Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson is a book I return to again and again. I recommend it every chance I get. It is one of the best no-nonsense guides I know of for crafting a creative life. Patricia Madson is professor Emerita from Stanford University where she taught acting and developed the improvisation program. In my life, she has been an important source of inspiration and a wise teacher. I recently had the chance to interview Patricia about her writing life and publishing challenges for the online publication How-To-Write-A-Book.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
If you had one publishing tip for young authors it would be…?
Hold to your purpose. If you have a book that you want to have published, keep working to make that happen.
I’ve been a university teacher for 30 years. During the last 20 years, I began teaching a class for Continuing Studies at Stanford University on improvisation for adults. The course became immensely popular. What we were doing in class seemed to fill a need. People enjoyed playing improv games, not so much for their comedy value but for their liberating value. Improv helped them trust their own ideas, think on their feet, and work together without a plan.
What kept you going for 20 years as Improv Wisdom evolved into what it finally became?
Somewhere I had a deep vision that the things I understood through the improv classroom coupled with the psychological and spiritual understanding I had from studying with David K. Reynolds—my Constructive Living knowledge— were a powerful set of ideas that could help the world. I wanted it to be a book for everybody, not for drama students, not for just improv students, not for business people. This was a strong purpose and that got clearer and clearer. I want to give this metaphorical story to the world. It kept evolving.
I always had a belief that at some point it would be published or it would find its true form. Of course it’s discouraging if you send out a manuscript and you get back “No thank you.” I have a stack of rejections. But I think I was patient. There’s something about the improviser that you don’t have to have results right away.
An improvisation can take twenty years. My book is an example of that. I held to my purpose, which was to create a little philosophy book that helps people using these ideas. I made mistakes along the way. I kept coming back to that purpose. I kept noticing how whatever was happening was thanks to the efforts of others. And finally a whole army of people brought the book to life and have been part of its ongoing life.
When people read the book, it helps them. I know that. Just this week, a minister at a congregational church in Dallas, Texas used it as a reading. And then …a theology professor Mark Schmeil at St Louis University is doing a course on improv wisdom. They are going to do a 13-week course studying the book. It is inspiring to know that the book’s small message has such a wide birth.
What thrills me most is to hear from someone who says, “I’ve read your book several times. I’m reading it for the third time and it’s all underlined.” Wow. I’m dazzled to imagine someone has kept the book and read it more than one time.
The book teaches some simple principles: Knowing your purpose, accepting reality, doing what you need to do, and developing the eye of gratitude. All of the things we have talked about come from the work of David Reynolds. It’s not really a Constructive Living book but it uses some essential perennial wisdom combined with things that I learned from improv.
I have chosen to highlight a good friend and excellent writer, Russ Beck. Russ teaches writing at Utah State University and is preparing to launch a new series on his local NPR station featuring essayists from across his home state. Russ and I also co-publish the literary e-zine, Braided Brook.
I asked Russ to answer the following four questions about his writing process:
1) What are you working on?
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
3) Why do you write what you do?
4) How does your writing process work?
Here’s what he said:
1) I’m working with my local NPR station to collect essays about Utah.
2) I really like writing about belief (specifically Mormonism), and fishing. I attempt to approach both topics with objectivity. When writing about religion, people attempt to either convert people or sway them away from belief. I feel like I’m able to approach religion with an even hand. Similarly, when people write about fishing, they put shine on something that’s already gleaming with romance. To me, fishing is simple: a sentient being fools non-sentient beings. That’s it. It’s sometimes beautiful (and that’s sometimes attached to the fish), but mostly, it’s a selfish act by the angler.
3) Because it beats not writing.
4) Since my daughter showed up, there isn’t much of a process. I write when I can–which is late at night or between projects at work. But it works for me. It puts an urgency on what I do that wasn’t there before.
Can you answer those questions about your own writing process? For more information about the Blog Tour, check out Betty Cotter’s website.
I spent the first week of July in Amherst, Massachusetts at Long River Tai Chi Circle’s annual workshop. I began studying tai chi with Wolfe Lowenthal and his students in 2004, and I now teach a beginner’s tai chi class through UF Health’s Integrative Medicine program. As each year passes, my practice grows in significance to me. So does my regard for my teacher and fellow students around the world.
We live in an increasingly face-paced society that encourages overexertion for dubious outcomes. Many of us suffer poor health as a result. Wolfe’s teacher, Professor Cheng Man-Ching taught a different approach to life, one based on patience and compassion.
Wolfe begins his first book There Are No Secrets reflecting on the central principle of Professor Cheng’s tai chi–relaxation. He describes an experience early in his study. After suffering an “emotional blow” when the film production company he was working for in Rome went bankrupt, Wolfe returned to New York and consulted with Professor:
I crawled back from Rome and collapsed into a chair next to Professor and told him the terribly depressing story. My dreams had died.
“Relax,” he said. “Just relax.”
He said more but it’s lost to memory. I was dumbfounded by his basic advice.
“Relax?” I thought as I walked away. “What garbage. My life is in shambles and he’s telling me to relax.”
Years have passed. Emotional blows have come and gone, and I have begun to understand a key to living in balance: we are responsible for our response to the flow of events.
Professor used to say, “As you grow more relaxed, you become less afraid. As you become less afraid, you grow more relaxed.” This is the nature of Progress.
Any event in the world will produce suffering if one reacts to it fearfully, but if one relaxes and dissolves the fear reaction, one can meet even great catastrophes with equanimity.
I recently expressed this idea to a friend suffering through a horrendous series of family tragedies. “I can’t accept that,” she said.