Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Early in my college career, fresh from a Catholic high school with only so-so liberal arts offerings, and negotiating a prestigious southern university with serious and significant liberal arts offerings, I found myself in the creative writing class of Mary Lee Settle, a cranky and rather opinionated professor of the older type, one given to delivering stark sermons about writing, the content of which I can't even remember now.  I do, however, remember an activity she put us through early in the semester.  Each of us were assigned roles of her choosing and forced, in character, to answer questions about ourselves.  The questions came both from her and from other students (who were supposed to stay in character the whole while).  At the time it struck me as a silly and highly contrived exercise, one which made me uncomforable despite the fact that I spent several summers of my childhood acting in community theatre productions and that in high school I acted in several one-acts peformed by a church teen group.  "We're here to talk about writing," I remember thinking as Settle put us through our paces, "not acting."  What I failed to understand is that Settle was talking about writing.  That was the whole point of her lesson.   What I recognize now, and say repeatedly to my students, is that in some crucial intellectual aspects, the crafts of acting and of writing are identical.  Writing fiction, especially, is about dropping yourself and becoming someone else.   This is most obviously true, I suppose, when writing in a first person voice.  On paper you act out that person's voice for the reader as a performer would for an audience.  And it shouldn't always be the same first person voice, or maybe fiction isn't really what you want to write.  But the similiarity still holds when one uses the second and third person voices.  Any time a writer draws characters in a story, the writer must find a way into the character, even if that character is a monster; otherwise the writer is doing nothing but manipulating stick figures, and his story dies.  This is obviously an intuitive process and involves not only mining the expanse of one's own personality-- and whose personality isn't wide enough to include at least a little of the monster--but being sensitivie to realities of the personalities in the people around you.  In the end, it feels like the mental prep work that practiced actors must do all the time.  And it can be remarkably liberating.

Several years ago, across a range of courses, I taught a certain writing student, the only former student of mine that I can call a certifiable genius.  (This was not just my opinion.  Everyone who taught her said the same thing.)  She was frightfully, painfully reserved in class; she said almost nothing during workshop; but her creative work was both voluminous and astounding.  She had more natural command of, and an ear for, language than any person I've ever met.   Her stories were disturbing and difficult and very darkly funny.  As it turned out, this student, for a time, was also a drama major and had roles in several productions.  As hard as it still is for me to imagine, this brilliant but critically shy girl became someone else entirely when she hit the stage.  I'll never forget my wife rushing home from one show, exclaiming how shocked she was to see Jessica, of all people, completely owning a campy, outragious, flirtacious role.  "I just couldn't believe that was Jessica," she kept repeating.  But really, it should have come as no surprise, to her or to me.  The trigger that allowed Jessica to dump her usual self and become another woman on stage is the same trigger that allowed her to develop the outrageous and compelling characters that took over her stories.  When I was in graduate school I was constantly told by readers how surprised they were to find such distrubed, cranky, even hateful people narrating my stories.  "You seem so normal," they would say.  For my part, I was surprised by their surprise.  It seemed perfectly natural to me to create these characters.  After all, I was just acting.

That writing is a means of self-expression--no, that we write in order to self-express--is a widely accepted axiom.  But at the risk of academic heresy, let me say that I think self-expression may be the worst reason to write anything creative and certainly not why I do so.  I write stories to indulge in new human worlds and to know imaginary people from the inside.  And to see how the lives of those imagined people play out.  There's usually very little, and sometimes none, of me in my stories.  Don't you get it?  That's the pleasure.  But I should say, before wrapping up, that I don't think this is merely an aspect of fiction writing.  If one is writing poetry, for instance, or creative nonfiction, genres famous for their ability to let the writer explore and express himself, I don't think the work finally begins to succeed until the writer regards himself as only another character in the reimagined world of the poem or the memoir.  The person-writer who, back in the real world, experienced the triggering event or relationship must get kicked out and be replaced by the writer-as-character in order for the actual writer (who technically is the same person, but not really) to bring the piece to its best fruition, the fruition demanded by the piece itself not by the person-writer whose experiences inspired it.  This may sound like some kind of complicated mental trickery, but it's not.  It's a natural process for any experienced craftsman.  I'll never forget hearing Jo Ann Beard, during a visit to my university, say that she tells her students their memoirs will never be any good until they stop thinking about those memoirs as their attempts to tell on themselves to the world and start thinking about them as pieces of art that have almost nothing to do with them at all.  I sat there and knew exactly what she was talking about.   She meant that when you are writing--no matter what you are writing--you are playing a role (or perhaps several at once).  And she meant to take that responsibility seriously.  She meant to say, Make damn sure you play that thing to the hilt.  Make sure that afterwards people say, I can't believe that was you.


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