Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Just Say Yes! Turning off that critical Voice by Teresa Heapy (Guest Blog)


I'm doing a comedy improvisation course at the moment. Yes, mepicture book writer and editordoing comedy impro like Whose Line Is It Anyway! I still find that quite amazing to write down. I did it (partly) to take myself out of my writer-ly comfort zone where I forever fiddle with individual words for picture books… and instead to explore spontaneous storytelling.

For in this case, impro, with a brilliant theatre company called Kepow, is less about “Tell us a joke about a toaster! Now!” and more about character and plotcreating stories out of thin air.

Every Monday evening, our supportive groupall of whom start out with nothing in our headsend up in stories where we’re two inches high, exploring underground laboratories, or heading off to the moon. And we’re finding that improvising satisfying stories spontaneously is truly thrilling (especially when we do it in front of a live audience). Yes, it can be a terrifying place in your blank head, in that moment before you speakbut when a scene flies, it’s fantastic.



So how does this feed into writing picture books, on my own, on a Monday morning?

I think the key thing is that it reminds me to tell That Voice on my shoulder to go away. You know, That Voice. The one that says "Well that's no good, ooh, not original enough, that's far too obvious, blimey, what were you thinking?!" (Or is that just me?!) In impro, our great course tutor, Kevin, tells us to switch off that inner critical voice and, crucially, to instead say “Yes!  And?...” to every suggestion.

Sometimes, both in impro and in writing, I’m finding that the most obvious things are the right things. Rather than listening to a manic inner voice screaming “Come on!  More Original!  More Creative!” it’s about finding the truth of what would happen. When I’m writing picture books about characters who are two years old, I have to keep reminding myself to go for the reality of what they would do. Would they really scream at this particular point? Would they actually go ominously quiet? Similarly, in impro (particularly in the early stages of a scene), audiences don’t really want that envelope in your hand to contain a magic spell for invisibility. They want it to be a letter, or a job offer, or a will.

Very Little Red Riding Hood (two years old) has a wobbly moment.

On the other hand, sometimes the most obvious thing isn’t right, and you need to be highly creative and imaginative. But having a positive Voice which says ”Yes! And?...” to every thought doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a boring story. Instead it prompts you to thinkwhat would move the plot forward? What if they opened that door, looked into that box, went into that wood?...  In impro, you continually have to move the story on instead of ‘blocking’ it by saying “No” (internally or externally!). You have to go down that dark corridor (where you can hear something licking its lips)whereas in real life you’d very sensibly run away!

Turning off That Voice also means that you get to delve right inside your head and see what truly bonkers things pop out. In one picture book story for me, this was an enormous multi-coloured monster who kept causing chaos whilst a normal family was trying to have breakfast. And sometimes in impro, you can find yourself being interrogated by an invisible giant who is trying to kill you…

Whichever way it takes you, it’s a great release to tell That Voice to sit down, shut up and let you get on with what your brain offers up.

Now sometimes, of course, as a writer, the critical Voice is helpful. When you’ve got a story written and you’re happy with most of it, you need that Voice to needle out what’s not working and be quite hard and honest. But first you have to get the first draft written down. And for that, I personally need my critical Voice to take a long spa break somewhere very far away. (This is a particular issue for me, as I’m also a freelance commissioning editor.)

My critical Voice relaxing by the pool.

So now I’ve got a new Voice on my shoulder when I’m writing those first drafts. It prompts, it encourages. It dares me to create new characters, to tease out the reality of existing ones, and to take them to weird and wonderful places.

What the?

And I’m just about to perform in another impro show. (In the last one, I became a woman obsessed with tropical fruit, who ran over her two-timing ex-lover with a double-decker bus, specially hired for the purpose. I spent a good few days wondering where that came from.)

I’m already feeling terrified and excited in equal measure. But I’m looking forward to the new stories we’ll create. And hopefully the new Voice will shout “Bravo!”


Our Guest Blogger, Teresa Heapy, is an author and freelance commissioning editor. She has written books for educational publishers including Oxford University Press, Pearson and HarperCollins.  

Her first picture book, Very Little Red Riding Hood, with illustrations by Sue Heap, will be published by David Fickling Books in October 2013. 

18 comments:

  1. My 'voice' is a terrible nagger, but sometimes when I'm in schools I help make up a structured, oral story from the children's ideas and the weirder ideas are such fun. It's very pressurised so there's no time for pondering - perhaps a little like Kepow? This month I had to fit a talking clam into the climax. Good grief!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Paeony, I was going to say the same thing! I always have the children create a collective story in assembly and there's no space for a critical voice. It's so much fun and so freeing. And the children feel that it's wholly theirs, too, so I wouldn't even have to take responsibility for one that goes wrong -but it never does. When anything goes (and it often does), we end up with crazy but fun stories every time. Hooray for turning off that critical voice. Easier to preach rather than practise it sometimes though!

      Delete
  2. Love this, Teresa! I have wondered about doing some improv, so it's great to hear you are doing it. Brave but masses of fun, and a brilliant way to get that voice under control and say 'yes', not 'no'. Hmmm, wondering if we should have a 'story madness' improv day - Wouldn't that be brilliant! We could go to a wood, and then a monster could come along...Yup, I could get into this. Could we even 'improv blog' I wonder?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Moira! Yes, an improv blog would be great..we'd all have to promise to be very spontaneous and not think too hard about it - and what an amazing story it'd be!

      Delete
  3. Interesting post. Have never thought about doing improv but think it's just been added to my bucket list.

    Moira - just love the idea of an 'improve blog' perhaps all regular Denners get 50 words to carry on a story. Mmmm something to celebrate our second birthday?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Gosh, you're brave! But how wonderful! I found your blog exhilarating, and will try and relax my inner critical voice as I start a new story today. Thank you for being truly inspiring.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I really love this post - very inspiring! I don't do improv but I play a lot of games with my children and my nieces and nephew and it ends up being a bit crazy. The pony might run off with Darth Vader who gets ill because he hasn't eaten enough broccoli and needs Tinkerbell to help him...Children demand answers and stories right away and often hold up a toy helicopter, a chicken and a cowboy and want you to make a game out of it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much Abi! Yes, playing with children is exactly like improv. They want you to believe in their reality whole-heartedly...I remember playing with my daughter shortly after an improv session, and she told me to sit on an (imaginary) egg...'the egg's hatching, Mummy - and it's an alligator's egg!' and I realised - improv is play, and play is improv!

      Delete
  6. Nice post. it emphasises the importance of play in the creative process I think. In other words, children's book writing is a profession in which going off at a surreal tangent is a perfectly logical thing to do ;-)
    That improv group sounds fun. . .
    Also the Heapy Heap thing is a funny bit of happenstance. I need to find a writer called 'Alleny' ;-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, Heapy and Heap is rather wonderful - Sue and I are going to set ourselves up as a Dickensian detective duo!

      Delete
  7. Fab post, makes me want to turn off the inner critic and have a go at improv, too. Thanks for the inspiration, Teresa.

    ReplyDelete
  8. That really hit the spot, Teresa. I shall try never to forget your advice.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I like it, Teresa! I'm gonna give it a go (in the silence of my room...)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thanks Teresa (I'll be looking for a Belly now, too), I'd looked into doing a stand up course that they do down at the mac in Birmingham. I think it would be terrifying but I'm sure it would be good for all sorts of writerly-based/ schools visits-based things. Your one sounds fab (but terrifying). It's so easy to tell other people (for example, children in a school) to turn off their doubts and just get down and write but harder to maintain that in practice. Thanks for the post -great reminder for us all. All the best, Clare.

    ReplyDelete
  11. An interesting and provocative post.At present, I'm trying, and dismally failing, to say 'Yes,and...?' to life itself, after losing my best friend, husband and partner, David, in March this year. I try to kick myself into doing stuff, and then sabotage the whole thing by spending ages online. I do have my first picture book - '...and Nobody Noticed the Mouse' coming out in September, though, but conceived and written long before the ghastly thing happened (it was sudden).
    Clare - what's a Belly? Might I need one?

    ReplyDelete
  12. This is brilliant Teresa! At the moment my Voice is loud and shouty about something I need to get on and write. I shall pack up a bag for it and send it off on a mini-break and see what happens! Lovely to see pics from your book at last, I can't wait to get my hands on it.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thanks Charlotte! Maybe a hotel somewhere can do a special spa package for all those Voices out there!

    By the way, in last night's show, I was an elephant-stealing taxidermist and the mother of a zombie daughter. Feeling very relieved and fatigued today, along with the usual 'what the?....' bewilderment!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Love this post, Teresa. What a scary but creative thing to be doing.
    When I am in schools I often get a class to help me create strange characters out of inanimate objects and have had a lonely goal post with green hair and a love of ballet being friends with a multicoloured kettle with 10 eyes, who is a prize weightlifter! Then we try and discover where they met etc. Great fun.
    I have had to explain that this is exactly what I am looking for when a teacher occasionally tries to intervene and curb their enthusiasm by asking the children to keep it to more realistic and conventional!

    ReplyDelete