Let’s say you want to write a historical novel about a 21-year-old man living in Derbyshire, England, in 1883. He wants to get to know the daughter of the local miller, but when he tries to engage her in conversation she laughs at his big nose and awkward manner, and her father manages to make him look like an idiot by engaging him in a conversation about wheat grinding – about which, being a sheep farmer, he knows nothing.
The only problem is that you’re a 45-year-old woman living in Chicago who has never seen a live sheep, much less a flour mill.
How can you possibly evoke the right emotions that the young man is no doubt feeling as he is systematically torn to emotional bits by both his love interest and her father?
Enter Method Writing, my patented (not), brand-spanking-new invention.
How I “discovered” Method Writing
Method Writing is based on Method Acting, which is “a dramatic technique in which actors identify as closely as possible with the character played by correlating experiences from their personal lives to the character.” In other words, using Method Acting, even a sixteen-year-old girl brought up in a convent could play a runaway, or a recovering alcoholic could portray a teetotaling Amish father.
I’ve thought long and hard about whether the old bromide, “Write what you know,” is the be-all and end-all of authorship, and although I believe it can give depth to writing and make what an author says more believable, at the same time I feel that it limits the author’s possibilities.
I therefore began to explore the possibility of expanding a writer’s horizons to enable him or her to write about practically anything that excited his or her interest – but how could an author do this without joining a commune, converting to a new religion, having a sex change, or getting him- or herself arrested?
Method Writing allows writers to expand their character and plot repertoires by digging deep into their pasts and their memories, in order to apply to their writing the emotions engendered by their own life experiences.
How to implement Method Writing
I like to use Anne Lamont’s one-inch frame exercise, which she made popular in Bird by Bird, her wonderful book on writing. Think of your life as one giant canvas, or tapestry. Then take just a one-inch swatch of that and write about it. Set a timer for 15 minutes and start writing!
Take ideas from your life, past or present, and simply write about them. You don’t necessarily have to write down each and every emotion you felt during whatever you experienced. Merely telling the story will allow your emotions to rise to the surface, and even if the emotions themselves are not written down they’ll be there for you to use in your “real” writing.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say that you used to get a stomachache every day, right before gym class, when you were in the seventh grade. You knew what was in store for you: humiliation from the students, who made fun of your looks (think awkward preteen), and scorn from the teacher, who thought you were incredibly lame (you were).
If you write about that for 15 minutes, not only will you have completed your daily writing quota, you will have a new entry in the data base of emotions you can retrieve at will.
And don’t forget to…
- Write every day, for 15 minutes. Does that sound overwhelming? Read about my six-minute theory, which says that once you’ve been doing an activity for six minutes, everything kicks in and you get into zone.
- Do outstanding factual research. This is essential for both fiction and non-fiction writers. Just as non-believable or unrealistic emotions can ruin a piece of writing, shoddy research and embarrassing factual mistakes can too. For fiction writers, Google your way to understanding the geography, history, dialect, customs, dress, etc., of the characters in your novel – in other words, the non-emotions. For those of you who write non-fiction, it goes without saying that you must get all your facts straight.
Where the rubber meets the road
Let’s go back to the 21-year-old sheep farmer and the snobby young miller’s daughter. Do you see a parallel between the young man’s humiliation and your seventh-grade gym class? Put those old emotions to good use. That’s what Method Writing is all about.
Using emotions from your personal experiences works in non-fiction writing, too.
- You can write 25,000 words on serving, lobs, love, dropshots, deuce, groundstrokes, etc.
- You can start out by saying, “Did the following happen to you the first time you tried to play tennis? You fell flat on your face, either literally or figuratively, you missed every ball that was volleyed to you, your serves never made it over the net, you tripped over your own feet, and you ran to the right when the ball was coming to the left. It seemed as if everyone at the park was watching you make a fool out of yourself, laughing at your inadequacy. You still blush when you think about it.”
Can you see the difference when you use emotion even when teaching tennis? How connecting to your readers all but guarantees engagement and thus implementation (and acceptance letters)?
More benefits of Method Writing
Method Writing works for the following reasons:
- It’s stress free. You have to come up with only a small piece of your personal tapestry for each session.
- It’s quick. It’s a 15-minute commitment per day. I’ll even give you one day off a week if you’d like.
- It’s private. No one but you will read this, because Method Writing is meant to retrieve your emotions for use in another context.
- It’s limited. If you’re writing about a painful event, you will be finished with it in a quarter of an hour and can pack it back up again into your consciousness until needed.
- It helps with “Show, don’t Tell.” When it’s time to write your novel or non-fiction piece, the feelings you retrieve from your emotional database will weave themselves into the prose without your having to spell everything out, as in, “Clive felt humiliated.”
- It’s liberating. Like a journal, once you get stuff on paper you are no longer a prisoner of it.
Once you start building up a cache of memories and emotions you will be well on your way to culling them for future pieces, whether for fiction or for non-fiction, for first-person point-of-view or third-person point-of-view.
Here’s my challenge to you: Get out a piece of paper (longhand is better for this exercise) or fire up your computer, and write for 15 minutes about your experiences in gym class when you were an adolescent.
And as an added thank you for being such a great group of people, go ahead and get my free ebook, “144 Prompts: Your Daily Writing Guide.” Never again be at a loss for what to write about, and build up your emotional data base at the same time.