Saturday, February 21, 2009
Vague thoughts on the difference between acting and writing
Having written a hell of a lot of non-fiction in my life, when it comes to fiction I feel like I am still wading blind. I have not yet learned to have faith in what I think gets called "a voice"--my voice--to the degree that I can just get on with telling the story. I feel as though, no matter how long I have been putting pen to paper, I am still learning the most basic lessons.
Lately, I have been struggling with what I was describing to my partner as "restraint"--meaning, how to know where you, as writer, end and the reader begins. How to judge when enough is enough? We all know, as readers, how much more powerful a story is that leaves space for your own knowledge and insights to rush in.
My partner has done a lot of acting and so I often ask him for the actorly equivalent to my writerly problems--it's amazing how often ideas make more sense one step removed from the subject at hand. He said, "Well, it's all about being present, isn't it?" And I am still trying to get my head around what it might mean to be present as a writer.
Of course my partner tells me the solution is to meditate, which is his solution to everything--"letting go" being the key. (And I suspect he's right, though I immediately start thinking "When am I going to find time for that?!".)
I was talking to our resident philosopher Damon Young recently about a fiercely intelligent friend of mine who studied drama but was always struggling to "bypass her intellect", as she was being instructed to do. I told him I find this fascinating about acting--that it requires a different kind of intelligence, more physical or instinctual than intellectual. In writing, too, I am still trying to understand the role of instinct, and how to get ideas to sink beneath the surface--to drive the action rather than tell the reader what to think.
"Fiction involves the intellect, but, yes, it's not calculative, analytic," was Damon's response. "Fiction is informed by what you know, by how you think, but it's a very different kind of process. I think acting is similarly divided from academic work, though the aspect of embodiment--like dance--is more crucial than in fiction."
Then today I read this wonderful quote in the paper from actor Ralph Fiennes--currently starring in The Reader, which I can't wait to see:
"I think [acting's] about openness and being present. Thought and analysis are not good. Instinct is your engine. I once had an argument with someone who said that acting was an intellectual process. I said that it wasn't that at all; it was closer to sport, where you are open to the next moment. I'm not a sportsman, but I have played enough sports to know that you have to be absolutely present and in full possession of your skill. The acting I like is very transparent."
What a great analogy. As for how that translates to writing, I am still giving it some thought. But I can only guess at what it might feel like to be "in full possession of your skill". Exhilarating, I imagine.