Seeing things from a soldier's point of view. Dong Nai River, Feb. 10, 1969.  Photo by Mark Smith

Seeing things from a soldier’s point of view.
Dong Nai River, Feb. 10, 1969.
Photo by Mark Smith

Years ago when I worked for a publication of the American Indian Program at Cornell, I frequently had the responsibility of editing the transcription of an oral talk by a Native speaker for print. Listening and reading are very different cognitive processes and they are also different cultural forms. I wanted the readers of a journal published on a university campus to sense the  cadences of a Native speaker for whom oral communication is primary. To accomplish this, I used whatever devices were available to me – punctuation, paragraph breaks, call-outs, and images – to break up the density of print and suggest the pauses and rhythm changes of the speaker. I listened so that I would hear those rhythm changes to begin with. Something is always lost in translation but I wanted, to the best of my ability, to be faithful to the original.

This experience comes to mind as I work on editing a war story. I have taken on this project at least in part because of my commitment to bridge the worlds of veterans and civilians. A key piece of advice for writers is that if they have a story that no one wants them to tell, that is exactly the story they must tell. Veterans have such stories. I am interested in the process by which those stories are told, on the one hand, and heard, on the other. Again my role as editor is to connect author and audience.

All of this made me think about Daniel Day Lewis. Ever since I read about him staying in character for My Left Foot for the duration of filming, I have had a morbid fascination with his technique. I am in awe of the dedication and of the results he gets but I have to wonder if it is necessary. In order to convey an experience, must one, in some sense, become it?

I want to do my job right, but it is precisely because I believe in it that I wrestle with this question. Feeling the emotions of the story is one thing – I become angry, I grieve – but how much more? Will it help for me to lose myself in the world of the Vietnam War? Must I (must I?) open myself up to the outlook and attitudes of adolescent men?

What startles me is how easy it would be to do it. Right now I am inundated with published and unpublished material. I have friends and acquaintances with detailed knowledge, many years of experience in becoming deeply involved with a project, and an inquisitive mind. The world of the Vietnam War is one I lived through but not from the point of view of a soldier. It is tempting to yield to the vicarious thrill by essentially – and for how long? – taking on a new identity. Is this something I want to do?

The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute doesn’t seem to think such extreme measures are required:

Aristotle said that the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself, and that moving oneself is made possible by bringing to the fore “visions” of experiences from life that are no longer present.  In essence, Aristotle was stating the core principle of The Method—the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination as the foundation for (re)experiencing on stage.

If I understand this correctly, taking on the role 24/7 is one way to achieve this ‘(re)experiencing’. It works for Daniel Day Lewis, but it may not be the only way. The crucial thing is to be moved oneself for the sake of “moving the passions in others.”  But it is all about balance. When Dustin Hoffman deprived himself of sleep to get in character for Marathon Man, for instance, he was such a mess that Laurence Olivier, no slouch himself, said to him, “Why don’t you try acting? It’s much easier.”

War stories are seductive. Perhaps that is why so many people don’t want to hear them. So for this project I am learning a new skill as I go along: learning how to open myself to the truth of an experience, sometimes looking within the author to find it, but at the same time knowing when and how to pull back. These stories happened decades ago. Like all good war stories they are timeless, but we are all older now. God willing we have the wisdom to tell these stories so that they do some good in the world, and in a way that makes them come alive but not have to be re-lived.