What Epictetus, David Mamet, and acting, can teach writers

Pay close attention students, we are going on a journey.

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher, 55 AD to 135 AD. Back then Greeks were either philosophers or Olympians. By the way, in the early days of the Olympics, Olympians participated nude, which made it easy to identify athletes since philosophers wore togas. I have a feeling that wrestling matches were short in duration.

 Epictetus was a stoic philosopher who believed fate controlled the outcome of things and it was the wise man who submitted to fate, whether good or bad, complaining being a waste of time. Yet he believed men were responsible for their actions. Philosophers are confusing. 

His disciple Arrian compiled all of Epictetus’s teachings into writings, Discourses being one compilation, and something called Enchiridion of Epictetus, that was ethical and practical advice for everyday living. It was widely read for centuries and was something of a text book for both Christians and Pagans, and when has that ever happened.

Jumping ahead in time, playwright David Mamet and actor William H. Macy list the Enchiridion in their bibliography for their book on acting, so the Enchiridion, along with the famed internal acting ‘method’ created by Stanislavsky, became the basis of  Mamet and Macy’s theory of acting. Simply put Mamet and Macy used the Method, but instead of the internal, used the overlay of Epictetus for their Practical Aesthetics of acting.

What does this have to do with writing? Thank you for asking.

The actor breaks down the scene, the ‘literal’ action of what is going on. A writer must know what the scene is about, what is happening and why it is happening. Next comes the ‘want.’ Kurt Vonnegut said every character in a story must want something, “even if it is a glass of water.” Third is the ‘essential action.’ What does the actor want within the scene, which may be different than what the character he is playing wants. Actors can be as confusing as philosophers. I would say what does the writer want within the scene. The character may want a glass of water, but it might be better if you as the writer prevent him from getting the water. Finally the actor applies the ‘what if.’ This is where the actor takes something from his memory bank that relates to the scene. If you are a writer and in your youth you really wanted a specific bicycle for example, you recall that emotion and use it in the writing of the character who desires that glass of water. Believe that the water is the bicycle you wanted and write accordingly. You can always use the device in reverse for a character to prevent the glass of water being taken. Recall an episode where you stopped someone from getting something. Use that emotion and words reflecting that emotion to have the character prevent the glass of water from being taken.

The world is full of connections that you can create a chain with. From Epictetus to Mamet and Macy to Vonnegut to a goofy blogger, one idea building on another, to create something new to think about. And also a glass of water, because I am now thirsty.


1 Comment

Filed under e-book publishing, humor, Uncategorized, writing

One response to “What Epictetus, David Mamet, and acting, can teach writers

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Learnt Writing for 30 Days | SoshiTech

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