Sunday, April 19, 2015

Invention vs Discovery

"This is a great idea for a book," I thought, lying in bed in the dark. I ran the characters through my mind again and could see the book on shelves in elementary schools everywhere. It would be the next big thing for kids my age, a rite of passage like the Magic Tree House series or the ever-fading Boxcar Children. It was fourth grade, and I was going to write this book. And I was going to be famous.

I waited and waited for a fiction writing assignment to come up in class, and when it did I would write the novel and turn it in and the student teacher would be so blown away that she'd sweep me and my novel off to get published.

I never wrote the novel, though I narrated it (and three additional books in the series) to myself in bed at night or on road trips to distant family gatherings in the far-off city of Ogden. But it never left my head.


I knew I had a good singing voice, though it wasn't as fabulous as my friend's. I knew one day I'd walk into an audition and shock the casting table with my hidden talent.

"Who is this girl and where did she get that voice?!" They'd say and cast me on the spot.

I waited until my junior high musical production class, in which we did a musical review of sorts, to reveal my secret singing ability in my first on-stage solo. My friend had a duet with another girl in the same production. We put up the show. I sang. She sang. My parents came up to me afterwards and told me how amazing and professional she sounded.

I decided musical theatre would never be my forte.


When I'd started taking piano lessons I realized I was naturally relatively decent at it. This skill surpassed any my mother or grandmother had in the area, and exceeded that of my non-lesson taking friends. Satisfied in my ability, I stopped practicing. This nudge toward talent would suit me well enough.


The friend with the incredible singing voice has been in my life for years. She's very driven, very motivated, very confident. She always said she would do everything she could to be as good at theatre as she possibly could--knowing if she became as proficient as possible, she would, in comparison, exceed the ability of her peers in the field by miles. She believed being her personal best would equate to her being the overall best. And she was determined to reach that goal.

Meanwhile, I constantly resigned myself to not being in the same league as these people who shared my interests, or that I was so substantially better that I didn't need to constantly tune and tone my skills. Where I was was where I was meant to be.

And then I started doing improv.

For the first time in my life I had that desire to try, to actively work on this inkling of talent crumbled up with lint in my pocket, and to build it into a castle I could inhabit and from which reign and rule. I wanted to learn and grow and excel and become more advanced like the more seasoned players in the troupe.

For the first time in my life I wanted to work for something.


There's a quote the internet attributes to John Lennon which has started to rub me wrong: "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."

I understand why it is continually super-imposed onto images of sunsets and forest glades. I understand that the world takes it to mean that "Life happens when you least expect it," or "You can't control a lot of things that creep up in life," or, the every popular, "You'll find the right guy when you stop looking." I get that.

But I disagree.

To me this implies a passive, almost existential quality to life: that life is a river and we're in a little boat with no oars or paddles and we just...float. If you hit a rock, hey. You were meant to hit that rock. If you drift down the left fork when you'd hoped for the right, hey. You needed that tributary more.

I've lived my life that way, relying on fate and happenstance and circumstance and serendipity, I've lived with that mentality of life just happening to you--I've shelved my dreams of novel writing from a young age because it was not required for me to attempt it for a grade. I've given up on learning musical theatre because my voice, as an adolescent, was not naturally Broadway ready. I've quit musical instruments because it would take effort to become the kind of person who could sit down and play anything. It was enough to be able to play something, however basic that something be.

I wanted life to happen to me. As perfectly imperfect as I was naturally. I expected it would. I expected people would notice me in a quiet solitude and sense my potential and ability. They would find me out and bring my skill to light and life would be a landslide of good-fortune and fame and prestige.

And then I started doing improv.

There's a principle in improvisational theatre referred to as "invention vs discovery." The essence of this is that a good, strong scene is one that develops naturally between the actors and their relationship with each other through their characters. If each player focuses on the realities of their character and their relationship to the other players upon the stage, humor and a thematic direction for the scene will naturally crop up into being out of that action--discovery.

Invention, on the other hand, kills a scene. Invention is an actor running into a scene with an arsenal of jokes in his pocket he is determined to deliver, regardless of the dynamic of the relationship with his partner. Invention is best summarized by the "Michael Scarn" construct, which (for anyone who has scene a few seasons of The Office) is the improv actor who pulls out a gun in every scene when he runs out of ideas--because the actor focusing on invention focuses on ideas and what he can do to be a humorous aspect, what he can do to impact the scene for his own end, rather than supporting and building up his teammates even if that means taking a "fall" and setting others up for jokes and possibly not getting to deliver your own. Pulling a "gun" out in a scene is invention. It kills the relationship between characters and leaves the scene in shambles but, hey, at least they got a couple short-lived laughs and a smidge more attention.

Invention comes from being self-focused. How can I be funny to the audience? How can I get a huge laugh/applause? How can I make an impact?

Discovery is about participation. That's it. Discovery is about actively working with your fellow actors and doing something to build them and, in turn, the scene.

A life well lived is a life lived in discovery, a life in which you work everyday to build others and their situations to a higher point than where you found them, where you actively strive to contribute something that doesn't reflect directly back to you. A life of invention is a life of pompous pride, a life of knowing you're as good--the scene is as good-- as you/it will ever be, and you just have to stand there and spew things out and it will work to your advantage.


If there's anything I've learned in the last two years, it's that there is no pearl without the oyster. There is no glory without work. Pearls don't roll around the ocean floor waiting to be scooped up in droves. They have to be pried from a sealed shell--there has to be pressure and work and time.

I want a castle full of pearls. I want a life that I've built and worked for. I want to be recognized as someone who did her best, not as someone who was the best. I don't want to go back to a life spent leaving doors closed because my key didn't open the lock on the first try. I want a life I've actively participated in, a life of discovery and creation where my input builds the outcome, rather than a life on a cardboard throne spent expressing lamentations that no one has noticed how great I am at sitting yet.

Life happens when you make it happen, and I think that's what Lennon intended if/when he said that. I want to act and not be acted upon. I want a life of beauty and fulfillment, a life of discovery.

I want pearls.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely LOVED this blog post. Seriously, I feel so inspired now. Thanks for sharing all of those thoughts!!!

    ReplyDelete