First, a suggestion: If you are a hopeful writer in high school or college, the absolute best advice I can give you is…
Second, an explanation: Me and my friends get together and discuss our current projects semi-regularly. Because I live in Portland, most of these friends are musicians. We got to talking recently about the concept of “flow” and what it takes to improvise musically. It means practicing your technical skills repeatedly and then turning your brain off.
Here’s an article what happens to your brain while free-styling rap, the cut of the jib of which is:
The areas implicated in processes like organization and drive were marked by an increase in activity, while those parts responsible for close self-monitoring and editing were deactivated.
I think it boils down to trusting that one knows their technical skills are there and by tapping into one’s subconscious, that it will automatically organize itself into a song. It’s like having a dream right? The majority of us are not film directors and yet we build sets, costumes, create characters and write dialogue all while our brain is supposedly “off.”
The famous quote of comedic genius Del P. Close is “follow the fear.” Fear is the mind killer and, in art, that might actually be a good thing. It’s a way to shut out the ego and trust your own instincts.
I want to bring this discussion to a classic argument shared by writers: “To outline or wing it?” Nearly every reading I’ve gone to, this question is asked and the answer is always the same– “it’s up for debate, but I personally need to outline my own books, so I don’t lose track of yada yada yada…” But what about the other side, the “wingers”, that don’t plan ahead? Another quote to the rescue:
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Thanks, E.L. Doctorow. And I agree with him. Well, how about that I agree with both? If you’ll indulge me about my own writing process, I make a loose, looooose, outline that’s almost never more than 1-2 sentences denoting what needs to happen per scene. If I have a complicated web of relationships (such as in Muddy Sunset) I’ll spend some time figuring that out ahead of time in a notebook and set it aside. As far as the actual writing goes, I take those 1-2 sentences and then I improvise.
Authors often say that this causes the problems of 1. Creating more work later (true) and 2. is messy and inconsistent (not always true) because 3. Without a plan, you are lost (often true, but not always a bad thing).
To which I want to ask the following question: If I know I’m driving to the beach and have three hours to do so, does it really matter what road I take? Recall any family vacation and I almost guarantee you that the thing you remember most is where you stopped along the way, not the actual mind-numbing highway through Kansas (sorry, Kansas). Or you remember changing a tire, or waiting for the tow-truck, needing the bathroom 75 miles away from the nearest gas station– you remember everything that hadn’t been planned or accounted for. Not having everything in place ahead of time allows for spontaneity. I try to maintain a rule that I need to surprise myself at least one time per scene. If I, the author, am surprised, there’s a fantastic chance that the reader will be surprised as well.
Another quote, this one by Raymond Chandler, a personal hero of mine:
“The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”
This too speaks of tapping into that fugue state, and following the subconscious instinct in storytelling. It’s about trusting what lies beneath the topsoil of your brain, that’s there’s something special under there and it’s up to you as the writer to uncover it and show it around. Maybe your tools haven’t been sharpened (it’s a lifelong game, and no one ever reaches 100% perfection) and if that’s the case and you don’t trust yourself yet (or perhaps too much) there are many viable spaces online to practice and get feedback.
So back to the beginning. Hopeful writers still in school: take drama. Participating in theater during high school helped me nearly as much as taking creative writing and standard English courses. Theater taught me…
- To improvise.
- To embrace the fear of performance.
- To step inside a character’s psychology, physicality.
- To shut my own brain off and go with “The Flow.”
These are the lessons that don’t get covered in English courses (“But what does it mean?“) or creative writing courses (“What does Raymond Carver teach us about Craft?”).
If you aren’t in school and find yourself stuck with writer’s block, perhaps try to engage the subconscious mind and participate in other disciplines: music, theater, drawing.
You might be surprised what your brain has in store for you and your story.
You can celebrate my first post by reading my first book, The Fish Fox Boys Part One. It’s about a trio of siblings bumbling around in the wasteland and you can purchase a paperback or kindle version of it here
3 thoughts on “Writing as Improv”
Great advice! I took playwriting in college and in the third semester of it we had to stage and act in each other’s plays. I was terrified, but it was worth it! I always aim for flow when writing, but am not always succesful. Thanks again!
That sounds like a terrifying but worthwhile exercise. Also, it’s good to remember that “successful” is a spectrum. Acknowledging that something isn’t flowing sounds like successful writing troubleshooting to me!
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It was definitely terrifying! Luckily we started each class with ice-breakers and improv, that basically made everyone look foolish upfront, so we were less worried about when work shopping.
That’s true too…being aware is a good step in the right direction.
Thanks again…a great post!
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