Don’t Write Alone | Notes on Craft

Bringing Acting Technique to Exploratory Writing

When beginning a new written work, apply acting exercises to explore the intent, sensory experiences, and focus of your writing.

Romeo and Juliet

The Presence of the Actor

Choose any person. Say their name aloud. Dedicate your writing time to them using Joseph Chaikin’s words: “. . . for you, to you, in honor of you, I dedicate the next two hours. I may forget you as I am going through it, and I may consciously return to you; it may be nothing more than the gesture of saying ‘I’m doing it.’ I don’t know what my dedication to you will do, but I address you and share this time with you.”

the creative mood

In a comfortable position, sitting or lying down, take a moment to assess how you feel physically and emotionally. What points of distraction in the body and the mind do you have the ability to address before the work begins?

Close your eyes and take an inventory of the body, starting at the toes and slowly working your way up to the top of your head, addressing tension as you notice it.

As you move through this inventory, ask what gifts you can offer each part of the body. A quick massage of the fingers. A long, delicious stretch. Notice what happens to the body as you pay more attention to it.

In a room full of actors doing this relaxation work, you might hear all manner of sounds, long deep vowels filling the room. Some people find that if they attach a specific sound to a part of the body they want to relax, it helps to ease the tension. Make noise, if you feel compelled to. Work through the body in this way, noticing it, offering it gifts, releasing tension when necessary.

When you are done, close your eyes and spend five minutes engaging in some private storytelling. Simply tell yourself the story, from beginning to end, of the scene or chapter you’re about to embark on. Tell whatever you know of it, but also allow yourself to be surprised. Take note of images that arise, the shape the story takes.

This is where we start. It’s time now.

You know the scene you are to begin work on. You’ve relaxed. You’ve told yourself the story. Now, set a timer for five minutes, and make a list focused on the sensory elements of the scene. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? What can you touch and how does it feel? Be as specific as possible.

If you’re having trouble imagining the world of the scene, consider turning to a memory of your own that holds a similar emotional charge. List every sensory detail you can recall.

Now look at your list. What feels especially potent? Highlight or circle these. If nothing compels you, reenter the landscape of the story, set the timer, and write again. Do this until you have a whole list of rich sensory details that excite you, there for you to incorporate into the writing as you see fit.

There are many directions a story can take. What specific aspects of your idea are most compelling to you? At the start of a writing project—a scene, a story, a poem, an essay, a book—make a list of what attracts you to the work.

This list is a fertile place to begin explorations, and it can help guide the choice-making that will follow. Your curiosities are a touchstone to return to when the work becomes difficult. In your interests, in your work, give yourself permission to change the temperature of the room.

Keep an ongoing journal, noting things that compel you. Be observant of your passions. The specificities of your personal and emotional terrain are gold for your work as a writer. You can always return to them when you need a place to begin. Write down words that have heat for you, images that haunt you. Keep these at the ready.

Knowing what compels you, set a timer for ten minutes and write, making a list called Things That Could Happen in This Scene.


If in the early pages of a draft you feel confused or blocked or tired, instead of abandoning the work altogether, try bringing that energy to the writing. Why might your character feel confused? Why might your character be distracted? Why might your character rather be doing anything in the world but this? Frustration often arises when we are knocking up against big truths. The results of this writing might not ultimately be the right choices for the story, but they will yield discovery—about the story, and about yourself.