There is a process that I have come to use with myself and with my clients called solo improvisation. It’s storytelling off the cuff that helps you work from a different mind space than writing.
Even if you’re not an actor or oral storyteller, being able to riff on a topic aloud is a great and different way “in” to a story. It is an excellent tool to work with telling stories aloud. You may use them in and of themselves and develop them. They may be a raw tool for material that you re-write later.
Here’s an excerpt of me “riffing a story” based on a topic. I did not edit it. It just flowed out as I walked back and forth on my deck. This is what I advise people to do. Start with a prompt, like “The Last Time” and say it aloud
Solo Improvisation – An Example and Story
“Right now I’m in my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s a beautiful, breezy afternoon. I’m out on my deck. The sun is streaming down, and I’m going to give myself the topic “The Last Time” and I’m just going to keep repeating it as many times, on this page for you, as it takes me to tape into a story. And then if I get stuck on that story, you’ll see what happens. I come back to the topic and continue to speak on it.
My topic is “The Last Time” and the other thing I want to note is that I’m moving around the deck right now. I’m walking. I’m just walking. You can find another kind of repetitive movement, like a dance movement or a repetitive body movement, but today I’m just walking with “The Last Time”.
The last time…. The last time. The last time I saw him was a week before he married his new wife. He was standing ahead of me in the checkout at Whole Foods. Had I noticed that he was there, I would’ve avoided him and gone to another checkout, or possibly gone to the back of the store, killed time around the meat case or the healthy candy (is that an oxymoron?) aisle until I thought the coast was clear and it was safe because he’d gone.
The last time I saw him, he looked handsome, but he’s been handsome his whole life, and at the end of the day, that wasn’t enough for me. But he always did look handsome, even now that he was almost 60 years old on the eve, so to speak, of him starting a new life with a new woman who was 30 years old, on the eve of him starting a new life, starting with a new woman, just like we’d started a new life together when we were married that October 23rd day, outside our beautiful home in La Cienega, New Mexico.
We could see the Sandia Mountains in the distance from our back yard, guarding the skyline of Albuquerque. We could see the rolling hills, the sand, the pinon trees. We could see the juniper that made our eyes water in the spring. We could see the blue, blue sky and the puffy white clouds, just like I’m looking up at right now, except now everything is different, even though the sky is still the same.
I looked at him in his handsome way, and I said, “Come sit down with me.” He started to resist. “No, no, I can’t.” I looked at him square in the eye, in his dark brown Jewish eyes, and said, “Sit with me. I deserve that.” He came and we sat in a booth in the front of the Whole Foods, a wooden booth, and I said, “Why have you stopped calling my daughter? She’s my daughter, but she was your daughter too. You told her that no matter what happened between you and me, you’d always be her Dad…You insisted that she call you Daddy for seven years. She loves you.”
He said, “You know why. You make it difficult for me to be close to her. You interfere. You are so controlling. I’ve had it with you.” I want to say: “I’m sorry. In some ways you’re right. I am controlling. I was just so damn hurt by you, so damn hurt I just couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t believe that after everything, we weren’t going to make it in the end. You weren’t going to fight for us, and you were going to force me to leave.”
Instead I say:
“I hear you’re marrying a 30-year-old,”
He looks down. His voice sounds slightly defensive as he says, “I know. I know she’s too young for me. I didn’t want to get married but she really wants it. She hasn’t had it. It wouldn’t be fair not to. She wants a child.” I looked at him, again, square in the dark brown eyes. “That would be selfish of you,” I said, “To have a child at your age. You might be dead before the child is raised.”
He starts laughing. “Nobody but you can talk to me like that.”
I said, “Are you going to see our daughter?” He said, “Yes. Well, no. Well, I don’t know. She doesn’t like it. She’s not comfortable with.” “Who? The 30-year-old.” “Stop calling her the 30 year old, please. She’s actually 33. “Why is she not comfortable with it?” “Because your daughter reminds her that I was once with you, and she knows.” “What does she know?” He looks me square in the eye. “Tanya, don’t play dumb with me. She knows. No matter how much you enrage me, she knows who you are to me. She knows.”
“She’s insecure,” I said. “She’s young. She’s too young for you, and you want to have a child? You’re selfish. You’re still so goddamn selfish. You’ll never change. You’re so fucking brilliant. You remember when I told you you were the richest man in the world? I wasn’t talking dollars. I was talking the richness of your talent, the richness of your music, and the richness of your soul. But underneath, you sabotage it all for yourself and everybody else because you’re a selfish bastard. Are you going to see Chloe?” “I don’t know. I have to call her first. I have to go outside and call her.”
The last time. The last time. The last time. The last time. The last time I thought about you was a long, long time ago. The last time I wanted to stroke your skin, kiss your soft sweet lips, curl myself into your Nordic beauty, was a long time ago. The last time I was devastated by your lies, by your betrayal, and by the way you turned my world upside down was years ago now… I think it’s natural for me to think about you and him all in the same breath, two charismatic souls, one male, one female, and both narcissists to the bitter end….who both ate the flesh of the one who loved each of you alive, to preserve your right to be right in your own eyes… who would destroy and go for the jugular of everything precious in this world, who would die before either would surrender to true love. I loved you both. I know how to surrender. You both failed the test.”
Now it’s your turn. I challenge you to expand your tool-box into oral storytelling, if you haven’t already done so.
Assignment of the Day:
Go back to your Passions and Obsessions List… (This is a list of topics that you keep in your phone or a little notebook that you want to write on someday, so that you have a list when you’re ready to write!)
Choose a topic and move with it. Speak it into your phone.
Then, listen back to it.
Is solo improvisation a good tool for you to think about developing?