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By Sara Jade Alan
It’s 3:00 a.m., and I’ve woken up with David Bowie’s “Magic Dance” playing in my head. He and his music arrive with vivid memories of freshman year of college, when the other Labyrinth-loving members of my improv group and I would act out the song on the way to our shows.
We were weird. They said Bowie was weird. (He was. If you’re not familiar with the Labyrinth reference, check out the video below.) I just think brains are weird.
Which is one of the reasons I’ve always loved improv. I love how it forces your brain to be present. I love the playfulness, physicality, constant surprises and immediacy. With improv, it either works or fails. But either way, when it’s done, it’s gone forever—unlike the long labor of writing a novel. Even so, at this stage of my life (parenthood), if I had to choose which art form to spend time on, I’d choose writing. (Staying at home! Pajamas!) But as an introvert, it’s good for me to get out and perform or else I’d never see anyone.
Luckily, I don’t have to choose. I get to do both, and for me, improv has become a way of life, a creed to guide me. (Be present. Listen. Support yourself and your fellow players. Trust. Say yes.) It’s also shaped my writing. All writers are essentially improvisers, but the rules and tools of improv help me to get into the voice and emotions of my characters.
Which brings me back to our weird brains. Recently I’ve become obsessed with the brain, specifically how our brains and bodies work together. How with small but practiced shifts, we can change how we think, how people perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves. Our bodies are deeply intelligent. Yet, if you’re like me, you probably spend most of your time working on a computer during the day and crafting your story on a computer in the wee hours. We might take a walk/yoga/gym break, but mostly we tell our bodies to shut up while we get down to the important business of thinking.
Some of the winningest actors in Hollywood, like Daniel Day-Lewis, Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson, use method acting so that even the micro-expressions of their characters come through naturally. Behavioral scientists tell us that visualization, especially when coupled with emotion and movement, can change our mood and rewire our habitual thought patterns.
Executive coach and author of The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane, instructs her clients to imagine themselves as a gorilla before a big pitch or presentation. She tells them to take the stance of a gorilla and see themselves as bigger and fiercer, which helps them convey power, presence, and confidence when the time comes to deliver their message. Just think how these practices could enhance dialogue and deepen characters. Especially if your main character is a gorilla.
The connection between getting out of your head and into your body to tap into your creativity is a bit of practical magic. So if you’re feeling blocked or disconnected or otherwise find that your writing has become staid, get up out of your seat, walk around a little as your character, or maybe even break into dance to rekindle your writing magic. I suggest some Bowie to get you inspired.
[Editor’s Note: Sara will be teaching a 2.5-hour Improv for Writers workshop, January 30, at Lighthouse. Get more info and register here.]
Sara Jade Alan writes young adult fiction and is a member of Youth Speaker University. She is also one-half of The Novelistas, a comedy duo offering original shows, workshops, and coaching in performance skills for writers and others.