Writing on the Air
My regular improv class is on hiatus, so to keep from getting rusty I recently took a trial class at another school. It was fun, and fascinating to experience a very different approach to the same material. One exchange between John, the teacher, and another student stayed with me, because it highlighted something I think all improvisers feel but that I have never heard articulated before.
In a scene involving food preparation, the student had been holding an imaginary pot when he got into an argument with another character and started waving his arms around. Afterward, John asked, "So what happened to the pot?"
The student acknowledged that he had forgotten all about it. "I was worried about where the scene was going," he said, "and I lost track of where I was."
"That's what's so hard about this business," John commented. "You have to wear all the hats, at the same time. You're the writer, the director, and the prop manager, in addition to being the actor. You have to be completely authentic in the moment, and at the same time you have to be aware of the narrative arc and where you're pushing it. There are no rehearsals, no do-overs. It's just you and your co-creators, up there, naked."
He made it sound difficult and scary, and it is. It is also incredibly freeing.
When I write, I am a compulsive reviser. I have to force myself to send stories out, because I never believe they are really done. I rip them apart and put the scenes together in different order; I rewrite them from the point of view of a minor character; I change the setting, the time of year, and the characters' names and vocations. I have been fiddling with some stories for more than 15 years now.
This is fun, but it can be hard to know when to stop--when there really is more to be gotten out of a story, vs nit picking that keeps me from moving on.
Improv is really helping with this. I can't look on anything I do as a draft. I can't revise. I am constantly learning from my mistakes, but I can't go back and fix the mistakes; I can only try to do better next time. And sometimes what I think is a mistake--a spontaneous expression that I would, if I were writing, go back and delete--turns out to be exactly what the scene needs.
It is an exciting, humbling, and confidence building art, and it is changing everything.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. She can be reached at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.