Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Emotion Memory--Part 1

In my how-to book on writing fiction, Getting Into Character, I take seven techniques from the art of method acting and adapt them for writers. One of those techniques is Emotion Memory. It's a new, uncharted concept for most novelists--and it's one of the most effective techniques you can learn. In the next few days I'll run excerpts from the Emotion Memory chapter. It's the last chapter in the book, so you will see references to other concepts GIC covers. Let's begin.

ACTOR’S TECHNIQUE: In bringing forth the emotions of a character, an actress relies on her own emotion memory to re-create within herself all the sensations and feelings appropriate to her role at the moment. Emotion memory is rooted in the actress’s past experiences and can be evoked through such things as a smell, a picture or thought. Other times it is more slowly and purposefully recaptured through retelling of a certain past experience.

NOVELIST’S ADAPTATION: An author carries within herself the seed for every emotion and desire she may create within a character, no matter how foreign that desire may seem to her on the surface. When an author learns how to tap into her emotion memory, she will release herself from every “I-can’t-write-that” fear. The world lies at her feet.

Time to get personal.

Up to this point, we’ve focused on your character. By now you have a clear understanding of how important it is to know your character from the inside out. We’ve discovered who he is -– his inner values, traits and mannerisms. We’ve discussed his action objectives, his inner rhythm, his motivations for subtexting, the widely varied colors of his passions. Now we’re going to talk about you.

Like it or not, the truth is this: your character’s emotions begin with you. You are the well from which every passion of your character – every tremble and smile and tear and jealousy – will be drawn.

As a novelist, you are much further removed from your audience than an actor. An actor displays his emotions directly in front of an audience, who can see the movements, the facial expressions, hear the tones of voice. But you must (1) create your characters’ emotions in your own mind, then (2) effectively describe those emotions on paper. From that point, (3) your audience has to read your words and finally (4) re-form the images of those emotions in their own minds. It is so easy for those emotions to lose their depth of meaning in any one of these steps. One thing is certain. In light of how far removed your audience is, if you want your readers to feel the passions of your characters in all their glory, you – being at the starting point – will need to feel them to their absolute fullest yourself.

But how to do this? How to plumb the depths of the well of emotions within you, rather than merely skim the surface?

Once again we look to the art of method acting to guide us. How does the method actor believably portray the unique emotions and desires of different characters? Particularly when his character faces conflict that he, the actor, has never faced. Answer: he taps into the well of his emotion memory.

Emotion memory was first spoken of by the French psychologist Théodule Ribot, who called it “affective memory.” Constantin Stanislavsky [the "father" of method acting] explained this “affective” or “emotion memory” as the kind of memory that makes a person relive all the sensations he felt when faced with a certain situation. Emotion memory can fill him anew with the feelings of that moment, even though these feelings may have long before sunk into his subconscious. These are memories in their most pure, distilled form. Time simmers them just as a sauce simmers on the stove until excess liquid is gone and all that remains is potent, blended flavor.

A friend of mine once told me of cleaning her kitchen after baking on a hot summer day. When all the pans and utensils were washed, she flicked on the garbage disposal. A familiar smell wafted from the sink, a smell caused by the combination of items she’d used in the baking – oranges and cloves and cinnamon. In an instant, that smell transported my friend to Christmas – the remembrance of oranges and applies stuck with cloves, bobbing in hot cider. That rich, sweet, heady scent filled her mind with scenes of celebrating the season with family – the joy of opening presents, the frustration of awaiting her turn in the bathroom, the biting cold of caroling house-to-house, the sadness of saying goodbye at the airport. The emotions of the season in their vibrant colors, the deep meaning of the Christmas celebration –- all these memories released themselves from my friend’s subconscious, sweeping her in one instant from a hot summer kitchen to Christmas. Merely because of a smell.

Any one of our five senses, or any combination of them, can release vivid memories like this one from our subconscious. The problem is, we can’t count on such serendipitous moments to trigger the emotions we need to feel while writing a certain scene. As we all know, emotions have minds of their own. They are often fleeting, teasing, no more than vague, ghost-like impressions.

“Our artistic emotions,” Stanislavsky told his students in An Actor Prepares, “are at first as shy as wild animals, and they hide in the depths of our souls. If they do not come to the surface spontaneously, you cannot go after them and find them. All you can do is concentrate your attention on the most effective kind of lure for them.”

Because we need them, and they don’t always appear at will, we have to learn how to access them. Through conscious effort, we can tap into our emotion memory, causing subconscious feelings to rise to the surface, much as a well-digger taps into a hidden spring, and suddenly fresh water bubbles forth.

When we learn to access our emotion memory, two wonderful results occur in our writing ...

Tomorrow--Part 2: Tapping Into Your Emotion Memory

Taken from the chapter on Emotion Memory in Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors.

Read Part 2


Sheila Deeth said...

Neat article. Interesting advice.

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