I just returned from a week of improv class at Second City, made possible by a pastoral study grant from the Louisville Institute. It was an immensely helpful experience for my upcoming book, Improvising with God, but more than that, it was life-shaping. I should have expected that–after all, improv for me is about more than creating a scene on stage; it’s about living creatively and faithfully when life doesn’t go according to plan. Still, I returned home with a sudden sense that I’ll look back on this week as a profound turning point on many levels.
On the plane ride home, I read the book The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, a recommendation from some fellow grantees of the Louisville Institute. Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, the authors, aren’t writing about improv, except that they are. It’s an excellent book, and I’m not sure the Reston Regional Library will be getting it back…
The Zanders talk a lot in their book about mistakes. We are conditioned to avoid mistakes, but they are the beating heart of improv, especially in the beginning. Messing up means you’re trying and striving beyond your ability. Unbound by your own sense of convention and safety, you risk screwing up, and in those screwups you learn what works well in a scene and what doesn’t. (And as we discovered in class, mistakes can be delightful to watch onstage, provided you don’t cringe and apologize and bathe yourself in shame. Own it and love yourself for taking a chance, and the audience will love it too.)
Here’s a section of the Zanders’ book I found astounding and poignant in terms of how we understand mistakes. Benjamin Zander is a conductor and draws from that background throughout the book:
The level of playing of the average orchestral player is much higher than it used to be in Mahler’s day. So when Mahler wrote difficult passages for particular instruments… he was almost certainly conveying, musically, the sense of vulnerability and risk he saw as an integral part of life… We will not convey the sense of the music if we are in perfect technical control.
…Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and “cool,” once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring. This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain every fiber of his technical resources to accomplish it. A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point.
…This attitude is difficult to maintain in our competitive culture where so much attention is given to mistakes and criticism that the voice of the soul is literally interrupted. The risk the music invites us to take becomes a joyous adventure only when we stretch beyond our known capacities, while gladly affirming that we may fail. And if we make a mistakes, we can mentally raise our arms and say,‘How fascinating!’ and reroute our attention to the higher purpose at hand.
When is the last time you stretched beyond your known capacities? I’d love to hear about it–or if it’s been a while, what’s getting in your way?
As for me, I’m taking a workshop this weekend on musical improv, in which we’ll learn how to improvise scenes through music. It will be three hours of exhilarating failure and I can’t wait.
Peace, joy and Yes,
P.S. The photos are from the Second City Training Center, which features inspirational quotes throughout the building, as well as photos of Second City alumni, like Stephen Colbert, one of my heroes.
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Last week at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s General Assembly, I had the honor of addressing the Presbyterian Writers Guild at their biennial luncheon as recipient of their David Steele Distinguished Writer Award. (I still can’t quite get over that.)
Here’s a pic from that lovely day–I’m here with Robert and my friend Catherine Cuellar:
Thank you so much for the chance to be with you all today and for this lovely, humbling honor. It’s always good to be with other writers, isn’t it? We’re an odd bunch. A couple of years ago Robert De Niro was presenting one of the screenplay awards at the Academy Awards and said this: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”
Today is a very good day.
…It was two days before Christmas, some 13 years ago. I was an associate pastor at a medium sized church, and with Christmas Eve services planned and everything in place, I found myself with an afternoon with nothing to do. It’s well known among friends and family that I am an absolute fanatic for Christmas music. I like the cheesy stuff, the melancholy stuff, the traditional Bing Crosby stuff, and yes, the religious stuff. So on a whim that afternoon, I set up a blog on a very primitive blogging platform and wrote a silly piece listing all of my favorite Christmas music, categorizing it and providing commentary on various songs. Incidentally, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is THE best Christmas song and the case is closed on that.
It was my first blog post.
Now, writing was always a part of my life. As a young person I wrote bad poetry and rudimentary song lyrics and even completed about 4 pages of a novel when I was maybe 10 years old. I think it was about dogs living in the pound and I’m sure it borrowed heavily from Lady and the Tramp. This lack of originality bothered me at the time, because nobody ever told me that when you’re first starting to write you spend a lot of time emulating, copying, trying on the ideas of others and making them your own.
Ira Glass has talked about this, by the way–this gap between our sense of what’s good and our ability to create something good, especially when you’re starting out. “For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.”
Anyway, I became an English major in college, I worked on the school newspaper and for a magazine, and my first job out of school was as a technical writer and a writer of training materials for companies. Later as a preacher I wrote countless sermons for my local congregation, Montreat Youth Conferences and other gatherings.
But until I wrote that taxonomy of Christmas music, I had always written for specific and pre-determined audiences. Until I wrote that blog post, I had never flung my work into the world and wondered who might stumble across it. And I remember the first time someone that I didn’t know commented on something I’d written. It felt like inching through a bunch of coats and stumbling into Narnia, a larger world, a lovely one, but also a harrowing one at times. Blogging is one of the reasons I am a writer today.
But that didn’t come until much later. For a long time, my blog was for my own personal amusement and that of my mother, my siblings, and a few friends. I wrote my second blog post a month later, reflecting on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death. I wrote it after an APCE conference I attended in which Susan Andrews, presiding at the communion table, mis-read a bit of liturgy that said “Love is stronger than death.” And what she said was, “Love is stranger than death.” And in that blog post I reflected on the fact that someone had written some words on paper, sturdy words, reliable ones, and yet somehow the Holy Spirit intervened and said “I am going to transform that cliche into something much more enthralling.”
And how often that happens from the pulpit. And it happens with writing too. The listener or reader hears things you never really intended; the words inhabit them in a way you never could have predicted. I say to people all the time, and I mean quite sincerely, that I write the books and essays and sermons and articles that I want to read and say the things that I need to hear. I am my first audience, so it startles me to find other people are listening in. People will quote me back to me, and I always feel a little exposed, like someone’s walked into the bathroom while I’m singing to myself in the shower.
I’ll never forget the time I wrote and preached a kind of “leap of faith” sermon and a parishioner said, “Thanks to your sermon I’ve finally decided to follow my heart and move to Florida like I’ve been dreaming about. I’m going to sell my house,” and so forth and I’m thinking “No, don’t do this! Don’t upend your life because of some words that came out of my mouth! I’m just saying stuff up here!”
And yet the preachers and writers in the room know that the words can have that power.
Recently my husband Robert, who is also my in-house tech support, was doing some housekeeping of our various technological miscellany and he asked about these blogs I’ve been writing for the last 13 years. I’m currently on my third generation blog, and he said, “You know, we really ought to put these posts into some kind of bound volume.” There are services that will do that for you. And so Robert started working his way through the process until he finally came to me and said, “I don’t think this is going to work.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because the first six years alone will come out to be 800 pages.”
Eight hundred pages… of blogs.
And that’s not even counting the comments on those blog posts. And I know many of you are thinking, “The comments?!? Why would you want to keep the comments?” And I agree, online comments are the best evidence we have for the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. But it didn’t used to be this way. There was a time when blog comments were like online salons. Comment forums were the places where a community of people riffed on scripture and culture and theology. The place where half-baked ideas continued to cook until the toothpick inserted into the center finally came out clean. The place where I confronted critics and trolls. I’ve been fortunate to have relatively few of the latter; the former hopefully made me better.
I bring all this up about blogging because I stand here as the recipient of this very kind award, very aware that the other people who have stood in this spot have stood on a sturdy platform of the many books they have written. And I feel a bit wobbly up here, because so many of my words have not been bound on a page but are zipping among the electrons. Yes, I have contributed chapters and essays and poems in various anthologies, and two years ago when the General Assembly voted to change the Book of Order to allow same-sex marriage, I was invited to contribute an essay to TIME about that event. And yes, I have a book under my belt and am working on a second.
But what I also have are thousands of words that have in some sense washed away, like a Navajo sand painting, created for a particular place and time and then gone, its purpose complete, its destiny fulfilled.
And so my selection, which humbles me more than I could ever express, is also a sign of the times. It’s likely that in the future, the recipients of this award will do way more of their writing online and in short form than in bound volumes, perhaps using media that haven’t even been invented yet. Because that’s how we all write now. We keep hearing about how ours is becoming more and more of a visual culture. But the fact is, we are awash in words—more words and more ways to write and deliver words to one another than ever before in human history.
Meanwhile, we find ourselves in a time when words can seem so cheap. The laws of supply and demand have not been kind to words—there are so many that their value seems to have plummeted. We’ve got a glut in the market, you see, and so they dissolve into the ether, scroll off the bottom of the page, here today and gone tomorrow, drowned in the noise of 24/7 news and entertainment.
But that’s part of the joy and challenge of being a writer right now. I think a lot of writers long to write or publish a book because they want to create something that will last. We want to leave an artifact behind, something that proves we were here. (I did have an author friend who sniffed, “I don’t think about that stuff when I write,” but I suspect she was lying.) We have an eye toward longevity and legacy. But the instant availability of communication brings our lofty goals back into the present moment and what really matters: to focus on communicating meaning right now, right here, with the people God has placed in our lives. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” in other words, not when the book comes out.
The other challenge of the digital age is to figure out the best platform to say what you want to say. We have so many options now: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Blog, Book, Essay, Article, Text Message, Email. Marshall McLuhan could hardly know when he wrote, “the medium is the message,” exactly how on point he would be. And the medium we choose is vital.
…When the members of Grace Episcopal Church arrived one Sunday morning for worship a few years back, they found a startling question spray-painted on the side of their building in two-foot-high letters. The question was, “Will I still go to heaven if I kill myself?”
After some reflection, Father Thomas Broad and the church arrived at this answer: “God loves you with no exceptions.”
Now if Father Tom had written that into a sermon, it would have been a good response. If he’d put it in a newsletter article, or used it as the title for a Sunday School series, it would have been fine. Adequate.
But instead they spray-painted it on the side of their building, next to the original question.
And that made it a beautiful response.
Beautiful because it spoke in the same raw painful vernacular of the question itself. Beautiful because it ensured that the questioner would actually see the answer. And beautiful, because that image traveled way beyond the humble borders of Randolph, New York to computer screens and smartphones around the world—to people who needed to hear that gospel: God loves you with no exceptions.
If you’re a writer who hopes to publish, you’ve had it drilled into your head that you’re supposed to build a platform. Publishers want to know that you have access to an audience online who will read and review and champion your work. This can lead to a cynicism about the work we do online. We grudgingly set up a Facebook author page, and we hunt around for best practices to help our work “go viral.”
But even if you’re not seeking to be published, any of us who writes or who cares about words, can easily despair at how superficial and mean the marketplace of ideas seems to be.
But here’s the thing about all those words. We have a choice.
We get to decide whether to give in to despair at the cheapening word, or lament the death of the book, or to crack the code so we can get noticed and go viral. Or we can see every word we write as opportunity, to use these media for connection, for the sharing of words that are fine and careful and witty, to connect authentically with other human beings.
We get to decide whether to lose hope that our words still matter, or decide to make the most of the words we do put into the world.
Whether Twitter is a noisy place for superficiality and snark in cheap 140-character bursts, or a place to carefully craft our own modern-day haiku.
Whether Facebook is a den of banality, or an opportunity for a modern-day Paul the Apostle to write letters to the church, and to the world. And then to engage the responses to those letters.
And all of that writing that we do online is… well, it isn’t gone. It’s still on hard drives and up in the cloud, wherever that is. And I often mine from old blog posts of mine and other online sources when I’m working on a project… because I believe no creative endeavor is ever wasted. But I also know that writing isn’t ever truly gone because it somehow gets into the spiritual cells of the people who read it and take it to heart. It feels grandiose to say that writing, like all art, changes people. Yet I can say it in all humility because it’s not something that I do, or that any of us does, regardless of the kind of writing we pursue.
It is the alchemy of the Spirit, working through us—working through all our hours of hunting for just the right word, or finally giving up and hoping the imperfect word will do. It’s the Spirit working through the vulnerability of climbing into a pulpit every Sunday after relentless Sunday, or pressing “Send” on the book proposal, or submitting an Op-Ed to the local newspaper, or composing an email, or writing a post on Facebook in the wake of Orlando that tries to be prophetic and pastoral and winsome.
I’m still a big fan of books. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to write them and see them through to publication. As Presbyterians, we are people who love books and I don’t see that changing. But more than that, we’re people of the Word. And words. And we know that words that challenge, and heal, and delight, and transform, are the words that matter, whether they flow into a book or a blog or a message on Snapchat.
Jesus understood this. We think of Jesus as a great teacher and orator, and he was. But Jesus was also, apparently, a writer. Well, he wrote at least once. We have a record of it in John 8. But he didn’t write on papyrus. He didn’t compile his thoughts in a scroll.
Jesus wrote using the only material he had available at that moment—the dirt on the ground. When the Jewish authorities bring him a woman whom they had deemed guilty of adultery, it’s a test to see what he’ll do.
And what he does is he bends down and starts writing. And this is important: he’s not doodling, he’s not drawing a diagram, he’s writing. But what is he writing? We will never know. Those words are gone to the elements and to history. Perhaps they were words that Jesus himself needed to read, something that would help give him the strength and courage for this encounter. Or perhaps he’s writing a message for the Pharisees. Or for the woman.
Maybe what he was writing was “God loves you with no exceptions.”
And so should we. In book and on blog, in text and Twitter, in poetry and prose, in fiction and non-fiction. When you come down to it, it is a message for this and every age.
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Our kids still have two weeks of school left, but it seems like summer is already in full swing here. That means book-writing is in full swing too. (The September deadline approaches!) I just finished my last two major speaking events until August–it was great to explore improvisation as a spiritual and life practice with groups in Arkansas and North Carolina.
In my retreats, we often talk about what it looks like to receive what life offers us (even if we wouldn’t have chosen it) and build on it in a way that promotes grace and wholeness. I spoke about my experience dealing with a leg injury that completely derailed my running plans last fall, as one small example. (You can read about that at the end of this blog post.) How do we say “Yes-and” when our hopes, expectations, or plans get derailed? That’s the essence of good life improvisation.
To illustrate this point, I often have groups do an exercise in which each person draws a simple doodle on a piece of paper–a squiggle, a zigzag, whatever strikes their fancy. Then people pass these doodles to the person on their left, so everyone ends up with a different sheet of paper. The task is to create something with it–to build on the gift that’s been given to us and to make it our own–to make it something new.
I was enamored of this drawing, completed by a woman who received her doodle from a ten-year-old girl:
I like that she took the message of Yes-and and put it “in the mouth” of two figures that looked like they were talking to one another. They were separate entities, yet connected.
This woman touched me even further when I asked if I could take the drawing with me: “Well, let me ask my drawing partner.” She then turned to the ten-year-old and asked if she was OK with my having it. That was exactly the right impulse. The drawing didn’t belong just to the woman; it was a collaboration between the two of them.
I’m writing a lot right now about the importance of community in improv. You can’t do improv by yourself; you’ve got to have people in the mix with you. Similarly, we don’t live our lives in isolation. Some people are a part of our lives no matter what; we’re stuck with them, for better or worse. But we can also choose to have people in our lives who will help us create the best Yes possible. And what gets created–whether it’s a doodle on the page, or a scene on stage, or a day in the life–is a partnership between pilgrims on a journey together.
Speaking of partnership, I hope you’ll check out a recent blog post, written after our improv level 2 class’s final performance:
One of the profound moments from Wednesday night’s showcase was an opening exercise before we went on stage. After a few warmup games, our TA asked, “So tell me what you appreciated about your performance in the showcase.” The group paused for a moment… I wondered briefly if we’d heard him wrong.
But no, he was asking us to talk about the showcase as if it had already happened. So we did.
Read the blog to find out why that was such a profound experience!
Happy summer. I wish you lots of peace, joy and Yes.
the “evils” of Hillary Clinton or her “weaknesses” as a candidate.
Bernie Sanders, the Democratic primary, the “scourge” that is superdelegates, or whether the whole thing was “rigged.” (It wasn’t.)
Benghazi, emails, or poor Vince Foster, may he rest in peace.
Comments on those topics will be deleted. Write your own blog post.
I’ve heard from various people a lot of discomfort (or disgust) over the Clinton “dynasty.” In a country of 300 million people, they say, must we continue to mine the same family to fulfill the nation’s highest office? It’s unseemly in a country that calls itself a democracy (or democratic republic), and yet another example of how we’ve devolved into oligarchy.
Google tells me the first definition of dynasty is “a line of hereditary rulers of a country.” Which the Clintons are surely not. Get back to me in 10-15 years when Chelsea Clinton runs for office.
The second definition of “dynasty” is “a succession of people from the same family who play a prominent role in business, politics, or another field.” This one’s obviously on point. But I’m wanting to focus on dynasty as a disqualifier, or at least a pejorative, when it comes to Hillary Clinton.
I don’t buy it.
A husband and wife rising to the top levels of their field (or fields) is very different than the younger generation of a family following an older one into leadership or public service.
George and Jeb Bush, for example, grew up with politics and public service as part of the air they breathed. It afforded them advantages, access, and a ready-made network of connections. (Substitute the Kennedy family if you prefer.) Hillary Rodham, by contrast, grew up in a middle class family with a mother whose own parents abandoned her to her grandparents (who weren’t too thrilled about raising her either). Bill had a similarly modest upbringing. Remember “I still believe in a place called Hope”?
Did being the first lady of Arkansas open doors for Hillary Clinton? Undoubtedly. But her ability to leverage those opportunities came despite having had no nepotistic advantages from her youth. She walked through those doors herself (and became the first woman Senator from New York, Secretary of State, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for President in 2016). And although this is tangential to my point, she did so despite a multi-decade, borderline pathological assault on her family, her integrity, and yes, her womanhood. (Did the Clintons make serious mistakes and stumbles? Yes. Again–not about that. Write a blog post.)
I will also say–and this will bring out the pitchforks, I’m sure–that as much as we treasure our can-do, American, bootstraps, anti-elitist spirit, I don’t want just anyone to be President. It’s a position that anyone should aspire to, but hardly anyone has the chops to do well. In a country of 300 million, there are probably 25 people at any given time who have the skills, experience and temperament to do it. The fact that this year, one of those 25 people happens to be married to someone who’s done the job before isn’t some sign of ruin. (Though there are plenty of signs of ruin, this isn’t one of them.) It’s a testament to the fact that being President is freaking hard. Any leg-up that our next President may have, even if it’s having 8 years of pillow talk as the President’s spouse, is to be celebrated, not derided.
But here’s the bigger reason I can’t even with the hand-wringing over “dynasty.” It has to do with the decisions that families everywhere make about careers and children and priorities: Does the family have the bandwidth and desire for both spouses to go full-bore with their careers? If not, which spouse’s “advancement” will take priority? What are their financial resources? Will the couple have children? How many? What kind of childcare is available? How much support do they have from extended family and friends?
These decisions about who does what and when can be complicated and painful. In many families–we can probably still say “most” — the wife/mother slows (or stops) her career for some period of time to provide primary care for the children. This has long-term financial consequences; women who leave the workforce never really catch up in terms of earning potential. But one thing’s for sure: we need to be affirming of women at all levels who make the best decisions they’re able to make–not sneer that their second act is somehow emblematic of a “dynasty.”
Because here’s the thing about Hillary Rodham. People who knew her as a young woman before, during, and after Wellesley believed she’d be President some day. She had the intelligence, the vision, the leadership skills, and a desire to serve, a product of her Wesleyan religious faith. (That’s not puff piece, that’s fact.) But her journey took her to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she followed Bill as he pursued his political career. Along the way she broke all kinds of barriers, including becoming the first female partner of the Rose Law Firm.
The various calculations and conversations that led the Clintons to focus primarily on his career are known fully only to them. And yes, society at the time didn’t know what to do with a strong, capable woman (and still doesn’t, honestly). In some ways it made sense to wait for the world to catch up. But who knows how far and how fast she could have risen, had Bill been the one to follow her?
It’s not dynasty. I don’t know what to call it, except “the way it still works for women across this country.”
We need better systems of support, so mothers who feel called to devote themselves to work outside the home can do so. We need affordable child care, better pay equity, and maternity policies that aren’t an absolute joke. And we need to erase social stigmas that paint fathers as emasculated oddities if they decided to decelerate their careers and take primary responsibility for child-rearing.
But until we have those things, can we at least cut it out with the dynasty talk?
This week was the end of my level 2 improv class. It’s been a bit of a slog for many of us, which I’ve written a little about. Level 1 was a lot of “Whee! Let yourself go! Improv = recess for grownups!” In level 2, we get smacked upside the head with how much we have to learn. It’s stage 2 of the four stages of competence: we know what we don’t know.
We also had our showcase this week, in which the various classes perform in front of a live audience. We had about ten people enrolled in our section, but it turned out only four of us could play that night. And you know what? It was awesome. With ten people on the line, you can hold back because hey, someone else will probably jump into the next scene. You can also pre-plan your initiations a little. With four people, you’re in the mix pretty much constantly and there’s no time to pre-think. I missed my buddies, but I loved it.
I study improv for the larger life lessons way more than the performance-based aspects of it. By that I mean, my ultimate goal isn’t to join a troupe, but to learn how to be more creative and flexible, less wedded to the way I think things should be. (Even though I would be a great queen of the world, you know I would.)
But I also know you can’t just think about improv. You can’t get to the life lessons without getting in there and doing it—and it’s so much better in front of an audience, especially an audience that’s rooting for you to do well. After all:
You don’t observe a dance class… you DANCE a dance class!
One of the profound moments from Wednesday night’s showcase was an opening exercise before we went on stage. After a few warmup games, our TA asked, “So tell me what you appreciated about your performance in the showcase.” The group paused for a moment–our TA’s first language is Spanish and I wondered briefly if we’d heard him wrong. (He was a great TA, by the way–and being able to improvise AND be funny in your non-native language? FIERCE.)
But no, he was asking us to talk about the showcase as if it had already happened. So we did.
I appreciated that we got to the who-what-where of the scene really quickly out there.
I appreciated that there wasn’t any dead space during the show.
I loved the way we all had each other’s backs.
This was a revelation. By making these statements, we set our intentions for the experience that was to come. And we spoke our reality into existence.
The churchy word for this is eschatology–the branch of theology that thinks about the fulfillment of promises made in scripture. Most Christians I hang out with don’t like to talk about eschatology because it can get into some nuttiness over the end times and the antichrist and other various and sundry. I try to hold the topic lightly by asking questions like, “Where are we headed? If God is love, what are God’s ultimate hopes for this creation? How are those hopes already in evidence? How are they not yet realized?”
How many of you have been part of an experience or project that kicked off with, “What do we all hope to get out of this? What are our goals?” Those questions are fine, as far as they go. But by asking us to speak about the showcase as if it were completed, our TA asked us to place ourselves in the future already–to sense what that accomplishment would feel like in our bodies, to picture ourselves at our best, and to experience the fulfillment of all our hard work.
And a heads-up to the good people of Westminster Presbyterian Church, Greensboro–this is one of the first questions I’ll be asking when we gather on retreat tomorrow!