November 19, 2019

I wrote a YA novel about improv even though it terrified me

Behind the Book by
Why was I foolishly attempting to create the magic of an improvised performance with nothing but words on a page at my disposal? Well, for starters, I was desperate.
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Deciding to write a YA novel about improv was terrifying.

Improv, for those who may not be familiar, is a performance art in which people get on a stage and act out scenes that they make up together on the spot. When it’s done well, it’s exhilarating, both to perform and to watch—one of the few art forms in which you get to experience the creative process unfolding in real time before your eyes.

However—and this is a big however—as anyone who has done improv knows, it is almost impossible to reproduce the thrill of it anywhere other than in the theater where it happens. So much relies on the visceral experience of improvisers and audience members being present in a room together, on that crackle of ingenuity that ripples from the stage to the seats and back again when the stuff people come up with out of thin air makes sense and is funny. Even video can barely capture it.

So why was I foolishly attempting to create the magic of an improvised performance with nothing but words on a page at my disposal?

Well, for starters, I was desperate.

As anyone who has done improv knows, it is almost impossible to reproduce the thrill of it anywhere other than in the theater where it happens.

This version of Crying Laughing, the one coming out in stores and libraries everywhere this month, is not the version I’d originally written. The first version was a similarly themed book that had absolutely nothing to do with improv. In it, the protagonist was still 15-year-old Winnie Friedman, and her father, Russ Friedman, was still sick, but it was otherwise a completely different novel, one that involved Winnie getting superpowers. Yes, that’s right. Superpowers.

When I excitedly showed a few chapters to my wonderful editor at Knopf, Nancy Siscoe—and I’d been working on this thing for almost two years by then—she . . . didn’t like it very much. This was, to put it mildly, a bummer. Among other concerns, Nancy felt that she didn’t have a firm grasp on who Winnie was, that Winnie “didn’t really have any passions.”

“No passions?” I thought. “She has plenty of passions! Like, for example . . . her superpowers! And, uh, also . . . ” I stared at the wall of the coffee shop where I was working and realized Nancy was, of course, absolutely right.

I scrapped the old version (no big deal, just 300-plus pages and two years of my life) and started from scratch, intent on writing a more personal story with a more specifically drawn protagonist who had, sigh, no superpowers.

But wait.

Maybe Winnie could have a superpower, just a more realistic one: being funny.

Her main passion could be comedy. Her father Russ could still be diagnosed with ALS, as he was in the first version, but instead of running his own construction company, he could be a former actor turned stay-at-home dad. He could be Winnie’s comedy hero.

I suddenly saw how this new version could be everything I wanted the first one to be—an exploration of mortality, of the way one person’s illness affects a whole family, of what it feels like to watch your parent grow weaker as you grow stronger—but maybe even better, as it could also look at how we use humor to help ourselves survive.

And then it occurred to me: Maybe Winnie could discover, just as I did as a teenager, the joy (and formative terror) of doing improv.

I knew it was something I hadn’t seen in a YA novel before, I knew I had a lot of experience doing it, and I knew that it was a ripe metaphor, seeing as so much of what is required for improv—being in the moment, being a good listener, reacting at the top of your intelligence—is also helpful in life.

But none of that guaranteed it would work in a book.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Crying Laughing.

There are two main forms of improv: short-form, the kind popularized by “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” which involves structured theater games (and does work pretty well on TV), and long-form, scenes spun to life from nothing, like an entire play being simultaneously written and performed in front of you. Though I’ve done a lot of both, long-form seemed more exciting and intriguing to write about, with the blank canvas of each improv scene more closely approximating the blank canvas of daily existence.

So I went to see the first improv show I’d attended in a little while.

As I watched those improvisers bravely put themselves out there, I was quickly reminded of two essential truths:

  1. Not all long-form improv is exhilarating.
  2. When you watch improv, or anything for that matter, you don’t get to hear what the performers are actually thinking, how it actually feels for them.

This was my way in.

I could use fiction to do what improv couldn’t—to write Winnie’s honest, unsettling experience of participating in those scenes. That’s the magic of books, right? They allow us to enter the internal life of a character unlike any other medium. So, taking a direct cue from Truth in Comedy, the same improv comedy guide that Winnie’s teacher gives her (and which I, too, devoured as a teenager), I stopped worrying about making the improv successful in the way an actual show would be and focused instead on depicting it as honestly as possible: the kinds of thoughts that go through your head when you’re trying to improvise well, the cringe-inducing moments, the triumphs, the frightening blank-brained nothingness, all of it.

And that made the writing of Crying Laughing much less terrifying.

But really, every creative project I’ve embarked on has been terrifying in some way. It wouldn’t be worth doing if it wasn’t. It’s scary and vulnerable to put yourself into a piece of art, be it in a book or on the stage, with or without a script. It requires a big bold leap into the unknown—sometimes multiple leaps—and whether or not you land on your feet, hopefully you’ll enjoy the fall. I know I did.


Author photo by Brandon Uranowitz

Lance Rubin

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Crying Laughing

Crying Laughing

By Lance Rubin
ISBN 9780525644675

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