Word Play! Jodi Egerton on Improvisation games and the power of surprise.

Now and again, I find myself in a rut. I recognize it in my prose, where I write long sentences with semi-colons and similar syntactical patterns on either side. I recognize it in my poetry, where I realize that the pacing of one poem basically overlaps with the one I wrote the previous week, and I could substitute lines and barely recognize the change.

When ruts hit, I turn to improv.

Jodi with her kids. Photo by Jote Khalsa.

Jodi with her kids, having a yes moment. Photo by Jote Khalsa.

I’ve been performing improv since I was a teenager, but it became an essential part of my daily life while I was in the thick of graduate school. I’d plod away at my dissertation in the daytime, then perform on stages around Austin, Texas in the evenings. It took me longer than I’d care to admit to realize that the principles I so passionately espoused about the power of improv were also pretty ideal tools to revitalize my academic writing.

The number one rule of improv is to say “Yes.” The truth is, it’s usually vastly easier to say no. Toddlers find their strength in “No!” Teenagers find a different strength in “No.” “No” seems powerful, but eventually “No” leads to stagnation, to stasis. It’s safe, and nothing will change. But…nothing will change. Say “yes”—on stage, in your life, in your writing—and you’ll find yourself being surprised, taking risks, and having adventures.

Safe is fine. Risky is fun. And scary. And powerful. And surprising.

When we say yes to taking risks, we let our guard down. We let in ideas, thoughts, words, and stories that challenge us, that could be scary, that go beyond what we believe we “should” do or think or say.

Doing risky creative work involves talking to strangers, climbing on ledges, and challenging the authoritative voices of teachers and doctors and judges.

When you’re performing improv, you can’t decide on your own where the scene will go. You might think you’re holding a baseball bat in your hand when you walk on stage, but if your partner sees you and says “That squid needs to be underwater, STAT!” you have two choices:

You can say “No, this isn’t a squid, it’s a baseball bat!” And suddenly the momentum is shot, the reality of the scene is confused, and no one in the audience knows who to trust.

Or you can say yes to what’s offered to you, reimagine the baseball bat as a squid, and propel the scene forward: “I brought along two scuba suits, although be careful, because one of the tanks was leaky last week…” Suddenly you’ve got characters, a narrative, a goal, and even an obstacle.

When I teach writing workshops, I share tools and exercises inspired by improvisation games that force writers to surprise themselves. Most of my exercises work like an obstacle course, adding barriers, boundaries, and rules that force the writer to scramble, tumble, and reroute. There’s a freedom to writing with restrictions—you can’t think ahead, can’t plan where it’s going. You can’t really map it out. All you can do is say yes, and follow where it goes next.

When you find yourself in a rut, when you’re stuck on those same words, same phrases, same patterns…try putting arbitrary restrictions in place. Build yourself an obstacle course.

Try taking on a formal poem structure—haiku, blank verse, the sestina if you’re feeling really up for a challenge.

Or craft a prompt for yourself (or, better yet, for a fellow writer) that seems at the outset simply absurd: Write a poem where you begin with a chicken, end with a spaceship, and include the phrases “bear claw” and “yogurt breath” in the middle. Enjoy the process of writing within the parameters.

Here’s one writing exercise inspired by an improv game that I teach in my Word Play! Workshop, known in the improv world as “Blind Line.”

If we were on stage, we’d have the performers leave the room, and a host would solicit lines from the audience—lines of dialogue from movies, song lyrics, instructions you find on medicine bottles, pickup lines. The host writes each line down on a small slip of paper, and then folds these up and sprinkles them on the stage.

When the performers come back inside, they begin to act out a scene. Every few lines or so, one of them will reach down, pick up a slip of paper, and read the line aloud as if it’s exactly what she meant to say. She’ll then go further and justify that line, letting it guide the next moments in the scene. Here’s an example:

Jane: I will rule forever now that I have the golden sword of destiny!

Rob: The sword is yours! And now…you must slay the dragon that threatens our kingdom.

Jane (reading): “Do not take on an empty stomach”…for the dragon must be slain only with a full belly! Otherwise his firepower will overwhelm us and we shall all be roasted. Let us go and make a feast to tempt the dragon!

The line is incorporated into the dialogue, and it drives the movement of the scene. It’s funny, but it’s also powerful. The performers cannot decide in advance where they want the scene to go, because they’re at the mercy of the lines at their feet. It’s risky, and it’s fun, and it ends up often going in incredibly surprising directions, ones that none of the performers could possibly have imagined.

To use this as a solo poetry writing exercise, set yourself a three-minute timer. Begin to write, and when the timer sounds, finish the line you’re writing.

Then give yourself a line or phrase. You could open a book nearby and use the first phrase you spot. Or you could use a poster on the wall, a lyric from a song that’s playing, a friend’s Facebook status that you totally weren’t actually checking anyway.

Write that down as your next line, and then see what comes next. Sometimes those lines end up being just perfect. You’re writing about leaving to go off to college, and then you get the line “I’ll be back!” But sometimes it seems so random, such a non-sequitur, that you’re inclined to just brush past it, continue on where you were headed, and regard the line as just a quick deviation from the overall path.

Don’t let yourself do that—choose to shift the poem so that the line becomes part of it. Choose to break away from your plan, from where you want to go next, and follow the line. Allow yourself to write into a space that’s unfamiliar, not your style—surprise yourself.

Writing from a place of surprise will bring you deeper, will bring you farther, and will have you writing things that you didn’t know you had inside. Getting beyond what you plan to write can be amazingly powerful and freeing and inspiring.

Take the risk. Say yes.

Jodi Egerton offers workshops, editing, writing, and mentoring services as Write Good Consulting. Jodi has her Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin. During her years at UT and as an Assistant Professor of English Writing and Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University, Jodi taught classes focusing on writing strategies for small businesses, social media writing, magazine writing, and analyzing comedy. Jodi also works as a performer, and can be found on stages around Austin, Texas performing improv comedy and emceeing fundraisers for schools and non-profit organizations.