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Friday, February 16, 2007


Method writing

Here's a piece of advice for young writers that I don't hear given often enough: join the drama club.

When I look back on my own life and try to identify the things that taught me to write, I can identify several. The first, obviously, is that I read a lot. I mean a lot: I whitened my mother's hair trying to read and cross the road at the same time; anyone trying to make my bed would invariably find two or three books under the pillow; my father was endlessly putting up new shelves in my bedroom until it looked more like a library than anything else. (It still does; after I moved out my mother took it over as a study, finding it ideally furnished.) But the other things I learned from were acting, meditation and automatic writing, and those aren't mentioned in many of the writing groups.

Meditation and automatic writing were things I began learning just after leaving school; the meditation classes I went to had art workshops included, and it was through those that I started writing things. The principle of automatic writing is simple: you just keep your hand moving, even if all you're writing is bananas bananas bananas I can't think of what to write so I'm writing about bananas. Keep doing that for long enough, and your mind starts inventing things to fill in the void. Bananas bananas bananas are yellow and the skin is thick and it makes a noise like tearing cloth when you pull them apart and expose the white insides like peeled snakes ... You may produce some gibberish, but it trains you beautifully to keep your hand abreast of your thoughts, to take chances, to listen to what your subconscious is kicking up, all of which helps create a much more vivid and less forced writing style. A metaphor that your brain throws out spontaneously is always more apt than one that you have to labour over, and you need to be able to tune into what your mind is saying if you want to get it across. Having conditioned yourself to catch thoughts on the wing, you'll be able to catch the good ones when the occur to you.

So that's one useful thing. But the other one was what my school called 'Speech and Drama', which taught me more about writing than an English BA. I was lucky, in that I went to a school where liberal arts were highly prized and the drama department was headed by an extremely talented and intelligent woman with a large personality and a deep sympathy for teenage girls; as a result, everyone did a bit of Speech and Drama at the beginning, and as the years went on you could opt to keep doing it, and a lot of girls did. What this was was not text-based play performances - there were school plays, but they were separate. Instead, the focus was on improvisation. You got into small groups and were given a rough subject: this play has to end with a suicide, show us how the character gets to that point; the title is 'The Bully at the Bus-Stop', let see what you can do with that; everyone take a picture of someone from a newspaper or magazine, now play those people being together at a party. You had a brief chat beforehand, roughed out a structure, then improvised the dialogue.

What improvised drama teaches you is how to perform characters. To perform a character, you have to understand how they work - and the same is true of writing. Getting inside a character's head is crucial if you want to write them plausibly, and acting is a huge help: it makes you get into the role, feel out how someone would react and behave. You don't have to be a good actor; I'm pretty bad at it, but it doesn't matter. My voice and face don't execute the character commands my brain sends particularly well, but when I'm writing them down, then that difficulty is surpassed. Having good empathy for your characters is acting on the page, playing all the parts and having complete control over the performances.

The other useful thing about it is that, when you have to create a plot using only a rough scenario and characters, it's a close-up object lesson in cause and effect. You can't force things to happen when there are other actors around whose character may go off in an entirely different direction; there's far less capacity to favour one or two characters and have the others act as convenient yes-men or straw men, which is a fault that bedevils bad writing. Neither can you use plot coupons, because that makes for a dull play, especially when you lack props and scenery; nor can you rely on a lot of backstory that can't be expressed in the action. With no setting except the one you create, and a need to drive along a plot because you've only got a few minutes' worth of performance time in front of the class and they'll be waiting for a complete story, you have to tie structure and character together quickly and efficiently with no cheating.

The presence of an audience is also helpful: you can't get too self-indulgent when people are going to watch you. Making up a story is a solitary pursuit, and there's a temptation to turn it into, effectively, a game of dress-up, where you pick a character you like and have him or her do stuff that's satisfying to perform. If you make it up knowing that you have to please your audience rather than yourselves, you're far more likely to come up with a plot that actually works. The need to communicate your story is made paramount.

So is this helpful if you don't happen to belong to a drama group? Well, yes. For one thing, acting is no guarantee you'll write well - I've seen some pretty bad stuff written by actors - but for another, it's the technique that matters, not the actual acting. If you can get into the mental space that performance involves, then that'll help your writing whether or not you actually do perform. There have been odd occasions (I use the word 'odd' advisedly) where, faced with a crucial scene, I've made my writing environment as close to the scene as possible, assumed the mood of the central character, and basically acted it out - only writing down what gets said, rather than saying it aloud. My friends and I called it 'Method writing', and it can be very useful when you have to get the tone right. On a smaller scale, that's what you always have to do: act out all your characters, making them react to each other as if they were all played by different people - all of whom happen to be you.

Think of the dialogue as something that'll actually be spoken. A good friend of mine who went to stage school gave me some sound advice about dialogue: if you're not sure it works, audition it - see if you can say it aloud in a manner that's halfway plausible. If you can't say it, then your character shouldn't.

Thinking about your audience rather than your characters chokes off good writing pretty fast, but on the other hand, remembering that you do want people to read your work someday, and that they'll have to be entertained, is a good way to draw a line between fiction and fantasy, which are two different things (fantasy as in daydream rather than as in genre).

Remember to keep the action tied to the characters, each thing following on from what precedes it. Treat each character as if they had to be played by different actors - overpaid, temperamental actors, who'll flounce to their trailers if they feel their character's being reduced to a mere foil for the star.

There is, in short, a case to be made for the following theory: writers are actors who can't act. (What actors are I couldn't say, but the ones I know are all pretty nice, so it's probably something agreeable.)

Aha - I was wondering when this post was going to reappear...
Yes, sorry about that - it was online for about an hour a few weeks ago because I clicked the wrong button and then the Net cafe timed out before I could undo it. Here it is, slightly amended.
Here in 2008 via Slacktivist--thanks for linking this post there!

The concept of automatic writing is something my English/Creative Writing teacher in high school introduced to my class with Natalie Goldberg's books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.

Later I found that among a certain kind of professional writer espousing their experience on writer forums, these books get sneered at: "Oh, timed writing exercises. Sure, if you need those kinds of tricks--but real writers don't." Thank goodness for my high school teacher and ample opportunity to find that "just keep the pen moving" works before I ran into that kind of peer pressure!

I've always been a terrible, self-conscious improv actor, to the point that my role-playing-game characters almost always sound like me being me. Maybe I can get there in the other direction, let "method writing" teach me something useful about "method acting."

Thanks as always for your excellent insight!
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