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.


little red hen said...

Yes wouldn't it be wonderful to feel as if you were be "in full possession of your skill". I constantly question my possession of any skill in my work and my creative life! Maybe that's the letting go part, letting go of your judgemental self and just going for it. (I almost typed critical self but I'm sure there is a need to be constructively critical of your work in order to reach your potential.)

genevieve said...

Great post, Rachel. I wonder if writing fiction is as physical as acting, even music, though - there's that 'practice, practice, then do' thing both of them have, and perhaps there's an element of performance in that freeflow fiction writing that we think is what it must be. I suspect the reality is somewhat more agonising though - a lot of unpicking and restitching after the fact.

Am currently reading The Golden Notebook, I have a feeling Lessing will deal with these issues at some point (not very far in just yet).

Damon said...

We can list a few things common to writing non-fiction & fiction, acting, dance and martial arts (off the top of my head).

Letting go is vital. But it takes years (probably decades) of training. So: first, you drudge, you pick, you stumble and over-analyse. And then it comes to flow more smoothly.

This is basically the novice->expert transition. And it has grades along the way (e.g. beginner, competency, etc).

What the novice has to calculate, analyse and amalgamate, the expert intuitively, smoothly appreciates and produces (and this goes for philosophy, too).

But still: even the expert refines, rewrites, snips, adds, and so on. Bach had many drafts, Jackie Chan did many takes, and Joyce had many drafts.

Analysis is one of the forms this takes. When the work's appeared, we might say something's objectified, i.e. it has a tangible, sensible presence in the world. It can be examined, prodded, stood back from, criticised.

Analysis isn't appreciative, but critical, i.e. it's trying to find out what went wrong or right. It's not trying to enjoy or savour these things, but to identify and qualify them.

Sometimes this is all a novice can do (and often badly). In experts or the competent, this analytical attitude is combined with a more intuitive, masterful creative capacity.

Now, each of these artforms requires some embodiment: the physical, tangible acquisition of certain capacities. The writer learns to think through the pen or keyboard (and I know of writers who couldn't think without the pen - H.James wasn't one of them, of course). The musician feels the rhythm of the music - the beat in their hands, feet, head, gut.

But (and here's one difference), each mode uses the body's expression in different ways, to different degrees.

So the dancer or actor must express herself with more bodily nuance than the writer, since the writer's subtlety and precision comes, not from the different movements of the pen (which are relatively similar for Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Dan Brown), but through through the vicissitudes of written language.

At its best, each artform works with the whole human being - but some modes of thought, perception, emotion and embodiment are dominant in each.

I'm rambling here, but I'm hoping there's some sense to what I'm saying.

Anonymous said...

my previous incarnation before writing was as an actor. As an actor you find the voice of you character ( even though it is written by another), as a writer you do the same. As an actor you observe and soak up like a sponge all that is intriguing, as a writer you do the same. As an actor, you cut yourself some slack when you are not working, because you are gestating some skill or waiting for a break, a writer does the same.

But most of all to achieve good acting work or writing work, is the same, the ability to play, let loose and have a crack. Nothing comes from nothing.

Rachel Power said...

Thanks all.
Genevieve, let me know how 'The Golden Notebook' goes--I must get around to reading it.
Damon, I agree that your whole self needs to be engaged at some level. I am reading Lia Hills' YA novel 'The Beginners' Guide to Living'--you must read it, not only because she draws on philosophy but because there is such a feeling that she exists WITHIN her writing, if that makes sense. That all her senses are working as she's creating.
And, yeah: 'Let loose and have a crack'. Think that's about to become my new motto.

Damon said...

Apologies for the long comment, by the way. I was channelling the ghost of R.G. Collingwood.

On 'letting loose' and 'having a crack', I agree. As long it's not seen as some blissful, free romantic reverie (and I don't think anyone here's saying it is).

Sometimes drudgery, discipline and painfully self-conscious hack-work need to come first.

Rachel Power said...

Don't worry--I do that stuff well enough!! The clue is to accept that and not be paralysed by it. The gems are found in the muck. Your comment gave me much comfort that there is a process to be respected--unless you're Kerouac or Andre Breton, which I am not, and even then there's a lifetime of what? something?--thinking, life--being brought to the page. So much work is unconscious--that's the other element. Oh, and no apologies needed!

Anonymous said...

oh Damon, forgive me, but that sounds like the path to academia! (no insult intended).
Instead of discipline, drugery and hackwork you mean routine/focus, showing up and following the spark you may have, even if it fizzles up. If a little romantic reverie sows the seed, why not....

(apologies if sounding like a creative writing care bare, I just know so many talented writers with academic backgrounds, who get so stuck with the intellectual rigours of academia that they can't play with their own words and thoughts, without comparing them to another's, there be dragons this way....)

Anonymous said...

sorry, I meant to say do you mean? instead of mean...

Damon said...

The path to academia: it resembles the path from academia, but all the hedges are plastic.

I'm afraid I do mean 'drudgery, discipline and painfully self-conscious hack-work'.

To my mind, all worthwhile endeavours entail some of this. It's sometimes hard and dull. C'est la vie.

The problem with academic writers is that they're badly trained, disciplined; their drudgery often has the wrong aspirations.

katiecrackernuts said...

OOOh, thanks for the heads up on the Mothers' Magazine mention. And thanks for the birthday wishes. Yes, it does sound rather grown up. Machuuuure.

Anonymous said...

"In full possession of your skill" - I do so like the sound of that!

hedda said...

Dear Rachel,
In my humble opinion, I think that writing is listening to your intuition. Your ability is always there and your talent is constant. You are an accomplished author for a reason, you are good at it. The what to leave in and what to leave so interesting in everything we do from conversations to meals to art work to acting. In my opinion this is the fun of life. this is where you use your voice. what to leave in and what to leave out gives us so much to "entertain" our thoughts and keeps life interesting.
Some of the classics.... Jane austen for example... give so many details that a person could get lost in them and perhaps that is a reason to read in the first place. a form of meditation if you will. Your baby sitter or entertainer sounds like one in a million. hi to her,too!
Texas U.S.A.
Darwin said I don't care what other people think. This is my opinion.

D said...

hi rachel,

this has been a great post.
fiction is tough.

i write like a turd these days, and dance like a dag, but i hold on to one personal truth that I found at university. i studied at deakin uni and did a double major in contemporary dance and professional writing.

it combined both and all aspects of my body and brain. i don't believe in the body brain split.

it sounds like maybe you do, maybe?

the body IS the the switch to turning on and moderating the intuition. I believe that intuition only passes through the brain. I also believe that the brain can adulterate intuition. it has to be a strong and healthy intuition to pass through the brain and come out the pen still in tact and reminiscent, somehow, of truth.

studying dance introduced me to the idea of Body Narrative. I don't expect you to believe me when I say this, but the body holds stories just as your cognitive mind. there is a corporeal mind/intelligence, so to speak. another way of putting it is that they body (also) thinks.

martine, i'm sure, has a good language in her to describe her own version of the same thing (I worked with her once before she was injured).

back in the day when I used to write more (a day I will return to renewed) i couldn't write unless I had a basic but consistent physical practice to wake up my inner narrative; my body's story. my brains narrative was ok, but frankly, too shirty and short and trying to be clever (kinda like how this post reads).

so, for your writing, for your intuition to join your smartie-brain, dance.

you live in melbourne right? tops because you are living a veritable mecca of movement arts for non-dancer trained peeps.

try contact improvisation (ask martine again) and 5 rythms dance. go to a class and journal it. journal right after dancing. it will be confronting. you might even hate it, but ... it might be worth it. to move your body honestly takes letting go.

you never know :}

simmone said...

i am reminded of recent YA novel Before I Die by Jenny Downham, a first novel, and staggering, about a girl with months to live who makes a list of all the things she wants to do before dies and then attempts to do them. i read that downham kept a diary in the character's voice for a year before writing, it's a most consistent, present and true voice. I have also read Lia's book and agree with you - there is sense that lia is part of will, this channelling that authors talk about took me years to find my 'voice' and I still struggle with my authorial intrusions, but I think this diary-first person thing is key - it's like a form of method acting, method writing - but I also think this is the hell of writing because you it can be so hard to get back to your self... ack - the constant divide!! Meanwhile I have just discovered childcare - my God!

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