At long, long last, God, Improv, and the Art of Living will drop next week. I hope lots of people read and enjoy it. But it’s not for everyone–no book is, of course. So in that spirit, and to save my book from falling into the wrong hands, here’s how to know whether you should buy and read my book or not. (Smile)
Your life always goes according to plan.
If you’re someone for whom life perpetually just “works out”—you make a plan and live it out, no obstacles, no surprises, until you placidly die in your sleep at age 90—wow. Congratulations. Here’s one less book for your Goodreads list. Isn’t that a relief?
You like books that stay in one lane.
I’ve been calling this book “Brené Brown meets Tina Fey.” In this book you’ll get everything from neuroscience to folklore to a quote from Friends. If such cross-disciplinary eclecticism doesn’t appeal to you, stay away.
You like your God to toe the party line.
I write from my perspective as a pastor, and a free-range pastor besides, who bumps up against all kinds of spiritual but not religious people who see the world in different ways. From that vantage point, I question a lot of the things many of us have been taught about God. I dare to suggest that maybe God doesn’t have a plan. Perhaps God—however we understand that Great Whatever—interacts with human beings and the greater world in ways very different from the usual ideas of a sovereign being. And so, if you’re worried that members of your church will see this book tucked under your arm and turn you in to the Calvinist Heretic Police, please, don’t take the chance.
“The Way We’ve Always Done It” is working great for your congregation/organization.
This book is for individuals, but with an eye toward teams, companies, churches, and other organizations… but only if your organization is finding itself having to navigate a set of challenges and cultural forces with no road map. I mean… that’s most organizations anymore, but perhaps you got lucky. Good! (When’s your book coming out?)
You like reading books that allow you to remain unchanged.
Hey. I’m romantic enough to say that all reading changes us in some way, even books meant solely to entertain. But this book is written with an express purpose: to get you (and me) thinking about life, and how to live it in more vibrant, creative, generous ways. It’s baked right into the book’s structure (seven principles of improv and how to apply them to our lives, with reflection questions and exercises) and content (see point 2 above).
But if that’s not your jam, there are probably books that will help you remain… hermetically sealed, psychologically speaking. My son owns a book of puns that might fit the bill. Ah but see, even that may improve your vocabulary! I don’t know… maybe they still make Archie and Jughead comics? (I kid, I kid.)
Typos send you into an apoplectic rage.
Look, we went over this thing countless times, and my team at Eerdmans is first-rate, with deep experience with this stuff. But let’s face it. There’s gotta be one that snuck in there somewhere. In the immortal words of Bender in The Breakfast Club, “Screws fall out, the world’s an imperfect place.”
This one is the result of many years of incubation, mulling, exploratory blog posts, group work, and personal exploration.
…And improv class.
Is this book for you? Here’s what my publisher (Eerdmans) has to say about it:
The central principle of “yes, and…” in improvisational theater has produced a lot of great comedy. But it also offers an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people boldly saying “yes, and…” as they receive what life throws their way and build upon it.
Pastor, speaker, and improv aficionada MaryAnn McKibben Dana blends scripture, psychology, theology, and pop culture in a wise, funny, down-to-earth guide to improv as a practice for life. Offering concrete spiritual wisdom in the form of seven improvisational principles, this book will help readers become more awake, creative, resilient, and ready to play—even (and perhaps especially) when life doesn’t go according to plan.
Years ago I had a friend who liked to say, “Life is not a riddle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” We are all improvisers, whether we realize it or not. We improvise in order to get through the day. We improvise when life surprises us. We do it without even thinking about it. This book, I hope, will help us all do it better. (And I’ve included individual and group exercises so you can reflect and play—with others or on your own.)
Writing this book been such an intense and wonderful journey, and a long one, that it almost doesn’t seem real that there’s a physical product at the end. I remember when I was in labor with our firstborn, it was such a complete mind and body immersion in the work—the labor—that when I heard her cry for the first time, there was this instant of surprise: Oh yeah, all this effort had a purpose!
I’m feeling a little bit like that. Improv is so much about the experience rather than a destination. Life is like that too, no?
That said, I can’t wait for you to read the book. I’m also nervous for people to read it. Sabbath in the Suburbs had such an autobiographical component, and it was daunting to think about people reading it. This one is less personal, but the vulnerability is still there.
The book’s foreword is written by actor, author (Angry Conversations with God), and former Groundlings member Susan E. Isaacs. It was a true delight to see how deeply she got it:
McKibben Dana invites us to approach life as a chance to discover with God, with all the mess and surprise that comes along with it. What if God isn’t an immutable taskmaster but a creative collaborator? What if God’s answer is “Yes And”? What if God is asking us the question: “What do you want?” It’s a terrifying and freeing invitation. It’s also a step toward maturity.
Thank you all, dear readers, for walking alongside me in this process… which is only just beginning (again!). I hope you’ll read and laugh and learn and think and play.
This month at the NEXT Church blog, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Here’s my contribution–cross-posted here. Check out the whole series!
I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)
Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.
Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.
At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.
Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)
I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”
I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”
As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!
Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.
When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.
Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.
The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.
The question that led to More than Enough started to fester a few years later. I found myself feeling so grateful for my life — healthy kids, good job, happy marriage, safe place to live, plenty to eat – but I was also so aware that such an abundant life wasn’t enjoyed by or even available to many people in my community and in the world. Plus, I began to realize that lots of the choices that made my life so good and full were actually having negative impacts on my global neighbors. What was I supposed to do with that dilemma?
I can’t say I totally answered that question, but writing the book helped me wrestle with all this, and come to a place where I can both delight and give thanks for my life and also strive to live more responsibly and faithfully.
What will people gain by reading this book that they won’t get anywhere else?
I hope that this book simultaneously makes people feel better and also squirm a little bit. When we were tossing around possible titles for the book, one of the suggestions for a subtitle included the word “contentment.” I vetoed that (I worked with a great editor and publisher who really listened to me), because I actually didn’t want people to feel content. Most of us have too much, spend too much, eat too much, and I want my readers — even as they are feeling gratitude for all they have — to also take a hard look at the choices they make in their everyday lives. The reality of living in the world means that we are always living in the tension between reality and the ideal.
One thing I hope sets my book apart from other books about simple living – it’s really not a book about simple living, but it gets described that way a lot – is that I talk about the resources that the Christian tradition bring to the conversation. It’s one thing to decide to buy local food or to give money to the homeless shelter. It’s another to think about all that through the lens of confession, lament, delight, or hope.
Share one idea, quote, or section in the book of which you are particularly proud.
In one chapter, I talk about the role of advocacy, and how important it is to pay attention to the systems that contribute to the inequalities on our society. We can’t think about feeding the hungry without also thinking about why, in a country where there is more than enough food to feed everybody, there are hungry people in the first place. In that chapter, I talk about going with my family to a couple of Moral Monday rallies in our state capital. I’d never thought of myself as a bumper-sticker touting, sign-carrying activist, but I’ve come to see that engaging in our democracy is as important as being generous with our resources. This is even more true now, given the current political situation in our country, then it was when I was writing the book, and I’m glad I have that framework for thinking about how activism and advocacy fit into a well-lived life.
What has been the biggest surprise about getting a book written and published? What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
It’s always a delight when I hear from readers that my book has been helpful to them. I’m still a little surprised (intimidated?) that people outside my immediate family are reading what I write.
My advice to aspiring authors – and I’m certainly not the first person to give this advice – is to write something you really care about and something you can’t find the answer to anywhere else. In other words, write for yourself. Write through the big questions you have about life. I think it’s Anne Lamott who said something like, “Nobody else cares if you write, so you have to.” I have that written on a post-it note stuck on the wall above my desk, and it’s gotten me back to the keyboard many times.
Dream time: where would you LOVE to see this book covered?
But I actually think this book works best as a grassroots kind of thing. It’s not a book for everybody — I’m too liberal for some readers (and probably not liberal enough for others). Plus, not everybody’s in a place where they have the luxury of contemplating these questions. What makes me happy is to hear about churches and reading groups who are using the book to start conversations in their small groups or Sunday school classes. If my book gets even a few people to think more intentionally about how they live, I’ll be satisfied.
That said, I’d fall out of my chair with church-nerd giddiness if Walter Brueggemann read my book. His work on abundance and scarcity has been about as influential on my life and my writing than any other single writer.
Thank you Lee. I was fortunate to read and endorse Lee’s book and I hope you will check it out as well.
One of the reasons I’m so happy to be done with the manuscript for Improvising with Godis the chance to consume art, and read books, and generally get the tank filled up after expending so much energy writing. I also realize I’ve had my head down so much I haven’t had a chance to promote the really great work that’s already out there, written by friends and colleagues.
In no particular order, here are some recent books you should know about:
My friend Elizabeth Hagan’s memoir Birthed: Finding Grace Through Infertility dropped last month! You got to meet her here at the Blue Room in her Q&A, but check out her book, which is not just for people struggling with infertility–the story is much broader than that and resists easy answers.
Elizabeth was a member of my Writing Revs group, as was Ruth Everhart, whose memoir Ruined is her harrowing account of a sexual assault that took place in college and the healing that occurred in the long aftermath of that trauma. I got to read both of these books in earlier stages of the process, and it is heartening to see them both loose in the world.
I had the chance to read Lee Hull Moses’s More Than Enough: Living Abundantly in a Culture of Excess and is a great companion for anyone who’s tried to live more lightly on the earth, only to discover that simplicity is anything but simple. Lee is a trustworthy companion on this journey, offering just the right blend of deep wisdom and disarming authenticity.
On the topic of love and relationships, I haven’t picked up Katherine Willis Pershey’s book Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity, but it’s also making a big splash. Eugene Peterson has called it the best book on marriage he’s ever read. Holy endorsements, Batman!