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Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson

January 6, 2011

This is a book about applying the philosophies and techniques of improv to other aspects of your life. Madson taught an improv class at Stanford University for many years. In the final chapter of this book, she jokes about the irony that it took her 20 years to write a book about acting in the moment and “just doing.” She says she struggled with what form this book should take. Should it be a practical guide? A self-help book? Parts of this book existed in notebooks, on 5-inch floppies, 3-inch floppies, zip drives and thumb drives. But that’s the thing about wisdom—it’s timeless, right? And while a lot of titles have “wisdom” in them,, the weight of those 20 years have helped pack big ideas and true wisdom into this slim book.

What attracted me to it originally was its application to creative thinking. I usually work as a member of a creative team, in which the improv dynamic—building on one another’s ideas, I say “what if…?” and you say “yes and…”—is critical for success. The first chapter of this book is called “Say yes.” On the first page, I have highlighted “Yes glues us together…Yes expands your world.”

Throughout this book, I’ve highlighted little gems like this on about every other page. They’re great reminders for people who have been working creatively for years, and great articulations of some of the fundamentals that we often take for granted. Even reading through the chapter titles—the maxims, as they’re called in the book—I find myself nodding:  say yes • don’t prepare • just show up • start anywhere • be average • pay attention • face the facts • stay on course • wake up to the gifts • make mistakes, please • act now • take care of each other • enjoy the ride.

Some of these sound counterintuitive (“be average” means you don’t have to be wacky to be funny—comedy starts with the everyday) and some actually are counterintuitive (both “don’t prepare” and “make mistake, please” are about knocking down our fear of failure barriers by failing often and spectacularly, if possible).

I have a natural gag reflex to anything that even starts to feel self-helpy, and there are a few parts of this book that wanted to be that. But the advice was usually so spot on and the hippy-dippy held in check that I managed to keep my lunch in. Actually, it was really quite good. The life stuff, but even more so the stuff that relates to creative thinking, working, and working as a team. I plan to pass a lot of this wisdom onto my advertising students. Maybe they’ll even think I’m a little wise.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 6, 2011 4:42 pm

    Few things please a writer more than discovering that an intelligent reader got her message. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the book’s utility with your readers. I smiled to think I passed the gag test. I share your aversion to this and tried to be careful to avoid going over that line. It is gratifying that you noticed. I am in your debt today. Thank you.

    Patricia Ryan Madson

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