If the occurrence with Jacob shows the importance of performing to an audience, and the creative writing class episode illustrates that real emotions are the foundations of that bond between storyteller and audience, then the exercise in the acting class takes this one step further. It demonstrates that what pulls an audience into a piece is their identification with someone in that piece who is reacting with real emotion to the subject—for that audience and along with that audience. In his book, You’ve Got to be Believed to be Heard, Bert Decker quotes research about a “first brain”–located in our brainstem and limbic system. This first brain processes survival information, prior to its being channeled to the left and right parts of our “new brain. In simple terms the first brain, which we share with all other mammals, tells us, “Yes, you can trust what this person is saying.” or “No, something is wrong, you are in danger.” And how does it work? The first brain judges on the “naturalness,” the “appropriateness” of the reaction of the person who is talking. In other words, our subject can be fictional, but the emotions we as writers feel about that subject must be real. An audience is fine-tuned to this. They will allow themselves to be drawn into your writing only if they trust that the feelings you are expressing are genuine. This is the basis of the writing exercise you were working on in the last chapter.
Did you ever wonder why sports figures, movie stars and politicians earn so much money…or, more precisely, why we pay them so much money. They are our stand-ins. They experience for us. Some of that might seem glamorous, but much of it must be emotionally draining and ultimately destructive–we are paying others to be our surrogates. For the price of a ticket we in the audience can have all kinds of larger than life experiences (vicariously) without risking any of our own comfort and security.
I remember as a kid of ten or twelve, spilling out of a movie matinee with a group of other boys that age, role-playing. You can still see this phenomenon today. In my time the stars were John Wayne or Marlon Brando, even Fred Astaire. But, it wasn’t, “Look at me I’m John Wayne,” it was, “I’m John Wayne…and I’ve been shot,” staggering down the sidewalk, bumping into trashcans. Or, “I’m Marlon Brando, being betrayed by my brother—`I could have been a contender!'” Or Fred Astaire, getting the wink from Ginger Rogers and dancing down the alley, up the side of buildings. As a group of little, impressionable boys, we were intuitively imitating an artistic experience that had impressed us strongly. And all of us were doing it at the same time, which now seems funny.
Acting, is reaction. WRITING, is REACTION. But, I don’t mean anything passive. For example, here’s a simple action:
“I hold out a soup bone to my dog.”
Now let me put in reaction:
“I wonder if he will come when I call (I’m reacting to an anticipation of what will happen). He has been shivering in the corner under the desk since I gave him a flea bath two hours ago (he’s reacting to the flea bath). I call his name (simple action). His nose peaks out from under the typewriter side of the desk, eyes bulging, one brow raised (his reaction to my calling him). I hold out a soup bone (simple action). He pants, licks his chops, and hunches toward me (his reaction).
Most creative writing books advise us to create action as if it were happening right on the paper. In this simple example, only two of the six sentences do this. The substance is in what is revealed about my dog and me through our reactions. That is the meat of the story. And this became my first principle for good writing:
Principle #1–DISCOVER: A piece of writing begins as a series of reactions unfolding on paper. Begin anywhere. The subject seeks an outlet. Writing is flat or stops when we choose not to respond to the real subject. Trust the process
When I formulated this principle I happened to be reading Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons. I picked a page at random and marked an “A” for action and a “R” for reaction in the margins across from each paragraph. For every “A” there were four to five “R’s.”
I was listening to Harry’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles on books on tape. The same held true as with Breathing Lessons, only more so. It reminded me of improvisational theater, in which the actor calls to the audience from the stage saying, “Give me a character type.” “Drunk,” somebody replies, “nobleman,” someone else yells. “How about a drunk who thinks he’s a nobleman?” responds the actor. And, with this possibility we have the start of this classic book. A clergyman tells a farmer, who is not overly industrious, that the farmer may be related to nobility. The farmer’sreaction to this information is to quit work, to tell his wife and to go off to celebrate–that’s Chapter One. He’s too hung over to take his produce to the market the next day and the next chapter consists of the reactions of his daughter, Tess, to doing the errand. She worries about what might happen (and in the process reveals her innocent character to us). What does happen is that the horse dies (simple act) and now Tess’s reaction intensifies because she feels responsible for the economic future of her family. In improvisational theater the actors at this point might again turn to the audience and ask for topical themes. And, if they did, it’s as if someone in the audience called out, “sexual harassment,” because the next few chapters are Tess’s reactions to the harassment she suffers on the job she has been forced to take.
There is a great scene later in the book in which farm hands are eating their lunch on the side of a hill and socializing together…all except Tess, that is, who is nursing her illegitimate baby. Where did this baby come from? Hardy, like Shakespeare, has the most significant things happen “off stage.” We get them second hand, through the reactions of characters. The strange thing is that if they were presented in view they probably wouldn’t seem as real as what we supply through the theater of our imagination. Months or years later there’s even the illusion that the author did actually present these actions to us directly. How do the great masters create the impossible–making action take place before our eyes on paper? Often they don’t, they get us to do it for them in our imagination instead.
There are some intriguing implications in viewing writing as reaction. Think of it as similar to what happens in a psychoanalyst’s office. If the client is listless or bored, the psychotherapist will probe to discover a subject that elicits a response. This subject may be beneath the surface, but there always is such a subject. Your job as a writer is less about wordsmithing, than it is finding a subject to which you react strongly. Here is a second implication. It doesn’t really matter if the patient in the psychoanalyst’s office is being strictly factual or not. Let’s say I’m the patient talking to a therapist and I think to myself: I’m really tired of this process, I’m bored talking about my problems and I’m just not going to do it anymore. The therapist might ask me to simply tell about my day, instead. “Well,” I begin, “I overslept this morning, and the traffic was bad going to work. I knew I was going to be late. I thought to myself: If I’m late again for my job, I’m going to be in a lot of trouble. That’s the kind of place where I work, they care more about people being on time than the quality of what people do. They don’t value me for what I am…” Through the intensity of this reaction I’m revealing what is important to me.
The same is true if a patient makes something up. A fictional account of the day would yield the same emotional content, and perhaps even be easier to analyze because the creative choices made in fabricating the events would be more focused. Whether a writer makes something up or chooses to begin the series of reactions somewhere in the middle, the subject emerges. Rather than a writer starting with a subject, the subject surfaces naturally through the process of writing.