fountain pen on black lined paper



As we try to “write well,” we often wind up hiding our natural way of speaking, hiding our half-formed ideas, hiding our process, hiding our tendency to avoid the truth, hiding our vulnerability.

It is as if, while writing, we study ourselves (and our thoughts) in an imaginary mirror. But we don’t write down what we see. Instead, we write down what we prefer to see. We make little changes, what we think are improvements, to the face in the mirror and wind up with something that may be well-organized, but which isn’t authentic. We disappear from the writing, hiding behind it, rather than showing our vulnerability, our real selves. We avoid speaking in our deep voice and replace it with a representation. We are invisible ghosts, and our writing becomes the sheet we throw over ourselves so we can be seen.  But of course, all anyone can see is the sheet.

The result is often writing that is “good enough” to tell a story or make an argument but which doesn’t touch the reader in a deep way, because there is no authentic emotional connection being established. Emotional connections only arise when we are vulnerable rather than covered up.

But how do we stop hiding? Isn’t it natural to want to put our best foot forward, to write in the best possible way? Doesn’t that take work and reflection and adjustment? We can’t just let it all hang out, can we?

Well, yes we can. And maybe we should.

To understand this better, it is helpful to think about the inspiration for Method Writing, which is Method Acting. Now there is a lot of nonsense and mythology about “Method Acting” that has  little to do with the truth. The truth is that Method Acting is simply a way of training actors developed by a Russian theatre director named Konstantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski was distressed by the acting he saw on stage in the commercial theatre. He thought it was phony and unnatural. The actors were “putting on a show” rather than displaying genuine emotion. They were hiding their true humanity behind a façade. He was determined to find a way to teach his students how not to hide.

And this is what he discovered: if the actor on stage could turn her concentration to something that was sufficiently complex and involving that she forgot she was on stage, she would stop hiding and her behavior and manner would become natural and thus be able to move the audience. When actors stopped hiding behind a façade, they became more convincing.

But this is certainly counterintuitive. Acting, it is natural to think, is supposed to be a façade. The actor pretends to be somebody else. We tend to take for granted that the actor is hiding  behind a “character.” Convincing student actors that they will be more convincing if they STOP hiding is the great challenge for acting teachers.

To stop actors from hiding, Stanislavski, and others since his time, developed exercises for actors to do that force them out of hiding. Sometimes teachers get this point across by advising actors to “pull their  covers.” Such exercises, for example, might require the actor to rehearse a scene  while also playing basketball, or singing their lines to the tune of “happy birthday,” or actually scrubbing the stage floor while rehearsing their scene from Hamlet. Exercises like these stimulate the actor to engage in real human behavior instead of “putting on an act” and this reality informs their performance and brings it to rich emotional life.

in Method Writing, we also use exercises to stimulate real emotions and verbal behavior while we are writing, so that we don’t wind up “putting on an act” in order to tell the story. We let go of the story in favor of authentic verbal behavior in a way similar to how an actor in performance lets go of  “acting” in favor of simple, authentic physical behavior.

It works well in both cases: writing and acting. It gets at the truth.

The central secret of both Method Acting and Method Writing is to focus on the exercise. Always be doing the exercise, and the writing and acting, to a surprising extent, will take care of itself.

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