I was listening to Nine to Noon on National Radio yesterday and Kathryn Ryan had Jennifer Weiner, the author of In Her Shoes on the programme. At one point they were talking about how everyone always says, 'Write what you know!'
When I first started thinking about writing and someone said to me 'write what you know' I thought, 'Yes! I can do this!' About five minutes later I thought, 'Oh no! My life is not interesting enough. What I know, no one will want to read about!'
Instead of being liberating the idea of writing what I know became so stifling that every time I had an idea for a piece of fiction, I censored myself before my pen even touched the paper. Suddenly, 'what I know' became a huge source of anxiety. What if what I know wasn't good enough?
I think the exact same question has long since made me shy away from acting techniques that rely (largely) on past experiences instead of relying (largely) on imagination. The difference between these two approaches to acting seem to be that one technique asks you to 'use what you know' to create a character, find emotion, and create connection, while the other asks you to use what is inspiring to you.
What I know is limited to my upbringing, my education, my family and friends, my motherhood. Using (only) that to act never seemed satisfactory or satisfying for that matter; never seemed enough. I also never felt particularly interested in some experiences in real life, like say getting high on crack or killing someone. Obviously, actors who use what they know to act wouldn't (necessarily) take drugs or kill someone to play a character who does. That's were imagination comes in, right?
With imagination anything goes. No one knows what I am actually thinking about to evoke a particular emotion or to show a particular aspect of my character. ANYTHING goes! Didn't Meisner say, 'You could be thinking of fucking a chihuahua if it gets you off' or something along those lines? Somehow, I always felt like I was cheating my character if I didn't tap into the unlimited potential that is imagination.
Imagination can be scary too though. What if you really had to think about fucking a chihuahua to get you off? Would you really want to know that about yourself? Shudder... Then again, this journey of self-knowledge, while challenging and at times confronting, is one of the things that make being an actor so intriguing. What makes me tick? Playing with the 'what ifs?' of what our imagination can come up with is endless fun!
In order to know what makes you tick, of course you have to know your past, your experiences and how they made you you. But somehow, while of course I have tapped into past experiences when I was acting, I've never been okay with that. It felt like something self-indulgent, counter-productive even.
Writing this script is a really interesting experience in this regard. When I first sat down to write, I quite literally knew nothing about a whole bunch of elements that will make up my story. For instance, my story is set in the mountains. I'm from Berlin, Germany. Google map it. No mountains. I know nothing about mountains, or climbing, or weather, or alpine flora and fauna. Nothing! And you know what; this ignorance turned out to be completely liberating!
It allowed me not to sensor myself before even starting to write, in fact, it is still liberating during the writing process. I know nothing about mountains but I can imagine a whole bunch of things that could happen in them. Working out the details, I will leave to the experts. And man, can I not wait for the time I will sit down with all those amazing people who do know about all this stuff! My lack of knowing allowed my imagination to run wild.
And then something really strange happened. When my characters began to take shape my imagination wandered into my own past and asked what these characters would be like, what their journeys would be if I gave them specific experiences similar or alike to those I have had. Suddenly, what I know began to supplement my imagination. Knowledge and imagination all of a sudden got along really really well and I started enjoying it!
If I take anything away from this writing experience - besides a finished script - it will be this:
What I know is okay. What I know is not boring or meaningless or limited; it is what made me who I am and I am not boring or meaningless or limited. What I know is the foundation on which my imagination is built, provides the spark which keeps my imagination running wild and hot and reignites it when it fizzles out.
I don't think 'what I know' will ever be the place from which I will start writing or create a character or approach a scene. But through this writing process I have come to accept 'what I know' more than ever before and can enjoy for it to be there for me when I need it.
'What you know' is never boring or meaningless or limited, and neither are you! Every human being is inherently interesting. Sometimes, we just have to look and listen closely because not everyone screams, 'Look at me! Hear my story!' And we have to realise that we are inherently interesting ourselves. You are interesting, so tell me your story!