Thursday, June 8, 2023

 Writers Workshop Weekend Retreat

     We began the first session on Saturday morning with everyone describing their writing experience and current activities.

     Since the workshop was about character development and might involve some introspection, each participant shared a point of vulnerability, not family secrets, but something they would not put on a job application or resumé.

The Story Portrait

     Following the introductions, we began a discussion of the story portrait. This is a drawing inspired by Mark Twain’s advice to writers that says “Put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them,” Charlie Read and I put this together as a way of shortening the process of reviewing the fundamental structure of stories with folks who are already familiar with it… simply a review.

The Cast

     We named the young man holding the girl Jeffrey. We named the other young man Jake and the girl Julie. The ghostlike character Fate. The Snake and the Crow round out the first circle members of the cast.

     Jeffrey is the protagonist, Jake the sidekick, Julie the love interest, and Fate represents the unpredictable antagonistic forces of nature and societal institutions.

Creating a Story

     The tree defines the course the protagonist must take to reach the goal of getting the $10,000 bill on the treetop. The Crow is an antagonistic force because he is threatening to steal the $10,000 bill before Jeffrey can get to it. The snake is a frightening antagonistic force, not only to Jeffrey but also to the Crow. Snakes love to eat birds.

     Then there’s the poison ivy… 

     As you can probably imagine, many potential story plots and character revealing behaviors were suggested by the participants.

The Writing Exercises

     Each writing exercise was allotted twenty minutes writing time and followed by a read around with guided discussions of each participant’s contribution. The exercises are designed to demonstrate one or more fundamental factors that can influence a fictional character’s actions and growth in various roles.

High Emotion

     I found many of the pieces written by the participants emotionally moving while watching the participant’s reactions as they wrote and during the read arounds. But the exercise on Moral Dilemmas stood out, as the most emotionally demanding to the whole group… there were no dry eyes at its conclusion.

Writing Like a Method Actor Acts

     At previous retreats, we had an actor come in for the session on immersive character development. The objective was to define a character using method acting techniques. This time we had no actor.

     We gathered comfortably in the parlor with the chairs arranged in a circle. I asked if anyone had any thespian experience. One volunteered that she has some experience in a drama class in school and gave an explaination of Method Acting.

     When an actor is just acting, as we might witness at a high school play, it’s easy to spot. Often their diction, mannerisms, and expressions failed to match what they’re saying and the character they’re portraying lacks authenticity.

     An actor practicing method acting, will immerse himself in the personality of the character he is portraying and in his mind become that character. During his performance, he will assume the character’s body carriage, gestures, and physical idiosyncrasies; his speech will reflect the tone, dialect, and vocabulary, including slang and idioms the character would use. He will seem completely authentic to the audience.

     A writer writing writerly, using grammatically correct sentences, a scholarly vocabulary, and appropriate adverbs and adjectives might credibly portray the personality and physical traits of the character. Unfortunately, these often lean toward the stereotypical and lack authenticity.

     A writer immersed in the personality of the character can use method writing to authentically portray the character much in the same way as the method actor.

     We discussed methods writers can use to get into character, such as a conversation or interview using our reflection in a mirror as the character; Improvisation with a cohort. We even formed a improv circle and had great fun passing extempore phrases around our circle. And finally we used music to set a mood and get into the character portrayed by the vocalist.

A Terrific Demonstration

     We were fortunate to have a guest, who will remain unnamed, demonstrate getting into the personality of a special character. She explained how through makeup, costume, and meditation she is able to get into character and attend parties and other events without being recognized by close friends and relatives. We witnessed her transformation and experienced a wonderful visit from a delightfully entertaining character none of us knew.

Yeah! We Made It

     It was intense, it was tough, and it was fun. We stretched our creative comfort zone; we made new friends and enriched existing friendships. We learned, and we taught; listened, laughed, and shed a tear or two and are better writers in many ways.

“Nothing is impossible until you quit.”

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