Reflections: Sentence-At-A-Time Story

The Invisible Knapsack + The Female Accent + Love Onion” – Washington Improv Theater

So, about last night…

I apologize for what probably read like a fever dream. My hope in turning an improv game into a blog post was that it would not become one of those “you had to be there” things.

To be honest, I was actually quite happy with what we produced. While it might not score high marks for narrative consistency, the story jumps back and forth between two nested plot lines, then joins the plot lines together at the very end in a way that was, to my eye, quite impressive (Spoiler Alert: the on-screen events turn out to be a livestream video production taking place in an apartment down the hall).

In every moment leading up to this resolution, I was deeply doubtful that this would emerge as something coherent. Every fourth sentence, I tried to grab the story by the horns and wrangle it back in the direction I thought it should be heading. Whether my housemates were actively delighting in thwarting those efforts or legitimately thought I had a different direction in mind, their following contributions rarely lined up with my hopes (dare I say, expectations?) for where the story went next. Of course, they probably had an analogous experience regarding my contributions, which I guess is paradigmatic of the exercise. Oh, and I loved it.

It was the first time I had really done something “improv-y” (outside of the five minute warmups I do with my tutees) since taking two improv classes at Stanford and failing twice to earn acceptance into the school’s improv troupe. At that point in my life it was rare for me to experience failure at something I loved and genuinely worked at. To put things plainly, growing up I tended to be good at the things that I tried.

(Soccer is a notable exception to this. I couldn’t do much with my feet, so they made me the goalie. The brief glimmer of success of finally catching a ball was quickly marred by revelation that I was, in fact, standing in the goal. No save, no soccer for me)

To fail at improv, after really falling in love with the art form, was jarring. Sadder than the loss of an opportunity to perform, however, was the way I re-wrote the narrative in order to make my failure make sense.

You didn’t really love improv that much, plus you weren’t really trying at the audition. It’s probably for the best that you didn’t get in anyway; you would have gotten bored of it.

All this rationalization, of course, prevented me from learning how to accept that loss for what it really was, to feel sad about the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do something I loved, and move on. Instead, I went back over the memory of loving it with a bottle of white-out and a sharpie.

Something about last night felt like peeling that whiteout away.

Wow you really do love this thing. It is exciting and rewarding to share control of a narrative as you discover and create something new with your friends. You are allowed to call yourself an ‘improviser’ even though you weren’t accepted into that group.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, doing this felt good. But I was amazed that I hadn’t noticed the whiteout in the first place. I immediately started thinking about other failures in my life. Lo and behold, there was another one right under my nose. And another double-failure to boot.

My plan after graduating college was to work as a policy fellow for a year before starting my PhD in Philosophy. Last year I applied and was rejected from every school but one. After talking to professors there, I didn’t think it was a good fit for me, so I opted to apply again this year. This time, I was rejected across the board.

Again, I don’t think I let myself confront what really was a loss. Instead, I reached for the white-out and sharpie and went to work on a version of the past that made the present easier to swallow. And having pointed this pattern out, I’m highly skeptical of the narrative I put forth at the outset: “growing up I tended to be good at the things that I tried.”

I was probably good and bad at things at just about the same rate as every other kid. It just so happened that one of the things I was good at was rewriting my own history to turn my failures into mere mishaps, lost chances to do what I loved into dodged bullets.

If I want to peel off the whiteout, perhaps I should take a page out of my own book. Reading a philosophy paper might be a good start. Let me know if you have any recommendations.

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