Mar 182012

James Scott Bell

TCM, may favorite channel, showed a clip the
other day of the great actor Eli Wallach talking about Method acting. This was
the movement that took off in the 1940s, inspiring a new generation of actors
like Brando, Newman and Dean.
Wallach reflected that as a young actor it
was exhilarating to work things out with the Method. It was a like a big
gymnasium and the actors were all playing off each other, trying things,
letting scenes happen naturally.
But as he grew older, he said, he got more
cautious. He would sometimes forget those lessons of youth, that sense of play.
To break out of his torpor he would reflect back on his early days.
“The Method tends to put you back on
the track to enjoy what you’re doing, to listen,” he said. “The big
secret to acting is listening. A thought on the screen is amazing. And if you
really listen, it comes to life.”
This hit me as something that applies to
writing as well. We don’t put our best words on paper unless, in some form or
fashion, we listen to the story as it unfolds. Madeleine
L’Engle put it this way: “A writer grimly controls his work to his
peril.  Slowly, slowly, I am
learning to listen to the book, in the same way I listen to prayer.  If the book tells me to do something
completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”
So how do we listen to the book? Here are a
few suggestions.
1. Listen
in the morning
A valuable literary practice is to write
quickly, first thing after you wake up (I will allow you a minute to start the
coffee brewing, of course, but sit down ASAP and write, with pen and paper
even, in stream of consciousness mode.)
Dorothea Brande recommends this practice in
her wonderful little book, Becoming a
. It’s a way to capture that netherworld we inhabit between sleeping
and waking, and therein lies treasure. Also, a lot you’ll throw away. But
that’s the nature of creativity. The idea is to record as much of the mind
stuff as possible, and then use whatever you find that’s valuable. Like panning
for gold, you get a whole bunch of the riverbed in your pan then coax out the
gold a bit at a time.
2. Use
a novel journal
Sue Grafton does this, and that’s good
enough for me. She begins each writing stint with her journal (she creates one for each novel). She starts with a diary entry, something about her life at
the moment. Then she starts asking herself questions about her WIP. She may
want to work on a scene, or a character, or some plot twist, or whatever
else is popping up in her mind. Writing freestyle, is a way to open up her mind to hear what the story might be saying. It’s a conversation with the book.
3. Go
to the place you fear
Going to places we fear is often
where the deepest and most vital material is waiting. I never thought I’d write
paranormal (abnormal, maybe). But when I came up with an idea that just
wouldn’t go away, a
zombie legal thriller
, I went with it. It sold. Then, during the writing, I
had to listen to what this new genre was telling me. I had choices, to go
horrific or dark humorous or serious, throughout the writing of the first book in the series, Pay
Me in Flesh
I listened intently, feeling my way along so the book had
its own rhythms.
My agent, colleague and friend, Donald
Maass, is a master at helping writers press beyond safe pastures. A question
Don likes to ask in his workshops is, “What is something your character
would never ever do or say?” Then, find a place for the character do or
say that thing. Or at least think it,
showing a ferocious inner conflict. Wow. Try that some time and then pick up
the pieces of your head.
If you ever get stuck on a project, or the
inspiration for it has given way to drudgery, remember what Eli Wallach said.
Maybe it’s time to listen. Give the book your attention. Allow it to play. It
wants to help!
Are you attentive to what your story is
trying to tell you?