Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Megan Kimble on improv, umwelt, and getting unstuck
On the first day of Improv 101, our instructor Cory asked each of us to share why we were taking an improv class. Public speaking, quicker thinking, better communicating, we said. I said, because I feel stuck. I’d just published a book—my first book!—and while this is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me, I also now feel drained, empty, and out of ideas, clueless about what comes next. I’ve started getting up early in the morning to write, but mostly that has meant staring at a white screen or pattering on about an item of clothing or a “time that I” in response to a writing prompt. I am young, and I know it’s fine to be stuck, but that doesn’t mean it’s comfortable.
So I’m taking an improv class. Yesterday, we had to get on stage and co-tell a story with a partner, each contributing only one word at a time. I say, “It”—she says, “was”—I say, “rainy”—she says, “today. “It”—“was”—“hard”—“to”—“get”—“around”—“through”—“all”—“the”—“people.”
It reminds me of Annie Lamont’s famous advice to take it bird by bird. (“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”)
Bird by bird, word by word, and something will emerge. It might be a weather-based traffic report—rain makes people terrible drivers!—but it also might be something you’d never expected, as with the improv pair who somehow ended up dealing with a limb-eating lawn mower run amok.
I like that part of it, the “somehow ended up,” because that’s so often how writing (and all the activity that surrounds writing) feels to me. I somehow ended up spending a year eating only unprocessed food—food that I theoretically could make at home—and exploring how it is that we process food, both industrially and locally. Even after so many people have asked what made you give up processed foods in the first place? I still sometimes want to say, “I’m not sure; I somehow ended up here”—which is not really the right answer in an interview.
What has been hard for me is that improv unfolds out of a group mind and our group consists of a wide variety of strangers. On the first day of class, we did a silent “energy movement” exercise—one walking person had the energy, which they could transfer to one of us frozen people through eye contact. It went okay, I guess, but it seemed disjointed. People were jumpy, or nonresponsive, and I had to stifle my impulse to control, had to quiet the thought—you guys, you’re not doing it right! But of course, we are not doing it right and actually, there is no right; there is only energy, bouncing around a group of people—through a piece of work—and it is the energy that stops or starts, not us.
The basic premise of improv is “yes, and.” Agree with your partner—accept the scene, the premise, the statement. And then build upon it—create consequences, emotions, or details. Yes, indeed—we are on the moon. And I’m really bummed that we forgot all our food on Earth. Yes, sure—our characters are over-caffeinated firefighters? Okay, fine—and let’s spend the night painting the firehouse.
As I work to get unstuck, I’m taking my dog on a lot of long walks. Phoebe is 11 months old; she is my first dog. She spent two weeks with my parents in California this summer when I was book touring, and they nicknamed her the adorable tornado. The adorable tornado follows me around the house. The adorable tornado comes to work with me. The adorable tornado likes to eat thumbtacks.
Because even adorable tornados need training, I’ve been reading a lot about dogs. I first encountered the idea of umwelt in Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog. She writes: “The scientific study of animals was changed by a German biologist of the early twentieth century named Jakob von Uexkull. What he proposed was revolutionary: anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their umwelt (OOM-velt): their subjective or ‘self-world.’ Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.”
She continues: “If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it. The first way to discover this is to determine what the animal can perceive: what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense. Only objects that are perceived can have meaning to the animal; the rest are not even noticed, or all look the same… All animals have their own umwelten—their own subjective realities, what von Uexkull thought of as ‘soap bubbles’ with them forever caught in the middle. We humans are enclosed in our own soap bubbles, too.”
And so I’ve been also thinking a lot about umwelt, in dogs and improv; in writing and editing; in relationships and friendships and the quiet spaces between them.
Although I’m anthropomorphizing the very idea of umwelt, it feels like a similar and perhaps similarly valuable lesson as “yes, and.” You can only interact meaningfully with an animal or person when you accept what they’re capable of perceiving—when you climb into the soap bubble together and look through the watery lens.
Our homework assignment this week is to try to use the “yes and” philosophy in our everyday lives: “This could occur at work, at school, with family, friends or a significant other,” writes instructor Cory. “Note a time when you would normally say no to a suggestion from another person. Instead ‘yes and’ the situation and see what happens.”
In many ways, being an editor—which is what I do when I’m not writing about food or training my puppy—requires a total submission to umwelt, to “yes, and.” What is this essay or article trying to say or do or be? And how can I make that intention more clear? Only once I engage with it on its own terms—nose-to-the-ground, tail-wagging-high—can I do anything to help sculpt and transform a piece of writing into the best, clearest, most specific version of itself. What’s the point, and what kind of soap bubble does it live in?
And yet, in the early morning light, as I patter on my keyboard, I try to get comfortable in the moment before you can know any of that, anything about what’s going to get said and who’s going to show up. I’m trying to do the doing. “You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing,” writes improv queen Amy Poehler in her memoir Yes Please.
And so, too, with Phoebe. “In a non-verbal way, dogs know who we are, they know what we do, and they know some things about us unknown to ourselves,” writes Horowitz. “Over and above that, how we act defines who we are.”
It’s funny to me that my dog knows me through my habits—how I meander about the house or rush to work or delay going to the gym. How I cook or sleep or shower. Without language to explain, for a dog, how we act defines who we are. It is so simple and yet incredibly non-obvious in our human interactions, as we discuss, review, and rationalize. And yet during the silent movement around a room—in the transfer of energy; in the negotiations of a relationship or the promises of a friendship—how we act defines who we are.
So I guess I’m finding that the point of taking improv—getting a dog, writing a book—is that we find the things unknown to ourselves through the doing. “Your ability to navigate and tolerate change and its painful uncomfortableness directly correlates to your happiness and general well-being,” writes Poehler. “If you can surf your life rather than plant your feet, you will be happier.”
So I lie down next to my little dog and look at the world from the floor. I get on stage and wonder, word by word, what will emerge.
Megan Kimble is the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food. She lives and writes in Tucson, where she works as the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona. Visit megankimble.com.