(Or, what improv comedy taught me about writing)
I’m improvising this post. Yup, I have no idea what this post will be about. I just showed up to a blank page and started writing. Here’s the thing:
I don’t know what to write about.
So let’s make this post about that:
What do you do when you don’t know what to write about?
To channel Sully Sullenberger flying that plane onto the Hudson: Hang on folks, I’m gonna try somethin…
The Big Lesson: Say What’s Literally Happening
Let me save you 2 years and thousands of dollars on improv classes for this first lesson: When drawing a blank, say what’s literally on your mind.
One time during improv practice, I met my scene partner on stage. We were supposed to begin a new, completely improvised scene, except… Me: Silence. Them: Silence. Five seconds later, I flashed a panicked look at our teacher.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“Tell her that,” our teacher said.
“Tell her… what?” I asked back.
“Tell her what you literally just told me.”
So we re-set. I meet my scene partner on stage and…
“I don’t know what to say,” I blurt out, looking nervously towards the floor.
“You just squashed a turtle!” she shouted, pointing to the imaginary turtle she’d made up on the floor.
Her reply worked like Drano to unclog my brain.
We went on to build a silly scene around me having such heavy feet that I unwittingly kill animals and destroy property with every innocent step I take.
Comedy gold? Meh. But I never would’ve thought that “I don’t know what to say” would lead us to a police investigation around a mysterious heavy-footed criminal wreaking havoc all over the town’s wildlife. At least that’s something.
Cut to another “blank” moment during another rehearsal. Someone directed a line at me and I was caught off guard. I turned to my teacher panicked. (Notice a theme of panic here.)
“I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing,” I said. And like last time, he told me to repeat that in the scene itself.
“I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing,” I said, for real this time.
“You’re Abraham Lincoln, Honest Abe, whatever you say, I’m sure you know what you’re talking about,” my scene partner responded.
It turned into a scene about Abraham Lincoln giving terrible advice to people. And it all started from saying what I was literally feeling in that moment.
(Funny random idea: An advice column from a really unwise owl. Like, the one unwise owl in the forest who gives the shittiest advice. “Yes, get back together with your ex for the fifth time, take whatever you can get!” Ha, see how this improv and “writing” thing works!)
If you’re predicting another example of me freaking out to my improv teacher, ding ding ding, you’re right!
And just as you might expect, he got me sharing what was literally happening in that moment: “What are you noticing around you, right now, literally?”
I noticed the stage lights were really bright. “So say that,” he said.
“That light is really bright and it’s hurting my eyes,” I said to my scene partner.
“I am God I shall not dim myself for you mortals,” my partner bellowed in a deep God-like voice. Yes. Now we’re talking.
It turned into a scene about how God’s sheer power was a little too much for us earthlings to handle. I believe the words, “Could you tone it down, God?” and “You’re at a 12 right now, we need you at like a 7.” were mentioned.
It all came from saying what I’m literally noticing, then building off of that.
Give yourself something to react to
You can be your own “scene partner” to help generate ideas.
First step: Get something, anything, onto paper.
You need something to react to. Even if it’s scraps or nuggets of ideas.
Contrary to belief, creative people need boundaries and guardrails.
Showing up to a blank canvas can be liberating. More often, I find it paralyzing.
With a blank canvas, you have an infinite number of decisions. So when you put something down to paper, you end up MAKING A DECISION by default. Even if it’s the wrong one. Even if you read it back and are like, “Eh, I don’t like where this is going.” Even if it’s jibberish.
As Teddy Roosevelt said, “The worst decision is no decision.”
Which is why you need to put something, anything, down. Then give that to yourself to react to and, hopefully, build upon.
At least you’ve made a decision. At least you’re starting.
When you don’t know what to write about, just write.
It’s daunting. And yes, it’s as uncomfortable as telling a room full of people in an improv theater that you don’t know what to say.
But open up that page and say what’s literally happening. What you’re noticing. What you’re curious about. What you think is an interesting observation. The steam coming off of your tea. Anything.
Then use that as a jumping off point. The first “line” in the improv scene of your writing.
I think we try really hard to scout some original idea. Sometimes, the answer is right in front of us, in what we’re experiencing right here and now.
Ready? Annnnd. Go.