When I was a kid in high school, I read a short story from an English Lit textbook that deeply impressed me. The story concerned an account of an innocent black man in the Deep South, circa 1930s, being lynched by a mob for rape. I can’t recall the title now, but I had thought it was entitled “The Sheriff,” though I cannot find a reference to it on search engines. What impressed me so much about the story was that it was told from the point-of-view of the town’s sheriff, and not entirely unsympathetically. The character is portrayed as more craven than evil, and the reader is privy to his thoughts as he rationalizes away his inaction, though it is clear he is not at all comfortable with the impending violence and injustice. He does have a conscience, but he’s not willing to risk his office or worse for the victim’s sake.
What so impressed me about the story was that it was written by an African-American author and convincingly so!
I saw a television movie about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The plot revolves around a group of homosexual friends from NYC. One of them is a writer for a soap opera an anchor – Kraken vs Coinbase . While watching an episode while vacationing on Fire Island, the writer laments, “They always give me the queer scenes to write.” When one of his friends notes, “That’s only natural,” the man retorts [something like], “If I can’t write a convincing old lady in a nursing home, then I’m not worth my salt as a writer.”
At that, I thought to myself, “Hear! Hear!” Now there’s a man with some professional pride in his craft; a pride that transcends who or what he is.
In Herman Wouk’s epics *The Winds of War* and its sequel *War and Remembrance*, interspersed within the plot are the memoirs of a fictional German field marshal during WW II. Wouk–who is of Jewish heritage–effectively writes this character, from his point of view, and how this Prussian aristocrat rationalizes away the unmitigated evil of the Third Reich and even the Holocaust in a convincing manner-in the character’s mind. I often wondered if writing this was distasteful for Mr. Wouk. If or if not, he is a professional with the rare capacity to put his mind into that of another’s and faithfully report the character’s motivations, thought processes and extenuations for his actions.
Satirists have long delighted in deriding “method acting,” which teaches that an actor should try to “become” his character. That is, try to think, feel and respond as the character would. Nevertheless, Lee Strasberg’s The Actors Studio has produced such celebrated actors as Al Pacino, Rod Steiger and Robert De Niro. Strasberg himself, after an absence of over thirty years from acting, rendered an extremely good and convincing performance as Hyman Roth in *The Godfather, Part II*.
Many of the writers I admire most, Shakespeare, Puzo, Graves and Wouk, to name a few salient examples, all seemed to have that rare gift of being able to fully understand another person, regardless how alien the character’s nature might be to that of the writer’s. I often wondered if such an apparent gift is simply a talent natural to such people from early childhood, or rather whether anyone can train himself or herself through some form of “method writing” to do likewise.
Are most writers doomed to strictly follow the oldest admonition to writers in the book: “Write what you know about,” or can we heed the advice of an English teacher in a movie I once saw who retorted rhetorically: “What did Shakespeare know about Venetian Moors?”