Method Writing: A Great Way to Get Into Your Characters, Even If It Messes with Your Life

In a recent interview about TRAFFICKED, for the Modge Podge Bookshelf, I was asked if the scenes were hard on me to write. And I thought, you have no idea. As I examined my process, I came to realize that I write a little differently from many other people. I call it Method Writing, similar to Method Acting. I just looked it up online to see if this is an actual thing, and yes, there are others who do it too, so I didn’t invent the concept. Merely, I heard the term ‘Method Acting’ and realized that was what I do when I write.

Here’s what happens when I sit down at the computer: I become a crazy lady. Okay, not like a take my clothes off and balance a candle on my head while writing crazy lady, but I become different from myself. I become the character in the same way that method actors embody the character in order to portray them.

I do this naturally – it’s the only way any good writing comes out of me. If I try hard to sit down and write something beautiful without doing this, forget it. I have to put myself in a trance. I become that character. I feel everything she feels, which means I also suffer through the things she’s suffering. If she’s running from something or someone who wants to kill her, my pulse is beating fast and my adrenalin is going. If she’s in a sexy scene, I’m feeling sexy. If she’s lonely and sad, oh man, I’m so lonely and sad. If she’s having fun and laughing, you’ll probably find me giggling at my computer screen.

How do I get into it? First, I need a little time walking or running to get myself into the character. I need to be alone. My mind starts circling around my character. I start thinking her thoughts. I focus on my physical senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell. Once I am physically feeling like my character, I can write.

There are some downsides to this kind of writing. First, it messes with my body. Because I’m wrapped up in the story, my body will get itself into weird positions as I’m writing. Sometimes my feet are up on the desk and I’m typing between them. Sometimes my back is all curled up like a mad scientist. Sometimes my shoulders are pulled right up to my neck. Or my character is running so my feet are flexed and poised off the ground for thirty minutes. Later in the day, I wonder, hmm, how come my legs hurt?

Another downside is that if someone interrupts me in the midst of writing, like my husband or my kids, I’m still a crazy lady. I’ll look up with a sort of dazed, crazed expression. “What do you want?” Needless to say, I rarely write with them around. My husband’s a TV producer/writer and gets weeks off at a time and I always have to ask him to leave the house so that I can write. When I used to write at the Brooklyn Writers Space, this could be a problem because I wasn’t all alone. I might do a big fart and not realize it because I’m in the zone. Or I’d wander out of the writing area into the common space to get some tea and people would be talking about an article in the New Yorker. I’d either be all spacey or glowering, or they’d yank me out of my zone, and I’d start talking and then my writing day would be toast. Though I have to say, the beautiful thing about writing with all those writers around me was that they understood better than anyone. If you kept your head down and ignored them, nobody took it personally.

There are other problems with this kind of writing. Just as you hear Method Actors having problems in their regular life, when you utilize the Method Writing technique, it can seep into your life as well. If I’m in the midst of a book, it gets harder to maintain the separation between writing and life. I obsess about my character and I start thinking about her all day long. Sometimes I dream about her and in the morning, I have a hard time doing normal people things. In those times, I want everyone to go away so I can write. But this isn’t possible. I’m a mom and a wife. I have things to do, but it does mean I forget things I need to remember.

Like, the other day, I’m really into my writing, and then I look at the clock and see, oh no, I’m almost late to pick up my daughter from preschool. I run out the door, jump in the car and speed to her school. I hop out, sprint across the parking lot and throw open the door to her classroom. Most of the other little four year olds have been picked up. A few remain, thank goodness.

The teachers look up at me. I am a mess. My hair is disheveled, I’m still wearing my running clothes, and I stink of sweat because I didn’t shower yet. I find that showering before writing breaks the flow and I’d rather shower at the end of writing. I see them taking me in, wondering what on earth I was doing. I’m the opposite of the coifed mothers who usually pick up their children with their makeup and hair all done, wearing nice, ironed clothes. I can be coifed too, just not after running and writing, though I guess it’s a rare day when something is ironed.

“Hi!” I say. “Sorry I’m late.”

The head teacher frowns and says, “She didn’t have a box today, but we had some extras.”

Oh great. The box. That damn box that I was supposed to remember. I never remember things like boxes. Why oh why didn’t I write a note about the box? I blink at them. I’m still foggy headed from the writing. “Oh, okay, thanks.”

I give my daughter the super big smile, the smile that’s supposed to show her how much I love her even if I’m the most forgetful mother on the planet. “You want to go have some special time?” That’s code for cuddling and reading and doing a puzzle after school.

“Yes!” She throws her arms around me and it’s okay for now. Next time, I’ll remember the box, I hope. But I’ll probably keep writing in this style even if I don’t, because it’s the only way I can.

3 thoughts on “Method Writing: A Great Way to Get Into Your Characters, Even If It Messes with Your Life

  1. Brilliant! I write comedy but still we use this same idea in my writing classes. We act out our scenes and it helps me to physically act it out so I can visually see what I need to write, (if that makes any sense). Wonderful blog post. :)

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