In part one of this series, I shared why leveraging improvisational theatre to beat writer’s block is a smart approach. I also briefly reviewed 4 simple improv tenets:
3. Have a POV
4. Play the part
In this second and final part, we will take a deeper dive into how we can leverage these tenets to beat writer’s block. Let’s start with number 1 because, well, it’s number 1:
1. Listen. (Free associate.)
In improv, when something pops into your head, you don’t reject it… you embrace it. There’s a reason it showed up to begin with. By accepting your first instinct and adding to it, you will find yourself in unexpected places born from your own unique POV. Writers facing a block can do the same. This is called free association.
Here’s an exercise that will help you hone your ability to free associate and re-teach your brain to let go of your inner editor. This isn’t meant to be THE answer — but for forging past writer’s block, it’s a step in the right direction.
Exercise: Write down the topic of your assignment. This topic is your prompt. For example – perhaps you are writing an article on long lines at airport security. In order to get your brain in a nimble place, you can free associate on that topic. What that entails is writing down the first word (or short phrase) that comes to mind from the prompt. The next word you write down is then inspired from the word before it, and so on. Here’s how it went for me:
TOPIC: Airport security lines
Check out the weird theme that showed up. It ended with hello/goodbye… and isn’t that the experience at an airport? A series of hellos and goodbyes? What a cool way to start the piece.
Now, this exercise is only intended to get you out of your head, but it ultimately enables more focus and a fresh perspective. And it only takes a few minutes to do.
2. Agree. (Yes, and…)
This is the next step in free associating and a really great way to build a story. Keep the words flowing by listening to the words inside you – and then building on that through agreement.
Exercise: Write down a single, truthful observation. It could be about the piece you’re working on, or it can be something more random. Once you have that prompt, LISTEN to the things that pop into your head as a result of it, and use "Yes, and…" to keep the words flowing, as follows:
Statement: “Millennials like experiences.”
Yes, and they also like tiny houses.
Yes, and tiny houses are awesome, but only if you’re a hermit.
Yes, and I hear that being a hermit is fun… for about a week.
Yes, and I once caught a hermit crab at the beach, and I named him Todd.
Yes, and he really hated living in a pail in my backyard.
Ridiculous? Sure. But when you allow yourself to remove the inner editor, you break free from the block and reveal new ideas in a pleasantly unexpected way. And by the way, when you tried this exercise, did you notice that you were actually telling a story? You may have even introduced characters… like Todd. Speaking of characters, our third and equally important improvisation tenet is:
3. Have a POV. (Yes, because…)
As an improviser, If the words aren’t coming freely into your mind, then you’re stuck on stage with no dialogue. Just like the blank page and writer’s block, it’s a terrifying place to be. But by adopting a strong POV, you can leverage that emotion to bypass the block. For example, you could choose to be irate because the weather is perfect. You could choose to be giddy over tax reform. Once you decide on a specific point of view, you’ll be surprised how much more freely the words will fly.
Warmup: You’re going to be talking to yourself, so go find a mirror. Start by making a truthful observation about yourself using the phrase “You look ______ ” and filling in that blank with an emotion, e.g. happy, sad, excited, etc. You will then AGREE by saying, “Yes, because ______”, and give yourself a reason for looking that specific way. Just make it up. For example:
You look tired.
Yes, because my dog was barking all night.
You look weirded out.
Yes, because talking to myself in the mirror is AWKWARD!
Exercise: OK, now let’s apply this emotional POV to a piece of corporate communication. You’re going to write a short article for your company’s newsletter about the new addition of Summer Fridays — a company perk that allows staff to take two additional Fridays off in the summer.
Before you start writing, you need to decide on a POV about this and a reason why you’re adopting that POV. Are you happy about it? Most people would be, because that’s more time off! But what if you were annoyed about it, because managing those calendars could be a real pain? Choose a POV, then take 5 minutes and write a quick paragraph about it. You’ll see that when you have a strong POV, you can often bypass the inner editor that’s getting in your way of getting words to the page.
4. Play the part. (Walk the walk, then talk the talk.)
And so to our final tip: play the part. In improvisation, embodying a character takes you to new places. And by that I mean not only taking on emotional POVs, but physical characteristics as well.
For example, if you’re writing an article for a medical publication and your target readers are women suffering from osteoporosis, what if you tried to embody what osteoporosis feels like? It can actually change your writing and get you kickstarted in a good direction. In fact, as noted in Psychology Today:
“The communication between your body posture and your feelings also goes the other way. You can change the way you feel based on how you hold your body. You can change your brain chemistry, and the actions you take or don’t take.”
– Susan Weinschank, Ph.D
Exercise: Stand up. Pretend you’re a CEO wearing a power suit. How might you change the way you walk? Now walk around in that manner. Be aware of your posture. Does your CEO self lead with your chin? Your shoulders? What do you feel as you’re walking that way? Grab hold of the first emotion that comes to mind. Once you have it, sit down like your CEO self would sit down. Now, you are tasked with writing a subject line for an email targeting the CEO. The content of the email touches on “The Importance of Good Leadership” and offers some tips to help CEOs be better at their jobs. Write as many subject lines as you like. Once you write one that you feel your CEO self would open, you can “Yes, and…” that line to get the content of the email started. What’s your POV? Are you happy? Proud? Skeptical?
You can apply this physical tactic to any topic and with most types of content as long as you play the part and embody the prospective reader.
So there it is. I hope these improv tricks help you to forge on and write past the block!
If you’d like me to bring an on-your-feet workshop for beating writer’s block to your communications team or organization, please reach out via Twitter @MaryOlivieriECD.