Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Improvisation in Life and Writing

Improv WisdomLast weekend I was heading to Anderson, SC, to visit my parents and have a radio interview with a local radio personality there. He’d told me just to contact him whenever I planned a trip to see my folks and he’d tape an interview.

My daughter was sick all last week with a fever, so I emailed him at the last minute, “Sorry for the last-minute email, but I’m going to be in Anderson this weekend. Would you like to schedule an interview?”

He emailed me back, and asked me to call him at a particular number—different from the one I had on file for him.

“Could you come to the hospital for our interview?” he asked. “I’ve been here for a week now and I don’t have next week’s show booked—actually, your visit is working out perfectly.”

“Can you even do an interview at the hospital?” I asked. I was feeling a little uncertain about the whole thing.

“Sure I can. I’ve already done one this week for the show that’s running tomorrow. If you don’t mind, it would work out great for me.”

So we did. The interview went great—we just passed the microphone back and forth between each other. I’ve never actually done a face to face radio interview before and I was pleased at how well it went. Usually when I do a radio interview, I’m on the phone and not even in the same state as the interviewer.

In some ways, the in-person radio interview was easier than the phone interviews I’ve usually done. On the phone, I’m always listening hard for any clues that I need to shush up and move on to the next subject. When you’re face to face with your radio interviewer, you get visual clues to wrap up a particular train of thought. (Hurry up motions).

At one point in the interview, I was asked about how I’d ended up writing for both Midnight Ink and Penguin Berkley. I started talking about slush piles and the interviewer held up his hands and mouthed, “Tell them what a slush pile is!” That’s something that wouldn’t have happened in a phone-in radio interview—it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I was using jargon. So I quickly interjected an explanation.

The interview wrapped up well and afterward the interviewer told me to let him know when I was back in town for a signing and he’d get some local TV coverage for it. I might have gulped a little, but told him that sounded great.

I’m not really a great spur-of-the-moment, go-with-the-flow type of person. I like to organize and plan and apply my Type A self to the process. I like everything to be very orderly.

But I’m learning to go with the flow. One thing that’s helping me is a book I downloaded on my Kindle last week. In fact, it was the book that helped me tell the interviewer we’d go ahead with the interview instead of rescheduling it for another time.

While I was reading blogs last week, I came across a post on Tribal Writer that mentioned the book Improv Wisdom by Stanford professor Patricia Ryan Madson.

The Tribal Writer post mentioned the book as a way to combat procrastination. I don’t need help with that, but I do think I need help with being a little more flexible. Madson recommends that we say “yes” more often in life and see what happens.

From the Publishers Weekly review:

If you improvise, she says, you "will make more mistakes" but you'll also "laugh more often, and have some adventures." Here she offers 13 maxims to guide the fledgling improviser. "Say yes" … it will open up new worlds. "Don't prepare": in focusing on the future, you might miss the present. "Start anywhere": take any entry into a problem, and once you get inside you'll have a better perspective.

I think that I’ve got a very cautious voice inside me that wants to say “no” until I have a chance to absorb what I’m facing. I’ve noticed that I’m a lot more flexible when it comes to my writing—and it always works out really well. When I let characters propel my story in surprising ways, I’m usually pleased with the results.

And I’m discovering that I’m also making new discoveries whenever I step outside my comfort zone with life, too. That might be stretching myself with promo (book tour, interviews, etc.) but it might be just growing as a writer by saying yes to a variety of new experiences and people.

I liked this approach for a variety of stumbling blocks—whether it’s procrastination or uncertainty about how to approach a difficult scene…or being more outgoing with marketing. Saying yes, focusing on the present, and jumping in to tackle our obstacles sounds like a good way to move forward. And we might end up with more opportunities along the way—opportunities to network and find inspiration with people and situations that we come across.

How often do you step outside your comfort zone? Are you more flexible in your life and writing, or a little more cautious?