I’d like to round up every manager in every business in America, chain each of them to a clammy, stone wall somewhere, and teach them improv until their eyes bleed. Not only would it be fun for me, but they would thank me once their mind-shattering rage had passed. All of their employees and their bosses would thank me too. I’ll bet I would get presents.

I don’t want them to be funny. No one wants that. People would be less happy with funny managers, if that’s conceivable. But improv isn’t necessarily about being funny. Come see me on stage sometime and I’ll prove that. Improv’s about learning to employ a certain set of skills such as agreeing with your partner when she says you have a cow’s tongue in your pocket. But the most critical, least respected improv skill is… Listening. That’s the one I’d love to help our business leaders get comfy with.

Paul Williams said that some people listen, and other people only wait to talk. Working in business has taught me that some people don’t even wait to talk. In fact, some people don’t just fail to listen, they actively employ defective listening. If you say “cat,” they will hear “catastrophe.” If you say, “European debt,” they will hear, “It’s my fault we’re losing money, sir, and I’m an under-achieving dweeb. Let me pack up my autographed Firefly model and my Dilbert mouse pad before you escort me out.”

You know these managers I’m talking about.

So I propose that a good, healthy round of brutal improv training should take care of this. Some of these managers will cry. Maybe a lot of them. That’s okay, it’s a normal part of the process and will give them empathy when they hand out insane deadlines and take away benefits. Almost all of them will learn to listen and become better managers, when the alternative is dangling by rusty iron manacles until they starve. A few will find they have a talent and love for improv, and they’ll carry away happy, misplaced dreams of glory. And a few idiots will think they’re so good that they hop the next bus to Los Angeles, removing them from the management pool forever.

Everyone wins.

I wrote the end of the middle of a book last night. This is the part where I drink some schnapps and celebrate, because writing the middle of a long story beats me down. When I write the beginning, I crackle with fun and excitement, because it’s all new and anything can happen. When I write the end, I glide in with relief and regret because I see how it all will wrap up, and I know I won’t get to write this story anymore. But when I write the middle, I feel like I’m dragging the African Queen through a leech-filled swamp—which happened in the middle of that story as I recall.

I struggle with the middle because it squats before me in a willfully ill-defined manner. Sometimes I’m tempted to write, “People do stuff here,” repeatedly for 200 pages. This problem plagues even the best writers of books, plays, and films, as the following examples show us:

Beginning – You learn about the characters and Hamlet swears revenge.
Middle – Hamlet does stuff to some people.
End – You have a bunch of dead guys.

Lonesome Dove
Beginning – You learn about the characters and they decide to go to Montana.
Middle – People do stuff while they ride a long way with a lot of cows.
End – You have a bunch of dead guys.

Star Wars (the original episodes)
Beginning – You learn about the characters and Luke learns the ways of the Force.
Middle – People fly through space and do stuff.
End – You have a bunch of dead guys and dancing ewoks.

The middle is an easy place for me to go wrong. I may kill a character that I’ll need later on. The boy and girl may get together too soon, or they may hate each other too much. I may make such a crazy thing happen that my readers become disgusted for the rest of the book. I may write a bunch of meaningless crap because I feel that I have to fill pages.

I may just get outright bored with the whole thing. The temptation to quit the difficult middle of one project and switch to the exciting beginning of something else is like being hooked on literary heroin.

One reason I wrestle so hard with the middle of stories is that I can see the end of the middle of my life, right up there ahead of me. The beginning of your life contains a lot of possibilities. Just like in a story, the middle of your life sees possibilities taken away. That’s just the way a story is—people do stuff in the middle, and that makes it impossible for other stuff to be done. As in my stories, I’d like the rest of the middle of my life not to be a series of “People do stuff here” pages. And I would definitely like to set myself up for an end that includes dancing ewoks.

A couple of weeks ago the good folks at Open Heart Publishing called and told me they’ve accepted my story for their upcoming anthology. The anthology is An Honest Lie, Volume 3: Justifiable Hypocrisy. I was thrilled to be accepted, but that thrill doubled when this evening I saw that Open Heart has officially announced the new authors for their volume. There’s something about seeing it spelled out in words. I don’t yet know the exact publication date, but I’m anxious to find out. The announcement is at: http://anhonestlie.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/annoucing-the-winners/

My creative life sometimes feels like a grapevine struggling in a field of turnips. Creativity does not pay my bills. Einstein said, “Science is a wonderful thing as long as one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” So it also can be with creativity. I’m a writer, and I’m also an actor. Therefore I am doubly cursed. For every Julia Roberts or Larry McMurtry, legions wade through community theater and rejection letters at night, while they write code, pour concrete, and answer phones for assholes during the day.

I made a decision years ago, and I can’t recall the moment I made it. Maybe I didn’t realize I was making it. Maybe I got sucked along, like when your wife suggests you go to the arboretum, but you say nothing. The next thing you know, you’re looking at a bunch of damned orchids. At some point I decided that my creative life would be my shadow life. It would be my hobby. My vocation and obligations would lie elsewhere, largely wrapped up in security. I would love my shadow life more, but it would always be a mistress to my day job.

That’s the decision I made, and I’m okay with it. I occasionally find ways to exercise creativity in my “real” job. I create spreadsheets with breathtakingly lovely color schemes. I can make people laugh while telling them things they don’t want to hear. But I find “real world” creative opportunities to be rare.

Maybe I’m deciding something different about my creative life now. That’s a pending question. One reason it’s pending is that I have a friend who years ago embraced the artist’s life in an overwhelming way. She has never deviated from her purpose. She’s almost never had a  “day” job. And she’s achieved a lot of critical success. Financial success is always more elusive of course. That must have been true even for the guy mashing pictures of bison onto the cave wall with his fingers.

My friend’s commitment cost her something. Spouses, children, and friends all had to compete with her creative myopia, and sometimes they lost. When they lost, sometimes they suffered, and so did she.

I don’t believe that all creative people suffer from mental and emotional challenges, but I know that my friend and I do. Treatment helps, but it also hampers her creativity just a bit. That creative handicap would be invisible to most people. To an artist it’s like a championship sprinter losing two-hundredths of a second. It’s huge. Treatment’s unacceptable for her, but an untreated life is a vista of misery, punctuated by peaks of elation.

And yet, this is the payment she’s been willing to make, and I’m not going to tell her she’s wrong. She embraced the creative life. For her, it comes at a high price, but she’s paid it and never considered doing otherwise.

So, I see that this post has turned into an almost complete pit of negativity. I’ll finish by saying that I have no answers for anyone else regarding vocation vs. hobby for their creative lives. I don’t have any answers for myself right now either. But I will say that this time I’m damned if I end up looking at orchids without knowing how I got there.

In my younger days, the process of writing seemed premeditated to me. When I sat down to write, I knew where I wanted to end up. It was a matter of building myself a bridge of words and paragraphs to get there. But I struggled quite a lot in those days. My paragraphs pooled on the page like a pauper’s soup. They lacked detail, imagery, flavor, and anything else smacking of imagination. I wrote each paragraph like it was the next girder in a bridge that would get me across a literary chasm.

I sucked. A lot.

For a good many years now I’ve dabbled with improvisational acting. I can say with soul-riveting certainty that improv is not premeditated. When improvising, thinking ahead is like slamming a tire iron into the left knee of your scene. When you start thinking ahead to what you’ll say 15 seconds from now, then you’re not paying a damn bit of attention to what you’re saying now. That almost guarantees that what you’re saying now is crummy. Also, your fellow improvisers are almost certainly as creative and unpredictable as you. So when they don’t say what you expected, then you’ve just sealed them and yourself in an oily barrel of suck and tossed it into the Sea of Creativity Gone Awry.

Therefore, I learned, “Don’t think ahead, you moron.”

I return now to my writing endeavors, and I realize that my earlier writing resembled crummy improv. I was always thinking about what was coming next and how to get there. I paid little attention to what was happening in the paragraph currently being massaged by my greasy fingers.

For example, say I’m writing a paragraph about getting into an automobile. I know that within a few paragraphs someone will jump up from the back seat and stab my hero. If I focus too much on the stabbing, I may write something like:

“Walt walked up to his odd green sedan and opened the driver’s door. He slid into the seat and grabbed the steering wheel, then he put the key into the ignition and started the car.”

While I’m writing that paragraph, the whole time I’m thinking, “Walt’s getting stabbed soon, Walt’s getting stabbed soon, Walt’s getting stabbed soon…

I need to convince myself of the fact that Walt has no idea he’ll be stabbed 3 paragraphs from now. So if I can force my lazy brain to stick with Walt in the current paragraph, then it will come out different:

“Walt stalked across the sidewalk to his two-tone green sedan, and he snarled at the bird shit on the windshield. He yanked open the driver’s door and threw himself into the front seat like it was a foxhole. He strangled the wheel with his left hand while he jabbed his key into the ignition after three tries, five curse words, and one nasty reference to his ex-wife’s mother. The engine clattered to life, and Walt reached out to slam shut the driver’s door, never shifting his glare from the street in front of him.”

Walt’s still getting stabbed in less than a page, but I’m giving Walt the attention he deserves until then. And oddly, when I pay attention to the words I’m playing with now, I often find that down the line I end up in slightly different places than I’d originally intended. Sometimes I end up in radically different places. But they’re places I feel better about.

Improv and writing–they’re like peanut butter and chocolate for me.

In January a long-time buddy and I were engaged in crushing the hopes and dreams of creative people. It’s a hobby. We and a number of other well-meaning ruthless shrews were bickering about which people to nurture and which people to crush. I wouldn’t describe the discussion as heated, or even spirited. I’d describe it as discussion with flecks of spit flying through the air. Eventually fairness was raised as an argument. If we nurtured “Creative Person X,” then it would be unfair to crush “Creative Person Kind of Like X.”

My response was, “I refuse to be dictated to by the whims of fairness.” My buddy immediately had to write that down. Not that she agreed with me. I suspect she just wanted to keep it so she can whip it out at my funeral service and show everyone what a dick I was.

In the end we chose not to crush either of those people, and those people went on to convince me that was the right decision. But I stand by my “whims of fairness” position. Fairness is supposed to be a good thing. It’s supposed to be even. It’s supposed to be blind. Well, for most things in life such as swinging on trapeezes, and building bridges, and driving supertankers, blindness is not an asset. If you need a tumor cut out of your brain, do you want to get whatever surgeon is on deck at the hospital that day? “Dr. Xu normally does tonsils and deviated septums, but he’s next up today so here you go!”  No, I suspect you would want the best god damned brain surgeon on earth, or at least the best one your hospital can bribe to work there.

Fairness binds me in an arbitrary standard that takes the decision making out of my hands. I believe in creativity and courage. But fairness is the refuge of the uncreative and the timid.

People hate my philosophy on fairness. It kicks everything they cherish right in the crotch. Therefore, while I dislike fairness I have enormous respect for the perception of fairness. And that perception isn’t tough to create, because in the end people really, deep down, don’t want fairness. Think about it–if everyone got what they deserved, this would be a mighty sad world. When we are heard, and our ideas and needs are acknowledged, and when creative, brave decisions help us succeed collectively and as people–well, we still won’t be happy, because we’re still people and never satisfied. But we’ll be less miserable.

Fairness is a rule. And as Thomas Edison said, “There ain’t no rules around here! We’re trying to accomplish something!”