Make Things Worse

 

“An actor is looking for conflict. Conflict is what creates drama… I am always surprised at how actors try to iron out the conflict that may lurk beneath the surface of the scene, flattening it out instead of heightening it… We are trained as children that the most admirable conduct is that which causes the least trouble, so most of of spend our lives avoiding the conflicts of which drama is made.”

-Michael Shurtleff, “Auditions”

 

I get knocked for this in improv ALL THE TIME. I’m a fixer. Are we lost? I have a map. Is someone sad? I have their favorite cake. Are the keys missing? I’ve got a spare set.

I rip all the drama out of the scene. In my urge to be polite and nice and kind and friendly (aka likable) I forget this truth- drama is conflict. Not always with each other, no one really wants to watch fight scene after fight scene. And arguing is too easy. But there has to be conflict somewhere. Something needs to go badly, something has to go wrong, someone has to be hurt or scared or SOMETHING. That’s not just where drama comes from, it’s also where humor comes from. More

Recap: FAILED

My quest to write 1,000,000 words in a year is over.

I’ve not updated my blog in two weeks because I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself, but today I finally faced the facts. I am too far behind.

The pace I was writing in Nov was doable, and had I done that from the start I would have easily made it. However, the first three or four months I consistently did not make weekly goals. Part of it was the fact that it didn’t feel real, part of it was the very difficult transition to writing a significant amount every day. It was a hard adjustment.

Now, however, as much as I am screaming at myself to not give up, I can’t do it. To hit my goal at this point I’d have to write about 4,800 words a day. Every day. Until mid-March. On top of a full time job, a (hopefully) part time job, class, and life. While I think that’s a reasonable word count for a professional writer it is not for me if I’m working 40-60 hours a week. Especially with no break days.

This experiment, failed as it is, has taught me so much about writing and, more specifically, myself as a writer.

  • I do better with multiple projects at once, that I can switch between.
  • My productivity is uneven. I get more words done in four days of writing with three off than I do if I write every day.
  • Journaling/morning pages are exempt from that rule, and something I need to do every day. For my mental health if no other reason.
  • I am capable of turning out large numbers of words in a day, that the hurtles are mental only. That 1,100-1,300 words in 30 minutes is a reasonable goal, and that I can do that about 4-6 times in a row before there is a noticeable slump in my speed. That there’s no point going on after that, it’s best to leave and come back in a few hours. Do another 4-6 sets then.
  • I work better out in a coffee shop or even a fast food joint than I do at home. I do NOT work well on planes/buses/etc.
  • Music is useful for focusing, but if it’s Top 40 stuff I’ll end up singing along instead of writing. Best bet is either film scores or heavy rock.
  • I write fiction best in the late morning, afternoon, or evening. Early to mid-mornings and late nights are better for non-fiction.
  • Reading before I write is hit or miss. It might inspire me, but it also might depress me with the difference in quality. Votes still out on that one. However, reading the same short piece (one by Anne Lamott) about writing before each session is grounding and puts me in the mood to write.
  • My writing style is a reflection of what drove me to embrace improv. I enjoy chasing the unknown. More experiments with plotting have left me just as frustrated as before. I want to chase the story. Maybe I have an end scene in mind, or at least a theme, but the actual events are best found in the moment.
  • I enjoy both writing and editing. I’ve found that most people claim it’s only possible to like one of them but I truly look forward to both. I love creating stories, and I love tightening what I’ve written. I do find editing to be more overwhelming and thus more difficult to work on for long lengths of time.

So the project has been very useful. I may try it again one day. Maybe. But for now it is over. I will keep posting my word counts every week, just not against where I should be. Both for the accountability and for the knowledge of the ground I am covering. I want to keep tracking my word counts, I just know they aren’t going to hit 1,000,000 this year.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me, and hopefully big things will be coming soon! I am going to be putting more time into editing my novel Raising Trouble, since I won’t feel guilty for not using that time to work on my goal. And I’m going to finish my current novel, Avon, pretty soon. Also, I’m getting back into fan fiction as a way to get some feedback and do some shorter pieces. When I get something new up I’ll put a link on here.

Lots of changes, and yet my focus is the same. Writing, acting, creating. Failing forward. Which this failure has been.

Ways I Stay Motivated

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I set a lot of goals for myself. Getting the motivation to complete said goals is not always easy. So I thought I’d share my methods in hopes that at least one of them will be useful to you.

  1. Take a class
  • This is the number one way for me to stay motivated and finish what I start. I love taking classes. I’ll take a class on almost anything as long as I’m even remotely interested, and I’ll do the homework, study, whatever. I don’t know why this is such a part of my identity but it is. And it’s not that I like sitting in classrooms, I don’t. I’m a kinastadic learner and I want to move around. In a class.
  1. Join a group
  • Similar to above. Less structure, perhaps, but still getting with other people to do something. If I have to explain was I wasn’t there, or know that everyone else is doing X without me, it puts a lot of pressure on me to show up as well. Gets me through those days where I wouldn’t do it if no one knew that I wasn’t. Going to an improv jam, a write-in, or a church small group keeps me on track with my goals.
  1. Make a chart
  • I love charts. I love making them and filling them in. Colored ones. With markers. The physical sensation of coloring in a square gives my brain a little reward rush. Then I hang the chart where I can see it all the time, which motivates me to do the work so that I can color in the next section. Electronic charts don’t work though, I want to feel it in my hand. (Jerry Seinfeld seems to think work along the same line)
  1. Write it down
  • I suppose this is a subset of above. If I write something down and look at it regularly I’m much more likely to do it.  Reading them regularly helps me to remember them, and then to actually do them.
  1. Make it part of something else
  • This one is suggested by almost every person who teaches habit forming. I use it to motivate myself to do something. Multi-tasking would be another word for this, bad rap that it’s gotten lately aside. If I have things I need to do but am lacking motivation to do I try to find a way to combine it with something I like. I try to convince myself- “You don’t want to go running? But if you do you can listen to junk music guilt free” or “Aren’t you going to finish that knitting project? You can watch Ocean’s 11 again at the same time….” Things like that. It works quite often.
  1. Remind myself about what I want
  • Credit for this brilliant idea goes to Justine Musk, here. The idea felt selfish to start with but by the time I finished her article I was sold. I try to use this on myself and the more I remember it the more I get done. What do I WANT? Really want? OK, what should I do in light of that? Maybe I don’t feel like writing, but I want to be published so I write anyway. I tell myself I don’t want to run, but in reality I just don’t feel like running.
  1. Actually want the end result
  • Of course, that supposes that what I am aiming for is what I want. I pruned my goals list earlier in the year because I picked it up, read it, and realized that I didn’t want half the crap on there. It was on there because I wanted to want it, or because it sounded good (not that anyone else ever sees the list), or because I felt like I ought to want it. It is very difficult to be motivated over the long haul when the thing you’re striving for isn’t something you actually want to reach.

Hopefully something on that list was useful. If it wasn’t at least you have a few more insights into the backwater parts of brain.

Singing like a crow

Taking a musical improv class was an interesting experience. My singing ability is non-existent in general and making the songs up on the fly didn’t help. This is not me being overly modest or critical of myself- objectively singing is not a skill or talent I possess at this stage in my life. I’m one of those people who if I went on American Idol everyone at home would go, “Why did she audition? What made her think she had any chance at all?” Yes, I could take lessons (and I’d like to) but until then I don’t see things improving.

Anyway, this one night in particular was unusually bad and I was annoyed at myself and frustrated on the way home. Then it occurred me- I am upset that I am singing badly in class. I am singing. In public.

I doubt anyone understands the amount of work I’ve done to get to this point. I’m not trying to be melodramatic here, it’s the truth. I can tell you that until a year ago I didn’t even sing when I was completely alone, I was so ashamed of my voice that I hated to hear it. Hated it.

If I sang anything out loud enough to hear I would be washed over with a sense of humiliation and would immediately stop and do something else. I have always used the automated voice mail on phones because I couldn’t bear the thought of having my voice recorded and making people listen to it. When an improv teacher wanted me to name two singers to do a duo together as part of a character building exercise (not that we were going to be them, it was just going to influence the scene) I completely panicked and he had to come back to me, I froze up even thinking about singing to the point that I couldn’t name anyone.

A few weeks later that same improv teacher made me sing in class and I wanted to cry, and he knew it, and when I panicked and said I didn’t know any songs he told me to sing Happy Birthday and kept my attention while I did it, probably so I wouldn’t run off. When someone told me singing was going to be in an audition I had signed-up for I literally slept an hour or two a night for the days leading up to it because I was so terrified at the thought that I couldn’t calm my mind down.

That carried over into other areas of my life as well. I didn’t realize until this summer that I don’t do accents and voices in improv for the same reason- I’m ashamed of my voice. To the point that we were learning an accent in class and I was so scared and tangled up and frantic that our teacher, a different one from before, finally got on stage with me and had me breath and worked through it with me one word at a time. Awkward, yes. It did help though.

There is no one defining moment in my life that made me feel this way. No dramatic scene where someone cut me down or humiliated me. I think was just a lifetime of being told I couldn’t sing and being teased when I tried, of being laughed at because my voice is deeper and lower than most women, and of a lot of that coming during a time where I had other stuff on my plate I was trying to deal with. Plus, there was a feeling like nothing I had to say mattered or made a difference. I felt very unheard in my teens and I came to despise my voice. As if that were it’s fault.

Improv did not, can not, fix this issue. It has taken a lot of prayer and effort and reading and talking it through with a friend and work and crying and frustration and sweat and nausea to get to this point. What improv did was force me to face the issue. I had to confront this or I had to quit doing improv. Status quo was unsustainable.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be able to sing (even terribly), or do an accent, or hear my voice on tape, without having to shove a tentacle of shame back into my brain’s basement. Then I catch myself being frustrated, rather than ashamed, over the quality of something I’m doing and I see hope. Shame is a powerless state but frustration, frustration leads to growth because it implies I can do better.

Frustration with myself is a hopeful sign.

Mind Blown

There is a student in the Funny Bones intro class who is extremely nervous. This person is hysterically funny but can’t see it, and is always wanting to just watch because they “can’t do it” or will “mess it up”. I was trying to encourage them to play the other night and said something like, “You can’t mess it up. No matter what happens we’ll make it work. We’ll take care of you.”

Brain explosion.

 

That is basically the exact thing every improv teacher I’ve ever had has said to me at some point.

  • Relax
  • It’s fine
  • You’re fine
  • It’ll work out
  • Your class has your back

I never believed them any more than this person believed me last night. This person sat to the side and held themselves tightly and gave me scared rabbit eyes. Which made me feel a little sad for them.

Is this the way my teachers have felt about me when I’ve been freaking out?

I have this frame of reference now where I can see all the stuff they’re worried about and I can see how it’s not actually a big deal. I know that, yeah, OK, sometimes it’s going to be rough. Maybe really rough. This will probably not be the best improv ever done. But it will be fine, and sometimes brilliant. It’s going to be OK, but they can’t see that because of being right in the middle of it and being terrified half to death.

So, like I said, mind blown. I’ve only been doing this for two years but I can see from here that the things this person, five or so weeks in, is worried about are not things to be worried about. If they would relax it would be a lot more fun for them, and it would lead to better scenes.

Hello? Anna, are you listening? How is it that I never put that together until now? I’ve never felt like it was true, it always seemed to me that when teachers or experienced players would say “You’re doing fine, it’s good” it was overly optimistic, or just plain patronizing. No, it’s not. I can clearly tell that it’s crap.

Now I’m seeing it from the other side. When I say, “You’re fine” I don’t mean the improv being done is the best it’ll ever be, or the best ever in history. It’s just, it really is fine. They’re right where they should be, and none of us are thinking they’re behind or whatever, even though they do.

As soon as I said those words I had to stop and think about it. Hit me that hard, right between my improv eyes. Perspective is amazing. I want to take this revelation with me, somehow. But I don’t know how to remember that in the moment. How can I hold onto this knowledge that right now feels so intense and useful?

Being Brave

The group I just started volunteering with, Funny Bones Improv, is holding a training class for people who want to volunteer, regardless of prior improv experience. It’s ten weeks long and folks can learn the basics of improv, the games we play, watch some of the shows, etc. and then start performing. Those of us who are already members are invited to come to the classes and participate, something I went to for the first time last night. It sounded like a great opportunity to get to know the new players, brush up on/learn games (since I’m really new and don’t know them all yet), and to just get in more improv time.

Some of the folks have acting, or even improv, experience. A few have none at all. So despite the fact I’ve only been doing this for a month, and improv for less than two years, one of them started asking me all these questions about improv and tips for games, wanting my experience. Being in this place of playing with people who see me as experienced, who are looking to me to lead the way and go first and be the brave one is such a weird feeling. I wanted to say, can’t you see I’m a fraud? I don’t know what I’m doing either.

I still feel so clumsy and slow and awkward when I’m on stage, almost all the time. If I’m with peers, or, heaven forbid, more experienced players, I tend to lock up and get nervous and feel like everything I’m doing is completely wrong. More than once I’ve gotten the note- “You didn’t speak”.

Yet, unexpectedly, last night was freeing. I was more brave. I did do more characters and space work. I did screw up more. It was really rather fun. Not that I was trying to be sloppy, I just enjoyed myself and when I messed up or got bumped out of a game it was great because now someone else got a turn.

For example- I caught myself talking in the first person some during Narrated Story last night, something I remember being told to do at ComedySportz in a similar game. I don’t think I ever did it there because I was too busy freaking out over all the things I was probably forgetting to do, worrying that I wasn’t telling the story right, and obsessing over the fact that my accent would be wrong and I’d probably change halfway through and ruin the entire thing.

Here’s a secret I learned- It’s fun. It’s goofy. And it helped the story to boot.

And as soon as I did it (in our 2nd try at the game) my classmates started doing it too. Suddenly they had permission. All night this happened. I did an accent, they did accents. I talked in the first person, they started talking in the first person. I mimed petting the lion or holding a box, they mimed holding things. It was an odd feeling. It also made me want to do more, try more, so they would too. To push my comfort zone so they would push theirs.

One night in a level one class and I have buckets of new insights into my play. I absolutely did not expect that.

Where are all the good ideas?

 

When someone says to me, “I don’t have any good ideas… I’m just not good at that,” I ask them, “Do you have any bad ideas?”

Nine times out of ten, the answer is no. Finding good ideas is surprisingly easy once you deal with the problem of finding bad ideas. All the creativity books in the world aren’t going to help you if you’re unwilling to have lousy, lame, and even dangerously bad ideas.

The resistance abhors bad ideas. It would rather have you freeze up and invent nothing than take a risk and have some portion of your output be laughable. Every creative person I know generates a slew of laughable ideas for every good one. Some people (like me) need to create two slews for every good one.

One way to become creative is to discipline yourself to generate bad ideas. The worse the better. Do it a lot and magically you’ll discover that some good ones slip through.

~Seth Godin, Linchpin

 

This applies to every creative area of my life. And yours too, I’d wager. I immediately thought of improv and of how very often I freeze on stage. I don’t know what to say, nothing in my head sounds right; I shuffle through eighteen different phrases and then I realize it’s been too long and now the pause is awkward. I will say nothing rather than risk saying the wrong thing.

But while I was typing up the paragraph I realized how many other areas of my life this applies to as well. Blogging, for one. How often do I lament that I can’t think of any good ideas for posts? (answer? Every day) Yet how often do I sit at the table and write 25 terrible ideas down, just to see if a good one slips in? Almost never.

It’s too scary. If I have a good idea then I have no reason to not write. And if I write I have to post. And if I post you can read it. And if you read it you might not like it, or might think it was a bad idea, or might criticize it, or might even laugh at me (meanly). And if you do those things I might go into a spiral of hysterics and never recover. So simply avoiding having ideas at all is a much less mentally and emotionally dangerous.

 

Are you inside-out or outside-in?

There are two basic ways of building a character with emotion in improv-

1) Inside-Out

Choose an emotion to feel as you enter the scene. Allow that emotion to influence what you do. Example- I choose angry, and let myself feel angry. That leads to walking stiffly, breathing heavy, and knocking over a chair to make a point.

2) Outside-In

Chose a posture to hold as you enter a scene. Allow that posture to influence how you feel. Example- I choose to walk stiffly and breath heavy, knocking over a chair as I enter. That leads to me to knowing that I feel angry.

Both work. I’d say that great improvisers use both, but everyone has one that works better for them. I didn’t understand the second method when I heard about it and so the only method I thought I tried was inside-out. I did outside-in exercises in a class I took but I didn’t understand that you could use that to make a character, I thought it was just to practice showing the emotion you had already decided on.

Then I took a physicality workshop in December and he talked a lot about the second method, of doing things and seeing where that leads. He then had us do an exercise I’d done several times before, leading with different parts of the body.

Eureka!

For the first time I understood the point of the exercise; as I shifted from leading with my head to my hands, or even from my eyes to my chin, I could feel the character change, and also the feeling behind that character. More though, for the first time I understood that you could use that in a scene. I didn’t have to try to feel sad, I could just look sad and do what a sad person would do. Then I’d be sad.

I am definitely an outside-in sort of person.

 

10 Greatest Things of 2011

I typically sit down and work on my goals list twice a year, using that time to review the last six months, but the review in December is always a little more in-depth. It has less to do with the January 1st craze and more to do with my birthday falling into that week between Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve found that turning a year older prompts me to consider my life more deeply and it just so happens that it occurs in conjunction with the new year.

Anyway, I’d already finished my new goals for 2012 before I read this post but I liked the questions he asked so much that I did the review anyway- they made me think. I’d recommend going through it now, especially if you didn’t take the time already to think about last year. For me, it’s not “making resolutions”, as I said, I set goals twice a year. But reviewing the previous year helps me to see what did and did not go well, and reveals if I am actually getting any closer to some of the big things I want to accomplish in life.

After doing the entire review I reread it and noticed something interesting. But we’ll come back after I show you the first question: The 10 Greatest Things That Happened To Me In 2011.

 

  1. Moved to Minnesota
  • This involved a Southern woman tackling a 1,500+ mile road trip in the snow, white-outs, a visit with good friends, and frostbite.
  1. Joined Sovereign Grace Church
  • First time I’ve been a member of a church since my teens, a scary/exciting step for me.
  1. Moved into an apartment with 2 awesome roommates
  1. Started a job at Bethany
  • Fear alert! This was/is the scariest job I’ve ever had. Also the hardest and yet most fun.
  1. Learned to knit
  • After a fashion. Things turn out, but they don’t always match the pictures.
  1. Saw my first improv show
  • It was an Improv-A-Go-Go show at HUGE, and it was not what I expected. Three of the four groups did not impress me and I likely wouldn’t have gone back if not for the fourth. So glad they were there!
  1. Learned to do the improvs
  1. Wrote a fictional story in my own voice
  • Yes! And it was fun! And I just got my first ever rejection letter when I tried to sell it! Now I feel like a real author.
  1. Payed Matt back all the money I owed him
  • It only took me 2 years…
  1. Went home for Christmas
  • And it was lovely to see my whole family in one together for the first time in a long time.

 

I was looking through that list when it struck me- I didn’t consciously put only things I actively did on there but that’s how it worked out.

The greatest things of 2011, the things I most enjoyed or that most changed my life, were all things I choose do to. None of them just happened to me; every one of the above items took effort and time, and most cost money to boot, which meant more time and effort to get said money. No one is going to hand me an awesome life. Do I receive gifts? Of course! All the time. And all of these things involved other people. But none of them would have happened if I hadn’t put effort in as well, in some cases a lot of effort (example- calluses from both knitting and writing so much).

My list of things to do this year is longer and more ambitious than last year, though tempered with the knowledge that life changes so quickly. Example? This time last year I was still living with my parents in TX, no job, no church, a ball of yarn that I couldn’t even get on the needles, and I’d never even considered going to watch an improv show. There’s no way I could have foreseen where I’d be now and some of the goals I set last year were derailed along the way.

That’s ok. I’d rather have goals and have to set them aside for more interesting things that come up than to wander aimlessly around and get very little done because I don’t know what I’m going after.

I urge y’all to go to this site and download his 2011 review, then take 30-60 minutes to fill it out. It’s well worth the time.

Baby steps to improv, Bob. Baby Steps.

I try to go to a local improv jam on Thursday nights. I can typically only go every other week due to having church small group two Thursdays a month, but I go when I can. It’s a good opportunity to practice being on stage and, perhaps more importantly, to practice failing miserably.

I haven’t been doing improv very long but I know enough to know that most of what happens at the jam is terrible. Really terrible. It’s a bunch of random people doing random things, selling each other out for a laugh and resorting to bathroom humor if a scene dying. Which is often. I have seen a few scenes that weren’t bad but they are few and far between. Anyway, getting up and being a part of that is hard, yet if I’m perfectly honest I know that if it wasn’t ok to be terrible I’d have no place there, I’m not yet good enough to play with the big kids. And as I said, it’s actually been very useful in learning to fail.

To fail and keep going takes practice. To say something stupid and then step up to talk again; to do something that doesn’t make any sense and then to do something else, knowing it probably won’t work either; to be terribly embarrassed and feel like the most awkward human being who has ever walked the earth and then step into another scene; to know before you get on the stage that you are going to beat on yourself on the way home and then get on the stage anyway- it’s great practice. Or the sign of a sick mind. I suppose you could argue that either way.

Last week I felt stupid and clumsy and unintelligent. I stammered and blanked-out and said really inane things. So, of course, I rewound all of what I did and scolded myself for it while I drove home and then I went to bed. The next day I was doing my morning pages and writing through all the stuff I’d done and how I felt about it (I’ve found that to be really helpful, once I’m away from the emotions of the moment. I look at what I did, good and bad, and I’ve started to find patterns.) when I had a revelation- I’d done stuff.

No, really. I’d done enough to have a long list of what I’d “done wrong”. The very first time I did the jam, back in the first week of November, I was so scared that I froze on stage and did not say a single word for the entire set.

Not one word.

30 minutes of standing on the backline staring at our five audience members. Yep. That wasn’t awkward at all. I remember the next time I went I forced myself to speak in one scene, but I didn’t say much. Just a line or two. This time, only two months later, I’m beating on myself for saying stupid things in every scene I did.

Hello? I said things! In scenes, plural. I stepped out in three scenes with no idea of what they would be about or what I would say. Yes, this is one of the main parts of improv but it’s a part I deeply struggle with. I’m a planner. I like plots. I like control. This is why I write, I can clean things up an polish them before anyone knows I’ve even written. So trusting the process and stepping out scares me to death.

I did it three times! Instead of beating myself up for the admittedly terrible improv I did, I need to focus on the fact that I did improv at all.

Baby steps, Bob. Baby steps.

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