Think of Writing Essays as Method Acting

Fritz Eichenberg, "Jane Eyre"

Fritz Eichenberg, “Jane Eyre”

As I read end-of-the-semester student essays, I’ve been asking myself whether I essentially ask students to engage in a written form of method acting. To be sure, I haven’t expressed it this way, asking them rather to find some issue in the work that they care about. But I wonder if I could be clearer by explaining to them the ideas of Constantin Stanislavsky and his American acolyte Lee Strasberg.

Method acting involves inhabiting the world of one’s character. The website from the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute explains it as follows:

For centuries, cultures used different words and phrases to describe this kind of “good” acting: Romantic Acting, Emotional Acting, Divine Inspiration, The Muses, Feeling the Role. These terms merely described an organic process of creativity that talented actors used, often times unconsciously, to accomplish what audiences experienced as a moving performance; And this ‘moving’ was in fact the (re)experiencing of life by the actor within the fiction of the story as if it were true and happening now.

So how does this apply to a literary essay? First of all, if a student thinks of the essay’s thesis as a drama and then inhabits that drama, he or she is more likely to be interested in the essay. The drama will provide a clear organizing principle, and the student will have more motivation to comb through the text looking for supportive details. If the drama doesn’t excite—which is another way of saying that the idea isn’t very interesting—then it is easier to communicate to the student how it needs to be reframed.

By thinking about the essay first as a drama rather than as a logical argument, the student is more likely to do justice to the work’s emotional wisdom. To be sure, one also needs to make a logical argument in the course of the essay. But by combining drama and logic, one can go deeper into the work.

I’ve been talking abstractly so here’s an example.  A student has been writing on Jane Eyre’s relationship with the two men in her life, Rochester and St. John, seeing it as a tug of war between Jane’s longing for earthly passion and her longing for a higher calling. By inhabiting that drama herself, thinking of it as a 19th century version of her own tug of war between desiring a relationship and desiring a career, she is able to understand better Jane’s attraction to St. John’s invitation to go to India as a missionary, which many students find baffling.

If I think of the student as a method actor, then the writing process becomes a “(re)experiencing of life,” a drawing on her own experiences to more fully enter the character she is performing. The work functions as a script, the essay as a stage.

The student, to be sure, must still recast the drama as a logically argued thesis, complete with introduction, body, and conclusion. The drama, however, provides the essay with a strong emotional foundation.

As I say, I’ve been instinctively teaching this way for many years. I’m hoping that this new articulation will clarify the process for my students.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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