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What I learned from Tina Fey

Some writers, I am given to understand, struggle because they have SO many FABulous iDEas, they just don’t know WHICH one to write FIRST!

I am not one of them.

My inner critic, who resembles a very angry prosecuting attorney, starts second-guessing before my first guess is fully formed, doing her best to demolish the shoddy alibi that I have the temerity to be thinking of as a story. Frequently during a writing session, I spend more time trying to address her objections than advancing the plot.

I’ve just learned a technique for shutting her down. And I’m pleased to report that I learned it from Tina Fey.

Actually, I’d heard of the technique before — Ms. Katie Lane wrote a great piece about it in the context of negotiation. But it took Ms. Fey describing it as it’s used in improv to make me see its utility for writing.

You see, I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Fey’s new book, Bossypants. Contrary to what you might expect, I wasn’t a big fan when I bought it. I’ve never seen 30 Rock or Mean Girls, and although I did admire her impersonation of the former Alaska governor, I have a nerd’s deep suspicion of anything or anyone too, you know, popular. But Bossypants makes the third time that I’ve come around to being interested in a celebrity creator’s work via encountering them talking and/or writing about their background and process. (The other two, for the curious, are Joss Whedon and Russell T. Davies.)

So one of the things you find in Bossypants is Rules for Improvisation. The first rule is “Yes, and.” This account of an appearance on her book tour quotes her explaining it in a slightly different form than it appears in the book:

The first rule, always agree. Say yes. Say, “yes, and” to things. For example, if I enter a scene and say, “I have a gun.’ And you say, “No, you don’t. That’s your finger.’ That’s terrible. Now we’re done. Saying “yes” means you’re basically agreeing to honor what the other person is creating. The next part is “yes, AND …” which means to contribute something on your own, like, ‘I have a gun’ and you say, ‘but you’ll never get the gold because I put it in my butt.’ I wouldn’t recommend THAT … but that’s the end, you’re contributing. It’s an exercise in being in the present. To follow your partner, to ask questions.

But Sara, I hear you protest, when you’re writing you have no improv partner! You’re just talking about what’s happening inside your head!

Yes, and because I often experience what’s happening inside my head when I write as a debate between a creator and a critic, it’s useful to reframe the critic’s objections.

How do you mean?

Okay, let’s take an example from The Thing I Am Working On.

Inner Critic recently screeched that it made no sense how my protagonist was unaware of the existence of a particular aspect of the world. (Why yes, I’m being deliberately vague.)

Inner Creator responded: YES, she IS unaware of it,  AND that’s because she’s grown up on a houseboat and it doesn’t work on water.

Inner Creator’s explanation led me to figure out several more things about the world I’m creating.

Without “yes, and,” I could’ve been derailed. I might even have scrapped the premise entirely. (Much to the consternation of my agent, who’s been nagging — I mean, gently encouraging — me to finish writing this book for longer than I care to admit.)

My Inner Critic’s objections, despite what I sometimes think, don’t always come from a place of pure self-sabotage. Inner Critic often has a point. She’s excellent at identifying inconsistencies in character, gaps in world-building, consequences that Inner Creator would blithely ignore.  The trick — or one of them — is to use Inner Critic’s objections to push Inner Creator’s creativity that much further. Thanks, Tina Fey!

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  • Joyce
    April 18, 2011 at 6:22 am

    Thanks Jo! The whole “yes and” is going to come in handy today!

  • Claire Hennessy
    April 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Oh, I do like this.

    People who have looooads of fabulous ideas tend to be the ones who abandon novels in chapter 3. The despair and self-criticism just happens later. ;)

  • Kevin Moore
    April 20, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Yes. Thank you. My inner critic is such a douchebag. Much like the outer critic, only less kind. So imagine what that is like.

    I recently came to a realization about a character’s motivation that had been bugging me for too long. I won’t bore you with details, but the source of my objection is that I made a very unreasonable expectation that there should be a rational basis for the character’s actions as a parent. After all, he’s a good parents. Surely, good parents don’t do anything without good reason!

    After seven years of parenting, I think I have learned otherwise.

  • Jennifer K. Oliver
    April 21, 2011 at 12:34 am

    I’m also a second-guesser, and I have a feeling this advice will come in handy for me, too. There’s definitely an element of not giving my inner critic enough time to gripe – it’s best to just plunge ahead when possible. I’m now looking forward to “Yes, and…” before my inner critic can stick their oar in. :)

    Thanks for sharing!