Monday, July 16, 2007

Yesses and Noes

In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell examines what makes for good improvisational comedy. Apparently, the most important rule is saying yes: when someone throws something at you, you don't talk your way around it to stay on track, you accept it into your skit and if it knocks you off course ... aha! You have comedy. As I understand it, the improvisational yes is like a plus sign that creates a whole that is whackier and more magnificent than the sum of its parts.

A couple of months ago, I applied the improv principle and said yes to the presence of yaks on my lawn. Like a good improv game, it took on a life of its own and soon I had a series of yesses that led right out of the blog and took me in happy directions I couldn't have guessed at.

And yet, in my real life I am busy saying no. In fairly entrenched and serious ways.

My therapist has known me a long time, and ten years ago she suggested to me that I might want to experiment with saying yes. Given what I was working on then, it was an experiment well worth making, but what I have to work on right now is something really altogether different. I need to feel confident in my body and connected to my community. More practically, I need to lose weight, I need to get my finances in order, I need to pick up, dust off, and polish my mental health. And I have started applying myself to all of that by saying no first.

If we had stuck with our original plan for this year, I would either be newly pregnant or about to start cycle two this week. And thinking about being in either of those situations instead of where I am terrifies me. There is a principle in Jewish law that accepts abortion as a form of self-defense, because under some circumstances--not all of them medical--the fetus is considered a pursuer that is imperiling the mother. Given the unlikelihood of accidental pregnancy in my life, this has always seemed interesting but not of practical use. But I think that when I decided not to begin insemination this year, I was reacting to the specter of that pursuit.

So now I am thinking about the ways in which the improvisational yes depends on first staking out a clear, strong, boundary-defining no.


E. said...

The improv "yes" is based on the premise that what you see onstage is not, in fact, real-life. Any fuzziness about that boundary renders the action very troubling (e.g. is the actor really hurt, or was that painful-looking fall part of the show?). So, in a very real sense, the metaphor holds up: the improv "yes" can only operate within well-defined boundaries, the rules that make it possible to take pleasure in the action rather than rushing onstage with a doctor's kit. Saying "no" to one thing can be a form of saying "yes" to something else.

S. said...

Hey E., I was wondering if you'd bite! Yes, just what I was getting at--that "no" is constructive, that it creates and protects an arena of safety.

E. said...

Yes, I bit! Would it extend the metaphor too far to say I like having something tasty to chew on? :)

From a psychological standpoint, I gather that both "yes" and "no" can amount to the same thing if the impetus behind them is the same. In other words, the concept of "saying yes" would be a metaphor for taking emotional risks, regardless of whether the content of that risk happens to be "yes" or "no". I hope I'm making sense.

S. said...

I think that in this case the kind of yes I mean, the improvisational kind, is a yes not so much of risk as of movement or complication.

Say no, the story stays the same but it may not be worth telling. Say yes and someone else's mind is in the story with you--maybe only in the form of suggestions, but if you go with them, those suggestions will move things unpredictably because they did not come from you, so the story changes.

Risk is involved, I suppose, but using that word frames it very differently. It's not so much giving up control as seeing that control can work differently, and doesn't need to be about guarding. The guarding part comes in the initial boundaries: setting up the space for the story to unfold with the "no" that contains it or lays out its rules.

And, absolutely, both yesses and noes are building things so there is a way in which they can be seen as the same.

Magpie said...

I think my head just exploded a little.

But I understand the yaks better.

S. said...

Magpie, does it help to know that E. and I met in grad school?

Furrow said...

If Magpie is a little lost, I don't feel so bad. But I was just going to say that it's interesting that many of us probably feel like we need to learn how to say "no," when in reality, we say it a lot more than "yes."

But then again, I wasn't around for the yaks, so I'm definitely missing something.

S. said...

Furrow, here is the follow-up links to the yaks.

oneofhismoms said...

I think the improvisational "yes" is all about continuing a skit. When one says "no" in improv, it quickly spirals into a yes-no, not-funny situation. It doesn't move the actioan along. When I started teaching, I quickly learned to say "no" when I didn't want my classroom to turn into a comedy sketch. I think what your therapist might be suggesting is that you add the "yes" more often to move the action along and learn to roll with the punches. In the case of getting pregnant, you need to say "no" if you fear for your safety, as in "No, second-grader, you may not cut your birthday cake with this butcher knife." I think when you're ready to move the action along, you will.

Though you may want to practice the "yes" on smaller real-life stuff. Improv is fun. :)

S. said...

Hmmm about yes-no intractability. That's a new one to ponder. And oh, am I with you on the classroom not being an improv stage! I found it important to be clear about that when my eleventh graders started putting pens up their noses.

I took the improv idea from Gladwell, not my therapist, just to be clear. Ten years ago, my therapist wasn't talking improv. She was talking "if someone is attracted to you that doesn't mean you have to reject them." Hard to imagine getting married if I hadn't learned that lesson.

(You can usefully think of dating as improv, of course.)