Improv and Creative Writing sitting in a tree…

Last week, I published a post over at Middle Grade Minded about Why I Write Middle Grade. I wrote about how books helped me through a tough time in my life, 6th grade. It’s all so true that my face reddened while remembering the shrinking, diminished, afraid feelings I had during that time. Oh and that hair. That hair. Lord…lord…

Books gave me solace and helped me find my footing at the end of a day. But it was only part of the story, and I want to share the other vitally important thing that happened in middle school to help me become myself – drama class.

Seems simple, but it was profound. I didn’t know the word for it at the time, but a lot of the early exercises we did in class were improvisation warm-ups. Just laughing and making ridiculous noises, or flopping all over the room like a bunch of unencumbered adolescent weirdos. It was awesome.


Why was it so important? I think because improv let me find my voice in an atmosphere of safe risk-taking, acceptance, and creative expansion. The way books gave my inside life power, improv gave my outside life power. Power to get through the day and participate in the world. To raise my hand in class. To look people in the eye. To respond to questions out loud, without doubting myself. Stories and improv go hand-in-hand in my experience. Creation is creation, stories are stories, expression is expression. For me, they were life-savers.

With my book coming out this fall, I feel like I have a unique opportunity to do something cool.  I’m creating curriculum for workshops that blend the worlds of creative writing and improvisation. I’m so excited for the possibilities and can’t wait to learn more about the ways we can help kids feel more power, less alone, and better able to let their unique voices be heard – on paper, or in some honking, hooting, nonsensical, gorgeous growing-and-shrinking machine.

I’ll be looking for both geographical and non-geographical locations in the near future (e.g.,  if you want to beta test with your class, organization, or camp group – get in touch!)





The Scenic Route

A confession: I love order. I deeply appreciate templates, clear directions, and strong leadership.

(But if a waiter suggests that I try the new iced tea, I will never ever order that even if it is exactly what I want because DON’T TELL ME WHAT TO DRINK.)

(Because I’m obstinate, Bostonian, and unreasonable.)

I was thinking about this in the context of improvisation the other day. It’s funny that someone who, on a core level, likes solid structure would be so attracted to an art form in which there can be very little – especially the way that I teach and perform. My philosophy hinges on total freedom, personal agency, and flexibility. Make it work, or throw it gleefully to the dogs.

I’m coming to understand that this is probably a subconscious overcompensation. I know deep down that one of my major lessons in this life is “the world can not be controlled”. Additionally, no matter how clearly I’ve visualized something, it could go off the rails.

My mom used to say that I get to things sideways. I set a goal, but take the scenic route for one reason or another. I’ll spend a semester at another school, take up a major that I’ll get tired of and switch. I circle. It was frustrating for me for a long time. But I’m starting to internalize the Bilbo Baggins (possibly Aerosmith) lyrics – “Life’s a journey, not a destination” also, “Walk this way” – like, when I’m walking places. That one is definitely Tolkien.

The summation of this line of thought should be, “So, when you end up where you belong…” but I reject that. You already belong right where you are. You belonged the whole time! Weird!

kosteckishaw_aroundtheworld-1Art by Jennie Kostecki Shaw:



Also, try the new Peach Iced Tea – JUST KIDDING THAT’S THE WORST.





Women in Improv: Power

Note: This post is inspired both by #yesallwomen and a conversation I had with a female improv student who wanted advice on what to do when a male scene partner makes you uncomfortable on stage.

I would love to hear your thoughts about this topic if they differ with my own. I just kind of have OPINIONS on being a female in improvisation.

Improvisation is the most democratic form of comedy. Regardless of gender, ethnicity, physical ability or disability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, the improviser creates his or her own reality on stage.* The improviser is not at the mercy of a script someone else wrote.

In college, I had a conversation with a (wildly talented) female comedian who was in a sketch group. She felt like she got edited out of shows. They didn’t usually include her writing and any time she appeared on stage it was as mom or wifey. This kind of thing doesn’t have to happen in improv because you’re the writer, the editor, the performer, the set designer, the whole thing.

If you are in an established group, the hope is that you enjoy and respect each other. In fact, I will go so far as to say that some of the best men on the planet are improvisers. I think it attracts guys who are smart and funny who listen well and are genuinely fantastic. That has been my experience working in groups. You know each other’s personal boundries. However, in a class environment when you are paired with strangers, this mutual understanding is not a sure thing. You want to hope that a guy will pick up on cues if a lady is uncomfortable when he gets randy and that he modifies behavior. You want to hope that.

But here’s the incredible thing about being a woman in improv – you can have a machete in your backpack and threaten his life if he doesn’t back off. Or you have a laser gun that turns men into cows. Or you are a super powerful wizard and know like a million spells including ones that render men respectful.

I mean, we don’t want to Michael Scott our way through life, but the point is this – IT IS MAKE BELIEVE! It doesn’t exist! That means you have power. You have so much power.

We should make the stage a safe space for everyone. As a community we should all agree to not be jerks. The #yesallwomen hashtag has been painful and illuminating for me. Just thinking about how much crap we put up with and don’t think twice about on a daily basis – it’s awful. Here’s something cool though – you don’t have to put up with crap on stage. And if someone gives you a hard time for not “yes anding” something that makes you uncomfortable – screw it. You are the priority. The only wrong answer is being a jerk.

My opinion about women in improv – we are powerful. Power is beautiful. Use it.

amy-poehler-book-cover-h724POEHLER POWER


*As with all performance, this is compromised if you have a disrespectful audience – and lord knows I’ve performed in front of bachelorette parties.

** If you are a potential bachelorette party goer reading this, please have mercy on the performers. We do think you are special and hilarious and we hope you’re having a good time. Just, you know, be quiet during the show.

Flow: Improv, Laundry, Writing and Ditching the R.O.U.S

According to the uncompromising accuracy of Wikipedia, the psychological definition of “Flow” is:

The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Doesn’t that sound like the best? Ugh, I want to eat that for lunch.

I mean, I’ve felt it before, I think most people have. The times that come to mind have to do with writing, improv, washing the bathroom, folding clothes, and drawing Ariel from The Little Mermaid over and over again in my room growing up.

Writers spend lifetimes trying to create the perfect atmospheric soil for flow to grow and thrive. We have routines, special pens, a white noise machine, maybe some coffee…whatever it takes to coax her out of her shell.

In improv, flow is everything. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding a wee bit new agey, but it’s important. If an improviser is lucky he or she has moments on stage when brain, body, voice, and team come together to create something magical without effort – that’s got to be flow.

For me it feels like a buzzing, taut energy that is off the charts wild, but still laser focused. There are three key factors that are always there when I’ve experienced this incredible feeling: Trust, Risk, and Action.

First though, the obvious: To feel dumb is easy. For me, it’s pretty much a total cake walk. But anyone who’s ever read an inspirational quote-a-day calendar knows that self doubt achieves nothing. It is a staid, boring, lethargic force.


Self doubt is dreaming of making a delicious meal, but first you just have to bury all your pots and pans in the backyard real quick.

I’m drawn to improv because there’s no TIME for that bull. You are on stage with people you enjoy and by doing so you have entered into a sacred agreement with your team to be kind, supportive, and to lift each other up. What results, when done right, is great art. What results when the sacred agreement is undermined? The worst crap you’ve ever seen.  Just really bad, gotta wash it off in a hot shower yuckiness. I’ve been lucky to have great teams.

Writing is harder because you’re on your own. No team. No applause. One woman show. But, I’m positing that it can be done and these are NOTES TO MYSELF.


TRUST: Yourself. Don’t delete that thing just keep writing. Get there.


RISK: You aren’t working in an ER. No one dies if your idea isn’t perfect. Great things may lie beyond your imperfect idea, but you have to go through them like the Fire Swamps to get to the other side. Don’t deny your maybe-brilliant idea just because you are afraid you’re going to get eaten by an R.O.U.S.


ACTION: Literally, write words. A bunch of them. All strung together.



Another technique: clean my damn bathroom.

Probably just going to sketch Ariel again.