The Connection Between Writing and Improv

Improv is my favourite form of comedy.

It is a style where the scenario is made up as things move along. There might be certain aspects that are planned, like the theme of the show. The details though are left to chance.

Second City is an organization dedicated to Improv. Here’s one example of a show put on by people who have gone through their program.

Improv teaches many lessons, and I plan on giving a more thorough treatment in the future, but here I want to show you the connection between improv and writing.

There is a natural connection between them that is often neglected.

Writing and Improv

Writing is like an Improv show with audience participation.

The performers may have an idea of the show's theme, but little else. They may know the show will be a murder mystery, but they don't know what the murder weapon will be.

The audience is like the subconscious mind. Periodically offering up suggestions for the performers, the conscious mind, to work with. The performers may mention they are opening up a chest and they find a bloody…

SAXOPHONE!

You wonder where the audience came up with that idea, but too late. You run with it. It pulls you in a direction you would not have thought of on your own.

That is the value of Improv though. You have no idea what will happen.

That is where the value comes from.

When we sit down to write, we have an idea of what to write about. Rarely though do we know what is going to happen.

I may go in with the idea to write about gratitude, like I did in last week's post, but I won’t know exactly what angle I’m going to take on the topic.

As I’m writing about the topic an idea may slap me across the face as I reminisce about an event I hadn’t thought of in a period of time.

That could lead me to write an article about difficult gratitude problems.

Further digging on that topic may have me writing about the lessons learned from specific difficult gratitude problems related to depression.

Further digging would bring me to new ideas that I hadn’t planned on touching at the beginning when I had only thought of the topic gratitude

Writing and the Lessons it Teaches

Writing teaches lessons in a serendipitous manner similar to how ideas spring forth while creating a private Improv show with your subconscious mind.

You won’t know what lessons you will learn until you discover them by chance, but come they will.

Here are a few I have learnt so far.

Imperfect creations still give value. Instead of seeking perfection, aim to provide value. The better you get, the more value you can deliver. But you'll always provide some value. The idea you want to share is unlikely to be original, but if the presentation is new then that can be enough to bring a new perspective to it. This can allow an idea to reach people it had not before.

Everything good is an iteration. Treat everything you’re working on as a draft. There is always room for improvement. There is always a change of wording that can bring stronger emotion to your work. There is always a refinement of an idea that will provide more value. Know that everything good is a product of an iterative process.

Respect the time of your reader. If it takes ten minutes to get an idea that could have been delivered in 30 seconds your reader may not think your material is a good use of their time. Not a good way to get a repeat customer of your ideas.

How you say something is as important as what you say. Every idea can provide value. Like an uncut gem, it's true value comes from constant refinement. 

There is always another way to say something. The previous point could have easily been described using a different metaphor: The idea behind a piece of writing is like a person. The idea is valuable independent of how it's presented, but it will get more attention if it's dressed up a bit. Each articulation of the idea in relation to what the reader knows brings a different feeling. Stay away from cliches. To deepen your reader’s understanding you first need to deepen yours.

Writing is easy leverage. As @jackbutcher might say: Write Once, Communicate Twice. Writing allows you to reach audiences with the same effort required to send an individual email. If it takes you ten minutes to write something, and you send it to ten people, then you have 10x your efforts. That multiplier has no limit.

Writing is like being a parent. You bring your creation into the world, then it gets a life of its own. It may inspire good, bad, or dangerous ideas. Raise it well, then let it do its thing. All ideas we encounter had an original intent behind them, but the intent behind the author is merely a suggestion, and not a law you must follow. You use ideas in ways you see fit. Expect others to treat your ideas with the same treatment.

Everything is inspiration for a piece of writing. Writing trains you to be aware of your surroundings. When you write a lot, you'll sometimes wonder where your next idea will come from. It will come from paying attention. Brushing your teeth, cooking dinner, and even shoveling snow can all be fertilizer for our creative tendencies.

Writing forces you to understand people. If your goal is to get people to do something, or think in new ways, you need to understand them. Your idea will be filtered through their beliefs. Your idea needs to be agreeable while also being new to give value. You need to be sneaky.

Writing will change your life philosophy. Much of what we think and believe is based on years of conditioning by our surroundings. If we don’t take the time to question what we think and believe we will continue getting what we have always gotten. Writing allows us to devote time to thinking through our thoughts on matters of importance. To really see if we believe what we think. To ask if we agreed to the influences that fashioned our view of life. Or if we would like to partake in other forms more fit for running a life that will give us the peace we cannot find on our current path.

Trust the process. You can't think of all the good ideas at the beginning. Word by word, you'll get to the end. You may have to purge a large amount of muck from your mind to get to the good stuff, but eventually you’ll find something useful.

An imperfect creation is more valuable than a perfect non-existence. Let this post be an example. There may be some things that could be phrased better, or said in a way that makes the ideas stick like krazy glue instead of the glue sticks a child may use. I could wait until I get to that point, but by then I will be on my deathbed, and my ideas will not have assaulted the retina of a reader.

What has writing taught you?

Writing reveals certain lessons more easily than others. I will likely learn more of the curriculum it has planned for me in the coming years, and I hope you do too.

For your next journaling session reflect on the lessons you have learned through your writing practice. I have little doubt you will be surprised how much you have learned.

If you enjoyed the ideas I have shared you will enjoy my weekly newsletter Seeking Perspective.