The sense of danger
By December 2007
In an early episode of The Sopranos, the young gangster Christopher Moltisanti decides to take an acting-for-writers course to help him with his screenplay. He wants to write the next Goodfellas (hey, even bully boys need creative fulfilment), but he’s suffering from writer’s block, and it becomes clear that he is ambivalent about developing the emotional vulnerability needed to write well. Acting enables him to tap into his emotions, and in class he gives a powerful performance of the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause. But he’s so horrified by his tears that he over-corrects and in the next session beats the crap out of a fellow workshop participant.
It’s a cautionary tale for workshop attendees everywhere, and I probably should have been more wary when I signed up for a short course in screenwriting at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in Sydney earlier this year. I was hoping to learn a few practical things: how to go about writing a screenplay, how to develop dialogue, maybe even how to have a snowball’s chance of getting my script made into a movie. The course, I soon discovered, was interested in none of these things. For the lecturers, screenwriting was Art. It was about finding the story that is yours to tell and expressing whatever lurks in the grimy recesses of your heart. Forget about three-picture deals, celebrity openings and popcorn-gorging punters; plunge into your deepest depths and discover your artistic soul.
Naturally, they used the workshop method. We eager wannabes were organised into small groups and asked to come up with characters and scenarios to be presented to the larger group. As a near-pathological introvert who hates having to think in public, I found this a challenge. But worse was to come. It soon became apparent that we were expected to plunder our childhoods for repressed traumas that would bring our scenarios to life. In my first group session, one of the students explained that we were supposed to be extremely personal; that was how the process worked. We would only write with conviction about things with which we had a close connection. I was the only one who looked horrified at this news. And sure enough, before long, an astonishing number of personal tragedies had been unearthed.
We went on to invent relationships within our small groups: we were each other’s parents, siblings, lovers. The relationships gave each of us a character to work on. You are not a true writer, we were told, until you have heard your characters speaking to you - until you have literally heard their voices. This did not sound especially silly to me. I have read enough fiction writers talking about how they channel or become their characters to know that it is a common experience, brought about, I assume, by intense identification. But I couldn’t help wondering whether it was helpful advice for a roomful of wannabe screenwriters. How could hearing voices be a skill you could learn? People with this particular gift are in a class of their own, and whatever else may be said of them, they probably don’t need to go to writing workshops.
Nevertheless, I dutifully devised a character in collaboration with my group, and we worked out a scenario our imaginary family could plausibly face. The character I had come up with was nothing like me, and the scenario we had invented was one I would never have dreamed up on my own. But when it was my group’s turn to go to the front and introduce our characters to the rest of the participants, something weird happened. We were all in character, each of us speaking as the person we had invented, and as I listened to the others talking about their (imaginary) lives, I began to feel my character’s feelings. I began to feel myself responding to what the others were saying as though I actually was the person I was pretending to be. I felt affection and warmth. And then I felt fear, jealousy, anger. And I knew, without even thinking about it, what my character was going to do next. Later in the course, when I came to write a monologue for her, it was virtually effortless. She wrote it herself.
The experience took me completely by surprise. I have often thought about how reading enables you to feel the feelings of others; I know how powerful it is to surrender yourself to a story and find yourself wracked with emotions that have nothing to do with you. I also know there is a physiological basis to this - a part of the brain devoted to empathy that enables one to experience the emotions of others. But to invent a character myself and discover that she has a life of her own was something new. Of course, she was made up of the raw materials of my own personality and emotional life and experiences. But she was not me.
A lot of writers speak of inhabiting a character as a kind of mysticism, an occult or magical phenomenon. Indeed, one of the lecturers spoke with great confidence of channelling beings who exist in the astral plane. This made me think of a short story by Virginia Woolf, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, which describes how the writer dives into her characters, inhabiting them as though she is a disembodied spirit (have pen, will travel), plunging into their minds and seeing through their eyes. She depicts her characters as though they already exist, as though they are real-life people and she a spirit-medium. This is how it feels to the writer; but characters are not, of course, real people but rather hypotheses of real people. Or, perhaps, alternate versions of the writer herself. It feels as though they exist in their own right and are asserting themselves, but that is because one’s intuition of their feelings happens below the level of conscious thought. Thought (in the form of ideas, plots, plans) is a step behind. Of course, I am speaking as one who did not actually hear my character’s voice; if I had, perhaps I would be saying something else entirely.
Whatever it was, the experience was intoxicating; I keep coming back to it, though I have no clear idea of how to use it to write a screenplay. It was closer, I imagine, to the experience of an improvising actor than to that of a writer at her desk. What triggered the experience for me were the other characters and my instinctive response to their invocations of me. There are probably sound reasons for this. Psychologists tell us that people often behave in the ways they are expected to behave; sociologists have a concept of interpellation - that when we are called, we automatically respond, fulfilling the role we are expected to fulfil. I suppose the challenge for the screenwriter is to be able to conjure this experience at will.
The lecturers kept telling us that writing is risk: to write a good screenplay, we have to be willing to risk exposure - of our shameful desires, our embarrassing emotions, our bare selves. This is what Chris Moltisanti found so threatening. He was not prepared to take the risk, and at the end of the episode he threw his screenplay in the bin. Nobody in my course was driven to attempted murder (as far as I know), yet there was a palpable sense of unease. Apart from the fear of exposure, there is also that of discovering unpalatable things about yourself. That jealousy, for instance, that rage. A week or so after the course, one of the lecturers sent participants a poem by WH Auden, the first line of which is, “The sense of danger must not disappear.” It brought to mind something Woolf once wrote in a letter. Beauty, she said, “is only got by the failure to get it; by grinding all the flints together; by facing what must be humiliation - the things one can’t do”. This is the creed of the true artist: the humility of the writer who believes it is the work that matters.
At the end of the screenwriting course, I still had no idea how I could let Cate Blanchett know that I was writing the role of a lifetime for her. But it was somehow reassuring to discover that the nation’s leading film school is committed to authenticity and creativity, commercialism be damned. And then for even a fleeting moment to become the other, to have in a public place and with a group of strangers the experience that is at the heart of reading, of friendship and of love - that was worth the price of admission.