I joined two teenagers in holy wedlock yesterday. I consider it an accomplishment since I’m not a minister, they hadn’t thought about marriage when they got up that morning, and I was wearing a pair of boots on my head. In fact, they had never seen me and didn’t know I existed until three minutes before I pronounced them man and wife in front of 30 strangers who didn’t even bring gifts.

All in all, it was a pretty normal spring-time Sunday for me.

I work at a renaissance festival in the spring. Most people go there to have fun, except the guys dragged there by their girlfriends when they’d rather be watching NASCAR, but they fear they won’t get laid tonight if they say no. I don’t go there to have fun. I go there to goad other people into having fun. I get paid just like most professional actors, which means I earn less per hour than a blind dishwasher in Burundi.

People have a lot of different opinions about renaissance festivals, and festivals are run a lot of different ways. There are a lot of jokes about renaissance festivals, some of which are hilarious. For example:

You know you’re at a bad renaissance festival when there’s an eight minute drum solo in the middle of “Greensleeves.”

Mainly I work there because it’s an acting challenge. I like to call it theater with no stage, no script, and no separation from the audience. To put it another way, I have no idea what I’m going to say or do until it happens, we have 33 acres so I have to pin my audience against something so they can’t get away, and I have to make them look brilliant even if they’re gaping at me with a sliver of turkey leg hanging off their cheek. I can tell when I’ve done a decent job of transforming into my character, because my character likes almost every person he’s ever met. You can ask my wife and my friends just how much that does not describe me. So—good acting challenge.

In most cases you have to select your audience, stalk them, and approach them. The best part is when they see you coming and their eyes get that desperate, calculating look. It’s as if they were trapped between a river and an army of tigers, and they’re assessing whether they can make the jump to freedom. At the same time they hover between smiling and not smiling, because they’re not sure which one is most likely to draw the tigers’ attention. That’s the best part because they have such trepidation when you arrive, and you know that when you’re done in a few minutes they’ll be happy, or amused, or feel welcome. Or maybe they’ll feel relieved that you’re done, which is at least better than getting drunk and kicking a mime.

Anyway, I don’t want to talk about renaissance festivals. I just said all that in order to say this.

One day fifteen years ago at this festival I don’t want to talk about, I got tired of selecting and stalking my audience, so I set a trap. I gathered a double-handful of little rocks and sat on a bare, flat spot on the ground. Then I began placing and stacking rocks in patterns that didn’t mean a damn thing. Within ten minutes I had a bunch of little kids, about six or seven years old, picking up their own rocks and stacking them along with me.

I didn’t give them any instructions or rules. My only rule was that whatever they did was perfect. If they knocked down 30 existing rocks, I told them that was the most beautiful thing ever and those rocks must have been in the way. The funny thing was that most kids had a parent standing nearby telling them to be careful and not mess anything up. We tried to ignore those parents as much as we could.

This weekend I realized I hadn’t set a kid trap in a decade and a half, so I gathered up some rocks and went to work. In the first five minutes several kids stopped to look, but none of them sat down to play. In the following five minutes a couple of kids brought me rocks, but they wouldn’t sit down to help, even though I invited them. The parents, who were grown up versions of my kids from 15 years ago, just looked and didn’t say anything. After 30 minutes I gave up and moved on.

What the hell?

I pondered this change last night as I ate an economically priced New York strip, and I came up with a small array of possible explanations:

Stacking rocks loses its charm when a child can play Angry Birds on his cell phone 24 hours a day, even on the toilet.

For a child today, sitting down to play with an unknown person seems as dangerous as injecting arsenic into your neck.

Today’s children are expected to follow rules that govern every type of human behavior, so when they looked at the unstructured rock-stacking activity, their minds couldn’t deal with it. Their brains had to reset like a computer that’s been told by Captain Kirk to divide by zero.

I didn’t like any of those explanations. They’re all depressing. And since I possess modern man’s ability to convince myself that the things I don’t like are untrue, I denied all these explanations. As I choked down the last gristly bite of cow, the correct explanation revealed itself.

It’s me. I am 15 years older. I’m 15 years stranger. I no longer look like the fun but kind of weird uncle. Now I look like the really weird old guy doing something with rocks that’s inexplicable but probably bad. No wonder they stood out of reach, watching like I was a musk-ox in the zoo. They didn’t know what to make of me, but they were sure nothing good was going to come out of me.

So I’ll put my kid trapping techniques aside from now on and go after older audiences. The kids are safe. Wait until they’re teenagers on a date at a renaissance festival, though. Then I’ll own their asses.

"When's that man going to do something interesting, mommy? I want a wooden sword so I can give my brother a concussion."
“When’s that man going to do something interesting, mommy? I want a wooden sword so I can give my brother a concussion.”

Photo by Steven H. Keys via Wikimedia Commons.

Do they smoke dope at an elvish solstice festival?

I know it sounds like a frivolous question, but I grappled with it for several hours yesterday. You see, I’m writing a story about Santa Claus, and he’s an elf, and the next thing that happens in the story requires a bunch of elves all together in a jolly horde. So, I needed to create an elvish solstice festival. Obviously. But then I had to describe the damn thing.

What do big groups of elves do for fun? I’m not talking about those gangly, pasty Tolkien elves that creep me out, and that would creep you out too if you met one of the pouty, immortal bastards. I’m talking about happy elves that clean your house in the middle of the night and make toys and steal your firstborn child if you can’t guess their name. You know, elf hijinx. But what do big gangs of them do for a good time?

I thought of lots of things they might do. Dancing around elf-sized solstice-poles, holding shoe making contests, dueling with candy canes, and so forth. None of it seemed right. I liked the image of the teenage, future St. Nick and his friends hiding behind a giant toadstool and smoking a joint. But that didn’t seem right either. I felt like a crummy writer. I hated my brain, and I wanted to beat it to death with tequila.

My fourth tequila shot reminded me of something I learned in improvisational acting. When you want to start a scene, don’t think about something happening. Go with an emotion.

Okay, you may not relate to that, so try this. Think about when you were five years old and you wanted to tell a fib. Some enlightened parents call it telling a story. My parents called it being a lying little shit. Whatever you call it, you needed to tell something that wasn’t true. It’s just like being a writer, except that five-year-olds don’t get paid, and writers don’t get paid either, but they get lots of rejection letters that make them think about tequila and smoking dope.

Anyway, your five-year-old self may start his lie with, “What happened was, I was standing in the kitchen, and then I was just playing, you know, and just standing there petting the dog, and then the dog jumped on the table and then knocked the baby on the floor…” You know the whole time you’re talking that you knocked the baby on the floor when you climbed the height chair to grab a fist full of cake frosting. This pathetic lie ends with you locked in the broom closet for a week and fed only spaghetti noodles slid under the door. All because you just talked about stuff happening.

Instead, go with emotion. You should start your lie with a hurricane of tears, and then shriek, “The baby’s going to die! Don’t let the dog kill me too!” This is more like it. Your mom is so freaked out that she never considers you might be a lying little shit. This lie ends with the dog tied to a stake in the backyard and you getting a popsicle.

So how did Mr. Tequila help my five-year-old self create an elvish solstice festival? Instead of trying to imagine what was happening at this festival, I took each character in the story and wrote about his favorite thing at the festival, and why it was his favorite thing. It didn’t exactly write itself, and the four tequila shots didn’t help. But when I’d finished it felt right and made sense, and I had a realistic place for my characters to do some dumb stuff. Well, as realistic as an elvish festival can get.

And no, they don’t smoke dope at an elvish solstice festival. Snorting lines of pixie dust is another matter.

Yeah, we know what’s in that pipe, Sparky.

As an actor, I love being onstage. If I could manage it, I’d spend all of my acting-related time onstage. I despise rehearsals. The only thing I hate worse than rehearsing is sucking onstage. So, I rehearse and try to forget that the Jim Butcher novels will be picked over by the time I get to Half-Price Books tonight. It’s not exactly cutting off my ear or cultivating a heroin addiction, but it’s suffering of a sort.

I’ve just survived six weeks of rehearsal, and before diving into the eight-week show I started wondering about things. I did not wonder why I spent time practicing old skills I’d already mastered, and I did not wonder why I practiced new skills until my corpse could execute them, like frog’s legs jumping in a frying pan. That all made sense. But I did wonder why rehearsal, which is so good for me, feels nothing like performing in the show.

Well, everybody knows that you’ve got to train, practice, learn, get educated, and so on. I could find about 100 billion quotes on the subject, and only 110 billion humans have ever been born. But once you’ve trained to do a thing, you then have to do it for real, unless you’re my cousin Dave, who gets by just fine living over his mom’s garage and playing X-Box. The real world is a tricky place when it comes to doing things. Different things work in different ways.

For example, let’s take something I learned and then did in the real world: digging ditches. Effective ditch digging requires a surprising amount of learning, at least if you want to be able to stand up at the end of the day. I admit that learning to dig a ditch when I was 12 years old took a lot less time than learning the alphabet when I was five, but I still had to concentrate on what I was learning. Once I mastered the skills and started digging for real, the experience was different. I had to pay a certain amount of attention to not smash a toe, but my brain had plenty of time to think about football and that car I was saving up to buy in five years. So ditch digging = low learning curve, low analytical requirements, and high potential for daydreaming.

Let’s jump forward a disturbing number of years to another thing I learned and did for real: statistics.

(To digress, it may seem odd to you that I can like acting and statistics at the same time. Yet I like all the math, and perhaps that does reveal psychological issues. You may sometimes hear physicists mocking sociologists about not being real scientists. How can you call sociology a real science when it studies people, who are appallingly random compared to, say, quarks? On the other hand, how can you call physics a real science when it studies quarks, which are appallingly random compared to the number 4? Mathematics is the only true science, and you can imagine what the mathematician in me thinks of the actor in me. I have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex about having it.)

I studied statistics for a moderately long time. During that period I probably could have learned to dig ditches about two thousand times. I found it sometimes challenging, and for a while I thought I’d be happy to die if I never had to hear about Bayes’ Theorem again. Eventually I applied these skills in the real world, and just like in ditch digging the experience then changed. I didn’t need to worry about smashing a toe with a poorly wielded normal distribution. But I had crammed a lot of statistics knowledge into my brain, and now I had to solve real problems by releasing that knowledge, as if I were the world’s most anal-retentive graffiti artist. I had to concentrate on the mechanics of it. It just wasn’t possible for me to calculate an analysis of variance and daydream about my girlfriend at the same time, and I’m not sure that would have been a compliment to her anyway. So statistics = high learning curve, high analytical requirements, and low potential for daydreaming.

So let’s get back to this acting thing. It does not take long to become a bad actor. Any four-year-old trying to hide a broken vase will prove my point. It takes hard, thoughtful training in acting techniques to turn you into an actor that people like to imagine killing, and with more hard work you can make audiences merely hate you. With more exhausting effort you can develop the skill to make audiences first unaware of your existence, then be indifferent to you, and then find you inoffensive. After an amount of training equal to several doctorates in ditch digging, you can at last entertain people, or at least remind them of someone they once liked. That’s how it worked for me, anyway. I’ve seen other people skip straight from vase-hiding to entertaining people in just the time it took me to learn the alphabet.

But when I get to the real world, audiences don’t like it if I bumble around looking for my mark. They get confused if I dither over my character’s motivation, especially when his motivation should be to say the damned words that the author put down on the damned paper. Maybe I’ve mastered the individual techniques, but I can’t be thinking about techniques while I perform, because the audience wants more than a collection of successfully-executed techniques. That’s something they could get by putting the script and an acting book together in a blender. So acting = high learning curve (at least for us remedial types), low analytical requirements (no one cares which hand I use to hold Yorik’s skull), and high potential for daydreaming. And that’s the trick for me—daydream potential is my tool for making something happen that’s fun, unexpected, unexplained, and won’t make the audience imagine killing me.

So as I ride towards opening day, I do so on the back of my new acting mantra:

“At rehearsal, think about work. At work, think about magic.”

And I can always fall back on statistics. Or ditch digging.

If I go back to digging ditches, I'm hiring this dude as an apprentice.

I spent a good part of last night wondering why mice can’t use bazookas. Well, I say that I was wondering about this, but that may be a little misleading. My wife would probably say that was whining rather than wondering. Mouse-bazooka capability doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. If not bazookas, then something else that’s destructive on a similar scale. Napalm would be nice, or maybe they could topple a big church over onto something they don’t like.

For 20 chapters of the story I’m writing, my mice have lived in obliterating terror of their antagonist, and now it’s time to kill the bastard. Sixteen chapters ago I set up the ideal plot device to perform the coup de grâce. My problem is that when the coup comes, my readers will have seen it coming from 16 chapters away. That’s a lousy way to reward them for sticking with the story for 20 chapters. I need a Left Turn.

My understanding of the Left Turn springs from improvisational acting. In improv, when your partner says or does something, then you should say or do something in response. Hopefully you say something that makes sense. If you say something entertaining, that’s a bonus. Sometimes it’s neat to respond with something called a Left Turn, which is a response that no one expected, but that makes sense to everyone the moment you say it. It can’t just be some wild, random, turnips-doing-algebra-and-barking-like-dogs thing. That just confuses everyone and makes the audience hate you and all your seed unto the last generation. It has to make sense—unlike mice firing bazookas.

I’ve found that you can’t force a Left Turn to appear. That’s like forcing an ice cream truck to come down your block. But you can do things to encourage a Left Turn, just like you can hire pretty girls to stand at the curb waving dollars and crying out for Eskimo Pies. To cultivate a Left Turn in improv, when it’s your turn you can follow a chain of ideas until you get to an interesting response. Each idea builds on the one before it, so it gets further from the obvious response but still has a logical connection back to the beginning.

Here’s an improvised Left Turn in a scene:

Me: “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen! You killed 20 communist infiltrators all by yourself.”

My Partner: “Yes, but I’m terribly wounded.”

Me: “True, you’re about to die, but before you go I have one thing to say to you.”

My Partner: “What?”

[I start with the idea that this dude is about to die, and then I follow the chain of ideas.]

First idea in my head: “What do you want carved on your head stone?”
Second idea in my head: “Who should take care of your wife and children?”
Third idea in my head: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

Me: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

A Left Turn is born—logical, but not obvious.

So how the heck do my mice Left Turn their enemy into oblivion, alongside Carthage and The Captain and Tennille? I’ll start off with the basic assumption, which is something the mice might say. How about:

“This appalling creature is impaling and disemboweling us all over the place. We should do something.”

And here’s a chain of ideas about what they could do:

—Fall down and play dead.

—Run away to a safer town and forget this blemish of a place.

—Convince the creature it would be more fun to go impale and disembowel someone else, preferably someone far away who was once mean to us.

—Find someone who hates this creature worse than butt fungus and let him eradicate the creature.

—Find someone the creature loves and hold him/her/it hostage until the creature goes away.

—Eat poison and then let the creature eat us. Noble but stupid.

—Lead the creature to the town’s best hunter and taxidermist who conveniently happened to be passing by.

—Lure a giant predator bird down to kill the creature.

—Wait for a god to be lowered on wires and smite the creature with a thunderbolt.

I realize that my chain is pretty long now and that none of these ideas quite sparkle. Maybe I need to work a bit more on how the Left Turn can transition from improvisation to writing. Or maybe I started from the wrong basic assumption. I could instead begin with:

—Kill the creature with a bazooka.

—Kill the creature with a hyper-velocity acorn.

—Tie acorns to our foreheads so the creature chokes to death when it tries to eat a mouse.

I’ll keep working on it.

"A cat in an armored car? Good thing I brought my bazooka."

Photo by Noah7104 at www.roblox.com. (http://www.roblox.com/User.aspx?ID=1032679)

I like experiencing things more than I like hearing about them, with the exception of earthquakes and family dinners. I imagine you do too. Most people prefer to smell and taste a homemade brownie or two rather than hear someone read the list of ingredients on a package of brownie mix. I learned this rule by violating it hundreds of times over years of acting and performing improv. As my audience’s eyes rolled back and they began to strangle on their own spit, I would ask myself, “Don’t they like hearing about the gag gifts at Cousin Skeeter’s birthday party?”

Mark Twain finally convinced me that my audiences hated the birthday party, hated Cousin Skeeter, and hated me. Mr. Twain wrote, “Don’t talk about the old lady screaming. Bring her on and let her scream.” Upon reading that, I decided to do stuff onstage, rather than just talk about stuff. I resolved to take action. This began a period in which I flailed around the stage like a beached halibut as I tried to find things to do. I swept floors, I carried boxes around the stage, and I waved my arms a lot. My audiences found this as fascinating as the re-oxygenation of my blood. They hated my action.

A subsequent thousand years of humiliating failures showed me why my action sucked. My action needed a clear target and a reason to go after it. Action is doing something, true. But it’s also doing something to someone or something for a reason. For example, when the old lady screams, that’s doing something. And when she screams into her sister’s face from a distance of one inch, that’s doing something to someone. But when she’s screaming to communicate outrage because her sister just snatched away her hash pipe, that’s when action is born.

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of good dialogue. The words and how they’re said are critical. But come on—old ladies screaming and grabbing drug paraphernalia is entertainment we can all appreciate.

These days I’m working to apply this principle to my writing. I’m astounded by the scope of action I can include in a story. I can incorporate literally cataclysmic events. The closest I ever came to that onstage was me dancing in Oklahoma! But I try to remind myself that the rules of action apply when I’m writing: do something to someone or something for a reason. So when my characters just walk somewhere, that’s not action. Even if they have a reason to walk, the walking itself isn’t being done to someone. If my terrorist releases a plague, but I never show what it does to anyone, that’s not action. Sure, I can say that the plague got released, but my readers don’t get the payoff of “seeing” what was done to the victims. If my hero sharpens his sword just because it’s sword-sharpening time, that’s not action. Any of these things may be fine additions to my story, but I shouldn’t fool myself into thinking that action has just happened. I’m better off fooling myself into thinking that a third brownie is no big deal.

I find action challenging to write, just like I find action challenging to perform onstage. I could say that I struggle with action out of laziness—and that would be true. But I also struggle with it out of fear. Onstage if I talk about someone being a bastard, I can take it back later. I can distance myself. If I slap him because he’s a bastard, that’s harder to take back. I’ve got to commit and be willing to back it up in the rest of the scene.

Trying to write action hits me the same way. When my villain burns down an orphanage, I feel a little more comfortable just describing how my characters heard about the tragedy, and then letting them get on with walking someplace. Then I don’t have to commit to the reality of the action. I don’t have to write about teddy bears on fire, or the villain kicking the escaping orphans back through the flaming doorway into the conflagration.

So, those are my struggles with action, and it kicks my butt pretty often. One would think I’m the dramatic and literary equivalent of a Galapagos Tortoise. But I’ll keep working at it. It should help that I’m building up good artistic karma by never dancing in Oklahoma! again.

An example of action. You should have seen what happened to him 10 seconds later.



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.

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.