Writing as an Actor
by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
"Writing, at its best, is a kind of acting. You have to inhabit the character to be able to write about him."|
Sitting in front of the computer, writing and rewriting, it’s easy to feel like a bottle of Pepsi left uncapped, all the fizz gone. I’ve begun taking an acting class that has restored my writing carbonation. Writing, at its best, is a kind of acting. You have to inhabit the character to be able to write about him. You have to have a sense of scene, pacing. You have to know how to let the drama rise and fall. And what better way is there to come up with fresh dialogue and gesture than studying acting?
Here are a few of the things that I’m learning that I’ve found helpful.
"Inhabit a word or an idea or a feeling. Just say to yourself a word such as smart and let your whole body show what it is to be smart."|
|Before you begin to work, especially if you write at night, sit quietly, breathing deeply to quiet your mind. If you write in the morning or anytime you might be tired, tap yourself with the flat palms of your hands, starting at your head and working your way down to your feet. It’s really a wake-up call, such a refreshment (unless you do it too hard.) Try to really observe yourself in some routine activity such as taking a shower. Do you scrunch your eyes closed and raise your face up at the showerhead? With what motions do you soap yourself? Do you turn away from the showerhead to shampoo and then lift your head back to rinse? Do you sing in the shower or sigh as the warm water falls down on you? Try to recreate the experience on dry land. Then try to recreate it in writing. A waste of time? Never! A writer must observe deeply and be able to recreate those observations. “But I’m not writing about myself,” you might argue. True, however, if you become aware of how you do simple activities such as buttoning your coat, you will also be sensitized to those rituals when you write fiction. Inhabit a word or an idea or a feeling. Just say to yourself a word such as smart and let your whole body show what it is to be smart. You don’t have to be right. You just have to try it. It will allow you to increase your expressiveness in every way. An actor needs to know the purpose of his scene, who he is trying to convince of what, how this scene fits into the whole play. In the same way, when you’re writing a scene of your novel, it can’t be idle. It has to fit into the whole. What is the scene that you’re writing doing to bring the whole plot forward?|
"In writing, you have to visualize just what the actors are saying to each other. . ."|
|An actor speaks to his audience. Sometimes his audience is, well, the audience. Especially in comedy, the actor often does an aside, turns from the actor he is speaking to onstage to speak to the audience. “Isn’t this guy a dope?” he might say. Or the actor may be speaking to another actor. In writing, you have to visualize just what the actors are saying to each other, what their gestures are, and what all that implies. This is a writer’s job as well. The most interesting writing has implication, something going on beneath the surface. For example, Mme. LaFarge knitting at the base of the guillotine while the aristos were being guillotined implied that murder was ordinary, mundane. A wonderful acting tool is to act out the fifteen minutes in the life of your character before the scene you’ve written takes place or act out the scene your writing as if you are a neighbor who has observed it. This will give you a full idea of your characters and their dilemmas. Most of all, acting out scenes that you’re writing, not just reading them aloud, but really acting them out will help restore the passion to your subject that impelled you to first sit down and write about it.|
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/ or at her blog: http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/