Method Writing

Last night I read a manuscript – not even a client’s, mind you – that made me cry. Well OK, technically I just teared up a little, but still! It was so true to life that I ended up empathizing with the character as if she were a real life friend. Or, more accurately, a real life “me.” It actually inspired me to return to my nonfiction roots and expand an old personal essay.

This made me wonder if the author had experienced her character’s ordeal as well. How many of you fiction writers become your characters by infusing real life emotions in your work? Are you a Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis when you write? Or are you Cary Grant and Tom Hanks?

Personally, I think I’m a Cary Grant, or a “non-method” writer. (Note: I am in love with Cary Grant, but this is not why I chose him as my writing-equivalent.) Cary and Tom are both great actors (or, were, in Cary’s case); they say their lines, become a character when they need to get the job done, and go home at the end of the day as if they spent it in a cubicle. (Presumably.. obviously I have no idea how they’d go home at the end of the day after a shoot.) This is my approach to writing – to writing fiction, at least. It’s something I’m enjoying at the moment, but personal essays are, at least I’d like to think, what define me as a writer.

Method actors put their entire beings into a character, and in turn, the character fuses into them. There’s obviously great value in this type of writing too. Some might argue there’s more value. Both approaches work in acting, usually with the same results depending on how good you are (I mean, look at Tom Hanks). So, I wonder… is the same true for writing?

What are your approaches to writing fictional emotions? Do you think it matters whether an author experienced them in real life?