How to cure your writer's block with improv
Improve your writing with improv (no joke)
Author: Chris Gillespie @ Find A Way Media
“You come off as sort of wooden,” said my sales instructor Kerry. It was a painfully accurate observation. My face reddened, and standing in front of my class, I was paralyzed with stage fright.
The year was 2012 and I was part of AT&T's young leadership development class, a program designed to put recent college graduates into suits and transform them into enterprise sales professionals. Unsure about my future, I had more or less lied my way into the class and now I was floundering.
What made it so difficult? It wasn’t from a lack of effort. I devoted nights and weekends to memorizing materials, scripts, and sales psychology. Yet when it came time to perform, I froze. I had so much swirling around in my brain that I couldn’t get it out clearly—I had the speaker’s version of writer's block.
The problem, as I now understand it, was that I was so wrapped up in obeying all the rules that I forgot to be human. I forgot to relax and just be me. Sales is all about the relationships, after all, and so is writing. Your readers are looking for someone to connect with, and if you’re caught up in abiding by grammar and getting it right the first time, they don’t get to know you. What you do produce will at best, be sent back or at worst, be ignored.
Luckily, I found a solution that freed me from my caged condition.
I started practicing improv.
Learning to let it go
For those not familiar, improv is a form of comedy that relies on improvisation (hence the name). It’s the basis for popular shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and it’s how actors like Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, and Will Ferrell got their start. Improv actors forgo a script and instead act out scenes prompted by the audience.
If you practice it, you'll learn to say practically anything to anyone. That’s because during improv scenes, your brain shifts into overdrive trying to keep up. You inner critic, that voice saying, “that’s not funny” or “nobody will understand that” gets trampled and your subconscious springs forth. You say things straight from the heart and once unleashed, that pure, unfiltered honesty roars through the crowd as a wave of laughter.
I often left these classes feeling like I had attended therapy. It was liberating, addictive, and the ultimate antidote to getting out of my own way. And now as a writer, it’s my cure to writer’s block.
Here are the secrets that I learned.
The 3 improv principles that can cure your writer’s block:
1. Always say, "Yes and"
If you reply to everything you hear with “Yes and …” you’ll learn to turn every thought into something of deep value. On stage, that could be when someone offers you keys to an invisible Harley hotrod, and in writing, that could be when an idea interrupts your train of thought. Never say no. Accept it and ride away with it and you’ll pepper your work with exciting details.
For example, when writing a formal white paper for a client, if my thoughts go astray, I allow it. If I muse about the Spanish Inquisition, I say, “Yes and … that’s exactly what malware does to your IT stack.” If a Katy Perry song pops into my head I say, “Yes, and … doing a brand audit is like wearing Dai—sy Dukes, bikinis on—top.” And if I can’t think of what to write, I write about being unable to write. Anything that bubbles up gets woven in. I belch out dramatic dictums, draw cartoons, delight in my spontaneity, and upon serious revision, the result is always a more exciting and authentic read. I’ve tapped into a flow state. “Yes and” is about learning to let your filter go.
Now, what happens if you say no instead? The fun dies and you lose momentum. If a partner in an improv scene tosses you an imaginary salmon and shouts, “Get away, bear!” and you say, “I thought we were cowboys and Indians!,” that’s it. The scene is dead. The awkwardness becomes palpable. That’s writer’s block. When you shoot down ideas like that, you’re killing your own buzz.
As a writer, if you want to reach your flow state more often, you need only practice always saying “Yes and.”
2. Don’t be funny, be honest
To connect with your audience, you must be yourself. In both writing and improv, the urge to be clever can be overwhelming, but don’t do it. You have to drop your standup routine and just react however your character is supposed to react in that situation. For example, if your partner turns into a possessed doll with a knife, don’t try to make a pun about their height. Nobody will laugh. Instead, freak out every bit as much as you would if that really happened. Audiences find their comedy in truth, not the other way around.
If you’re able to do this, you’ll develop the miraculous ability to put yourself in someone else’s head. You’ll learn to live through many different characters at every improv session, and that’ll translate into much better storytelling when you’re writing. All stories are about people, after all, even if you’re writing what is typically considered boring work like B2B content (I beg to differ, but that’s neither here nor there). All writing should be about how something affects your characters.
Take, for example, this story about A/B testing emails. It’s really about how it helped the author find love. Or this story about an automated tea factory. It’s really about how its hippie founders imbued it with personality.
You get my point. Practice being honest, not funny or clever, and your audience will find what they’re looking for.
3. Just commit
Commitment was the watershed lesson for me in my sales career. Within just a few weeks of practice, I found myself standing in front of the sales training class laughing at me laughing at the audience who was laughing at me laughing at myself. I was in stitches and didn’t care. I was letting out the stage fright in the most honest way I knew how, and it went over well. I felt a sense of serene calm: I had learned to commit.
In improv, this commitment is everything. Audiences can sense a phony and if an improv partner tells you that you’re a hunchback and beseeches you to join them in saving the princess and you just walk casually behind them, you kill the magic. The audience can sense your feelings of embarrassment about your character and their bubbles of belief burst. It’s suddenly awkward again. What you have to realize in this situation is that you’re not supposed to be playing a hunchback, you are the hunchback. The hunchback is you. Commit. Hunch, run on all fours, scrunch up your face, slur your speech, and live it. If you do terribly but you do it with gusto, even better. That’s real comedy. When audiences laugh, they aren’t laughing at you, they’re laughing at the character you’ve become. They’re reveling in your comfort with yourself.
In writing, if it weirds you out, if it makes you uneasy, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up, then you’re about to strike gold: write about whatever that is. Fully pledge your thoughts and emotions to paper and don’t shy away when it becomes emotionally difficult. Get there. Commit.
Do all of this, and you’ll start to sense a change in yourself. I certainly did. You’ll lose your fear of being seen for who you are and it’ll wash away any societal filters that you’ve built up to protect yourself. You’ll become more vulnerable, and you’ll find that your writer’s block will fade into a dim memory, just like my stage fright.
Hopefully this article was helpful. I highly encourage looking up improv classes (write me if you’d like recommendations) and do yourself a favor and watch “Don’t Think Twice” (no affiliation).