Monday, July 16, 2012

Method Writing

I’m a writer with a busy life.  I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.  I read other writers’ blogs, and discover that they have a plethora of occupations and hobbies besides writing, as well.  Robin McKinley, for example, whose blog I religiously follow, is married, knits, rings bells, cooks, gardens, looks after more than one house, takes care of two dogs, blogs, reads, sings, plays the piano – and I’ve probably left plenty of things out.  And all this besides writing her beautiful, lyrical fantasy novels. 

My life is not quite so full, but even so, I do have a fair list of interests.  The result of this is my inevitable writer’s guilt, which I’ve mentioned before.  ‘Why,’ I ask myself, ‘can’t you just focus on writing, and not bother about how to achieve perfect tiramisu (among other things)?’ 

However, apparently I can’t stop bothering and just focus, no matter how much I harangue myself, so I’ve had to invent an approach to writing which allows me to do interesting things and simultaneously avoid the niggling accusation in the back of my mind.  My solution is method writing.

Yay for acting! Though maybe not behind these masks...
I’ve always admired those actors who don their costumes when filming starts and then live in them until it ends, learn the language of the country where the movie is set, infiltrate the mafia so as to study its workings from within…Just kidding about the last one – I’m not sure anyone would be so foolish as to do that!  Anyway, in short I find these actors’ dedication to verisimilitude refreshing and inspiring.  I can’t help but think such a thorough commitment must really perfect their characterization of a role. 

I also think they set a good example to writers.  Acting and writing are not entirely different.  In order to create characters on paper, the author's thought and imagination must shift between different personalities.  She must identify herself with a huge cast inside her head, assuming their mannerisms and ideas.  Similarly, an actor studies those imagined persons and identifies with them as well, though obviously for a different purpose. 

Since such a parallel exists, a writer should be able to do something analogous
Proof of my experiment
to method acting.  If I want to write a story about a blind sculptor (which I did), then I should be prepared to live without sight for a while, so that I can understand at least a little of how the blind feel.  In fact, several years ago, I did blindfold myself for three days during a college vacation, while my friends kept a wary eye on me.  The experiment was quite a success, since I learned that many of the things we do with eyes can be done perfectly well (even if rather differently) with touch alone.  More importantly, I discovered that with blindness comes a change in the perception of time, and a curious, exhausting intensity, since I was forced to concentrate so fiercely on my other four senses for information. 

Now that is rather an extreme example, but hopefully you see my point.  Basically I think that if you want to write about something, you should try to experience it first.  Granted we could all just decide to write about our daily lives, rather than plunging into experiments for the sake of writing, but that seems rather small-minded.  Besides, no inspiration has yet come to me for stories about my day-to-day occupation – teaching adolescent girls – so instead I’ve chosen to broaden my horizons.

I have the outline of a story planned, in which three teenage boys set out from New York, hoping to reunite one of them with his girlfriend in Idaho.  They decide to drive, not realizing the inadequacy of their funds until they run out of gas and the car breaks down.  For the rest of their epic journey, they scrape together money from this odd job or that, travel by train, meet random people in cities where the train stops, and generally grow into themselves thanks to their arduous labors.  (I realize that this is a highly improbable plot, but it’s meant to be a foray into magical realism, so I’m okay with that.) 

However, when I settled on this idea I’d never traveled by train in my life – nor had I extensively visited the states which lie between New York and my home.  What was my obvious solution?  Take a trip to NYC and then return via train (I skipped the working to pay my way part, though).  I set off with Vasnefy for company and we had an amazing time, plus I gathered loads of personal research about train travel, the chain of cities and town connecting the two coasts of the USA, the landscape of North America, and the many interesting personalities who can be encountered when cooped up for hours in a narrow, moving compartment.  The experience was invaluable, and when I start my novel, I’ll be able to pour into it memories which will make it more real and tangible, rather than a glib fantasy.

On the trip, I learned you can see views like this from train windows!
So what is my conclusion?  Simple: the most effective way I’ve found to balance writing with the rest of my life and many interests is to integrate them.  Instead of sectioning off writing into a small corner which nothing else can invade, I let it flow out to permeate my whole life.  If I have a story set in an exotic location, I save up money so that eventually I can take a trip there.  If I have a character who is a chef, I take up cooking extravagantly (much to my family and friends’ delight).  If I have a character who is writing a memoir, I buy a journal and write his story in memoir format.

By committing yourself to ‘method writing,’ I find that you can enjoy an almost unlimited number of hobbies and vacations and jobs and events and people, etc., etc.  The secret is to remember that any plot can be a doorway toward exploring a new avenue of experience, both as a writer and as a person. 


  1. Quite right. Writing may be a solitary occupation, but it's by no means something you should compartmentalise and isolate away from the rest of your life. Ideas for writing come from your life experiences, and if you spend too much time in front of your computer, you're never going to find those sparks of inspiration.

    Method writing sounds like it really works for you. I'm not sure if it's for me: but I have my own way of ensuring I juggle my commitments properly :-)

    1. Every writer has to find his/her own way, of course. I'm glad you have yours! Once you've learned the juggling trick that works for you, writing really becomes far easier.

  2. Method writing sounds like lots of fun. I am currently writing about a place in Mexico. I feel a trip coming on...

    1. you should go! It's amazingly helpful to write about places you've visited in person, and I find that visiting even gives you new ways to expand your story.

  3. I'm so surprised that you'd never travelled on a train. I often used to go to London with Mum and Dad when I was a kid. I love train travel.

    You actually did everything blindfolded for days on end! Gosh! And Robin McKinley sounds like a far more industrious worker than me. Where does she get the energy from? I shall pop over and visit her and hope that some of it rubs off.

    (If this comment works: Just to let you know that I've tried four times to post this comment up and the word verification keeps throwing out blurred things that I can't read.)

    1. The comment came through perfectly! I agree that the word verification can be almost impossible to read.

      Anyway about train travel - trains are popular on the east coast, but I spent my life from age 6 till now in the Pacific NW of the US, where train travel is not very common. I missed out, because I discovered that it's wonderful (so much better than planes!) when I took my trip.

      I've been hoping some of Robin McKinley's energy would rub off on me for years - I find her quite incredible. Please do visit her blog, because it's very interesting and quite funny.

  4. Your nice comment over on my blog prompted me to come and visit. .As a situational introvert I was delighted to read your post about attending your friends wedding. As unlikely as it seems, I became a portrait/wedding camera serves as my distraction,mask and entry into social settings.

    I also have enjoyed your posts relating living a creative life and how you navigate finding/making time for your writing. Interestingly, since writing is not my primary creative outlet I allow it more freedom. With my photography however I have a similar running dialogue...and work toward keeping the balance between creative focus and life.

    I am pretty sure you won't mind this long winded and off topic comment(I did find this post on method writing very interesting...but don't know quite what to make of it yet.)But thanks for a place to let me think about just where my creative life fits. teri

    1. Thank you for your response and for reading my other posts as well as this one! I was very pleased to get your comment.

      I've always suspected that other artists (photographers, painters, sculptors, etc.) would have similar experiences to mine as a writer, so I was happy when you confirmed that about your work with photography.

  5. Method writing. I read somewhere that it is best to write about what you know. And while not everything I write is autobiographical I can usually go back to something I've written through emotional experience even if it is just a response to something else that I have read (physical experience helps too)- I think when one writes that way it helps to make things real for the reader. There is a shared connected-ness that allows the reader to say to themselves...Yes, that is the way it is supposed to be.
    Continued success in your writing.
    As always thanks for your visits.

  6. Oh just a thought - if you select to approve all your comments first before posting them, then you don't really need the that word verification thingy - which can be troublesome.

    1. Thanks for the tip on comments - I agree that the word verification thing is a pain!

      I quite agree that the reader can tell if you have or have not experienced something, which is probably the reason why we are all advised to write about what we know. It's excellent advice, anyway, since it makes writing so much more enjoyable. Your whole self gets involved that way.