Category Archives: Improvising Life

Why You Shouldn’t Buy My Book

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.”

Which is kinda what the book’s about, so…

The Cost of Saying “Yes”: A Book Excerpt

Jonathan Daniels was a well-to-do kid from rural New Hampshire who enrolled in Virginia Military Institute in the late 1950s. After his father died abruptly in his sophomore year, Jonathan’s grief led to a reassessment of his priorities, and eventually he ended up in seminary. He was convicted by Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to come to Selma. There he witnessed the horrors his brothers and sisters were experiencing in Alabama. He would go back to Selma again and again—for a semester, for a summer—and in August 1965 he participated in a small protest and was jailed. After six days the group was released. While waiting for a ride home, they went into a grocery store to buy a drink. A deputy was threatening a black family, and Jonathan stepped in between them, pushing a young girl back out of the way. The deputy fired, and Jonathan was killed instantly.

Jonathan Daniels said a Yes that cost him his life. He embodied preacher William Sloane Coffin’s words about the kind of grace that allows us to risk “something big for something good.”

There’s an assumption that improv is a happy-go-lucky, no-holds-barred art form. But that glosses over the reality that Yes is risky. Saying Yes onstage is risky. Saying Yes in the midst of one’s life is even more so. And the risks don’t always work out the way we want. If they did, life would be a series of sure things rather than a string of chancy improvisations.

In a commencement speech for Knox College, Stephen Colbert talks about the risks that come from saying yes:

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. . . . People who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. . . . So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

Yes is a hollow response if it doesn’t come with the possibility of everything going catastrophically wrong. Yes is infused with curiosity, mystery, and a hint of danger. We don’t know how life will turn out. It costs us something to step into that ambiguity.

*        *        *

My friend Sarah says the riskiest Yes she ever said was submitting an application to adopt a child. She had planned for it for years, and had completed all the paperwork. But when it was all done except for pressing the “Send” button, her finger hovered in suspended animation for a long time. Was she really ready for this? The potential heartbreak of getting matched with a child, falling in love from afar, and having the adoption fall through? And on the other side, the messy, heart-expanding, freedom-killing, tear-filled, joy-infused task of loving a child forever?

Click. Yes.

Some of us step into these Yes moments more easily than others. I myself prefer that my backup plans have backup plans. Many of us need to start small, with some risky mini- Yeses to build a habit. Improv has been described as “creative cross-training,” because it gives us tools and habits that translate to the rest of our lives.

Many self-help books talk about creative risk in glowing terms. But sometimes our Yes crashes down, with hurtful impact. The gamble doesn’t pay off, and hearts get broken.
It’s spiritually dishonest to suggest otherwise. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully ‘round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. . . . To love is to be vulnerable.”

 

–An excerpt from God, Improv, and the Art of Living. Pre-order now.

Image: Jonathan Daniels and friends.

Useful Fictions

As I get ready for the release of God, Improv, and the Art of Living (have you pre-ordered?) I’ve been asked, in both interviews and regular conversation, “How has improv changed your life?” It’s a big question with a lot of small, everyday answers. Here’s just one:

We all make assumptions about the people and circumstances around us, often without thinking critically about those assumptions. The improv principle of yes-and (to receive what is offered and to build on it) invites me to lean in the direction of compassion for others and myself in the assumptions I make.

For example, on a recent Saturday morning I was in a coffee shop, waiting my turn and growing increasingly late as the person in front of me placed a large and complicated order—about six hot beverages to go, each with some specific, nit-picking substitution or adaptation. Moment by moment, my irritation grew: I have somewhere to be. What is taking so long? Why do we all need these special snowflake drinks anyway? I fumed, preparing to order my decidedly uncomplicated tea.

Then I noticed that the man was wearing a suit. To pass the time, I found myself thinking of reasons why someone would be dressed up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Job interview? Stayed out all night and on his way home? Laundry day and everything else was dirty? I finally decided he was attending a family funeral, and had decided to pick up beverages for his fellow bereaved loved ones. And those picayune order details? Rather than being indulgences of an “I want it MY WAY!” society, they became a means for this gentleman to show care for people who maybe needed a little comfort on a very difficult day.

I obviously have no idea whether he was really going to a funeral. But ultimately, what does it matter? My little moment of improvisational imagination allowed me to breathe deeply, to relax into the waiting, and to beam a little love toward this stranger—and don’t we all need love? Making a decision to move toward charity helps me be the kind of person I would like to be—who I feel called to be. 

To be clear, I have to work constantly at this practice. My mind often wants to go to the least charitable interpretation of events. But improv reminds me that while I can’t always change or control the circumstances of my life, I have full control over my own yes-and.

Last week I was with 16 clergy colleagues for our annual “preacher camp,” called The Well. During our time together we delve deeply into scripture and theology through papers and sermons we share with one another. It’s always one of my favorite weeks of the year.

My friend Andrew Foster-Connors shared some ideas from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his book As If: Idealization and Ideas that intersect with this idea of “yes-anding” in a positive direction. Appiah talks about the concept of “useful fictions.” No world of ideas can possibly represent the full truth, because our minds aren’t big enough to encompass it. So “there is a gap between what is true and what is useful to believe,” writes Appiah. This is even true with certain scientific principles, which are helpful in predicting outcomes, but are not always 100% accurate. Such principles aren’t strictly “true,” because they can’t predict outcomes in all times and all circumstances. They are “roughly right,” however, and therefore a useful belief.

I wonder what kind of beliefs you are currently clinging to, and whether they help you live as the person you are created to be. How might you alter those beliefs in the spirit of yes-and? What kinds of “useful fictions” might you play with? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

~

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The Friday Loaf

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than five years since Sabbath in the Suburbs was released! I still hear from organizations who want me to come and speak on the topic, but I’m doing way less of that than I used to… (and more on improvisation as a spiritual practice!). As important as a regular time of rest and renewal is, I’m just not invested in the sabbath stuff at the moment. Part of that is to be expected—spiritual themes loom large in our lives for a while, then fade away in favor of other things—but my reluctance to speak about sabbath is about something else.

Sabbath has been really, really hard. For a while now.

Whenever I speak to groups about sabbath, I hope I’m crystal clear that while it’s a simple practice, it’s far from easy. The reason our family devoted ourselves to it for one year is because it took a concerted effort (and bounded time) to make it happen! Now our three kids are much older—one of them in high school, with all the projects and extracurriculars that entails, not to mention the fact that she’s not super into mom and dad these days.  When parents of teens would come up to me and say, “Yeah but…,” I knew they weren’t just rationalizing. It is hard. I knew it must be. But now I know it first hand. Add in a vocation that has me on the road many weekends, and getting into a regular rhythm is tough.

What to do?
The answer, at least for now, has been bread.

Last fall, I spoke at an event for the Women of Reform Judaism—my first interfaith speaking event, but I hope not my last. The event took place prior to a Friday Shabbat service, and was preceded by dinner, a joyful affair with ample loaves of golden braided challah on each table.

Heaven!

Friends know that whereas some of us live gluten-free, I like to joke that I am gluten-full. I run specifically so I can eat carbs, and I’m only half kidding about that. I adore bread, and challah is the crowning achievement of that ancient technology.

That night last November, sitting at table with the Women of Reform Judaism, I loved the sensory experience of breaking that bread together, smelling its yeasty goodness, and pulling apart spongy pillows of the stuff. “Taste and see that God is good,” indeed! (If you don’t love or can’t eat bread, I trust that you have other sensory and gustatory experiences that provide similar satisfaction and well-being. I’d love to know what they are! Coffee? Chocolate? A good nourishing soup?)

I recently found a bakery close to my home that makes fresh challah each Friday, so it’s been a weekly practice to go and grab a loaf. Some weeks it’s a frenetic challenge to get there in the afternoon. (I’ve also been known to buy a second loaf and freeze it if I suspect I won’t make it to the bakery.)

It feels very old fashioned, even extravagant, to run this extra errand to a specialty shop, a place where I can’t cross anything else off my list. Sometimes I chafe against this inefficiency, self-imposed though it may be.

But all of that falls away on Friday evening, which has become our family’s default sabbath time, and the challah is our sabbath marker. It’s the sign that family time, holy time, is beginning. I put out the loaf, on a cutting board with serrated knife, and children and spouse cut themselves generous slices when they come home from school and work. We have a simple meal, usually leftovers—often out of a can or a freezer container, to be honest—but the challah sets it apart.

In fact, maybe this practice of buying and savoring bread is a place where sabbath and improv come together. Our lives are always changing, and our practices must change as well. Improvising life means responding to things as they really are, not the way they used to be… or the way we wish they were. We’re finding our way into a new way of being, one loaf at a time.

Sometimes, Friday night is all we can muster in terms of family sabbath. Sometimes, not even that is possible. When I’m being unkind to myself, I think a loaf of bread seems like a cop-out after how seriously we used to take our sabbath time together. But I have no use for an unkind spirituality. Bread it is. Reheated food, table conversation—it is all enough.


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My Book Is (Almost) Here!

I am so excited to share that God, Improv, and the Art of Living is now available for pre-order. (It will be released in early May, but why wait?)

This one is the result of many years of incubation, mulling, exploratory blog posts, group work, and personal exploration.
…And improv class.
…And play.

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.

And buy a copy for a friend too…