Guest Post: Al Watt

EIGHT THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN WRITING MEMOIRS 

allwattsThe challenge in writing a memoir is that self-examination is not typically meant to be shared. The goal in writing a dynamic memoir lies in offering a transformative experience for our protagonist (our self) by making the personal universal. We all have the story that we tell, either to our self or others, and although the facts may be indisputable, our perception of these facts is subjective. How we interpret the facts determines the meaning we make out of the events, and commonly our idea of our story is never the whole story. Though our ideas are never incorrect, they are often incomplete.
So, how do we write our memoir if we don’t know the whole story? By trusting our subconscious. Our subconscious is the seat of our genius. It is able to make connections and uncover meaning in areas we might never have explored. Our subconscious is not interested in protecting our ego. It wants the truth.

1)  Begin with the end in mind. I’ve heard writers say, ”How can I write my ending when I’m still living my life?” The ending of your memoir is not the end of your life (though it might feel like that.) It is the completion of a theme.
2)  A memoir is not a journal. Material from your journal might find its way into your memoir, however, a memoir is written from a place of understanding while a journal is an attempt to understand. The memoirist is the wise man or woman on the hill recounting the significant moments of their life in order to illuminate this journey toward transformation (a shift in perception).
3)  Don’t think that because your mother still drives you nuts that you have not had a shift in perception. Even though it still annoys you when she tells you how to live your life, this does not disqualify you from writing your memoir. A shift in perception does not mean that we are forever liberated from anxiety and self-doubt. These are human experiences. Our shift in perception simply means that we now understand our situation more clearly, and we know that when we expect our mother to mind her own business, we will be let down. In other words, we have accepted the reality of our situation, and in doing so, our life has become manageable.
4)  Memoir is a search for meaning. When you recount the argument that you had with your spouse about how you wanted a kid but they didn’t, be curious about why you are telling us this. What is the argument really about? What is it that you want? What does having a kid represent? Does it represent security, identity, validation, purpose, power, fulfillment? Always be asking yourself, “What am I trying to express through this scene?”
5)  Context: Don’t assume that your reader understands the context. We’re not interested in what happened, but in what it means to you. Have you ever had someone tell you a story and you still had no idea what they were trying to say. For example, if someone says, “My wife told me she wants a divorce,” we still don’t know what it means. It could be devastating, comical or a relief to the husband. Without context we have no idea what you’re talking about. As storytellers we must be curious not only about the events we are relaying, but the underlying meaning of these events.
6)  Order of events: It is not just the stories that we tell, but the order of events in which they are told, that convey meaning.
7)  Our protagonist must be active. I don’t mean that she does Pilates, but that he or she is always making choices. As writers we tend to be passive observers, and there can be a tendency, particularly in memoir, to have a reactive protagonist – one who merely reacts to each event. You might say, “But that is what happened.” No. That is only what appeared to happen. We are always making choices toward getting what we want. Staying in a lousy marriage is a choice. Remaining silent is a choice. Don’t confuse inertia with passivity. We are interested in your inner life. What is going on? For example: Let’s say I tell a story about my piano teacher who repeatedly told me that I had two left hands, and I remained silent each time he insulted me. The first time I might choose to believe him. The second time I might congratulate myself for my improvement, and the next time I might find a teacher who supports me in learning this new skill. So, although Iappeared passive, the meaning shifted with each insult, which finally led to a new behavior. In other words, our choices indicate our characters’ wants or desires — and that provides our story with meaning.  Make your protagonist active so that we understand what he or she wants.
8)  Feelings: Writing a memoir often brings up feelings of guilt, shame and betrayal. After all, we are opening the closet and exposing the skeletons. It is important to write the first draft for yourself. Do not show it to anyone, at least not while you are writing it. You will often discover that as you write it, you begin to see your story differently. Your perspective widens. The events don’t change, but your relationship to these events shifts. You might fear that if you expose the truth, that you will discover something terrible about yourself. You might. But here’s the thing: The answer is always love. The answer is always freedom. The answer is always forgiveness. In writing a story about freedom, we must show bondage. In writing a story about love, we must show fear. In writing a story about forgiveness, we must show resentment. It is important to hold onto your ending as you march through the middle, otherwise you can become lost in the feelings and they will overpower you.


The Ability To Listen

One of the most essential qualities a good actor must possess is the ability to listen. And it’s not good enough to just look like you’re listening, you must be actively involved in the process of listening – as if hearing something for the first time. Many actors agree that authentic listening is one of the most difficult skills to master. Genuine listening, it sounds simple but it is not.

How do you trick your mind into inhabiting the realm of the character, into that naïve and innocent state where you are genuinely hearing something for the first time? And how do you react naively and innocently to what you have just heard? Listening and responding cannot be programmed, they cannot be planned, and they cannot be manufactured. Thunnamedey have to happen in the moment. It’s one of those aspects of acting that require the actor to do less or even nothing in order to obtain a moment of authenticity.

 

Over the past year or so I have been on a mission. I want to connect with some of the best acting teachers and coaches I can find. My goal is very simple: to strengthen and energize the creative relationship between directors and actors.

In my years of teaching directing I have developed a unique and powerful way for directors to engage with actors in the process of developing characters. And now I want to share my thoughts, discoveries, ideas and techniques with acting teachers so that we may begin a dialogue that might lead to better communication between directors and actors.

Over the past two years to have met some extraordinary teachers in Los Angeles, New York and Europe. I have observed workshops, master classes, lectures. I have engaged in fruitful conversations about the actor/director communication. I have had the opportunity to demonstrate my techniques (the Interrogation Process) several times with great results.

Yet, occasionally, my requests to meet have been greeted by a response that is not only unexpected but also disturbing.

Over the past few months, on three different occasions, I have met with a resistance and rejection that appears to be disinterest but that feels more like something more serious.

Three credible and renowned teachers have told me, in so many words, that they are not interested in having a discussion about the communication between directors and actors. Twice I have been denied an opportunity to observe their work (an opportunity they openly offer to potential students). One teacher even told me that it would scare her to have me observe her teaching. Two of them told me that there was no room for me in their curriculum, even though it is clear that I not seeking employment or their consideration of my techniques within their programs. I have extended invitations to all three to attend any of my workshops so that they could become familiar with my work. None have accepted. None have responded to the invitation.

I have been thinking about these odd reactions for some time now and I am struck by a few thoughts. Why are they so resistant? Why so closed off? Why are they not even willing to listen, to hear what I have to say?

And now it seems clear to me that these teachers are afraid. But afraid of what? Could they be afraid of hearing something new? – of their work being exposed? – of being confronted or challenged? I don’t know.

What makes this particularly odd is that these are three individuals who have dedicated their lives to the teaching and training of professional actors. And each of them has gained enormous success and recognition. They train actors to be open, vulnerable, exposed, and honest; to be fearless in the face of obstacles and oppression, and to be courageous in the face of adversity and challenge. And yet, (it seems) when they themselves are faced with similar circumstances their reaction is to hide and take cover. How sad.

All I want to do is open up a conversation. I want to strengthen and clarify the communication and collaboration between directors and actors. And I would think that other teachers of acting and directing would be interested in joining in this conversation. True, many are. But apparently there are several who are not.

In one master class I posed a simple question to the teacher during a scheduled Q & A. “In all of your training and coaching of actors how do you prepare them for the challenging process of working with directors, especially knowing that many directors don’t communicate well with actors?” Sadly, I could see that my question threw him. He did manage a response that detailed the many challenges of directing and how dealing with the actors was simply one of these challenges. And it quickly became clear to me that his teaching and coaching programs possibly did not address this issue specifically.

When I was at the Yale School of Drama I was privileged to study acting with such gifted artists as Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis and Jeremy Geidt. And I remember in one class Bobby Lewis told us, “unnamedListening is not just hearing the words. Anyone can do that. Listening is hearing what is behind and underneath the words. Listening is allowing your subconscious to connect to the subconscious of another. Listening is vulnerability, openness, and acceptance of not only what you hear but also of what you feel. True listening is allowing yourself to receive and embrace the truth of another. And by ‘accept’ and ‘embrace’ I don’t mean that you have to agree or approve, but you do need to let it in, unfiltered, unmonitored, uncensored.” Bobby Lewis was one of my mentors who continually encouraged me to explore and expand my imagination. I miss him.

We are artists in a highly collaborative medium and much of the time we are not listening to each other. We are filtering, monitoring, censoring. How can we learn how to take in what irritates us or scares us? How can we learn to be patient and how can we genuinely listen to the long-winded and pompous, the shy and the faint of heart? How can we listen to the braggart and the boring alike?

I know that I am often afraid to listen and let those conflicting and confusing voices and thoughts in. Perhaps my fear of listening is telling me something. Something I need to hear. Maybe I should just stop and listen to my fear.