On Method Writing

A number of weeks ago, I came across an article from BBC reporter Steven McIntosh titled Could ‘Method Writing’ be the Future for Novelists? The article, like many articles about writing, made me reflect on my own practice and I realized that I am, in a sense, a method writer.

Before we can begin to understand what method writing is, we need to mention method acting. Focusing on the popular Strasburg Method, the quick description of a method actor is that they physically and mentally live or have lived in a way that mirrors the character they are portraying to some degree.  Think of it as collecting experiences to draw from. This is thought to help the actor understand their character more deeply and thus provide a more accurate, compelling portrayal.

A light  version of these methods could include learning an instrument or taking up fencing. Some actors take it to the extreme and never break character for the entirety of the shoot. Daniel Day-Lewis is famous for doing this with pretty much every character he plays. Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York was especially hard to be around. He learned to throw knives, gut carcasses, and got into real fights in parking lots.

Now, let me be clear. If I ever write a story about being stranded in the desert, I will not be drinking my own pee in order to understand the experience. Nor have I become an opium addict for my current WIP (spoiler alert?). I am no Daniel Day-Lewis but I will say that many of the lighter concepts behind method acting have worked their way into my writing without my knowledge. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that much of it has been there from the start.

The first novel I ever wrote is partially set in the Cascade Mountains outside of Seattle. The location of the protagonist’s camp needed to feel real and match specific criteria. Using maps and hiking guides I found the perfect location, then hiked to it with my brother and took way too many pictures as documentation. As I continued to write, I was able to write my experiences in the voice of my characters which made it a lot easier.

In another novel, I needed a viable, cold growing substitute for coffee. It turns out there is a real life version of it. Chicory. I could have read a description of it and gone from there. I knew that I wanted the experience. The drink is supposed to be a soothing warming treat and a quick description wasn’t going to cut it.

Instead I tracked it down, which was easy since the French drink a tone of it, and was able to describe its subtleties. With a little sugar and some creme, it tastes very much like liquid roasted marshmallow. The liquid is slightly more viscous than coffee and the fiber in it has other effects. I experienced all of this so my characters could.

The more I thought about my self as a method writer, the more examples sprang to mind. If I’m writing a cold scene, I’m often doing so at night, in the rain, with the windows wide open. There’s something about feeling the right sensations that both inform setting details as well as character attitudes. I’ve been known to use colored lighting when writing a scene in a club or cityscape. Smells have a huge impact on my writing as does food and drink. A little whiskey goes a long way toward writing for that lush of a character who needs those, flowing, almost out of control lines of dialogue.

Now, do I find that this is necessary for me to accomplish my writing? No. Some if not most writers are able to forgo the physical and simply immerse themselves mentally into their characters and stories to some extent. I can to a degree but find it easier to experience the physical as well. Do I feel that it makes my writing more authentic? Yeah. Again, I find that I sometimes lack the skill to reach an adequate level of authenticity simply by researching. Finally, do I think it makes writing easier for me? Absolutely. The goal of any tip or trick or method for anything is, “does it make life easier”. In my past life as a teacher, our district math coach used to always quote the phrase “mathematics is the pursuit of laziness.” This of course is a reference to a pursuit for efficiency. Why toil with one method when another can be faster and easier? Why can’t our methods for writing be the same? I think they can.

Maybe I’m a weirdo, well, of course I am, but what matters is that a loose form of method writing works for me. The key, is that it works. If this seems strange and off-putting then by all means don’t bother. If it seems like something you’d like to try, dive in and have some fun, or not any fun,  depending on what you’re trying to write. If you are already planning your strict diet of raw meat and bone marrow so you can nail down that caveman fantasy opus you’re trying to write, then more power to you, though I don’t think I could go that far. I would probably also recommend that you get some shots or at least some Pepto and Immodium.  Who knows what that would do to your guts.

1 Comment

  1. I guess I method write to a certain degree. Sometimes I can get by with research, and others times I can draw from part personal experience. For the latter, it helps considerably if I journaled about it. I had food poisoning a couple years ago and wrote a few paragraphs just to capture the experience- I would never intentionally seek food poisoning for a writing project.


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