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Could ‘method writing’ be the future for novelists?

24 January 2016

From The BBC:

Every February, as the Oscars roll around, movie fans revel in stories about actors who have gone to extreme lengths to prepare for parts.

Daniel Day-Lewis learned to track and skin animals and fight with tomahawks for The Last of the Mohicans, while, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio plunged into an icy river and sank his teeth into a hunk of raw bison while filming the Oscar-nominated film The Revenant.

Actors going to such lengths has become more common in recent years and a cynic might argue it certainly did not harm their film’s publicity, but given the apparent success of their technique, could working in a similarly immersive way also benefit novelists?

The author Thomas W Hodgkinson thinks so.

“I wrote the bulk of my new novel, Memoirs of a Stalker, whilst lying flat on my back in one of the cupboards in my home. There wasn’t even room for a laptop, so I had to write it on my mobile phone,” he says.

“I was trying to get into the mindset of my main character, who breaks into his ex-girlfriend’s house and lives there for months without her knowing. He spends a lot of time lurking in shadows, behind doors, and crouched in cupboards.”

. . . .

Sarah Churchwell, professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia, doesn’t totally dismiss method writing as an idea, but says most would not think it necessary.

“This idea is not different in kind to the way most authors write, it’s just different in degree. Writing is always an immersive, imaginative experience,” she says.

“As a writer, you do live inside the heads of your characters and the world you’ve created. Rather than locking themselves literally in a closet, most writers just mentally immerse themselves in a certain realm, whether fictional or historical.”

Prof Churchwell has experience of writing in such a way. For her 2014 book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, she says she had to immerse herself in all things 1922.

“I did nothing but read about 1922 for five years – I felt I was imaginatively living in that world. You do become naturally obsessed.

“You can’t shed the role at the end of the day… much the way actors often say they also can’t just emerge from the role. They are imaginatively living it, and writers are the same.”

Link to the rest at The BBC and thanks to Lexi for the tip.

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10 Comments to “Could ‘method writing’ be the future for novelists?”

  1. Title is a question, so the answer be ‘no’ …

  2. Laurence Olivier. 🙂


  3. There is a difference when you write from your mind or actual experience. Although I’ve been in Rome, when I wrote a scene in “the Pregnant Pope” about the Via Sacra I opened Google Earth and navigated the actual street where things happened. A lot easier. When I write Sci-Fi imagination is the only way to write, unless you can sketch the environment or the space ships. Just like with Google you obtain virtual experience.

  4. No. Next question?

  5. I guess whatever works. That said, in my opinion, writing is hard enough mentally without subjecting my body to anything beyond hunching over a keyboard.

  6. I would think it wouldn’t take long to discover what it was like to be in a closet.

    • Ah, but the story was all about coming ‘out’ of the closet! 😉

    • Perhaps. But it might take a while to find out what it’s like to be in a closet for months. It may be impossible to find out what it’s like to be in a closet for a claustrophobe/phile.

      That’s kind of my biggest issue with “show don’t tell”. It’s all well and good to suggest that a character started breathing shallower, their pupils dilated and the hair on their arms stood on end… are they excited or afraid? Would the reader in that situation be excited or afraid? How much does it even matter in the context of the scene?

      I guess the only real easy answer is “beta readers”.

  7. When I wrote a memoir about hitchhiking broke across Europe and the Middle East to have unique experiences and find my voice as a writer I sort of had to have done it. Whether you use it right then or decades later, I have found life experiences vital in lending credulity to my fiction. As a young writer (decades ago) I personally had to step out and live life to be able to write about it.

  8. You know, I’m really quite cynical about these stories of self-imposed suffering in order to create art. (While I do admire an actor learning basics about their role, don’t get me wrong.)

    I believe that artists who create that kind of suffering for themselves like this guy writing on his phone in a cupboard are simply trying to sell more than the story. They are trying to sell the story about the story, and thus work on positioning themselves as great, special snow-flake artists. And it feels very much like an ego-trip, rather than anything necessary to tell a good story. I tend to hate that kind of thing and will avoid such authors carefully.

    This is very different from exploring settings or writing about experiences like you did, John. I love exploring settings.

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