Wednesday, August 24, 2011

There's Method to My Madness

In the mid-1970s, I wrote for a small-town weekly newspaper run by three newly-graduated Indiana University journalism majors. I was in my mid-30s at the time, making me the old lady of the group. Nonetheless, I shared their enthusiasm--reveled in it, in fact. Together we were going to change the world. Our small part of it, at any rate. That was when I met author and literary patron George Plimpton.

Okay. I didn't literally meet him. But I learned of his work. His style influenced me then and continues to do so. 

In the 1960s, Plimpton became known for his "participatory journalism." When he died in September 2003, NPR's Mike Pesca summarized Plimpton's life saying, "He boxed with Archie Moore, pitched to baseball legend Willie Mays, played in pro-am golf tournaments and even performed in the circus. His best-selling book Paper Lion chronicled the time he spent in training camp with the Detroit Lions football team, posing as a slender, awkward quarterback candidate from Harvard."  

That's what I liked about Plimpton. He didn't simply interview people or read about a subject; he got down and dirty. He did the thing, whatever it was, and I wanted to do that. Physically, I couldn't always participate  to the degree he did, but I came as close as I could. I still do.

When I decided to do a story about a young black blacksmith, I researched smithing, learning the difference between cold-shoeing and hot-shoeing. Then I met with the farrier in his barn. To this day, I can describe the sickening smell of a hot shoe coming in contact with a horse's hoof.

When a former professional boxer decided to attempt a comeback, I went to the gym with him, photographed his routine, and punched the bag a few times to get the heft of it. From that experience I can tell you that it is not easy to get control of the teardrop-shaped "speed bag." As for the cylindrical "heavy bag," it's practically immovable. And well I recall the smell of that old gym.

When I wanted to do a story about the work of an interpretive reenactor/interpreter at a nearby living history museum, I spent the day dressed in period attire, traveling from cabin to one-room schoolhouse to blacksmith shop, etc. I was the first journalist to do that at Conner Prairie. I stirred the stew, spun the wool, swept the floor, and sampled the food. (That day, pork chops, sauerkraut, and coarse cornbread were on the menu at one cabin while another had just pulled a pan of rhubarb bread from the coals. Have mercy! It all was so delicious!)

George Plimpton also was an actor, playing himself in Reds and Good Will Hunting. (Is it really acting if one plays oneself? Perhaps. If you play yourself not as you really are, but as others perceive you to be.)

Which brings me to Konstantin Stanislovski, whom I met (figuratively, again) when I minored in speech and theater in college. Stanislovski advocated a style of performance called "method acting." The method departs from classical forms by asking the actor to internally experience the scene. A method actor will not simply pretend to be sad, angry, or jubilant; he will recall events in his own life when he felt those emotions--the death of a beloved grandparent, the unfair termination of a job, the birth of a child, for example. Inasmuch as is possible, he will mentally relive those times so that his expression of the actions and emotions will be truthful, not contrived. I've often wondered if Plimpton was influenced by Stanislavski, applying some of the actor's ideas to writing.

Though I don't take it as far as method actors do, I try to experience as much of what my characters do as I can, stepping out of my own Born oxfords and into their tennies, high-tops, or whatever. (For that reason, you'll never see an MC of mine wearing stilettos.) As a first-person historical storyteller, I get to relive particular periods of the past through my performances, many of which are at festivals celebrating early Indiana's settlement, the Revolutionary War/War of 1812 era, and the Civil War. Participating in such events provide a window into the past for the writer, also.

How do you experience the daily lives of your characters? Do you know of a writer who goes to extraordinary lengths to know her characters and settings? I'd love to read about it on the "Comments" page, as would our readers, so please share.

Write on!
Because of Christ,
Sharon Kirk Clifton

[The previous entry first appeared on my blog, Sharon Kirk Clifton, Writer and Raconteur, on Saturday, 19 February 2011.]

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