method writing

Creative work requires consent. Internal consent. Set whatever external writing goal you like: Op-Ed by August, tell-all memoir by March. If your muse goes on strike, the odds of achieving it are hopeless.

When Stanislavski's acting inspiration ran dry, he panicked. Who wouldn't? As described in Isaac Butler's The Method:

The more he performed his roles, the more they calcified. And he could see no way to get his inspiration back, because his technique was entirely external, built on physical and vocal training alone.

As a writer, how useful is external technique—rhetoric, grammar, syntax—if you find yourself without anything to say? The "creative mood," as Stanislavski called it, has a way of coming and going of its own accord. Inspiration belongs to what Stanislavski called the "superconscious"—the part of the mind outside conscious control. (He meant this only in the literal sense, nothing to do with Freud.)

In Stanislavski's time, most acting was formal and declamatory—think Jon Lovitz as Master Thespian. To consistently achieve the kind of raw, naturalistic acting Stanislavski's Moscow Art Theatre had pioneered, external technique alone wouldn't suffice. You needed to deliver the emotional goods, night after night after night. "Stella!" A remarkably talented group of actors had made a name for MAT, but something was missing. When the well of inspiration ran dry, no one, including Stanislavski, knew how to fill it up again.

Stanislavski wanted to know one thing: "How...could [an artist] make something that isn't subject to conscious will manifest itself on demand?" For years, he devoted himself to answering this question. Thinking hard about emotions and their expression, drawing obscure diagrams, trying out different approaches in the mirror: Over years of solitary effort, Stanislavski painstakingly developed the seeds of method acting.

What Stanislavski himself called "the system" rested on two internal techniques:

  1. Mining your own life experiences, however mundane, for the raw material to infuse even the most dramatic role with authentic feeling, and
  2. Instead of trying to develop and maintain a consistent, unitary character throughout a performance, breaking the role down into small pieces—discrete moments—and tackling them "bit by bit."

Both concepts can be applied to writing. When I try to explain a complicated idea, I always reach for a familiar metaphor to put it in terms anyone can understand. Mining life experience. Likewise, I work on each book from the ground up, tackling the 2x4s, rebar, and joints first, moving forward "bit by bit" with complete focus on each piece until the house has been assembled. Much easier (for me, anyway) than imagining the house and then figuring out how it should be built.

External or internal, however, technique is still just technique. You have to step off the ledge and hope your approach works before you hit the ground. That's the central problem of any art: the fear that you'll reach for "it" and "it" won't be there. However you reach, it's still a reach.

As seen in Ron Howard's excellent documentary on the famous tenor, Pavarotti would approach the stage before every performance semi-convinced his voice would fail him: "I go to die," he'd say. Pavarotti had no confidence that he'd be able to deliver the goods. As with Stanislavski's "creative mood," Pavarotti's voice lay in the hyperconscious, outside his control. All he could do was hope.

(I saw Pavarotti in Aida not long before he actually died. Stage hands used a golf car to bring him to a thinly disguised chair—boulder in one scene, treasure chest the next—right before the curtain rose. Pavarotti delivered all his arias from a seated position. Still nailed it.)

When teaching physics students, Richard Feynman advocated for logical reasoning. When someone asked Feynman's collaborator Murray Gell-Mann whether Feynman followed his own advice, Gell-Mann scoffed.

Well, asked the student, as described in James Gleick's book on Feynman, if he didn't solve problems methodically, how did he create all those incredible scientific breakthroughs? Simple, Gell-Mann said:

You write down the problem. You think very hard. (He shuts his eyes and presses his knuckles parodically to his forehead.) Then you write down the answer.

I've mentioned Moldawer's Law before. The short version is, we're all "do as I say, not as I do." Especially the experts. The people who are most dogmatic about the need for systems and techniques are least likely to rely on those techniques themselves. Instead, they stick to "knuckle-to-forehead, write-down-answer."

I don't have much in the way of technique to call on. Nothing I trust, anyway. Sure, some things lead to better outcomes: putting writing tasks before other kinds of tasks, using a timer, etc. Like it or not, however, I think we're all doomed to Pavarotti's death march. With little in the way of confidence, you simply charge toward the blank page. Hope for the best, expect the worst—it's the charge that matters. We go to die.

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