Improv writing: What’s Up, Gut?

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Improv writing quiltingThis weekend I took an improvisation course, one of those “Yes, AND…” kind of deals. It was a quilting improvisation course, to be specific. Taught by Sherri Lynn Wood, the day-long workshop focused on getting out of our heads and away from notions of perfection to tune into what’s going on at a gut level.

I have a problem with perfection in my writing, which is worsened by my strict need to feel that I’m in control of the characters and narrative. (I’ve never understood people who say: ‘The character told me to go there.’ What does that even mean?) I like to have a story entirely mapped out before I sit down to write it. I want to know its beginning and end and have a pretty good idea of the stepping stones it’s going to touch on to move from one point to the other.

Recognizing that as a limitation, I’m always looking for ways to break out of it.

I’ve read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, which is a fantastic manual and think piece on instinctual writing. I’ve taken Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind self-directed course, which emphasizes free writing and writing as a meditation or mindfulness exercise. But the work continues to try to pry open my mind’s grip and just let the story flow.

I thought I might apply some of Sherri’s “flexible pattern” quilting techniques to my writing.

Sherri starts the day by really talking out what improvisation means, and all the places we already improvise in our daily lives. I love to cook, but I’m pretty half-hearted about following a recipe. That’s improvisation. Sometimes it’s about making do (I don’t have any lemongrass just hanging around) and sometimes it’s about avoiding what you don’t like (garlic isn’t my friend) and sometimes it’s about knowing what you do like (heavy cream; anything with cheese) and how that pairs with the overall dish you’re creating.

improv writing quiltingShe set some limits in order to promote creativity. Our quilts would be built around floating squares. We could pick only three fabrics. We could ask her “do you think I should…” but her only answer would be: “I don’t know, what do you think?” When we got bored or frustrated, we needed to ask ourselves why. We needed to tune into the moments when we felt joy, boredom and challenge. Was I really bored? What would help get past the challenge? How could I keep that feeling of joy going?

Setting limits is a surprisingly good technique. Picture that fig tree described in the Bell Jar: with so many juicy figs available, the picker becomes stricken with the notion that she’ll choose unwisely. Her fear is so overwhelming, she doesn’t choose at all, instead letting herself starve as she watches the figs drop one-by-one, overripe and wasted.

I’ve certainly felt that way when staring at a blank page. Who hasn’t?

Even jotting down notes, a couple snippets of a character’s dialogue or a specific action we envision them taking – all of that can help get the creative juices flowing. But setting some parametres: the scene involves getting someone to the hospital. But none of the characters ca drive; the scene must take place on the night of a meteor shower and there is no cell service where they are. It helps!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this workshop. I love, love, love the often chaotic and scrappy look of improv quilts. I am drawn to the shape, energy and colours of a lot of folk art. Just like I’m drawn to the creative energy and exuberance of a lot of magical realism. I like the unexpected elements; I like the way the ordinary grounds the extraordinary, making it really pop.

So I wanted this to work out! But I wasn’t sure I’d really “get” improv quilting any more than I “get” magical realism.

My lack of expectation actually loosened me up to just enjoy the process. I wasn’t expecting my quilt to look like a Gee’s Bend original. I had no picture of it in my mind. I just followed Sherri’s instructions and stopped every now and again to ask myself whether this colour felt right or whether this combination “worked.” (Until I stopped doing that and my approach became a bit mechanical. I wasn’t really following my brain or my gut, I was just going through the motions. Now, looking back, that’s when things started to go awry!) I have a long way to go to just follow my intuition – I definitely caught myself thinking about how it would look, whether I could do this or that to make it look better. There’s nothing wrong with that, but as Sherri kept reminding us, we sometimes have to let go of what we want and go with what we can create.

Sherri said to us that the reason the Gee’s Bend quilts are so utterly amazing is because they tap into something very primal. They tap into something deep within the quilter – a feeling or an instinct – and they were made with materials that spoke to the maker on a deep level as well. They’re layered far beyond what’s pierced by a needle. That sounds a lot like the best writing, doesn’t it?

Sherri started us by conducting a centring exercise, to try to get our minds focused on the task at hand, to ask what’s really going on in my gut and how might that influence my work? Not coincidentally, both Natalie and Sarah recommend this kind of mind decluttering at the beginning of a writing session as well.
improv writing quiltingBy the end of the day, I’d made a lot of progress with my improv quilt, but looking at it now, I see that I didn’t take many risks. I am still too fearful of making mistakes, of wasting fabric, of looking bad or stupid or incompetent. I wish I’d used more vibrant colours, and changed them up!

I have the same fears with my writing: I want the first draft to be perfection, otherwise I don’t think I’m a real writer. I don’t want to waste my time or the reader’s time. I definitely don’t want to be humiliated by terrible prose or silly plotlines.

But here are the positive that I took away from the day: “beginner mind” is an exciting place to be. It’s hard to hold onto that sense of curiosity, but what a pleasure when it’s there. I have a technique now for smoothing bubbles and be damned if it doesn’t work! When something looks “off” in the quilt, lean into it. Sherri isn’t someone who subscribes to the “take something away” or “cut up what isn’t working and refashion it” philosophy. She is a firm believer in “Yes, AND… so she coaches turning a negative into a positive by doing more of it, by working with it instead of trying to disguise it.

What does that mean for writing? I’m still processing that – but I like this idea of trying to hang onto the curiosity. Asking, what would this character do? What’s motivating her to do that? What would happen if she did this?

In quilting, mistakes (or whoopsies, as Sherri called them) get amplified the more you add to the quilt. Better to deal with a bubble when you discover it. It’s really not a big deal. In writing, improv can get you so far, but there is a lot of room for craft and technique. When something’s genuinely not working and you can see it and feel it, why not take a minute to rework it into something that does let you move forward with a clearer mind and better perspective.

improv writing quiltingI also like this “Yes, AND…” approach. I might have to try this with my writing, taking a section or scene that’s giving me trouble and thinking about how to keeping pushing it to its extreme. Leaning into it. Adding more to it.

In other words: play.

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