Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Dear Heather and Meg,

In an interview with Kathie Josephs of Children's Literature Francisco Stork said of his experience writing Marcelo in the Real World,

I had this actor like ability to get into the role of the person I am writing about. While I am speaking on behalf of that person, I am that character. In a novel you are going to have to move back and forth. One second you are Marcello and the next second you are Wendell.

This reminded me of something I’d heard Jerry Spinelli say at the Highlights Foundation’s Writing for Children conference in Chautauqua, New York a few years ago. Spinelli was asked a question about a scene from his holocaust novel, Milkweed in which the main character, Misha, is hiding in terror from the jackboots. It is a scene in which Misha has snuck out of the ghetto to steal food and cannot find his way home. Meanwhile, the jackboots with their guns and flamethrowers are getting closer.

“How did you do that?” Spinelli was asked. “Since you were never a child trying to return to the ghetto while being terrified that the Jackboots would kill you, how did you write that scene with such true emotion?”

Jerry replied with an anecdote about growing up as a boy in Pennsylvania. He lived in a working class neighborhood where there were scrawny kids like him, and there were bullies. He had a very vivid memory of being a young boy out later than he should have been at night. He needed to get home, but the bullies were out, too. He knew that if they caught him, they would beat him up, and he was terrified and worried that he might never make it home. The memory of the fear he felt that night as a little boy in Pennsylvania is what he assigned to the character Misha in Milkweed.

So now, thinking about Stork’s comment, I draw the conclusion that perhaps what we as writers really need to tap into is the emotions of the character we are trying to portray, and we do this by drawing upon our own memories. But, is that what actors do? And if so, how do they access the emotions associated with those memories?

George Pierce Baker, Professor of Dramatic Literature at Harvard University in the early 1900’s said this about the role of emotion in drama: “Accurately conveyed emotion is the great fundamental in all good drama.”

And in his book An Actor Prepares, Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great acting teacher of the early twentieth century said,
No matter how much you act, how many parts you take, you should never allow yourself any exception to the rule of using your own feelings. To break that rule is the equivalent of killing the person you are portraying, because you deprive him of a palpitating, living, human soul, which is the real source of life for the part. (167)

Lee Strasberg was a devotee of Stanislavsky’s work who went on to develop the acting school known as The Method. Strasberg focused on teaching actors how to get to this emotional place so that they could bring life to their characters. The core of his work involved using something called Affective Memory exercises in which acting students relived a past experience, and rather than focus on the experience itself, they focused on how the senses were affected by that experience. The nugget I took away from reading about Strasberg’s Method was that the way to reach a place of emotional memory was to focus on the senses associated with that memory.

Going back to Jerry Spinelli hiding from the bullies, Strasberg would likely have coached him to close his eyes, return to that hiding place and focus on what it felt like to be there. What sounds did he hear? Was it warm or cold? Did he smell leaf mold, or a neighbor barbecuing burgers?

And coming full circle to Francisco Stork’s work, I wonder if, when writing of Marcelo’s experience camping out beside Jasmine whether Stork closed his eyes and harkened back to a time when he was camping outdoors? Were there insects chirruping nearby? Did he smell a distant campfire? Feel a cool breeze brush back his hair?

There is much that we as writers can learn from actors about how to bring emotional resonance to our characters.

StorySleuths Tip #47: To explore a character’s emotional truth use your own memories, and deepen those by recalling the way your senses were affected during the course of that experience.