Yesterday, in order to get myself in the zone to start writing, I picked up a novel whose language I thought would appropriately capture the tone and world of the play on which I was working. As I read the novel, I started typing out the words I read on my bluetooth keyboard. I didn’t actually record what I typed anywhere. I just kept the keyboard switched off and typed as I read. I got the seed of this idea from the David Corbett’s book, The Art Of Character (previously mentioned here). He suggested this technique for students of fiction who were having a hard time finding their unique narrative “voice”. Corbett commented that, while many people might think this approach will only lead to derivative writing and cheap imitation, in his experience the natural linguistic tendencies of a writer never leave that writer. The end product of this approach, therefore, is a really fresh and exciting style.
For those who want more concrete evidence of the efficacy of such an imitative approach, Gabriel García Marquez has admitted to committing the entirety of Pedro Páramo to memory prior to writing his own masterworks.
Corbett’s recommended approach is not dissimilar to an approach recommended by Roger Love in his book Set Your Voice Free (a book I read years ago when I was taking voice lessons) for singers who are trying to find their unique style. He recommended these singers do their best to imitate a wide variety of different vocal styles over a lengthy period of time. In Love’s experience, when his students have done the due diligence of this varied imitation over the course of several months, they then sing effortlessly with a unique and arresting style.
Corbett doesn’t recommend as drastic an approach as either Love’s or Marquez’s. Corbett’s recommends transcribing for about a half-hour each day prior to beginning writing. Yesterday, I transcribed for one Pomodoro (25 minutes), and found myself absorbing the language and style in much greater depth than I would have had I just been reading the book. And the resulting writing I did was fresher and more complex than my previous passes at the scenes I worked on yesterday. I’m sure this is due to several factors, but I really do believe the transcription I did in order to warm myself up played a vital role. Not only because the transcription helped me absorb dynamic language, but also because the act of transcribing can have an almost meditative quality, and therefore helped me capture the elusive “flow” that occurs when good writing comes effortlessly.
When I first began writing plays in undergrad, I had the great fortune of acting on a regularly basis. This meant I was constantly absorbing dynamic language because I was always committing my lines in one play or another to memory. One of the great artistic challenges I have faced since I stopped acting was figuring out how to “feed the well” in the same way, especially now that I have to work on more writing projects concurrently than I did in those days.
One of the ways I’ve been able to feed the well post-acting is through research. While writing The Solid Sand Below, for example, the copious amounts of research I conducted helped me capture the linguistic cadences of my characters, and gave me a vivid sense of the tone of the world. But not all the plays I write demand (or frankly, will even benefit from) the same kind of research as I conducted while writing Solid Sand. So how do I fuel the well while writing these plays? I think the daily preparatory ritual of transcription can fill that void.
Rebecca Stevens and I also noticed the benefits of transcription when we were working on the first draft of In The Event Of Capture in April/May of 2012. Since we had cast the roles prior to setting about writing the first draft, we were able to record the actors’ voices and then transcribe them in order to get those voices in our heads as a common reference point for what each character sounded like. We both credit this approach with helping us create cohesive characters (and a cohesive style) while writing a play collaboratively. And we plan to use transcription of people’s voices as a way of getting character voices in our head for our next project.
This is all to say that the transcription work I did yesterday makes me think I will begin reading like this more frequently, even when I’m just reading for fun. It will obviously slow my pace, yet at the same time it will help me absorb the linguistic choices more deeply, and therefore bear greater fruit for my own use of language.
. . . it’s for one of two reasons:
1) You don’t know enough about one (or more) of your characters
2) You have made a faulty assumption
To get unstuck you must either. . .
1) Go back and learn more about your characters
2) List out all your assumptions and try reversing them one by one