During this week of curiosity, we’ve pondered the magic of the phrase ‘what if’. There are two other phrases that have a creative curiosity to them. (I’m sure there are scores, but these are my special two).
The first is the phrase beloved of TheatreSports performers and improvisers the world over. Yes and….
It’s the response that allows performers improvising on stage – in music, comedy or dramatic improvisation – to find something new. You’ve probably seen it in action but here’s a recap on how it works. Actor One says something like, “Hello Debra, welcome to the thinnest building in the world.” Debra runs with the suggestion offered by Actor One, breathing in, squeezing her body, and adding to the suggestion – “I’m thrilled to be here. I’ve brought my pet elephant…”
Okay. I’m not claiming an improv award. But you get the idea. The creative response is “yes… and…” Not, no, I don’t like that idea. It’s a gold standard for creative play. Yes, and… makes everything possible.
And the other one is “So… but….”
So/but is simply a way of reminding yourself to notice complication and causality in storytelling. When my children were little we played so/but on long journeys (of which there were many.) Generally, it degenerated fairly rapidly into stories about bodily functions, which never stop being hilarious.
“We wanted to go to the park, so we started walking…
But it started raining, so we had to run back for an umbrella but the door was stuck so we cut down a bit of tree for an umbrella but the tree had a monkey living in it so we asked the monkey to come for a walk but the monkey started throwing poo….
I’ll spare you further examples from our family archive (which always, eventually, involved poo) but you get the idea. Those little link words give an order to your play.
The spirit of improvisation is one of playful curiosity. All of creative action is improvisation led by phrases such as ‘what if’, ‘what else?’,‘yes/and’ and ‘so/but’.
This is my invitation to you today: take around ten to fifteen scraps of paper. I like to tear up sheets of A4 paper. Somehow the act of tearing the paper lets my creative subconscious know that I am only playing.
On each scrap of paper, jot down a life or plot event. If you have a project in mind, this is a moment to brainstorm (i.e. improvise) events in the story. Don’t overthink it. You’re not locking anything in at this point. You’re not writing a scene or chapter, just a sentence or phrase: Meeting on the beach/getting drunk at the club/punching the man on the street/stealing the money/husband’s death/stowing away on the boat….
In a memoir, you will be noting down real events. So for Fury, my early list read something like: party in Sydney/bike crash/storm on boat/police/courtcase/hitch-hiking in the desert/sleeping with crocodiles….
And if you have no clear project in mind, BRILLIANT! That means you get to just dig around in that wild instinct and play. See what’s in there waiting to come out. Your list will be life or story events as they occur to you. They don’t need to connect. Just jot down ten or so momentous or significant life or story events: Being arrested/getting a tattoo of a scorpion/leaving a partner/taking a hot air balloon ride over the Nile/seeing a dead body/learning to drive…..
Use the spirit of ‘what else’ with this bit of play, with a side order of ‘yes/and’. What else might happen? What else could I imagine? The yes/and is a reminder to shush that inner voice snorting “seeing a dead body? What is this? Midsomer Murders?” I am actually reporting on the bit of inner dialogue I had as I scribbled down my little list of random events. Yes/and reminds me to simply go with the first instinct, my first offering, and run with it.
When you have your list of ten or fifteen events, it’s time to step into ‘what if’. Shuffle the bits of paper. Throw them in the air and see where they land. Or put them in a hat and shake them up. The trick is to create a random order that invites you to ask ‘what if….”
Now, take one piece of paper out of your hat. Lay it on a table or desk or floor. Now reach into the bag. Take the next piece out and lay it next to the first and so on, until you have all the story points laid out in a random order. What if that was the order of the story? What if the dead body came before the tattoo but after the arrest?
Maintain the spirit of improv and move the plot points around again. See what new connections you make. Move them again. Keep the sense of possibility, of yes/and. The final phrase so/but is the one that, later, helps you build the connections between these random events, helps you find the steps between them, helps you go deeper, immersed in your own improvisational play.
Write about a habit