Letters to the Editor

Back in high school I performed in an improv comedy troupe (this did not make me one of the “cool kids,” I assure you, but it did make me one of the “happy kids.”) One of the more conceptually complicated games we used to play on stage was called What Are You Doing? Part of the bit was we’d explain it upsettingly fast to the audience, and then we’d assure them that it would make sense once they saw it. Here’s how it worked:

Person A: What are you doing?

Person B: Painting the house.

Person A: [mimes painting the house]

Person B: What are you doing?

Person A: [while still miming house painting] Feeding the dog.

Person B: [mimes feeding the dog]

Person A: What are you doing?

Person B: Mowing the lawn.

Person A: [switches from house painting to lawn mowing]

Person B: What are you doing?

Etc., etc.

The trick was 1.) constantly coming up with new activities, which is harder than it sounds after a few rounds, 2.) trying to pick activities that would torture your opponent, like “spinning in circles” or “standing on my head,” and 3.) not getting confused and naming an activity that was a reasonable facsimile to the activity you were already doing—imagine, for example, Person A gave me “driving a car,” and I begin moving my hands in that limited back-and-forth circle shape, and then when they ask me what I’m doing I respond, “Milking a cow.” You see how the hand gestures are basically the same? So it’s a test of “do two things at once” plus “don’t run out of ideas” plus maybe a little “punish your friend for no good reason.”

But here’s where it gets interesting. After a few rounds of free form activity-naming, the host would declare that it was time to up the ante, and ask for someone in the audience to give us their initials. From then on, all the activities had to start with those initials. If it was some guy named Steve Johnson, we’d be “slapping jackrabbits” and “slipping jovially” and “slinky juggling” and “slightly jittering.” The longer we went on, the more wildly the audience cheered our apparent abundance of creativity.

What they didn’t know is that it actually becomes much easier once the initials get involved. Try it: name as many activities as you can in rapid succession, and see how long it takes before you start faltering. Then constrain yourself slightly, in any fashion—you could use initials, or you could name only activities you do in the winter, or only activities involving food—and see how much farther you get. It’s like putting your thumb over the garden hose: a more focused flow travels faster and farther. It’s frankly factual, friends. Fallaciousness forbidden.

(Forgive me.)

Sometimes people like to say that they need (or worse, have to wait for) “inspiration.” But inspiration is really just another form of narrowing down your options, by putting yourself inside whatever constraints pass for inspiring in your mind. So instead, be like the British lepidopterist William Stephen Adkinson. Wade shin-deep in the absurdly arbitrary instead of wafting about seeking the annoyingly artistic. You might be stunned at what you come up with.

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