Last week, I wrote about how writing makes you a better improviser. But as a professional writer, I definitely attribute some of my proficiency to improv. The street really does go both ways.
And why wouldn’t you want to be a better writer? Every other comedic medium – sketch, stand up, producing as show, promoting a show etc – requires writing. And if comedy isn’t your thing, writing is still a vital skill – from explaining your creative passion to simply sending a text message or email.
So, now that you want to be a better writer, why not take an improv class? Here are three lessons from improv that help me write every day.
LESSON 1: CONFIDENTLY FACE THE BLANK PAGE
The thrill of improv comes from two actors walking on to a blank stage with little or no idea of what’s about to happen. They attempt to enter a flow state where comedy seems to magically arise from following the fun and living in the moment.
In writing, the only difference is that your stage with two chairs is exchanged for a word doc and a keyboard. And, of course, there’s no scene partner.
When we perform improv, the blank stage isn’t scary. It’s brimming with possibility. We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what we’re going to say or how we’re going to say it or if it’s perfect. We just get out there, make it up, do our best, and see what happens.
But when we stare down the blank page, we start to overthink it. We worry about writing the perfect words or having a fully baked idea instead of simply starting with a simple premise and discovering “the thing” as we write.
The beauty of writing is that you can have as many drafts as you’d like. So when you have an idea, just start writing, even if you think it sucks or it’s not all there. You’ll often surprise yourself with what magically shows up on the blank page.
LESSONS 2: IT’S ALL ABOUT PERSPECTIVE
The fun of improv is getting to explore new perspectives – a left-wing cowboy, a disappointed astronaut, or even a regular person with a different worldview.
When writing, you’re often challenged to see the world from someone else’s perspective as well. In advertising, I may have to be a stay at home mom, a retired yacht owner, or an expert in printer management. And that’s all in a single day. In sketch or stand up, writing strong characters and delivering commentary from another point of view comes with the territory.
Improv forces you to see the world from someone else’s’ eyes, to become someone unlike yourself. In your writing, you can use those same skills honed from shows and practices to become another character on the page, someone with experiences and a point of view wildly different from your own.
LESSON 3: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
It’s that old adage your English teacher harped on in middle school. It was kind of a bummer in sixth grade because you really wanted to write about space pirates, but since you don’t know space pirates, you had to write about your lame summer vacation instead.
But people write great books about space pirates all the time (I think) and they obviously haven’t left Earth’s atmosphere. How do they do it?
They tackle the topic from a place of emotional honesty.
Improvisers are taught to play scenes, no matter how absurd, from a place of emotion, feeling, and experience. The laughter is often created from the real relationship between two space pirates. Not the fact that they are space pirates.
In improv and writing, it’s the honesty and integrity that connects with the audience and brings your work to life. It’s what separates crappy sci-fi from award-winning masterpieces. It’s what makes people smile, laugh, or cry – because they’ve had those same feelings before and it’s nice to know we’re not alone.
Writing (like improv) is hard, but too many would-be writers often fail before they start. It’s easy to succumb to fear – this idea isn’t good enough, I am not good enough, I should think through this more, I should just watch Netflix instead. When you’re sitting at home alone with your laptop and your judgmental cat, you can create 1000 excuses.
But when improvisers step on stage and the lights come up, if they let fear win and choose to not create – to give themselves more time to think or watch TV or judge their ideas – the audience is going to start asking for their money back.
If you’re an aspiring writer or even the real deal already, try taking an improv class or applying those lessons you’ve learned to your writing. The key is to just start creating. Odds are, you’ll surprise yourself with what magically shows up when you put pen to paper.