Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Emotion Memory--Part 2
Excerpted from Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors.
Miss Part 1? Read it here before continuing.
When we learn to access our emotion memory, two wonderful results occur in our writing:
o We can far more splendidly write the emotions of those characters whose experiences are similar to our own.
Sometimes we create characters whose main hardships are based on those we’ve faced in our own lives. Still, your character will encounter some situations different – or perhaps worse – than your own, and she will have a Desire and inner values that do not exactly match yours. When her passions must diverge from your own, tapping into your emotion memory will help you discover all the colors of her unique situation. This character can become far more than a mere cut-out of your own experiences.
o We can create characters who are completely different from ourselves – and perhaps even anathema to our own ways of thinking.
Through releasing the sensations of your own experiences, emotion memory allows you a surprising glimpse into souls whom you may have thought you could never understand. You can then enlarge these “glimpses” until you create a complete portrait of a character.
As the previous sentence suggests, emotion memory is not the “be-all and end-all” of your ability to feel your character’s passions. On the contrary, it is only the beginning. It is the seed from which your understanding of a character can grow. Just as a plant also needs soil and water, so you must place the seed of your own emotions in your fertile imagination and creativity. With this mixture of your own emotions and imagination, you can create any character you choose to create.
Let’s look at the steps to accessing your emotion memory in order to discover the passions of a character in a given scene.
o Find an experience or emotion in your own life that is similar to that of your character.
Sometimes this is easy. If your character is experiencing his or her first crush, you’ve probably been through that yourself. Or if your character is at the funeral of a parent, and you’ve lost a loved one, you know the depth of grief. But when our characters face situations outside the realm of our own experience, this step becomes a little more tricky. Then we need to search our own experiences for an emotion that reflects what the character is feeling. Remember, the emotion need only be a “seed” for the passions of your character. For example, if your character faces crushing guilt over causing someone’s death, find a time in your own life when you have felt guilty. It could be a time from your childhood, and it could even be over some relatively minor issue. The circumstances aren’t important and don’t need to match the severity of what your character is facing. What is important is that you felt guilt.
Years ago when I was single, I awoke suddenly one morning, thinking I’d heard a noise in my apartment. I’d been cold during the night and had burrowed down into the covers; the bedspread was over my head. I tensed, listening. Again, I thought I heard something – a footstep entering my bedroom. My heart turned over, scudded into panicked beats. Pull down the cover! my insides screamed, see who’s there! I knew I must. I knew I needed to see what was happening, be ready to move, to jump from bed and defend myself. But in that second, an amazing thing happened to my body. Every limb, every sinew locked up tight, and I could not move a muscle. Do it! my mind screamed – and still I could not move. Internally, I wrenched against myself, willing my arm to grasp the cover bedspread, willing my head to lift off the pillow. And then suddenly my arm lurched. I flung the cover aside, snapped my head toward the doorway.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Whatever sound I’d heard had been imagined. I felt quite foolish.
A moment later, when my heart had slowed to a normal pace, I realized I’d discovered an amazing truth. I’d discovered that a person really can be “frozen in fear.” That minor incident of imagined danger hardly seems comparable to a scene in which my character faces a real intruder and her very life is at stake. But, again, the circumstances aren’t important. I was frozen in fear. That small, otherwise insignificant event in my life, no more than five seconds from start to finish, was a powerful experience of raw fear. When I need to, I can expand upon my emotion memory of that event to write believably of a character’s fear – even if she’s facing death.
o Relive your own experience by telling it out loud to yourself.
This is where the “getting personal” really begins. You may at first feel inhibited or even scared, depending upon the emotion. But this is not the time to hold back. Find a time when you can be by yourself and uninterrupted.
Tell your experience to an imagined, captive audience, relating every detail you can remember, using all your five senses, if possible. First describe the setting. Then describe your actions and emotions, one by one. Get up, move around if you like. Act out the events.
Are you reliving a moment of excitement? Tell your experience until your eyes shine with the memory. Are you reliving jealousy? Tell it until you feel the fire in your stomach. Loss? Tell it until you can feel the pain. Don’t stop to take notes, to record your emotions. Just feel them.
o Add any external stimuli that may help you relive the memories.
Is there anything that might help you in the retelling of your experience? A picture? Certain object? Certain smell, such as a perfume? Music? Use anything you can to help release the memories.
o Once you have connected with your own emotions, use them as the seed for those of your character.
This is the step in which all the rest of [the techniques covered in Getting Into Character] come into play. Once you connect with your own emotions, once you fully remember how fear or grief or joy feels, you need to blend this knowledge with everything else you know about your character. What are your character’s action objectives in the scene, and how could these emotions translate into them? What is his inner rhythm, and how can he show it? If he’s talking with someone, will he be honest about his feelings or will they be subtexted? Write your scene infusing all of these things. Your renewed memories of the emotion, plus all you know of your character, will blend together to create a vivid and believable scene.
Now, with all this “dipping into the well,” how do we keep our own reserves filled? For as surely as water can run low, so can our emotion memory.
o Keep the resources for your emotion memory filled by watching others and most of all, yourself
There’s no way around it – strong writing requires an intimate knowledge of humanity. The only way to gain that knowledge is to live life to its fullest and to watch and record it as though your very life depended upon it. In fact, your writing life does.
First, you can refill your emotion memory by watching others, mentally recording their actions and perceived emotions in certain situations. Perhaps you’ve never been in a non-injury car accident but have observed one. How did those involved react as they hurried from their cars? How did others act as they stopped to help? Even more importantly, how did you feel as you sympathized with these people? As we sympathize with others, we transfer their feelings into feelings of our own.
Second, you can watch movies and plays, read books – always with the goal of recording emotions. Third – and most of all – you can watch yourself. Now that you’re aware of the emotion memory within your subconscious, you can actively record your own feelings in a way that will keep them closer to the conscious level, more readily available when you need them for writing.
I’ll confess something. No matter what I’m going through, no matter what my emotion, even in moments of greatest joy or sorrow, there is a little part of me that disconnects to float to the corner of the ceiling and observe. Whether I laugh or cry or sink to my knees in despair, this writer side of me looks on quite objectively, watching, recording. Saying, “Hm. I’ll have to remember this.” If I don’t feel her in the midst of my passion, I feel her only seconds later, scrambling to take it all in, to remember the emotions in all their colors.
Remember to watch your “insignificant” moments as much as you watch major events in your life. As we’ve noted, a seemingly insignificant experience can unleash a powerful emotion memory. In fact, only when we discover this truth can we employ emotion memory to its fullest.
Richard Boleslavsky, a director from the Moscow Art Theater, wrote an amazing little book called Acting, The First Six Lessons. In his lesson on emotion memory he tells an aspiring young actress, “We have a special memory for feelings, which works unconsciously by itself and for itself. It is in every artist. It is that which makes experience an essential part of our life and craft. All we have to do is to know how to use it.” These memories, however small, Boleslavsky continued, are “just waiting to be awakened. And what is more, when you do awaken them, you can control them in your craft . . . You command them.”
The young actress asks, “Suppose I don’t find a similar feeling in my life’s experience, what then?” Boleslavsky replies that anyone who has lived a normal existence has experienced to some extent all the emotions of mankind. The woman challenges him. Surely this can’t be true. What if she must play a murderer? She has certainly never murdered anyone or even felt the slightest desire to do so. Hogwash, replies Boleslavsky. (My paraphrase.) Ever been camping when mosquitoes were around? he asks. Ever follow one with your eyes and ears, your hate spurring you on, until you killed it? The actress admits that she has. “A good, sensitive artist doesn’t need any more than that to play Othello and Desdemona’s final scene,” Boleslavsky declares.
What a startling thought!
Read Part 3