Finding the write method

Janice Pariat | Updated on August 24, 2018 Published on August 24, 2018

In person: “What was it like to be a Victorian-age woman botanist? I’ll read the books, watch the movies, conduct experiments — all, if it helps, in corset and hoop skirt”   -  ISTOCK.COM/CANNASUE

Just as actors have method acting, do writers have method writing? If yes, what would it ask of the writer?

Around my writing table lies an assortment of labware. A round-bottom flask in which thrives a white butterfly plant. A row of test tubes spiked with leaves and cut flowers. Nearby, a burette stand holds a volumetric flask draped with a trailing money plant.

Glass vials hold dried flowers — rosebuds, butterfly pea, chamomile. On its way, thanks to Amazon’s “Industrial and Scientific” section (who knew?), is a large conical flask, with which I’m hoping to conduct another hydroponic experiment. A ceramic planter stands atop a pile of books — a guide to Kew Gardens, Women of Flowers, The Origin of Plants, Plant Hunters — and I’ve pressed into it Inca orange marigold seeds (easy to grow, I’m told — “germination is rapid, and blooms should appear within a few weeks of sowing”).

For anyone who hasn’t quite guessed, I’m working on a book involving a botanist. She’s a woman, and Victorian, and travels to India. And it feels imperative for me, even if this sounds infinitely face-palm inducing, to “become” her.

We’re probably familiar with method acting; a term bandied about when an actor sports a prosthetic nose or gains, or loses, a hundred pounds to play a part (and subsequently wins an Oscar). It’s a performance style developed by members of the Actors Studio in 1930s New York, all deeply influenced by early 20th-century Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski. The operating theory is that the actor should “live” the character he or she is playing even when not on stage. Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, never broke character while shooting Lincoln — not even, his co-star Sally Field confirms, while texting. For Jungle Fever, Halle Berry, playing a drug addict, visited crack dens and didn’t bathe for weeks. Method acting has its detractors. Most famously, Lawrence Olivier, who starred alongside Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. Hoffman didn’t sleep for days to prepare for a role in which he needed to appear exhausted. Olivier gently suggested, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?”

I thought I was being terrifically clever by appropriating the term for writerly purposes, until a Google search quickly put an end to my self-aggrandisement. California-based Jack Grapes, for example, offers a method writing workshop that does away with traditional approaches to writing that emphasise structure and form. If I sign up, I’m assured of finding my “deep voice”, learning to use its “tonal dynamics” and the “ability to write from the right side of the brain.” His website also claims he’s a poet, playwright, actor, and (I kid you not) astronaut and brain surgeon.

I hastily returned to search results.

A BBC article from 2016 wonders, “Could ‘method writing’ be the future for novelists?” Could it? Some remained unconvinced. Sarah Churchwell, professor of American Literature at the University of London, didn’t dismiss the idea entirely but said most would think it unnecessary. “This idea,” she explained, “is not different in kind to the way most authors write, it’s just different in degree. Writing is always an immersive, imaginative experience.” For her book on The Great Gatsby, she immersed herself in all things 1922. She admitted she “did nothing but read about 1922 for five years”. There’s Faulkner, who drew meticulous maps of fictional Yoknapatawpha County, where he set most of his novels. Booker Prize winner Marlon James listened to Bob Marley’s Exodus album in a loop while writing A Brief History of Seven Killings — which is on the real-life assassination attempt on Marley (aka The Singer) in 1976. Alexander Fiske-Harrison — interestingly, also a method actor — trained as a matador in Spain as research for Into the Arena, his book about bullfighting.

An author named Thomas W Hodgkinson, I discovered, wrote the bulk of his novelMemoirs of a Stalker, whilst lying flat on his back in a cupboard at home. He was trying, he explained, to get into the mindset of his main character, who breaks into his ex-girlfriend’s house and lives there for months without her knowing. In Hodgkinson’s cupboard there wasn’t even room for a laptop — “I had to write on my mobile phone.”

Suddenly my leafy arrangements seemed puerile, my borosilicate tumblers lost their sheen.

Was I doing enough, I began to worry, to find my deep voice? What if I never learned to use its tonal dynamics? Am I plumbing only the left side of my brain? At this point, I imagined Olivier gently suggesting, “My dear girl, why don’t you try writing?”

I suppose it is tempting to be caught up in method. For it can serve as delightful distraction from the unglamorous toil of writing. But, as Hodgkinson also wisely declared, “if it works it works”.

While I might not be signing up just yet for one of his courses aiming to help writers “become the Daniel Day-Lewis of literature”, I’m not averse to employing eccentricities if they help get certain details right.

What was it like to be a Victorian-age woman botanist? I’ll read the books, watch the movies, conduct experiments — all, if it helps, in corset and hoop skirt.


Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine-Chambered Heart;

Twitter: @janicepariat

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Published on August 24, 2018
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