“Minerals!”: What Improv Comedy is Teaching Me about Writing

“Minerals!”: What Improv Comedy is Teaching Me about Writing

“Minerals!” My husband yelled from a group of people in the back of the room. I (lovingly) glared at him.

It was the middle of our second improv class at the Second City Training Centre in Toronto, and I was stuck “on stage” with Larry, one of our classmates. Larry and I had made it to the lightning round of a typical improv game called “categories.” In the game, the audience part of the class yells out a category (sports, hair care products, Canadian cities), and the participants on stage then take terms shouting words that fit the category. The object of the game is to move as quickly as possible and not repeat a word that’s been called before.

For the final round, our teacher requested the class come up with a more difficult category than usual. I expected my husband to set me up for success by suggesting a category in my wheelhouse–historical eras, works of classical literature, BBC period dramas, characters from The Office.

Instead, he shouted “Minerals!” with a huge, devious grin on his face.

What on earth was I supposed to do with a category like that?

When we started taking improv classses, I expected it to be fun and nerve-wracking–something we’d humbelbrag to friends about. I DIDN’T expect it to start transforming my writing practice, but it is. Slowly.

Here are two of the many things it’s taught me so far…

1. There Are No Mistakes

One of the mantras in improv is “There are no mistakes!” If you think of a better word or line or quip after the fact, you don’t back or ask for a redo. If someone forgets the rules of a game in the middle and does the opposite of what was asked, you build on it–no one corrects the person or tries to start over.

It’s not just that mistakes are okay, it’s that they don’t exist.

Honestly, as a perfectionist, this is exactly the kind of idea that annoys me. Of course mistakes exist. Is there even a point to life outside of avoiding and agonizing over mistakes?

But I’m slowly warming up to the idea. I’m learning that this whole “no mistakes” mentality forces you to work with what’s actually on the table rather than scrambling to ensure that only the most perfect items make it to the table in the first place. And in the end, the quirky stuff usually ends up being funnier and more memorable than the perfect stuff anyway.

This is an invaluable strategy to use when it comes to writing. Most of us think of creativity in terms of bringing something new to the tableendlessly striving for the perfect word, the perfect sentence, the perfect bit of research to be the cherry atop the sundae. In our constant pursuit of the new, we fail to make the most of the words, ideas, and sentences that are already there, in our minds or on the paper.

2. Keep Things Moving

Improv comedy is fast-paced–in fact much faster in training classes than in the variety you see on television, partly because courses are designed to scour the hesitation out of you.

In our first session, we played a game called “five words.” It’s a little like the categories game I described above, only each classmate goes one at a time and they are allowed to shout any five wordexcept ones that pertain to the category prompt.

It sounded so easy to me that I initially assumed our instructor was joking when she explained the rules. When my turn came, though, I was told to “name five forms of transportation.” Suddenly, the only words that would come to mind were boats, trains, cars, etc. (which were forbidden, according to the “rules,” rules being a relative term when technically There Are No Mistakes). I stammered, sifting every word in my mind through the question of “is that transportation-related?” until I realized that extra mental step was slowing me down. It was faster to just shout random things–I could worry about the whole transportation issue after the fact.

Apparently, that was the whole point of the exercise, our instructor explained later. To not hesitate. To keep up the pace. To just be in the moment without judging or analyzing what you’re about to say.

Sometimes in writing you need to just cut out the mental middleman for a while and keep the words–any words–going. Sometimes just keeping up the pace creates a whole different kind of momentum than the thrill of exceptional but slowly drafted writing. You can worry if they are on or off point later, for now just keep up the pace.

“Minerals!”

Back in the categories game, I glared at my husband for all of two seconds before remembering a) there were no mistakes and b) the goal is to learn how to not hestitate.

After I quickly cycled through iron and calcium, I noticed Larry didn’t seem to know any minerals either.

“Vitamin C!” He yelled. NOT a mineral, 7th-grade-science-class me said to myself.

“Riboflavin!” I yelled on my next turn, also not a mineral but hilarious to realize that word was swimming around in my active vocabulary. “Ferrous sulfate!” I yelled later. Who knows if that exists or not.

“Vitamin K!” Larry threw out there at one point.

It kept going like this until Larry gave up. I’d won–but more importantly in the world of improv, I’d kept things going.

“Riboflavin?” My husband raised his eyebrow when I sat down next to him after the game.

“Uh, MINERALS?!” I asked him. “What was that for?”

“I don’t know,” he laughed. “It just came to me. I wanted to see what you’d do with it.”

And if there’s one thing improv is teaching me most about writing, it’s just that: sometimes it’s okay to just see what we’ll do with something, even the most random something.

 

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