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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  • sue

    Good insights, Robin. I was talking to an actor the other day, and we were exploring the “technique” of finding an emotional connection to the character she was playing first. To allow herself to be moved by the character’s story. Then she was able to put her technique into place. This seems similar – where technique functions as the technical part of the written essay. Would be interesting to see if you could work on this idea so that next semester you could present it to the students and see what their reaction might be.

  • sue

    whoops. can you substitute “strategy” for the first “technique” ? I think it will make more sense to the reader. (and then strategy doesn’t need to be in quotes.

  • Jason

    Brilliant! And so much more fruitful than the traditional explanation! (Cynically, I always refer to the essay-game and tell them, “Think of how you would convince your brother to go to the store…”)

  • Robin Bates

    I’ve been applying the idea in essay conferences this week, Jason, and it’s really working. Most recent example: “You are Blake’s chimney sweep and have been inspired the Church’s stories about Jesus. How is the church now using your longing for Jesus to get you to buckle down and work without complaining in a job that is killing you?” And: “You are the narrator of Poe’s “BlackCat,” so hung up on needing to be in masculine control that you begin lashing out at any external things (your cat, your wife) that remind you of your own vulnerability. How does this explain your succession of actions in the story and what does it mean that you can’t bury the cat for good?


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