This is a guest post by author Lisa Lieberman Doctor, I found it interesting and decided to post it, here it is:
When I switched careers from movie executive to writing teacher, I developed hundreds of writing exercises designed to allow authors access to their protagonist’s deep-seated emotional issues. It’s the internal issue that fuels the external story problem, so the exercises became a vital part of my teaching. Some of the exercises are, When have you grasped for hope, only to have it elude you? When has forgiveness brought you inner peace? Can you feel sorrow without collapsing under its weight? The questions touch upon the dark emotional colors of shame, anger, and fear, as well as the lighter colors of compassion and contentment. In order to get the full benefit of the exercises, I ask writers to respond in the first-person voice of their protagonist without judgment or censorship.
My next directive for the writer is to take from the exercise that which they believe is relevant to their protagonist’s journey, and bring it into the text. Sometimes it’s an anecdote or a quote taken from the exercise, and at other times it’s a pervasive, troubling emotion based on a faulty belief system that has followed the character since childhood.
Because I’m a writing instructor and not a psychotherapist, I comment only on the character’s emotional journey, and not the writer’s. In the classroom or the workshop, the questions are asked only of the protagonist.
And then, something happened that I couldn’t have anticipated.
While teaching English grammar and usage to new English speakers at a university in Spain, I gave the exercises to my students, but this time the prompts were meant for them, and not for a character they were creating. The results were extraordinary! They loved revealing aspects of themselves in their own voice, and their language skills improved. In the very first session, they wrote stories from their lives and the feelings attached to those stories. One young man, concerned about the current economic woes in both his country and in his own home, wrote I see my life in red numbers. This, from a student who had only a basic vocabulary to work with. In that one sentence, we understand his despair about his worrisome situation. The other students in the room felt immediate empathy since they, too, struggled to not lose hope in the future. The camaraderie in the room was powerful. Not only did the student communicate in a language he was still learning, he also felt understood on a deep level.
Another student, musing about a love that couldn’t be fulfilled, wrote about the cruel dream of your kiss. He was nineteen years old and struggling with the pain of falling in love for the first time, with a young woman who preferred another partner over him. He read his work with passion and much to my delight, without embarrassment. The other students in the room applauded with appreciation when he finished reading.
A third student wrote, everything is black and I feel blue. There was no shame in this admission. It was how she was feeling at the time, a reflection on a recent break-up with her boyfriend. It was particularly thrilling for me as the instructor to recognize the extent to which these new speakers of English related to each other in a foreign language. I suspect that outside the classroom they were open with each other when they spoke in their native language, but they had never before communicated deeply in English.
I’m not suggesting that English be taught in a different way than the current ESL models. Rather, I’m offering a fun and rewarding new method to augment what’s traditionally taught in the classroom