Kirk Douglas once said that Marlon Brando was responsible for producing more bad actors than any other man. This was because Marlon Brando was an excellent actor with an inimitable style. People who tried to mimic Brando’s style invariably failed and became bad actors.
One of my all time favorite actors is James Spader. I have followed his career since the 80’s and his acting style has evolved continuously. You might get the illusion that he has been playing the same character all his life, but that is not the case. He may have been typecast to play the part of arrogant, distant, and selfish loners, but he has played his characters with a gradually evolving emotional core putting internal conflict and hidden vulnerabilities in varying degrees of relief. He has a brilliant acting style. But if any actor were to imitate his style, it would be a poor facsimile because Spader developed his style over the course of forty years.
I have said before that building a writer’s mind is like building a body capable of lifting heavy weights. The actual lifting of a heavy weight takes only a brief moment compared to the years necessary to build the body that can lift it. A writer, likewise, must build a mind that can write. The placement of words on a page is merely the effort of lifting the weight in the competition. It is the culmination of the effort you spent in creating your ability. Acting is the same. The real work is not in reciting the memorized lines, but building the ability to project the emotions behind the lines. The actor, very much like the weight lifter, must first create the artist before he creates the art.
Writing is also very much like method acting in that a writer is usually incapable of conveying an emotion that he is unable to feel. Unlike actors, however, writers are not provided with a script. Actors are told what emotions they are supposed to search for. They may have to dig deep to find those emotions, but there is some guidance about what to look for. Writers must chart for themselves the course they are to navigate. As such writers must collect a large color palette of emotions as zealously as they collect words and phrases. Otherwise they will, like so many writers do, end up writing the same story repeatedly.
Over the course of a long (mostly unpublished) writing career, I have looked back on my own works and have seen the same themes popping up, the same old wounds opening and closing, and the same emotional growth over the same psychological hurdles. I write like an actor playing the same role over and over. The same wounded, isolated, and self-hating wimp, telling himself the same narrative of inevitable failure, and he is faced with the same choice of continuing on his self-destructive pursuit of material and societal success or finding contentment in his mediocre but sustainable happiness. The answer is almost always left hanging. Some of my stories are about sex, others are fantastical adventures, some are mysteries, but they are all about the same emotions. I was never given a script that directed me to probe other directions. Hopefully, my style has evolved.
A part of me thinks that there should have been another way. I should have been able to explore different emotional trajectories and excavate diverse psychologies. If only I had understood earlier what it meant to write my own script, I might have been able to do so. A part of me is resigned to the reality that this is who I am and that I can only tell stories that are engrained in me.
Maybe someday I will be able to say that I have a style that cannot easily be replicated. I have honed it long enough. They say that all stories have been told before but only you can tell it your own way. Perhaps writers are like typecast actors. We play the same characters in every story. We can only hope to distill the manner in which we play them. Ultimately, it will appear that we are only playing ourselves.