How far would you go to create a character? Have you ever pretended to be that character, speaking in his voice? Walking around the room the way he walks to get a feel for those motions before you try to put them into words? Journaling as that character to better understand how he sees the world? I think we writers do those things from time to time, especially when a character is being difficult. In the past, I’ve mostly used my mind to get into a character, trying to think like him. Sometimes I move my body to help me describe something I’ve already decided a character is doing. Lately, thanks to Seva*, I’ve been thinking about taking this further. I’ve been thinking about Method Acting, and its sisters, Method Training and Method Writing (yeah, I just made up those terms).
*I’m training a service dog, and you can read all about that here.
Seva will go to someone with a physical disability. As we get into more advanced skills, I have to ask more of her and do less myself. This means, instead of reaching out to take something from her, I have to wait until she puts it in my hand. To help with Seva’s training, I have to imagine I have a disability. Like method acting, I think of this as method training.
I’ll give some examples.
A lot of graduates (that’s what Helping Paws calls the people who receive the dogs) don’t have very good manual dexterity. It’s hard to grasp and hold objects in their hands. So, if I’m pretending I don’t have good manual dexterity, when Seva retrieves an object and doesn’t quite get it in my hands, I let it fall and ask her to retrieve it again. Right now, she is learning to hold something in her mouth without chewing or dropping it while I pretend I can’t quite get hold of it and touch her muzzle before finally taking the object.
Some graduates are partially paralyzed. If I drop my keys between my feet, I pretend my feet are paralyzed and let Seva figure out how to get the keys without any help from me.
Some graduates are ambulatory, but need support. When we train on a staircase, I tell Seva to “Step,” and she places her front paws up (or down) one step, then waits while I use her as a brace to bring myself up (or down) that step. I don’t really need her for support, but I put some weight on her so she knows what it feels like to be used as a brace.
We use wheelchairs at the training center so the dogs get used to walking beside them. One day, we put tennis balls behind our backs. We had to hold the balls in place, which meant we couldn’t lean forward to hold out a hand to our dogs. They had to get each item they retrieved in our hands, even if our knees or the chair’s wheels were in the way.
The dog packs have a belly strap that buckles. Sometimes, I sit in a chair and make her bring me her pack. Then I hold it out and Seva has to walk through the chest strap without any help (like making the opening wider). Then she has to rise onto my lap so the buckle is easier for me to reach. When she gets dressed this way, I’m teaching her to adapt to my needs, instead of doing it the same way every time and establishing a pattern of how much—or how little—she has to do to get dressed.
As I train Seva and work through many of the ways her help could be needed, I’m reminded how fortunate I am to be able to take my mobility for granted.
Some things need to be experienced to be understood. Last week I was sitting outside a cafe across from Loring Park. A man and woman came down the sidewalk past the tables. They both had white canes tapping along before their feet. He was clearly sighted. She had a blindfold on. I noticed as she passed that this blindfold was serious. It had rubber edging to make sure it wouldn’t gap and there was no way for her to sneak a peak out the bottom and watch where she placed her feet. I don’t know if this woman is blind or sighted or something in-between. I only know that the man was teaching her how to get around with a cane.
I wanted to say, “Excuse me!” and ask them about their work. Why were they doing that? Was she learning how to use a cane so she could become a teacher or because she will need that cane herself? What was it like to have to get around without your vision? Was she scared of tripping? But I didn’t say anything. I watched them shamelessly as they passed and wondered to myself.
If I were to write a blind character, wouldn’t it be good to know what it feels like to get around without my sight?
Now, I don’t mean to boast, but I am great at research and I have a really big imagination. I’ve imagined all kinds of things without actually experiencing them. Still, as I’m training Seva by limiting my abilities, I’m learning things about what that’s like. Especially about all the movements and trivial activities that I take for granted throughout the day. And it has me thinking…
In this very cool video, a martial artist is photographed for David Dalglish’s Shadowdance books. The martial artist says that he went through the books and wrote out all the descriptions of the assassin’s fight moves. The moves he’s doing for the photo shoot are impressive, so I’m wondering if Dalglish is a martial artist himself? Has he experienced these moves in his body, or did he imagine them from his couch? I’m guessing that even if he’s not a martial artist, he’s athletic and is in touch with how his body feels in motion.
Getting the kinesthetic experience on the page is a skill that is enhanced by personal experience, whether it’s ninja moves, horseback riding, ballet, or piano playing. Can a good writer fake it? Probably. But I’m convinced bodily experience will add a dimension to the prose that the writer only discovers by Method Writing.
I’d like to hear what other writers do to get those physical descriptions on the page.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my kung fu class.
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