Method Writing

From a paper presented at the
Associated Writing Programs annual meeting

The "method," an acting philosophy/technique/aesthetic derived from Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater, first reached American shores in the 1920's. Because of its link with realism, its affirmation of Freudian psychology, and its focus on adolescent rebellion, it quickly became a natural dramatic expression of the way Americans understood and defined themselves, as seen in the work of actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Julie Harris, Blythe Danner.

While there has been much debate among its defenders and detractors about what the Method is and isn't, some of its tenets and notions may sound rather familiar to teachers and students of creative writing. Poets and memoirists also:

Realism. Concentration, observation, and sense memory (the recollection of sights, sounds, smells and textures) are the chief means of bringing the pulse of actual life into a work of art. When Flaubert, coaching the young de Maupassant, encouraged him to observe the cab drivers in front of a Parisian railway station, he may have invented "method" writing.

Character Development. Stanislavsky proposed the idea of a "super objective" which would articulate a character's motivation throughout a performance. In order to engage our attention, a character in a work of fiction must want something and want it intensely. It's a character's wishes, needs, and hopes that drive the plot of most stories.

Emotion. Method actors attempt to evoke genuine emotion by something called "affective memory" or "emotional recall" -- remembering scenes from one's own past to convey a character's emotion in the present. This memory can be closely tied to the physical circumstances of an event such as the time of day, the scenery, the weather; not unlike Wordsworth's notion, in poetry, of "emotion recollected in tranquillity."

Props. Lee Strasberg told one of his classes at the Actors Studio, "There are times when you pick up your shoes and see through them your whole life." Playwrights have employed stage objects as essential to the unfolding of the plot. When you add thematic or psychological layers to a stage prop it becomes, of course, a symbol or a metaphor.

Improvisation. Writing classes can benefit from the orchestration and observation of group scenes. As R. V. Cassill has noted, "In creating a scene you have to be something of an actor." The ad-libbing author/performer learns to stay in character at all times and in varying situations. Some excellent actors exercises that can be adapted to a writers workshop can be found in Marsh Cassady's Acting Games (Meriwether 1993) and Viola Spolin's Improvisations for the Theater (Northwestern University Press 1985). What if? by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays (Harper Collins 1990) contains many writers exercises that resemble actors' improvisations.


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