication about her. Then I met her. She was a really complicated woman who rubbed me the wrong way a lot of times, and they wouldn’t let me put that on the page. They weren’t interested in that or my own tension—my own feelings about [potentially being exploitative] as well. Yet that was what was so honest about it. 

What else are you working on?

There was a book that I started years ago; it’s called Girlfriend Gaze and it’s about how instead of the male gaze being this predominant way in which women form identity, we actually form our identities in response to what we think other women see. This is especially true for our best friends and how growing up we’re constantly searching for these mirrors in our female friendships and how tricky, and even toxic and complicated that can be. The book would be the story of my own female friendships framed through the photographs of Francesca Woodman and Nan Golden, including reference to their own friendships and girlhoods. That project is on the backburner for now. 

I’m also toying with the idea of a collection of nine different profiles about unrecognized muses, using Suzanne as the heart. It would be about these different women who have influenced art, science and cultural movements, and subsequently how those areas of influence have ultimately overshadowed their own lives.

Many writers struggle with how to support and sustain oneself in the creative space. It’s amazing that you have found a nine-to-five that is creatively generative, and yet you can still pursue and produce things of your own.

Yes, exactly. Like I said, I was a babysitter and then a teacher, and I just really resented all those jobs, but with Epic I get to do things that I’ve never done before. I recently directed my first documentary, which is a short about the clinical phase two trial of a treatment for river blindness in central Africa. That was an incredible experience and I realized, ‘Oh my God,’ I thought I could only be a writer, but now I can take all of these things and be a director, for example, and it really opened up my world in a way. I realized that I have a lot more life to live and it can exist outside of the circle that is writing.