Monday, February 11, 2013

Tippin' My Hat to Stanislavski

Tell me if you know this one.

A girl flies to another continent (country, time zone, zip code) to get engaged to a guy only instead of getting engaged, he tells her he's met someone else and it wasn't like they were even serious because they lived on different continents (countries, time zones, zip codes) so she flies home, sobbing, to her friend who says "Poor Baby" and "Just remember how this feels so you can write about it."

Or maybe you know this one.

It is time for reviews at work and your boss calls you in. You are thinking, wow. Maybe I'll get a raise. And your boss says, "We're eliminating your job. Here's a month's pay and three months' health insurance." And your friend says, "Poor Baby" and "Just remember how this feels so you can write about it."

That's right. Remember how this feels so you can write about it.

Yes. It's the Method Acting School of Writing. Like Stanislavski himself were leading us through sense memory exercises.  Writers are told to dig deep into their memories, their experiences, their emotions and put it on the page.

Or more like, aren't we lucky we've gone through painful (or joyful) things because we can write about it better.  After all, a writer is supposed to write what she (or he) knows.

But seriously, what do we know?  Not a lot. Then again, should not knowing something stop writers from becoming god? Do we dive into that imagination that has been honing itself since Ms Martindale in fourth grade told us to open our math books to page 43 and do the first twelve problems or do we spend time revisiting our ups and downs of our past to give authenticity to our characters?

Constantin Stanislavsky would instruct his clients in the Actors Studio to revisit over and over, What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does? Do I simply replace actor with writer? No, wait, that doesn't make sense. Let's tweak it a bit. What would motivate my character to behave in this way? And because we want to illustrate an arc within our story, What would motivate him or her to change?

Do we draw that arc from ourselves? Our own experiences? Or imagine ourselves in the character's shoes? Remember what rejection feels like by re-reading comments from a contest judge or what joy feels like by recalling a scorching hot kiss with Daniel Craig. (Well, writers ARE god. We are creating these universes. Why not Daniel Craig?)

Ahh. See. Right there. I did it. I stepped away from what I knew (Daniel Craig) and mentioned what I didn't know (rejection from contest judges). Are we as writers limited to what we know? Do we draw on our own experiences as we create our characters? If so, than Suzanne Collins, I am so sorry. (and Thomas Harris, I do not want to meet you in a brightly lit mall let alone dark alleyway.)

Yet there is much as writers that we can learn from Stanislavsky. Even as he sought "theatrical truth" so too can I seek literary truth. Whether I am writing a romance, set in Spain and England, or a suspense set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I must portray my characters with integrity. How would Lucian show he is angry? Or Phoebe her fear of losing her child?

Generally, I find myself using the Improv approach to my plotting, rather than going as deeply and richly into a universe as is demanded by Method. And I tend to grow irritated when told to "save it and write it" when it comes to sharing my own experiences with friends. But  as frightened as I am of so intricately plotting a group of characters and carefully constructing their arcs, of including only those scenes that actually matter to the outcome of the book rather than those that I just loved writing, I must bow to Stanislavski and his Method, and embrace at the very least his call for Truth.

Even if I have to take a break from Daniel Craig to do it.


  1. Love it, Marjanna. And so true on many levels.

    I think I don't often intentionally try extrapolate my experience and squeeze it onto the page under the guise of my characters' motivations and responses to life and situations. However, I do believe that subconsciously it does happen, especially with those really deep emotional experiences, the ones that were debilitatingly painful for me.

    I think those come out in layers over the years in my stories. That being said, I do believe my stories hold a lot of my personal psychology . . . so anyone who knows me well and knows the ups and downs my life has taken over the years can see it clearly playing out in the pages of my books in some form or fashion.

    And I think those authors I read who do really move me, are the ones who get the emotions right . . . there's a truth that resonates with me, whether it's because it's universal or it's something I know personally. The trueness of it touches me.

    Certainly a post worth pondering in depth. Thank you. Excellent insight!

  2. Golly, I sure hope we can write literary or emotional truth and not just literal truth or what am I doing with a back of werewolf heroes and elf heroines? :)

    I agree that "going deeper" doesn't necessarily have to come from your own life. What's the motivation for this character? Why would he/she act this way? Is a scene not working because the emotional truth of it is not yet authentic?

    Great food for thought, Marjanna!

  3. Candy, I certainly think Deep POV calls for the Method more than Improv, my personal MO. And I, personally, can become lazy in my exploration of a character's motives.
    I heard Daniel Day Lewis speak about his characterization of Lincoln and why he chose the slightly high pitch of his voice - simply because it would carry further when speaking, and at that time, of course, there were no microphones. As well, during pre-production and production, he and Sally Field texted one another - as President and Mrs. Lincoln, cadences and all.
    This is how deeply a Method Actor explores his character, right down to his literal voice. You are so right in saying the most satisfying reads are often those that seem the most emotionally authentic. But also, I find it more than difficult to willingly suspend disbelief with a fashion model doesn't know how beautiful she is or an alpha male runs around making certain everyone is happy.
    Thanks for your comment!

  4. Keely, I do wonder if there is a difference for an Actor playing a character vs. a writer creating on. However, Stanislavski drew from his relationship with playwrite, Anton Chekhov, in his development of the Method.
    Thank God I do not have to explore in reality some of the things my character may go through - like murder or loss of a child - and too bad for other things - like a weekend of lovely debouchery with Daniel Craig (!).
    And yet, and yet, don't we have to fully develop the back story for our characters to truly understand them?

  5. Well said, Marjanna, all the way around!

    I don't know if I want to dig into my painful Truth, either, but I do know if we gloss over the real feelings characters, and therefore readers, so by necessity writers, have, we may be writing something other than what we intend. Farce, satire, and some other forms of comedy don't have to push emotional buttons for readers or, blessedly, for writers. Sure, they push mental or intellectual buttons and they're very worthwhile forms, don't get me wrong. So depending on what we want to write, we may have to dig through our own emotional minefields--or not.

    As for the folks who say to you, "Poor baby. Remember it so you can write about it," do they follow their own advice? Maybe you're not such a poor baby, after all. Especially if you have a higher page count than they do. :-)

  6. Nichole, It can be a tricky line we walk as writers because we want the reader to Know what the character is going through. So we tell them. None of this spare Hemingway style. No. We will tell the reader she Wept and Sobbed and her face was simply a Mask of Grief and her chic Dior might as well have been a hairshirt covered in ash. But in truth, given this character's true motivations, we'd know she would actually break every single window in his precious greenhouse, systematically, left to right.
    I think the Method forces us to trust the reader as well as respect the reader enough with the character's depth and breadth. It may not come from my experience, and as I've said before, thank goodness for that small mercy. But it still should resonate as a full and true display of who the character is.

  7. Love this post, Marjanna. I think that you can use your experiences to help you write even if you haven't experienced what your character is going through. We've all experienced joy, pain, fear, worry, etc. Maybe we weren't afraid of a killer chasing us with an ax. But maybe we were afraid when we were driving and someone pulled out in front of us and we nearly missed a bad accident. I think you can use the thoughts and physical reactions from similar situations even if you can't stand the thought of reliving your personal trauma.

    Thanks for posting this. It was great.