Recently, I started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York (founded by the high priestess of funny, Amy Poehler). During each class exercise, I’d think, “This would help my writing.” I compiled a list of writing lessons I learned from Improv 101:
1. Be in a scene (a place, a time, an action). I used to start scenes with a joke and go from there; one day my teacher, the venerable Chelsea Clarke, stopped me and said, “Be rowing a boat.” I began rowing a fake boat, and suddenly, I was a character in a boat; the audience knew where I was and what I was doing.
It’s similarly knee-jerk to start an essay or chapter discussing the metaphysics of unrequited love or whatever, but that’s disorientating to your reader, like soliloquizing in space. Put your reader in a scene. Make one character be unrequitedly in love with another character rowing her boat.
2. Play to the top of your intelligence. I wish I could explain this one better, but I think I just like the phrase. (Here is what Google says: “If your character is stupid, be smart about how you’re stupid,” which I take to mean, be stupid in a specific way).
3. “Yes, and.” Tina Fey nails it in Bossypants: “The Rule of Agreement reminds you to ‘respect what your partner has created’ and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where it takes you. As an improvisor, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no . . . ‘No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’ What kind of way is that to live? . . . You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own . . . To me, YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.” Do I agree with Tina Fey? YES, AND I want to be her sister.
Other examples: “Yes, I want to write this emotionally traumatic scene, and I want to write the healing scene that comes years later.” “Yes, I want to hear your constructive criticism, and you’re not a stranger on the Internet.” “Yes, this character goes down on that character, and then they switch it up.” “Yes, this horrible thing happened, and I’m going to write about it and turn it into a beautiful piece of literature and you’re going to appreciate it.”
4. Support your scene partners’ success. This is about not being a jerk. Applaud your team every single time they/he/she get(s) the courage to do something creative/crazy in front of you and your judging eyes.
Here is a rant:
I used to believe that if someone else is really funny, then I’m obviously less funny. If someone else is the best in the scene, then I’m—if not the worst—not the best, because the best is taken. If another woman in the class is getting better, then I’m getting worse. If she’s succeeding, I’m not. Not true in improv (and life)! A few things to consider: A) The better your scene partner is, the better you are, because you’re trapped on a sinking and/or floating ship together. 2) Sometimes, to make the scene work, it’s in your best interest to be “the straight man” (this isn’t a homophobic term; it means: the one who isn’t the funny scene-stealing star. “Straight men” are important because they make the scene work, and therefore make the show good; it’s not about them—it’s about their team. “Straight men” are also important for sex for some people.)
How this pertains to writing: it may very well be true that another person is succeeding and you are not experiencing success, but one has nothing to do with the other. (Repeat that mentally.) There’s not a limited amount of success going around. In what world does it make sense that if I am funny, then you are not funny? NO WORLD. We need to believe in, encourage, support, and massage each other’s egos. I believe in you. I believe in what you’re doing. Please keep doing it, and maybe do a little of it near me.
5. Make strong choices. The more specific you are (“I’m in a graveyard, and I’m a vampire slayer who is also a vampire [real scene that happened to me]”), the stronger you are communicating. If you’re a vampire, try biting your scene partner right away (the strong and obvious choice), instead of what I did, which was to stand still and say, “Hey, I’m a vampire slayer who is also a vampire, so I guess I’m suicidal.” And then I staked myself and died. The scene was over before it began.
I can visualize a strong female lead who likes grilled cheese with American cheese and white bread; I do not have a clear picture of a character who eats food.
6. Don’t be precious. This is another way of saying, “kill your darlings.” Move on. Let go of expectations. Let’s say you’re planning a great joke, but the scene changes/takes a different direction and the joke no longer works—let it go. Be comfortable letting it be gone forever. Know you’re in the next scene with a new joke, a new opportunity. As Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Never quote Darwin in improv. I also like what Will Eno wrote: “Let’s not be precious. The history of plays and the history of the world is a set of the same conversations being had by different people. We’ve all been through them. ‘You are the only one, forever,’ we swear, having sworn it before.” You are the only one, forever, fantastic first sentence; goodbye.
If you can’t kill your darlings, anesthetize/copy & paste them in a separate Word document.
7. Be present. Yoga also says this. If yoga and improv say this, then it must be the truest of truths. Not being present in a scene is the real-life nightmare of showing up to a test for which you haven’t studied. Not being present in a yoga pose means you have probably fallen on your shockra or perineum.
Writing takeaway: When talking about Elizabeth Bishop one day, my poetry teacher Jennifer Michael Hecht said she believed only in work created with a high level of concentration. Install the hilariously-named Freedom program that turns off the Internet; place your phone in a drawer; put up a sign that says Mining Coal; do whatever you have to do to be present with your writing.
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