26 February 2009

Block? Block. Block?

Friend WHftTS has a recent post on his/her/its 'blog that reminds me of how irksome the collaborative process can be. It is easy to feel lost or frustrated, or both, and sometimes the whole damn thing hardly seems worth the effort. It has to be a strong choice, I think, to collaborate with particular people at a particular time on a particular work, and we have to be prepared to have it go completely different from our expectations. Even then, we may contend with that familiar urge to go ear rippin'. And anyway, we don't always have a choice in one (if not any) of these areas. Theatre, in particular, involves a lot of ball-passing, and very rarely does any quarterback make a 90-yard dash that results in a touchdown.

Ew. When I resort to sports metaphor, it's time for a new paragraph, at least.

Having just come off a highly collaborative process, I'm very sensitive to WHftTS' frustration over people who block. By "block," in this sense, I'm drawing a parallel between collaboration and improvisation (much safer metaphorical territory [is that ambiguous?] for yours truly). A block, in improvisation, is when someone says "no" to a suggestion. A pretty straight-forward rule: Don't say no. Until you consider that the very rule you just stated violates itself by its negative construction. Then think of how conditioned we are to say "no," automatically or otherwise. Then consider how many different ways there are of saying "no," or blocking, without using that particular word; without saying anything at all! It is often quite challenging, saying "yes" to everything. Hell, it's challenging saying yes even once, in some contexts.

It would seem, at first blush, that some critical faculty is required for collaboration, and it is. The trouble is, saying "no," or arguing, is too easy. "Easy?" you demand. "You call that struggle easy?" In a sense, yes, Dear Reader. Blocking is itself a much simpler, more direct choice than, say redirecting, or even trying out whatever's just been given to you. Therein lies much of the problem with blocking, even that of the most sensible and creative variety -- it contributes nothing.

When we teach improvisation, Friend Heather and I get people in the practice of saying, "Yes, and..." at the beginning of each sentence. This is a good ritual for keeping communication open. The first, and most consistent, breach of this rule that always occurs is someone saying, "Yes, but...". Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that one says "yes, but" because they sincerely have a better idea. Hands down. No question. What harm then? The harm is that in disagreement so abrupt and direct, one halts the flow of energy, which is more important to a collaboration than almost anything else. Perhaps worse (for the blocker), in a good collaboration you may find yourself ignored. Like water, the group's efforts have to keep flowing, lest they become stagnant, and you, Dear Blocker, are in their way. More to the point, though, there are other ways of influencing the flow, ways that run less risk of ignoring what might turn out to be a problem-solving idea at that. Focus, explore and contribute, rather than block, and odds are that you'll get a better result every time. Maybe in some cases we can and ought to direct a given collaboration. That can be helpful, but no matter how much your direction is needed, you never own the collaboration. It's always the groups'.

The other block I have on my mind is one WHftTS addresses rather frequently as well: writer's block. Or, I should say, WHftTS addresses the cure, which is regular writing. A discipline. Like a pulp detective, I can't help but feel the two blocks are related in some way(s). I spent a couple of months away from my play Hereafter -- never reading it, much less writing on it, in that time. My intention had been to spend the last two weeks of R&J working it over, but the first week was packed with workshops, and the second . . . well . . . I just couldn't get to it.

It has become apparent to me that I'm actually suffering from a bit of writer's block. That seems natural enough. My writing in general over the rehearsal period had been sporadic at best, downright occasional at worst, so I'm a little out of practice. Plus, I care an awful lot about Hereafter, and so I don't want to mess up whatever I've already gotten right. Plus, I can't recapture how I felt when I was writing it. Plus . . . I mean, I wrote the two best pieces of it months apart from one another, with no regard for unity . . .. And . . . uh . . . er . . ..

"Yes, but . . ."

You can block yourself. In fact, what may be so very frightening about collaboration is that it mirrors the internal process so well. They're both instinctive, wandering, exploratory quests, filled with wrong turns and time, time, time. They're best approached with patience, enthusiasm and direction, albeit ever-changing direction. It's hard enough work without getting in my own way.


walkinhomefromthethriftstore said...

Thanks for the shout-out, yo! I feel you on the not wanting to mess up whatever you've already gotten right. I've been saving numbered drafts. It helps me to feel better about striking out into new territory - if it doesn't work with draft 3, I know I've still got 1 and 2 to go back to.

Jeff Wills said...

Thank YOU, WHftTS! I love what you have to say about your process and that junk. Numbered drafts are good, and I had kind of forgotten about that. I actually believe that some scenes need to be rewritten from scratch to see what comes of it. Because some, they are BAD...

Melissa said...

I have heard that working with columns helps as well dear Writer. But that gets visually crazy for me -
I agree with numbered drafts (I collect them actually...have many the same poem that read one word differently from draft to draft)

I missed you dear Jeff-
You notes about collaboration speak to me - I suppose because of how much deep and wonderful information I took away from the Omi residency last summer - we can talk more about that soon -
But staying open and letting go of ownership (where the NO is based) are the big things.

Jeff Wills said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Mel. Yes, yes: throwing NOTHING away comes pretty naturally to me. Just as Megan. ;)