What Writers Can Learn from Improv Artists
Updated: Jan 9
Years ago, I took an improv class to become a better teacher. Having the quick witted timing of an improv comedian seemed like an important skill for a professor in an auditorium with hundreds of students. The imparted improvisation lessons were not only to make us think faster on our feet; rather, it became immediately obvious that borrowing from improv wisdom can open us in a multitude of ways, including - you’ve got it - strengthening our writing abilities.
There are a number of books available on improv teachings. For this post, I pulled from the insights of Patricia Ryan Madson’s improv wisdom. Madson lists “maxims” of traditional improv instruction, and here, I’ve adapted her work to make it functional for writers.
1. Say Yes
I like to picture writers as passionate creatives that are open to the wonders of the writing universe. So, tell me why we tend to harbor natural defeatist attitudes, and call it “writers block?” We sit at a computer or a notebook with the intent of saying “yes” to words, but allow the inner evil critic that lurks in our guts and brains to come out through our fingernails and halt our progress. This critic is our “but.” When you pair this critic with our enthusiastic “yes,” you get a “yes, but…”
And, we call this pair “writer’s block.”
Improv tells us that we need to change how we say yes. With improv, we’re kicking the “but” to the curb and replacing it with “and.” We’re taking on an attitude of affirmation that allows us to become open to possibility, which means our writing becomes open to expansion. As writers, it’s normal to see our words on the page, and question if they are good enough, smart enough, and doggonit, if people will like them. However, by saying “yes, and…” to whatever our brains wants to produce, we allow a draft to take on a life of its own. We get to explore a world we might not have known existed with the blocks dropped in place by the hindrance of “yes, but…”
2. Don’t Prepare
Not to be confused with “don’t plan,” this improv advice is more along the lines of opening ourselves up to the present moment, and going with the flow if the flow isn’t going with us. Often, as writers, we get “blocked” because we’re thinking on a scale that’s too big for the space we’re in. Sometimes, we’re thinking about the going over the waterfall before we’ve even gotten in the canoe. Yes, dream big, but sometimes, write small for impact!
We need to stop and ask ourselves: what’s happening here and now in this very moment? If we can allow the big thoughts to pass through us as we focus on the present, we might find ourselves letting go (and yes, fellow anxietuers,* this is a fear mechanism!), and trusting in what our awesome imaginations can do for us.
3. Just Show Up
This is the butt-in-chair method. Of all the steps on this page, it’s the only one that is guaranteed to work 100% of the time. The muse isn’t watching us step into the shower, or lazily drift into REM sleep at night so they can say, “Now! Here’s your nugget of genius! Catch it quick!”
Quite the opposite. Inspiration is going to strike when we're already hard at work. Blocked? Free-write. Take the Steven Pressfield ass-chair approach. Try doing it at the same time every day. Try doing it for a journal entry. Try doing it for a writing partner. Butt, however we do it, we must just show up.
4. Start Anywhere
Order is for courts and lines. It doesn’t need to be for creative work. Our brains don’t think in a linear fashion, so who says we need to write that way? Did we finish chapter 4 and are dreading the start of chapter 5? Don’t do it! Not yet, anyway. Write whatever our hearts desire. Write our whole story in floating bits and pieces and then coax, sew, weld, or wrestle them all together. Could piece A work with piece E? Could we move this piece over here to fit with this little bit of magic? Why yes, yes, and…
5. Be Average
Remove the pressure from ourselves to be the next Pulitzer winner each time we sit to bleed at our keyboards. In fact, don’t bleed on anything. Finger cuts hurt and laptops are expensive these days. Sometimes, living in the world of the mundane, the obvious, or the normal can lead to some pretty interesting observations.
When we’re told, “write what you know,” it doesn’t mean that each of our novels needs to be about hitting snooze, drinking thrice-microwaved coffee, complaining about our real jobs, squeezing in words, and picking through take-out dinners in front of a television.** But, we all know what it means to sit quietly with our thoughts. We all know what it means to feel the creep in our stomachs when we sense fear, or the hint of anticipation that comes with watching an orange dawn break over a crisp morning horizon. Not everything is a sweeping fantasy with high stakes.
Improv tells us that expecting “average” takes the pressure off of our brains to be great. It takes us out of the intimidating danger zone of “blocked” and opens us up to: saying yes, being unprepared, showing up, and starting anywhere. See what’s happening here? (Wink emoji.)
6. Pay Attention
Being observant to the world around us is an extremely important asset of both a writer and the improv artist. Employ the senses in writing. Can we taste what we just wrote? Can we smell and hear it? When something strikes us as funny, was it in the words? The delivery? The situational context? In a small moment, what made that thing intense? Was it the way he brushed an errant hair from her cheek? Or, was how her lips grazed his and pulled away before the actual kiss? Was there a reason a dog in the distance kept barking? The little details pull the reader in and make it real. We know these fine pieces - we’re surrounded by them all the time. We need to make sure we’re keen to them and insert them into our writing.
There’s more to improvisational artistry than what’s listed here, but I think this is a good start. The first improv class I ever took was with professional academic colleagues of mine, and we were learning the lesson, “yes, and.” One colleague began the exercise with a noun, and pointed to the next person, who had to blurt out the first thing that came to mind, and so on. No stopping, no thinking, no self-censoring. It was my professional academic colleagues and me, opening our brains to possibility.
It went something like this:
Colleague one: “Ruler!”
Colleague two: “12 inches!”
Colleague three: “That’s huge!”
Me: “That’s what she said!”
My brain: “Oh sh**.”
As for whether my job was safe the next day?
I just showed up.
*When actual words won’t do
**Apologies for that glimpse into my existential dread, I mean, life