the art of practical writing
I'm excited to dig into The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. Like Freudian analysis, the Method erupted onto the scene, turned conventional beliefs upside down, and quickly became dominant. One day soon, the Method may be supplanted, also like Freud's work. But by what?
Mamet was never a fan, but aside from the occasional iconoclast, "serious" American actors are still expected to study the Method or one of its offshoots. The sense I've gotten is that you must investigate the Method before dismissing it. You must take it seriously if you want to be taken seriously—even if you don't end up pulling any Method acting antics on the set of a film. But that may be changing.
Like writing, acting begins on a technical foundation—hit your mark, cheat out toward the audience—but soon becomes an intuitive feat. Once you develop a degree of professional skill, acting goes beyond posture and breath control, let alone knowing your lines cold. Techniques are table stakes. Acting, like writing, is harnessing instinct, consciously wrangling the unconscious. A writer masters the rules of grammar and syntax only to realize that great writing isn't hidden in any rule. Writing well is more magical than mechanical and as such, must be accessed obliquely. For actors, the Method offers a way to subtly reach for inspiration without scaring it away. But it has drawbacks, and we may not be willing to tolerate them any longer.
Don't despair. Writer or actor, there are other ways to cast a spell.
"I never really studied acting," Kathleen Turner told an interviewer. "People talk about these different techniques — Meisner, all this stuff. I don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time." Turner, who was an enormously self-assured and confident artist from the start, felt no need to parrot something that didn't resonate with her just to claim legitimacy.
"My acting school was acting," she continued. "One year, when I was at Southwest Missouri State University, there were only 14 nights out of an entire year that I was not in rehearsal or in performance. I just did it. In fact, the master classes I do, my course is called Practical Acting. You shut up and do it."
If there were a Method for writing—judging from every writer in history, it would involve alcohol and exotic travel—I'd have no interest in studying it. Give me Practical Writing: Shut up and do it.
In my work, the gist of a book will occasionally emerge near the start of a collaboration. Far more often, however, we only figure out where we're going by generating a ton of material and then reading it over. Once you get enough words down on the page, it becomes hard to argue with what you've written. That's the book. It's not a fantasy anymore. All the planning and theorizing would-be writers love to do about what they're going to write someday can't hold a candle to what they actually put down, sentence by sentence.
This is true of an individual book and even more so of a writing career. The more words you write down, the closer you get to knowing not how to write but how you write. Which is the only kind of writing worth doing.