How Improv Made Me a Better Writer

From Publishers Weekly:

Six years ago, I was a single mom with Wednesday and Thursday nights free in that strange, silent way only a recently divorced person can understand. So, I did what all normal and not-at-all-emotionally-unstable individuals do: I signed up for an improv class.

Over the next year, I completed the class series and auditioned for the theater’s house team, and—spoiler alert—I made it! Performing in front of a paying audience proved more intense than taking classes. And soon, improv became a great teaching tool in many areas of my life, including my writing.

At first, I thought improv and writing couldn’t be more opposite—one is performed in front of an audience, the other alone in a quiet space. But now, after hundreds of shows, I’ve come to see how wrong I was. Here are six things I learned from improv that dramatically impacted my writing.

How to think fast: I’m a self-diagnosed overthinker. With writing, I could retool the same three sentences seven times before I’d show them to anyone. I like that. It’s safe.

But improv is not a slow art. When a performer hits the stage, the show is in her hands. There’s no stopping, rethinking, or asking for an extension. Though writers don’t get rewarded for speed, and good improv takes its time in developing stories and characters, the pressure of creating in front of an audience has helped me quiet my inner editor.

How to think specifically: Improv has no props, costumes, sets, or special effects. When working in a medium of the invisible, it’s important to ground scenes in the familiar. Details set a scene, create an agreed-upon reality, and provide something for audiences to see.

In writing, creating a world for readers to perceive presents similar challenges. Just like onstage, offering some authentic details can heighten the level of realism in writing. It’s through specifics that we enter a shared world, whether through words on a page or actors on stage.

How to think boldly: One of the tenets of improv is to never negate another player’s ideas; instead, we respond with a version of, “Yes, and….” It’s not a hard concept, but I found it a difficult rule to follow. What if I make a fool of myself? What if no one laughs? Yet, over the years, I’ve found halfheartedly playing an uncomfortable moment only shares the awkwardness with the audience, whereas giving in to discomfort lets us find a shared humanity. And that’s what makes any art relatable.

As I’ve numbed my fears onstage, I’ve found my first drafts pouring onto the page and my mind open to more possibilities. For a writer, learning to adapt to new opportunities is important, and for me that looks like saying, “Yes, and…” more often: going to conferences, writing in a new genre, accepting speaking opportunities, writing this article.

. . . .

How to think about myself: My biggest mental shift since improv has little to do with my craft or career—it’s a change in the way I see myself. I no longer claim the title of writer or improviser. Instead, I gladly accept that I’m a creative person. All creativity takes an insane amount of courage, and every time I get onstage, I’m reminded how important it is to try new things in life. Only by taking inspired risks can we shift our thinking and continue to evolve.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

3 thoughts on “How Improv Made Me a Better Writer”

  1. Great article, with interesting links. I’ve heard similar stories from people doing lots of different “performances”. Jack Nicholson claims he couldn’t be a good actor without knowing how to write; newbies to ToastMasters often tout the benefits in the way doing TM helps them to think in other spheres, beyond just the polished speaking. Interesting that the improv opened up opps to avoid the traditional writers block of fear of the draft not working or going anywhere.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. It’s not precisely improv, but I also recently took up a public hobby — singing Barbershop, in chorus and quartet. The quartet work, in particular, forced me to think beyond just producing the notes anonymously — I have to interact in public with my fellow vocalists, and (most importantly) we have to tell a story that entertains an audience.

    It’s surprisingly (to me) difficult to tell a story based on lyrics, body movement, facial expressions, and character & audience interaction without feeling (and looking) like a complete dork! (And that’s if the notes are at least in tune and the words not flubbed, so you don’t have to worry about suppressing a wince).

    That last bit is like saying “grammatically well edited”. It’s the story-telling part that has got me thinking about how it translates to fiction. It’s more ensemble work than a hero story — even the lead singer doesn’t do isolated solos — but there are bit players (baritone), supporters (bass), and comic relief (sparkling tenor high notes – my role) that surround the lead singer (the equivalent of 2nd tenor range) with humor, sympathy, commentary, sarcasm, etc.

    Like any field of study on any topic, getting into something like this in depth sheds unanticipated insights onto other fields.

    • Yes, anything that forces you to be in the moment, lets you perform over and over, letting go of the need to be perfect in that moment.

      Throwing pots, using a sand table to do calligraphy before you commit to brush on paper, etc…

      One of the tenets of improv is to never negate another player’s ideas; instead, we respond with a version of, “Yes, and….”

      – That is the key to writing Fiction. “Yes, and….”

      This is the old concept of “Stream of consciousness”, where you simply write what you see, and let it flow onto the page, without editing as you go along.

      Too many people get tripped up because they see the writing on the page, and if it does not match the final draft, at that instant, they freeze.

      Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow is interesting to read. He is showing his problem of letting the words flow and change on the page before he lets it set in final form. He still has that problem, struggling with it each time.

      Donna Tartt tried to write using a word-processor and failed. It was too easy to delete what she wrote. She would write and delete the first sentence over and over, slowly doing the same with the paragraphs — with no evidence that she was even writing — so she abandoned the word-processor and wrote on paper. Not full letter size paper, but small pieces of paper. All to avoid tripping over her own feet.

      BTW, Just trying to write this comment was like the centipede trying to consciously walk. Which foot do I move first, total collapse. HA!

      Stephen King had the same problem when he taught writing at University. When he was consciously trying to teach what he did unconsciously, it messed him up.

      With this comment, I’ve reached that point where I unconsciously act, and am tripping over my own feet when I consciously try to explain what I’m doing.

      I saw this coming decades ago as the “Fortune cookie moment”, and now I am there.


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