Writing Right with Dmitri: Getting in Touch with the Feelings

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Getting in Touch with the Feelings

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You went over to the wall and placed your head in your hands and leaned against the wall. The idea was to stay there until you got 'into yourself' and had made contact with a 'memory of emotion' that prepared you for the scene. I laid my head against the wall and tried to contact a memory, any memory that would rescue me and help prepare me for the grave, but the only thought racing around my mind was, What are you doing with your head against the wall? I felt like a nut.

Hal Holbrook, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain, p 311

That's actor Hal Holbrook explaining Uta Hagen's acting class. He was previously unfamiliar with any version of 'The Method', an acting technique that tends to divide people in that profession. You either swear by it or at it, it seems. I never worked around Method actors when I did amateur theatre (with some professionals), but I did take a class in it once. The instructor said I was a pretty good Method actor, which surprised me no end because I always thought 'getting in touch with your feelings' was a no-brainer. You just applied your experiences to the situation in the story, I thought. And then I started reading Holbrook's painfully honest autobiography.

Hal Holbrook is an astonishingly good actor, both on stage and screen. Don't believe me? Watch a few minutes of his 1967 portrayal of Mark Twain. He was 42. Here he is, doing it again in 2012. He's aged into the part. In fact, he's aged past Mark Twain's sell-by date. His autobiography gives you a lot of insight into how much a lifetime of being Mark Twain – everywhere from television to San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub in the 50s – has meant to his own personal growth. I recommend the book. I recommend Holbrook's acting, which you can also see here in Wall Street.

Reading Holbrook's autobiography gave me a sudden flash of insight as to why working actors need classes to help them 'get in touch with their feelings'. In Holbrook's case, he had a childhood that would have broken a less resilient human. When he was two, his parents simply skipped town one day, leaving their three toddlers unattended. They had to be taken in by relatives. His mother disappeared in the direction of Hollywood, while his father was in (and out of, when he escaped) the mental hospital. Things got tougher from there: his reticent New England relatives refused to discuss any of this, leaving the kids uncertain of where they fit in the world. Harold grew up fearful of madness, afraid of abandonment, and dreading to let anyone get too close – because they'd either hurt you or just leave again. In those circumstances, trying to gain access to the emotions you might need as an actor could be a perilous undertaking.

No wonder it's so amazing when he does it. Watch this clip. I don't know what the film is about, and I don't care. The younger actor doesn't move me. But that's transparent emotion on Holbrook's part. He must have learned it somewhere.

Why do I bring this up? We're talking about writing, not acting. Well, for one thing, where do the actors get the stories and dialogue they're up there on the stage or screen spouting? From writers, that's where. Before they can emote at an audience, you have to be emoting on paper, real or virtual. If your verbal emoting is phony, artificial, stilted? Theirs will be, too. You know something else? Writing like that isn't just sloppy. It's also a lie.

You don't want to lie when you write. I'm not talking about facts. You can invent any facts you want in your fiction (don't do it if you're a reporter). You can create elaborate personas for yourself online. That's fine. You're secretly shy, but come across on h2g2 as the life of the party? Go for it. But don't lie about emotional states. And don't falsify motivations in your characters or, as much as you can, yourself. Tell the truth. To tell the truth, you must first find the truth.

Finding the truth about the world is a lifelong undertaking. So is finding the truth about yourself, which may change over time, as well. When you read others' writing, ask yourself if they seem honest to you. Are you getting insights, or being fluffed off with clichés, stereotypes, and half-truths? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined life is definitely not worth reading about. Cast aside those celebrity bios, if you want to be a better writer. Look for the painfully honest. Also look for the probing questions, the seeking mind.

A Few Suggestions

I've already recommended Holbrook's autobiography. Here are a few more. They vary a lot in style, period, and content.

  • A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is available for reading online. Crockett's life was unusual, and he was self-taught. I think you'll find him a very honest character.
  • Streets is a memoir by Bella Cohen Spewack, somebody else who came from far behind in her life. You can read it online, or buy it. I recommend the book for insight and raw honesty of emotion. You'll also learn more than you ever thought you could about life in New York in the old days.
  • Anything by TH White, because his work is full of emotional honesty. You could try his poems, which you can find online if you're willing to queue up. Here's a sample of how he turns emotion into truthful writing:
    I should walk out quietly and stand still

    With the air in my hair and my feet in the wet dew,

    Eternally motionless, without want, or will,

    Not proud any more, Helen, of this poor head:

    And I daresay even that's not true.

    'Lost', from A Joy Proposed: Poems, by TH White

I'm sure you can find more examples. Feel free to share – but only if they're emotionally honest enough to be worth our time.

PS: I'm currently re-reading Leo Marks' memoir, Between Silk and Cyanide, after a hiatus of 20 years. If you want to read some really fine writing, get this book. Also if you'd like to know what really went on in the code rooms of London during the Second World War. Marks was there, he knew. He wrote wonderful poetry, authored a film script that ended a director's career, and voiced the devil in Scorsese's Last Temptation.

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