My four-year old daughter has entered a phase I’m labeling “emotional scientist.”
“I’m mad!” she’ll declare, pursing her lips and scrunching her eyes. Most times, she’s not the least bit angry, but rather curious whether her simulation of anger is close enough to the real thing to elicit the desired response. The adults in her life are essentially lab rats. We run through her mazes as she tests her hypotheses.
Currently, the bulk of her experiments involve fake tears. Every parent knows exactly what real crying sounds like, be it a scraped knee or a crushed hope: plaintive, gasping, desperate. Real tears show up uninvited and unwelcome.
Fake crying is a caterwaul, a siren parked three feet away. It’s a performance. Lacking the ability to summon tears, children rub or cover their eyes, pausing every now and then to survey the room to see whether it’s working.
Nope? All right. Back to the wailing.
As a parent, I endure these episodes with a measured response, knowing it’s just a phase.
But as a writer, I watch her with fascination, secretly hoping she gets better at faking it.
While it doesn’t rank up there with math and reading, the ability to simulate an emotion you’re not actually feeling is a fundamental skill, one that’s served me particularly well.
This is an essay in defense of fake tears.
Writing as acting
I had lunch yesterday with a former child actor who has gone on to have a big career. I knew he got his first roles when he was four years old, but I was curious at what age he started “acting” — that is, when did he become aware of craft and technique?
His answer: at four. His father taught him to maintain eye contact with the other actors in the scene, and listen carefully to what they were saying. He wasn’t allowed to perform. He simply had to experience the moment and follow along.
Experiencing the moment is what writers do, too.
Screenwriters are basically actors who do their work on the page rather than the stage. Both professions earn their keep by pretending things are much different than they are. Actors ignore the lights and cameras and missing walls. Writers ignore the missing everything, summoning locations and characters to enact scenes which they can later transcribe.
Actors and writers are trying to create moments that feel true, despite being completely invented.
Read a good book on acting, and you’ll find many techniques that can help you as a screenwriter. Sense memory — the ability to experience a sensation that is not actually present — lets you feel the rumble of approaching tanks. Other exercises have you substituting your experiences for the character’s, letting the broken arm you got in fifth grade be the gunshot in your hero’s leg.
Once you become aware of the techniques, you find yourself pressing your brain’s RECORD button whenever you experience something remarkable or intense. The middle section of The Nines documents my disassociative disorder during production on the TV show D.C. in 2000. Even in my fugue state, I realized it was fascinating and worth recording. That red light was blinking in the corner a lot.
When my dog of 14 years passed away this summer, I was a wreck. I wasn’t faking any tears, but I was keenly aware of them. I kept mental notes on how it felt to feel that way; rather than push past the experience, I pushed into it.
My dog was a huge part of my life. He was my kid before I had my kid. In losing him, one thing I gained was that experience of profound loss. I’ll have it to use for the rest of my life.
Feeling your way through
Here’s how I wrote the last ten pages of Big Fish.
Sitting in front of a full-length mirror, I brought myself to tears. Then I started writing Will’s dialogue. I looped over and over until I got a piece of it finished, then started on the next section. It was three solid days of crying, but it was cathartic and productive.
These were fake tears, in the sense that I wasn’t actually guiding my Southern father through his last moments on Earth. But they were true in the context of writing the story. I was creating in myself the experience I was hoping to create in the reader.
One basic goal of creative writing is to evoke a desired response. That sounds clinical and scientific, but the process is squishy and exhausting. I don’t hear other screenwriters talking much about it, probably because it’s uncomfortably personal. At least writers get to do it alone, without a crew and cameras watching.
My daughter’s fake tears are writing practice, just as much as her wobbly uppercase letters. I’m hesitant to offer her much coaching on how to cry more convincingly; it’s like arming your opponent.
But as I watch her perform an ersatz lament, I find myself pressing the RECORD button. And hoping she’s doing the same.