Authors on Immersion

There is a fairly well-known relationship of method acting with what is called immersion in role-playing. Method acting is an broad term for acting techniques where the actor can portrays emotion by carefully internalizing emotional states and thinking as the character would -- as opposed to conscious choice of portrayal. It was popularized by Lee Strasberg at The Actors Studio and the Group Theatre, in New York City in the 1940s and 50s. It was derived from Konstantin Stanislavski's work. Stanislavski's book An Actor Prepares is a readable introduction to the ideas. Using Eric Morris' the being state, the trick is to blur the line between self and character such that you are "being" the character. Meisner recommends feeling what your character feels, it's a very there technique.

However, it is often asserted that authors work in a very different manner from method actors -- that they write from an external point-of-view, consciously considering what they want to convey to the audience. Below are some excerpts from authors about their own process which suggests otherwise -- that writing can share some qualities with method acting, where the characters take on a life of their own, and the author is writing to themselves rather than consciously speaking to an external audience.

From Stephen King's On Writing

"When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story" he said. "When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.

Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right -- as right as you can, anyway -- it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.

From Ursula Le Guin's "Dreams Must Explain Themselves"

NOTE: This essay first appeared in Algol 21 in 1973.

     Andy Porter called from New York earlier this year to try and tell me what he hoped I'd write for Algol. The conversation was pleasant, though disarranged by a bad connection, several explosive intrusions by a person at this end who wanted some cookies and attention, and a slight degree of misunderstanding. Andy kept saying things like, "Tell the readers about yourself," and I kept saying things like, "How? Why?"

Some people can talk on the telephone. They must really believe in the thing. For me the telephone is for making appointments with the doctor with and canceling appointments with the dentist with. It is not a medium of human communication. I can't stand there in the hall with the child and the cat both circling around my legs frisking and purring and demanding cookies and catfood, and explain to a disembodied voice in my ear that the Jungian spectrum of introvert/extrovert can usefully be applied not only to human beings, but also to authors. That is, that there are some authors who want and need to tell about themselves, you know, like Norman Mailer, and there are others who want and need privacy. Privacy! What an elitist, Victorian concept. These days it sounds almost as quaint as modesty. But I can't say all that on the telephone, it just won't come out. Nor can I say (although I made a feeble effort to, about the time the connection failed entirely, probably because the cat, in despair, had settled for chewing on the telephone cord) that the problem of communication is a complex one, and that some of us introverts have solved it in a curious, not wholly satisfactory, but interesting way: we communicate (with all but a very few persons) in writing. As if we were deaf and dumb. And not just in writing, but indirectly in writing. We write stories about imaginary people in imaginary situations. Then we publish them (because they are, in their strange ways, acts of communication -- addressed to others). And then people read them and call up and say But who are you? tell us about yourself! And we say, But I have. It's all there, in the book. All that matters. -- But you made all that up! -- Out of what?

Where Andy and I temporarily misunderstood each other was at this point: Wanting me to write aobut the Earthsea trilogy, the background of it, he said (excuse me, Andy, for misquoting) something like, "People would be interested in knowing things like how you planned the Earthsea world, and how you developed the languages, and how you keep lists of places and characters and so on." To which I returned some kind of garble-garble, of which I recall only one sentence, "But I didn't plan anything, I found it."

Andy (not unnaturally): "Where?"

Me: "In my subconscious."

Now as I think about it, perhaps this is worth talking about a little. Andy and I surprised each other because we had different, unexamined notions on how writing is done; and they were so different that their collision produced a slight shock. Both of them are completely valid; they're just different methodologies. As mine is the one not talked about in writers' manuals, however, perhaps it needs some explanation.

All my life I have written, and all my life I have (without conscious decision) avoided reading how-to-write things. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary and Follett's and Fowler's manuals of usage are my entire arsenal of tools. However, in reading and teaching and talking with other writers one does arrive at a certain consciousness of technique. The most different technique from my own, the one that starts from the point farthest removed, is just this one of preliminary plans and lsits and descriptions. The technique of keeping a notebook and describing all the characters in it before the story is begun: how much William weighs and where he went to school and how his hair is cut and what his dominant traits are.

I do have notebooks, in which I worry at plot ideas as if they were old bones, growling and snarling and frequently burying them and digging them up again. Also, during the writing of a piece, I often make notes concerning a character, particularly if it's a novel. My memory is very poor, and if there's something I just noticed about a character, but this is not the right point to put it into the book, then I make a note for future reference. Something like:

W. d not appr H's ing. -- Repr!!

Then I lose the note.

But I don't write out descriptions beforehand, and would indeed feel ridiculous, even ashamed, to do so. If the character isn't so clear to me that I know all that about him, what am I doing writing about him? Waht right have I to describe what William did when Helen bit his knee, if I don't even know what he looks like, and his past, and his psyche, inside and out, as well as I know myself? Because after all he is myself. Part of myself.

If William is a character worthy of being written about, then he exists. He exists, inside my head to be sure, but in his own right, with his own vitality. All I have to do is look at him. I don't plan him, compose him of bits and pieces, inventory him. I find him.

There he is, and Helen is biting his knee, and he says with a little cough, "I really don't think this is relevant, Helen." What else, being William, could he say?

This attitude toward action, creation, is evidently a basic one, the same root from which the interest in the I Ching and Taoist philosophy evident in most of my books arises. The Taoist world is orderly, not chaotic, but its order is not one imposed by man or by a personal or humane deity. The true laws -- ethical and aesthetic, as surely as scientific -- are not imposed from above by any authority, but exist in things and are to be found -- discovered.

To return circuitously to Earthsea: this anti-ideological, pragmatic technique applies to places, as well as people. I did not deliberately invent Earthsea. I did not think "Hey wow -- islands are archetypes and archipelagoes are superarchetypes and let's build us an archipelago!" I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea.

Plans are likely to be made, if well made, inclusively; discoveries are made bit by bit. Planning negates time. Discovery is a temporal process. It may take years and years. People are still exploring Antartica.

The history of the discovery of Earthsea is something like this:

In 1964 I wrote a story called "The Word of Unbinding" about a wizard. Cele Goldsmith Lalli bought it for Fantastic. (Cele Lalli gave me and a lot of other people their start in SF; she was one of the most sensitive and audacious editors the field has ever had.) I don't recall now whether the fact is made much of in the story, but it was perfectly clear in my mind that it took place on an island, one among many islands. I did not give much attention to the setting as it was (as William would say) not relevant; and developed only such rules of magic as were germane to the very small point the very minor story made.

Soon after, I wrote a story, "The Rule of Names", in which both the islands and the rules of magic were considerably more developed (Cele published it too). This story was lighthearted (the other one was glum), and I had fun playing around a bit with the scenery, and with the old island ladies drinking rushwash tea, and so on. It was set on an island called Sattins, which I knew to be one of an outlying group east of the main archipelago. The main character, a dragon known first as Mr. Underhill, and then, when his nature was revealed, by his true name Yevaud, came from a westerly isle called Pendor.

I did not much bother with all the islands that I knew lay between Sattins and Pendor, and north and south of them. They weren't involved. I had a distinct feeling, however, that the island of "Word of Unbinding" lay up north of Pendor. I am not now sure which island it actually is, that one I first landed on. Later voyages of discovery have so complicated the map that the first landfall, like that of the Norsemen in the New World, is hard to pin down for certain. Sattins, however, is on the map, high in the East Reach between Yore and Vemish.


The Farthest Shore is about death. That's why it is a less well built, less sound and complete book than the others. They were about things I had already lived through and survived. The Farthest Shore is about the thing you do not live through and survive. It seemed an absolutely suitable subject to me for young readers, since in a way one can say that the hour when a child realizes, not that death exists -- children are intensely aware of death -- but that he/she, personally, is mortal, will die, is the hour when childhood ends, and the new life begins. Coming of age again, but in a larger context.

In any case I had little choice about the subject. Ged, who was always very strong-minded, always saying things that surprised me and doing things he wasn't supposed to do, took over completely in this book. He was determined to show me how his life must end, and why. I tried to keep up with him, but he was always ahead. I rewrote the book more times than I want to remember, trying to keep him under some kind of control. I thought it was all done when it was printed here, but the English edition differe in three long passages from the earlier American one: my editor at Gollanec said, "Ged is talking too much," and she was quite right, and I shut him up three times, much to the improvement of the whole. If you insist upon discovering instead of planning, this kind of trouble is inevitable. It is a most uneconomical way to write. The book is still the most imperfect of the three, but it is the one I like best. It is the end of the trilogy, but it is the dream I have not stopped dreaming.


Last modified: Thu Mar 27 10:54:43 2008