The writing workshop I attended in Collegeville involved unstructured writing time each morning and afternoon (heaven) with group gatherings in the evenings. One of these gatherings was a workshop on improv led by Greta Grosch, an actor and group trainer in Minnesota.
Greta led us through a series of exercises that built nicely on one another. We started with games in which we passed various words and movements around a circle, then worked our way up to improvising scenes. Which sounds more impressive than it was. We are all amateurs, our group is somewhat introverted, and as writers, our creativity often comes after staring at a blank page or empty screen, not after a facilitator points to us and says, “You. Go.”
As many of you know, the basic rule of improv, is to yes-and. It’s a decent way to live one’s life: to build on what’s offered (especially if you can’t change it).
Yet everyone in our group struggled to move the scenes forward. It’s amazing how ingrained the word but is in us. We resist the suggestion our partner gives us because we think we had a “better” idea. Or we have no idea how to run with what’s offered, so we veer off in our own direction. It’s not about rejecting the person; it’s about retaining some semblance of control. Yet improv is about mutual discovery. You agree to be swept along just to see where the thing goes.
I’ve done just enough improv that it’s not excruciating anymore, but I still like the theory more than the practice. I’m intrigued by improv, not because it comes naturally, but because it doesn’t.
But every time I do improv there’s a breakthrough.
Last time I wrote about improv it ended up on Collegeville’s blog. That time I had this realization: people aren’t looking at you and judging you nearly as much as you think. This is very freeing.
My takeaway from Greta’s workshop was this:
Don’t be clever.
What stops many of us from moving forward is the pressure to think of something good. So we stand there, racking our brains for a zany line or action. The silence not only kills the energy of the scene or game, but it raises the stakes for whatever’s eventually going to come out of your mouth. People expect it to be awesome, a bar that we novices mostly clear accidentally and serendipitously.
I realized how much more fruitful it is to do something, anything. Just act. For me, improv isn’t about learning how to perform for others (yet?) but how to silence my inner commentator long enough to act intuitively. In the beginning, my question was “Can I come up with something clever?” I found it helpful to shift to “How quickly can I respond to what’s been offered?” A quick response is uncensored, almost instinctive. And it may stink or it may be funny, but at least something happens that moves the action forward and gives one’s partner something to work with.
The problem is, many of us know improv through Second City or Whose Line Is It Anyway? We judge ourselves against the masters, but these are people at the top of their craft. (They’ve also learned the forms so well that the scenes they build aren’t truly anything-goes. If you watch closely, there are jokes they fall back on and moves they make that, while not quite scripted, aren’t truly spontaneous.)
As a sometimes-control freak with a perfectionistic streak, cleverness is my enemy. It means I never make the initial move, write the first word, because it’s got to be just right. A life lived improvisationally means that you start. Don’t just stand there, do something. Almost anything will do, because that first move provides information you need in order to make the second move.
Everyone should have a happy place—a mental location that you can visit in your mind when you need a little peace and well-being. (And ideally, visit for real every now and then.) For a long time, my happy place has been this:
The Peter Pan ride at Magic Kingdom.
A few years ago I acquired a second one: the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, sponsor of wonderful writing workshops, purveyor of gracious Benedictine hospitality.
See you in a week or so. In the meantime, a friend of mine sent me this poem for inspiration. A gift:
“Do You Have Any Advice For Those of Us Just Starting Out?”
Give up sitting dutifully at your desk. Leave
your house or apartment. Go out into the world.
It’s all right to carry a notebook but a cheap
one is best, with pages the color of weak tea
and on the front a kitten or a space ship.
Chalice Press (publisher of Sabbath in the Suburbs, still available at fine online retailers) has some great stuff in the works these days. There’s Who’s Got Time? Spirituality for a Busy Generation, which I featureda few months ago. Traci Smith’s bookSeamless Faith was also featured here recently. Coming next year will be a book by Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist pastor who was defrocked after he performed the wedding for his gay son.
Anyway, here’s a little Q&A that will give you a sense of their book:
1. How did this book come about? What was the initial impetus to write it?
We don’t intend to imply that she supports the book, but we can kind of blame it on a heady cocktail of Unco11, insomnia and Sara Miles. We love what she does with Take This Bread, nailing down liturgical practice to concrete activity in the world, and we were brainstorming ways to do similar things. Sara Miles clearly articulates that her experience of communion was a call to feed her community, out of which grew their food pantry. It’s crazy to us that a church can celebrate communion, and talk about sustenance and welcome, and yet have starving people across the street, and whole populations who are anything but welcome.
So we came up with prayer, which to us was emblematic of this tendency. We pray to God to forgive us, and feel better without having to reconcile with people we’ve hurt, or who have hurt us. We praise God, but look down on people who don’t achieve success by our standards. We pray prayers of thanksgiving, but Christians are famous for being poor tippers, and we often fail to thank the many people who make our lives possible.
We went through a common liturgical structure, which is punctuated by various forms of prayer, and organized the book in that way. We picked the title Never Pray Again at first to be as attention-grabbing as we could, but by the end of the writing, we have a greater sense for prayer as being one among many spiritual practices, and in itself no more necessary than liturgical dance. Notice that the title isn’t stop-praying-because-you-are-doing-something-bad, because that is not our argument. It is our belief that you can do something so much better in following Christ which will naturally lead you to Never Pray Again. Ultimately this book is about how we are called to act, more than whisper things in love.
2. I can tell you all have the pastor’s heart. You are very clear at the beginning, “If this book is not for you, put it down.” Who is this book for? Who do you hope will read it?
We imagine people who struggle with the efficacy of prayer, or with the constant assurance from other Christians to just “pray about it” when things go wrong, will get a lot from this book. People who are open to progressive ideas and who want to be challenged in various areas of their practice will be challenged by this book, we think in a good way. People who are already consistent pray-ers will find many other resources and ideas that, we think, will only strengthen them. We also found that our crowd-funding efforts with the Never Pray Again coloring book caught the attention of a number of members of an atheist community, and people who heard about us from that community made up about a third of our backers. For non-believers, I think the challenge will be that this book is stuffed full of Biblical allusions, stories and quotes. So we’ll say things they agree with about prayer, but the challenge will be that the direction we go is deeper into Christianity, rather than away from it.
3. You do a good job building a positive case for a very active life of faith, and you spend less time critiquing prayer itself and why it’s bad. That’s a good thing–it makes the book ultimately more constructive and useful. But is it possible to “get to work” AND to be actively engaged in a life of prayer? Or do you see something problematic about prayer itself, as it’s currently practiced?
This question comes up a lot, and we anticipated it. In theory, one can be living an active practice of Christianity and also pray regularly. Many of our personal heroes were pray-ers (though many others were not). We make the case in the book, however, that there are plenty of situations where prayer can be an impediment to Christian practice, and as Christians in community we are surrounded by examples of this, and have impeded ourselves as well plenty of times. Aric said it really well, that if there is a situation where you can have a ‘good’ prayer life and ‘relationship with God’, but a poor relationship with other people around you, then you are deceiving yourself about your prayer life and relationship with God.
One thing we definitely want to challenge is that Christians must pray. Our experience is that prayer is presented as a panacea, and as such, it doesn’t work very well. We disagree that prayer is a sine qua non of Christian practice. So far we have found, unsurprisingly, that the idea of being Christian and not praying is challenging to a lot of Christians. But if we put all the Bible passages about how and what to pray in one column, and all the Bible passages about how to treat people in another column, we would find many things that are more central to Christian practice than prayer.
We also hear things like “Well, anything done for God is a form of prayer,” which might be true, but if everything is prayer, then does the word prayer mean anything? We don’t think so. In that case, we aren’t talking about the same thing. In Never Pray Again, we are talking about what people mean when they say something like “Let us pray.” What happens next is most often that we close our eyes, bow our heads, clasp our hands, or put them up in the air, and say words in our minds or aloud which are directed at God. This is what the word prayer means 99.9% of the time, and this is what we are challenging. And we are not merely saying ‘pray a little bit differently.’ We are saying that it is fruitful to at least consider that we Never Pray Again.
4. How do you understand the Sermon on the Mount in light of your book? Jesus has a lot to say about how we pray (in your closet, etc.), but he also lifts up the Lord’s Prayer as a template.
So, in Matthew, 5:1 through 6:4 is about things we talk about in the book at length. Matthew 6:5-13 is about prayer, and then we’re back to other concerns in 6:14 through the end of chapter 7. Interestingly, there is very little Jesus says about prayer in this passage, and this is the most he talks about prayer in any of the Gospels, as you pointed out. But the way he describes prayer is such that a person who prays regularly will look no different from someone who doesn’t pray at all, because he admonishes his followers to pray in secret. We think that this reflects Jesus’ concern that prayer can take the place of action – a concern we share.
So how is it that, for Christians, prayer is necessary, but the other things Jesus talks about are optional? Subversive blessing, being salt and light, fulfilling the Law and doing what’s right, extinguishing hatred and sexual objectification, truth-telling, integrity, nonviolence, loving enemies, giving to the needy, fasting, non-worry and courage, giving up certainty of food and drink and clothing, being non-judgmental – these are also things Jesus talks about, but they occupy far less of an average Christian’s time and energy than prayer, and few seem to see them as absolutely necessary to Christian practice. Why is this?
We have a challenging theory – Christians focus on prayer because prayer is easy. If on the one hand I can pray, and on the other hand I can be a homeless pacifist truth-teller who loves his enemies and judges no-one, prayer is the easy choice. And we wonder, with this focus on prayer, do we make ourselves feel better about consuming, hating our enemies, judging others and being hypocritical? Our experience is that taking prayer off the table, so to speak, leaves us bare to the fact that our practice is lacking, and that we use prayer to make ourselves feel better about that. Think about the criticisms of millennials of the church – that it is judgmental, exclusive, hypocritical, that it does harm to vulnerable people, etc. These are all instances where we are failing to live up to everything in the Sermon on the Mount, including prayer, because we don’t focus on prayer in secret. We even push the Supreme Court to rule on prayer at public gatherings! Jesus would say don’t pray at public gatherings at all.
5. How has the book changed (or has it changed) the way you engage in prayer with the folks in your congregations? What fruit do you see or hope to see with your faith communities?
This is a more of an individual question, so we will answer individually.
(Aric) Writing and publishing this book has definitely changed the way I pray in and with my congregation in that it has forced me to address some areas of real hypocrisy in my life. Where the phrase “I’ll pray for you” had previously served as a sort of lazy stand-in for almost any expression of compassion, I now have to consider in each case what the best way to express my sympathy and solidarity might be. I find myself saying “I love you” a lot more and to a wider array of people, because that is what I really meant by offering prayer. The fruit I already see within the congregation I serve is people having to think through their reasons for praying. I have had many discussions with people about “why” they pray, which for most of them isn’t something they’d ever even considered. Prayer was just “what you do.”
(Nick) The collaboration and challenge of the book as an idea started changing me, which
I’m sure has influenced my own prayer life and that with my congregation. From that initial conversation the underlying challenge of directness asks more of me. Last night I was gathered with our college ministry, Disciples on Campus, for a final meal to end the semester, and we closed with group prayer, but we were also eating at a Mexican restaurant who had stayed open late to accommodate us. I found myself walking back into the kitchen (a few of the students even followed me) to thank our cooks, and server who stayed late for us before they could start to close up. Before this book I don’t think I would have taken that action.
(Doug) The process of writing this book, a year and a half of research and struggle and discussing and revision, has changed me a lot. It has given me a chance to think through my commitments more thoroughly, and has strengthened my sense of the call of the Christian life. My hope is that a big part of my ministry is encouraging people, and modeling as much as I can, not to let outward religious practices replace true commitment to living a Christ-like life. For me, it’s all about Isaiah 58, and that line of thinking has informed me from the moment I thought I might do ministry as a career.
Excellent responses, guys! I hope your book is a great success.
I got to hear Anne Lamott twice at the Festival of Faith and Writing. She was in classic Lamottian form, weaving many of her classic lines with some off-the-cuff stuff. Here are a few nuggets from my notes:
Quoting Geneen Roth: how you do one thing is how you do everything.
[On life's mysteries and needing an explanation] “Figure it out” is not a good life slogan.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor. It keeps you from having a sweet dumb regular old life.
[On our culture's discomfort with pain] When we the abyss opens up at your feet, you go to IKEA and buy a nice area rug.
If you’re multitasking, your life will be diminished.
Laughter is carbonated holiness. [a classic]
[On the discipline of writing every day] I am like Dr. Spock with myself: firm and friendly. and
Don’t tell yourself that you’ll start writing when X or Y happens. If you cannot find me an hour, not even Jesus can help you.
We’re not hungry for what we’re not getting.
We’re hungry for what we’re not giving.
[On embracing the imperfections of others] I want to sit with the screwed up and the fascinated and the ones who wonder.
You don’t need an office, you need the discipline.
[On making excuses to take a break from writing and/or doing those things that are good for you] “Anyone would understand if…” is the voice of the devil.
The hour before the world gets to you is a precious and sacred hour. Evening is OK, but you’re sleepy and you have information toxicity.
Mary and Mary Magdalene didn’t know what the hell was going on at the cross, but they didn’t leave.
Barry Lopez: all we have are compassion and stories.
Five rules of adulthood in America, according to Father Tom (reported in Operating Instructions)
1. There’s nothing wrong with you.
2. If there’s something wrong with you, fix it.
3. If you can’t fix it, pretend you have.
4. If you can’t pretend, don’t show up.
5. If you insist on showing up, you’d better at least act ashamed.
One way to change a community is to subversively sneak books into their hands.
People like to say, ‘You can’t have faith and fear at the same time,’ and I don’t want to sit with them at lunch.
Lent begins tomorrow, and among other things, I’m experiencing the season by taking a break from blogging. But only sort of. These next several weeks I’ll be highlighting posts from the archives, sharing quotes and links that mean something to me, and maybe even posting a photo or two.
There are a number of reasons for this, one being that I’m trying to make headway on my next book, Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. I need to create some space and time for those words to come. So I’ll be resting in the words of others…
In this space, anyway. I’ll be writing short weekly reflections on my email list, which you can sign up for here.
I’ve written before about how judgy people can get about Lent practices that strike them as too much about self-improvement and not enough about devotion to God. I’m not interested in diagnosing whether giving up blog writing is a “good enough” discipline. It’s what I’m doing, that’s all. I feel called to it.
How about you? Will you be taking on a practice this Lent?