Writing Anxiety and The Wisdom of Improvisation
This essay should’ve been written and finished weeks ago. And it might’ve been had it not been for a recurring problem I have with writing anxiety. By this, I mean the fear that my writing is not good enough, my ideas are not original enough, and no one will read—much less like—what I write. Anxiety often gets in the way of my writing goals. It has the effect of making me far less productive than I’d like to be. I have a shameful number of unfinished or barely started pieces, and as much as I’d like to chalk this up to a busy schedule, the truth is anxiety plays the biggest part in slowing me down.
I know many authors have some fear when it comes to writing. But most writers work through it, and slowly I’ve been learning how to manage my anxiety as well. It helps to seek out what other writers say about their own periods of writer’s block and fears about writing. Knowing I’m not alone in this relieves some of the pressure to always be perfect and productive no matter the actual difficulties of writing. It also helps me to look at my anxiety as a kind of performance anxiety, like stage fright, and cope with it the way an actress might. I took acting classes at The Second City, the improvisational theater and training center in Chicago, at a time when I was especially frustrated with my writing, and I thought focusing on another creative pursuit might help me, which it did. Studying acting and learning improv exercises made me less judgmental about my creative efforts. I also found a correlation between famous pieces of writing advice and improv principles.
The fundamental quality of improv is that it’s unscripted and unrehearsed, relying instead on spur-of-the-moment ideas or audience suggestions, which means it causes anxiety in performers who fear facing an audience without a practiced performance to prop them up. To help keep improv actors relaxed and open to spontaneity, The Second City developed exercises to build trust between actors and confidence in individual performers, even on a stage without props and costumes. I was recently reminded of what I learned in my classes when reading Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton, a couple of business professionals employed by The Second City. The book is marketed at more of a corporate crowd, but its advice comes straight from principles developed by The Second City’s founders and other improv pioneers.
So what are some of these improv exercises and how do they equate to writing advice? One exercise is called One-Word Story and can be summed up with the phrase “Bring a brick, not a cathedral.” The exercise requires a group of people to form a circle and tell a story together, with each person allowed to add only one word until the circle comes around to her turn again. If the exercise is to work well, each person should add only the most suitable word the story needs to keep going, even if that word is only a simple “a” or “and.” But if a person overthinks it and adds more (or more obscure) words than are needed, the story gets derailed. By hogging words or trying to impress with vocabulary, a group member not only derails the story but puts herself at the center of the exercise, rather than the story itself. The person is bringing a cathedral to the moment when only a brick, or a word, is needed. Anxiety is as much of a culprit here as ego. In the end, energy is wasted on self-serving plotting rather than straightforward storytelling.