Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a compulsive note taker. Whenever I’m excited by new ideas, trying to figure something out, or struggling with a big choice, I put it all on paper. I scribble down thoughts in a notebook so I can get them out of my head and reflect more easily. It’s a huge part of my life, so naturally I’ve done the same with my improv. After classes, shows, or whenever I feel like refreshing my improv brain, I’ll pull out a piece of paper and give myself a prompt. Here are five ways I use journaling for improv most often:
- Use stream of consciousness writing to jumpstart your creativity and to practice improv when you’re alone.
For five minutes, don’t stop writing. No matter what. Even if you have to write “I have no idea what to write,” keep going. This exercise will prime your subconscious mind to keep making choices and embrace the process of not knowing. You can give yourself a suggestion to start the writing, or you can try writing with a goal in mind like playing a POV, connecting to an emotion, or solving a made up problem.
- Before a show or practice, dump out your thoughts onto paper so you can focus on the improv.
Brains are weird. They love to obsess over the smallest things, even when thinking isn’t helpful. As improvisers, our goal is to “get out of our heads,” and one way to do that is to write down everything your brain is thinking about so that you can come back to it later. It’s a weird quirk of psychology, but it actually helps us relax leave our baggage at the door.
- When you’re feeling off about your work or want to connect better with your scene partners, use gratitude journaling.
You’re great, and your scene partners are great, but sometimes we can forget that. If we forget how brave and inventive we can be as improvisers, we will hold ourselves back and let fear dominate our scenes. If we forget how valuable the gifts our scene partners give us are, we lose touch with our ensemble and stop listening to each other. One remedy for both of these problems is to write down the brilliant little moments on stage that we appreciate. Taking a moment to express gratitude for ourselves and our team is vitally important.
- To get out of your head and into this moment, practice mindfulness journaling.
Take a few deep breaths, settle into your seat, and begin to notice the sensations around you. Write down what you see, hear, feel, and any thoughts that you notice coming into consciousness. This kind of approach isn’t for everyone, but for some mindfulness is a great way to practice the present-state awareness needed for good improv.
- Lastly, try keeping a weekly record of your thoughts about improv.
If you’re passionate enough about improv to have read this far, then you’re probably in this for the long haul. You want to get better, and see yourself growing and changing as a performer. One way to do that is to write down a few notes every week about where you’re at and how you feel you improvised this week. This is really important so that when you feel stuck, you can analyze what got you here and whether that feeling is actually justified.
I found journaling prompts to be such a useful tool that I complied 40 of my favourites into a guidebook for improvisers— a book called The Yes And Journal. After reviewing my 20+ old improv notebooks, I wanted to share the most useful exercises and ideas I discovered along the way. You can find out more about the book and read the first section for free at lifeisntscripted.com/book
Matthew Beard has been performing, teaching, and writing about improv for five years. He has performed and trained in Ottawa, Toronto, Guelph, and Niagara. Matt is the founder of the improv blog lifeisntscripted.com.