As a writers, we use many tools to create our stories and characters. Many of the tool are forged from experience, from trying new things, from stepping outside our comfort zones. Some experiences just happen. Some we go in search of. They all effect our writing, some more directly than others. A hike through the Hollywood Hills might translate to the burn a fugitive feels as they escape from their prison into the wilderness. Or turbulence on a cross country flight might become a plane nearly out of control with no idea if they will make it down or not.
We’ve all had experiences, both big and small. In my case, I’ve jumped out of airplanes, been “baptized” with cold water and reindeer’s milk at the Artic Circle in Finland, and crawled around the rafters of the Silverdome in Detroit. I’ve talked with the last man to set foot on the moon in a kitchen in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, gotten the “I-don’t-think-so” raised eye from Dudley Moore when I offered to move his Bentley out of a crowded parking lot, and listened to Rusty the Bailiff – from the old Judge Wapner version of The People’s Court, tell his weekly dirty joke to anyone who would listen. (Those last two were from my first year directly out of college when I worked at a small studio in Hollywood. Fun times.) I’ve gone to the shooting range to feel the recoil of a pistol in my hand. I’ve flipped an eight-ton equipment truck on its side on the main road between Mexico City and Veracruz. I’ve ridden the S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains in Berlin for hours with no destination in mind.
I’m not trying to boast about anything here…hell, who would want to brag about crashing a truck and causing a major, multiple hour traffic jam? What I am trying to reinforce is that we all have experiences in our lives. As I mentioned before, big ones and small ones. Sometimes we need to recognize them and take advantage of them. They add to the texture of who we are, and, therefore, add to the texture of the stories we write.
A lot of the experiences I listed are things that just kind of happened to me. Sure I put my self in a position for them to happen, but when they did, they were often a surprise to me. Some, though, I made happen. Jumping out of a plane, for instance, and going to the firing range.
One of the most important experiences in my life, as far as my writing is concerned, was something I made happen. It was a class I took in college.
The class was beginning acting, and my teacher was fantastic. She was kind, supportive, and encouraging. We would perform scenes from famous plays. Sometimes it was two or three of us. Sometimes it was a monologue we would do ourselves. My teacher would really push at us to understand the character we were playing. We would even improvise scenes that had nothing to do with the actual play with these famous characters, forcing us to make up the dialogue on the spot. That meant really getting into the characters head, and acting how we thought they should act.
She did something else that was also really cool. She’d have us write character essays about the role we were taking on.
As you might imagine, I dove deep into that. I wouldn’t just write a dry character description, I would make it something else entirely, something that really exposed the character in an interesting way.
The one I remember the most was when I did a monologue from Our Town…I think from the third act. I was George. For the character essay, I decided to write it as a prose scene between a newspaper report and George at a diner many years after the end of the play. I actually think that character essay was one of the best things I wrote in college.
That class continues to be invaluable to me. I had actually done a little acting in high school and community theater before that, but that particular class really focused things for me. The lessons I learned back then are directly responsible for the characters I create and the dialogue I write today. For example, I’ll act out scenes to myself using some of the improvisational methods I learned.
My point is this…some experience happens to you, some you make happen. Soak them all in, and take every advantage possible.
As a sub-note, enrolling in an acting class is something all writers can do, and the benefits will be great. Don’t worry if you think your not any good. It’s not about your ability as an actor, it’s about what you learn when you have to “become” someone else.
I’m sure many here have other suggestions for active experience. Would love them if you want to share!
OFF TOPIC: I’m sure JT, Toni, and Rob will be talking about this in their posts, but next Tuesday the KILLER YEAR ANTHOLOGY edited by Lee Child hits stores. It’s a fantastic collection of crime and thriller stories, and all four of us have contributions in it. It’s been getting great reviews! Hope you consider picking up a copy.
Live it up,