Writing Novels & Doing Improv: The Long and the Short of It

by Marissa Macy

It’s hard to write about improv theatre without sounding like a warm and fuzzy camp counselor, or a fiendish cult leader.

And trust me, improv has turned me into both of those things. I do, as a matter of habit, stand in circles and recite things that sound like satanic rituals with my friends, and we do often cry about how connected we all are.

Okay, sure. I have recruited people to the improv pyramid scheme. AND FINE, that’s what I’m doing now, sort of.

Here’s the long and the short of it:

I’m serious. Stick it out with me. The use of this idiom will make sense by the end.

Books, movies, plays, short stories and poems all take a really long time to think up, to create, to get into the hands of readers, and to get feedback on. It sometimes takes me a year to nail down an idea that is worth writing. Then, I have to write the book. And revise it. And then revise again. Then, prematurely send it to agents. Then, return to revisions. Then, go through the whole routine again. And if I’m lucky, maybe a year after I’ve sent it to a small publisher, I get two sentences of feedback.

About two years ago, I was cowering beneath this time-shaped doom. I forewent college to “just do it,” which meant I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to be a self-taught, self-made writer. I desperately wanted it to happen, and soon. Like, overnight. It wasn’t just because I had five dollars in my savings account and was wiping toddler butts all day long. It was because, like most artists, I craved the zing that comes with finishing a project and putting it out into the world. Unfortunately, that zing, as a rule, does not happen overnight.

Right around the same time, my friend was doing her own version of improv pedagogy. Combined with advice I had heard from screenwriters — that improv is great for helping write dialogue– and my interest in making new friends, I caved and signed up for my first improv class.

BAM I WAS INSTANTLY HOOKED! I know that seems like I’m laying it on too thick, but it’s true. I made friends. I worked on my anxiety. I released my repressed silliness. I discovered a love for performance. I found community for the first time. I even started doing musical improv, even though I had literally never sung before. It was like church, except I didn’t have to believe in God and the only rules were to respect one another, have fun, and not to deny each other’s realities.

Two years later, as I’ve thrown myself into the improv community, I realize that I view my writing life differently because of it. I continue to slog along the endless path that is writing a book, writing a play, writing a short story. I have had a few of those precious “zings” of completion. Mostly though, the doom-ish, gotta-finish-right-now feeling has passed.

Improv offered me a release from that, a way to satiate my need to put things out into the world. The type of improv I mostly do is called narrative improv, wherein I often do entire full-length improvised plays. This means that we go out on stage not knowing who we are playing, what the play is about, or anything other than what the genre is and what we want the shape of the show to look like.

As we perform, we are brainstorming, writing, editing, publishing and getting feedback all in the same moment. 

It’s the same steps that happen when you’re writing a book, or a story, or a poem. The difference is that with improv, it doesn’t take years.

I believe improv can help writers in a lot of ways. Writing can be lonely, and improv is a great way to connect with people. Tapping into your in-the-moment creativity can help stave off “writers’ block” and help you get words on the page. Learning to improvise a story arc can help your understanding of storytelling from a new perspective.

But mostly, improv happens fast, and then it is gone. It’s short.

And writing a book basically takes forever, and then, published or not, probably exists forever. It’s long.

So, that’s the long and the short of it.

It’s important to enjoy the process of writing. And releasing my creative energy a night or two a week, whether in an improv class, rehearsing with my troupe, or performing on stage, has allowed me to do that more fully. The contrast is important to me, and has given me the space to be patient.

But most importantly, this post has helped me maintain the Improv Lord’s monthly quota for recruitment.


In addition to being an improviser and writer, Marissa is also a filmmaker. Check out her work at http://www.marissamacy.com.

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