Writing and Improv: It’s All Stories

I am a storyteller.  I write.  I improvise.  I play role playing games.  Format is irrelevant as long as I am actively and regularly telling stories.  I wrote all through middle and high school, but my schedule didn’t allow time for writing in college.  More accurately, I didn’t find the time.  Every second seemed to be filled by things that were “more important”, like “getting a degree”.  So, I looked for an activity in which I could still tell stories, but was more structured, had regular meetings and had people counting on me to show up on time.  While looking for structure and order, I found live performance improvised comedy, something that was way outside my comfort zone.

I was dragged to my first improv workshop.  It wasn’t love at first sight, but I had a definite vague fondness.  I had always liked Whose Line is it Anyways and the troupe members seemed fun to spend time with, but it took me a while to warm up to stage performance.  Mostly it was because I sucked and I don’t like sucking at things.  However, as I learned the skills of an improv player, I found myself happier and more energetic.  It took me a while to realize why.  I was telling stories again.

When I wrote, I could plod through my work.  I could spend hours, years, working on something that really wouldn’t work.  But, when I was performing in front of a live audience, there was no tolerance for failed scenes, either it worked or we moved on without remorse.  I had to learn to create character, plot, setting and everything else very quickly.  Even better, I had to then drop it all when one of my fellow players established something they had come up with.

It was when I realized that I was transferring tools from my writing toolbox to my improv toolbox that I started not-sucking.  You see, I’ve come to realize that storytelling is storytelling, that the only things that change are the demands of the format of the day.  Each form of storytelling requires a few different, specialized tools, but in the end, the core toolset moves with you from one toolbox to another.  You can even make the specialty tools work if you experiment with them for long enough.

I have a philosophy about old writing: if I can see how bad it is, I am much better off than when I wrote it and thought it was brilliant.  My skill with the written word took a huge jump during my college years even though I didn’t spend much time with butt in seat, fingers on keyboard.  It was my time on stage, and the skills and tricks I learned there, that not only made me a better writer, but a more confident storyteller and person.


2 Responses

  1. This is one of the best lines I’ve read in a long time. “I have a philosophy about old writing: if I can see how bad it is, I am much better off than when I wrote it and thought it was brilliant.”

    Nothing feels so good as looking back at your writing from twenty years ago and seeing just how far you’ve come.

    Though I’ve never done improv, I think most writers can relate. Roleplaying, trying on character personas like a new suit, makes for much stronger characters.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      I’m glad you like that philosophy Miranda! Susan, Laura and I are actually about to engage in an editing challenge. Would you care to join us?

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