“To give words meaning, you must first know the reality, the thoughts, sensations and experiences that the words stand for.” — Lee Strasberg
People who aren’t writers often assume that you’re only writing when you’re sitting in front of your computer. But, as many writers will tell you, as soon as you start a new project you become immersed, which means you’re writing all the time.
When he isn’t working for IBM (or revising and redesigning my websites), my boyfriend bakes bread. As I watch him in the process I realize how much it has in common with my own writing process. When he’s preparing to bake something he often creates what’s called a starter, which is, essentially, the glue that ties together the bread’s unique flavor and texture. This starter needs to be fed and watered, just like a pet or a person, and each day until it’s time to bake he cultivates it and nurtures it and does everything short of talking to it in order to help it grow. Sometimes the starter fails, and the whole thing has to be tossed out. It’s a very delicate process.
With the holidays, I haven’t spent a lot of time at my desk, but I have been working on the starter for the fourth book in the Velva Jean series. Just before Christmas, I returned the edited manuscript for the third Velva Jean to my editor. That book will come back to me again because there’s still work to be done before its release on August 30. But I also need to write book four, due to my editor by September 15.
Book four is still being researched and formulated and outlined– basically the hunting and gathering stage. This starter phase, in some ways, is the most crucial phase because the idea for the book needs to be able to grow and ferment and take shape. Because it’s not yet formed and solid, the idea is susceptible to neglect, among other things. To grow the starter, I am gradually–happily– immersing myself in 1940′s Hollywood, the time and setting of the story.
When Dustin Hoffman was filming Marathon Man, one of the scenes involved his character staying awake for three nights. Reportedly, Hoffman didn’t sleep for three nights in real life so that the scene would seem more realistic. When he arrived on the set after night three, his co-star, Laurence Olivier, asked him why he looked so haggard. When Hoffman told him what he’d done and why, Olivier said, “Try acting, dear boy…it’s much easier.”
It was Russia’s Constantin Stanislavski who first created the idea of method acting, and actor/director/teacher Lee Strasberg who made it popular in America. The idea behind method acting is simple: you invoke inspiration in order to give the truest performance.
A friend of mine calls me a method writer. At some point, no matter what I’m writing– a harrowing tale about an early Arctic expedition or a harrowing tale about my 1980′s high school adventures, the story of a young girl’s coming of age in Depression-era Appalachia or the story of a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot in World War II– I start living (to some degree) in that other era, that other world, so much so that it can be jarring to leave the house. When I was writing my first book, The Ice Master, I became so lost in the time period– 1913– and the setting– the polar Arctic– that I actually wrote a check at my grocery store and signed the date “November 12, 1913.” (Even though it was March of 2000.) The deeper you immerse yourself, the harder it is to transition out of it. When I was writing Velva Jean Learns to Fly, my boyfriend and I would walk to Trader Joe’s and it would take me the entire trip there and back before I’d completed the re-entry process.
You become a kind of strange, frightened mole-like creature, creeping out of the world you’re creating to do the everyday errands that have to be done to keep life going, shrinking from the all the noise and too-bright fluorescent lighting and the traffic– so much traffic!– dreaming of the moment you step back inside your office, safe again in the quieter, more idyllic world of another time, another place. Chitchat becomes almost impossible. When I wrote the third Velva Jean, I lived and breathed 1944 occupied France, and all its wartime horrors. Going to dinner with friends could be exhausting because, while everyone else was talking about the movies they’d seen or politics or the latest current events, I sat brooding over the battle for Caen or the decimation at Oradour-sur-Glane like I had just returned from the front lines.
This is how I’m currently method writing: As I drive around Los Angeles, on my way to the hair salon or the gym or the grocery, I listen to big band music from the 40′s. I change my route home so that I can pass by some of the few remaining old Hollywood landmarks, ones that I’ll be writing about and that Velva Jean will be visiting. I keep the television tuned to Turner Classic Movies, and when my boyfriend and I watch a movie at home, we watch ones starring Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, Gene Tierney.
I always have a stack of books by my bedside, but the present stack is a revolving pile of Hollywood history books, from movie star biographies and autobiographies to histories of studios, the star system, and Los Angeles itself. I’m reading these and keeping them close by not only for research but to keep my mind in that particular place and time. I’ve done this for each and every book, and it not only serves as inspiration, but as protection. Too many things in this world can keep you from sitting at your desk and writing, but by building yourself a kind of portable, specially programmed time machine, you can hopefully create and develop a flow.
Yesterday I drove by the Hollywood YWCA, formerly the Studio Club, where female Hollywood hopefuls roomed and boarded while trying to catch their big break. As I paused on the street outside I didn’t see the girl texting in her car or the homeless man on the corner. I could see instead Marilyn Monroe at the window and Donna Reed at the front door. Passing by nearby Sunset Gower Studios, it was suddenly Columbia Pictures again, home of Rita Hayworth, and I could imagine what it felt like to be twenty-two and walking on that lot for the first time.
As I drove down Hollywood Boulevard, the sun shining through the sun roof, the palm trees swaying, Martha Tilton crooning away on the stereo, for one brief instant the tourists and the motorcycles and the police sirens and the twenty-first century chaos faded away and I had a flash of being Velva Jean. I drove down the block, wearing my red lipstick, the sun beating down on my hair, my arms, and felt full of possibility.
As soon as I got home, I sat down at my desk and wrote up all the ideas I’d had on that short trip. Meanwhile, my boyfriend turned his starter into a wonderful loaf of bread, which we then ate while watching episode three of Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, followed by William Powell and Myrna Loy in Love Crazy. This was bliss: laptop nearby, ready to take notes, happy and safe once again in my own imagined world, having fun while still feeling productive as the ideas continued to gather, the outline of the story filling in more and more, beginning to take shape.
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society