What it means to say only yes

“What exactly do we remember? Which version of our lives?” – Lera Auerbach, Excess of Being

My improv friends have taught me a rule, the first and most essential to any improvisation:

Yes, and…

Yes, the plane is crashing, and we must save it; yes, this toboggan will win the race, and we have to buff it; yes, you’re a klutz, and let me sweep up that glass you broke.

It’s about expansion, about raising the finger of possibility into the air. In improv, those possibilities swell outward like a balloon; in just a few lines, the world is borne: two, three people, the place they stand, their relationships with one another.

These friends play a game called ‘genres.’ They must improvise the same scene inside any genre the audience calls for: action, noir, bad horror, telenovela. Throughout, they must remain in scene, they must not laugh.

Above all, they must say yes.

In comedy, invoking “no” is a kind of death knell for the scene, a betrayal. It is one person falling backward only to find that the other has retracted his arms.

This is in direct contrast to drama. In my MFA program, we practiced exercises in refusal. “Write a scene,” a professor told us, “in which two characters tell each other ‘no’ in various ways.”

In fact, one could argue that good drama is about characters saying “no” to one another all the time.

This is because the first, critical tenet of fiction is conflict. It must be in the eyes, the flick of the hands, the speech. It’s the hot core from which stakes are raised, around which any good story must revolve. And we novice writers are taught to pick it out wherever we can: from our perches on benches, through thin walls.

Last year I wrote about shyness and writing. I argued that shyness is a symptom of sensitivity, the capacity to feel, and that we writers ought to embrace shyness, to “be uncomfortable” and let conflict get inside us.

Now I wonder. To live by conflict is to live a certain version of life: one that expects to hear ‘no.’ Indeed, that version of a life seeks out–clings to–all the ways in which we and others are refused.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes that “fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.”

So what if I choose, above all, to remember a different story? What if I choose to say yes? Cheryl Strayed changed her story; today, Tiny Beautiful Things stands as a better book of advice than any I’d ever expected to read in my life.

In it, Strayed tells us not to “surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.”

Okay, Cheryl. Let’s try it differently.

photo credit: balloon-03-look-inside-a-balloon by Wansan Son (license)

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