“The Lee Strasberg Method School of Writing” (by Hilary Davidson)

Hilary Davidson was a travel journalist and the author of eighteen nonfiction books in that field before she turned to fiction writing. Two of her three mystery novels featuring travel-writer sleuth Lily Moore are set in foreign locations, as are some of her short stories, most notably “Darkness in the City of Light,” in EQMM’s November 2013 issue.  But she did not choose to write about setting—the external element in fiction—for this post; instead, she takes a look at what it sometimes takes to get inside a character.  And this Anthony Award winning writer, who will soon see the publication of her first standalone thriller, Blood Always Tells, is as good at breathing life into her characters as she is at conveying place.  Readers looking for short-story collections won’t want to miss Hilary’s The Black Widow Club. —Janet Hutchings

Years ago, when I was an intern at Harper’s Magazine in New York, I lived in a Salvation Army residence in Gramercy Park, at the corner of Irving Place and East Twentieth Street. It was an old-fashioned hotel for ladies, not unlike the residence in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (there was even a genteel parlor on the first floor for entertaining gentlemen callers; men weren’t allowed on the other floors of the building). The residence was filled with actresses who were studying at the Lee Strasberg School, which was nearby. I often came home in the evening to find them involved in dubious exercises, which I was sometimes roped into. The purpose of the exercises was to answer one question, which I heard daily: “What would motivate me to behave in the way the character does?”

While the exercises themselves sometimes baffled me (it’s strange to watch someone suddenly dissolve in tears for no apparent reason, then smile again a minute later), I was intrigued by the theory behind it. While stimulating memories and re-creating emotions to bring these feelings to a role seemed a little extreme, I was curious about getting into a character’s head. My actor friends let me borrow books to understand how it worked. This was how Lee Strasberg described his Method approach to acting:

The human being who acts is the human being who lives. That is a terrifying circumstance. Essentially the actor acts a fiction, a dream; in life the stimuli to which we respond are always real. The actor must constantly respond to stimuli that are imaginary. And yet this must happen not only just as it happens in life, but actually more fully and more expressively. Although the actor can do things in life quite easily, when he has to do the same thing on the stage under fictitious conditions he has difficulty because he is not equipped as a human being merely to playact at imitating life. He must somehow believe. He must somehow be able to convince himself of the rightness of what he is doing in order to do things fully on the stage.

It made sense, intuitively speaking, but it sounded like exhausting work. If an actor needed to dig deep inside his or her psyche to discover the roots of a character’s motivation, wouldn’t that leave the actor exhausted after each performance? When my internship ended, I left New York, and didn’t give another thought to Lee Strasberg or the Method for years. But it came back to haunt me when I started writing fiction.

I didn’t realize it at first. I was a professional journalist, so I was used to writing every day, but for a long time, I couldn’t understand why it took me roughly the same amount of time to write 500 words of fiction versus 2,000 words of an article for a magazine. I discovered that characters and stories took up more space in my brain than I ever imagined. I found myself emotionally tied to the characters on the page, so that if they were angry or frustrated or upset, my emotional state mirrored theirs. I wondered why I couldn’t easily leave those emotions behind on the page. Eventually it dawned on me: I was unconsciously using Lee Strasberg’s Method to write. I was putting myself through the same paces to write a character as my actor friends did to play a role.

It made a lot of sense, when I started to unravel it. What interests me most about a character is his or her psychological makeup. What causes someone to make a terrible choice? What trigger pushes a person to the brink? What’s damaged this person in the past, and what are they trying to hide? This is true for me whether I’m writing a short story or a novel. I want to know what’s underneath a character’s façade.

I wasn’t conscious of deliberately calling up memories to create realistic reactions until I’d written about two-thirds of my first novel, The Damage Done. I knew that the main character, Lily Moore, was claustrophobic, but when I tried to write about her terrified reaction to being locked in a small room, none of it felt very convincing to me. I tried to do it, but I couldn’t channel her terror at the situation. Finally, I focused on calling up a memory of feeling powerless and trapped. For me, that happened while I was scuba diving in the St. Lawrence River, and I lost my dive buddy underwater. The visibility was so bad that I couldn’t see more than ten feet around me, and I had no idea whether she’d been swept away by a current, or if she’d sunk further down. I searched for her, getting more panicked as each second ticked away. Rapid breathing uses up your oxygen supply quickly, causing further panic. Never before in my life had I felt so hopelessly trapped. That was how I finally figured out how to write about claustrophobia, and it helped me understand Lily so much better.

Since then, I’ve embraced the Method approach to writing, even though Lee Strasberg never intended it for use that way. Strasberg liked to say, “The actor creates with his own flesh and blood all those things which all the arts try in some way to describe.” But, in my mind, the goals of Method Acting and writing fiction are surprisingly similar: to make what’s in front of your audience’s eyes come alive so that it feels as real to them as it does to you.

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4 Responses to “The Lee Strasberg Method School of Writing” (by Hilary Davidson)

  1. Joe Clifford says:

    Exactly! It’s why fiction is so much harder–and why your work is so good!

  2. jackgetze says:

    A former journalist, I struggled with my fictional characters putting emotion on the page until I read Strasberg’s book. It’s still one of the most difficult things for me as a writer, but at least now I have a “method” to work the problem.

  3. Robert Lopresti says:

    That is a really good point, and one I have not heard made before. People sometimes ask if I rely on real life in creating fiction and I usually reply: only in creating emotions.

  4. This is excellent advice, Hilary ~ thank you for sharing your experience with us. As writers, we can so closely connect by putting ourselves completely in the frame of mind of a character and stand in their shoes. I must “see” in my mind’s eye what a character is seeing, doing, feeling, sensing, reacting, etc. If I can’t picture it, I can’t write it. I hear ‘ya when it comes to being emotionally drained after fully imagining and ‘feeling’ what a character is ‘experiencing.’ Wonderful post!

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