Recommended Sanderwich: Take two big bits of bread and stuff it with everything you love (this might make more sense after you’ve read the blog).
The final eighteen months of my twenties was a horrible time. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved serious illness of people very dear to me, combined with heartbreak. I was so sad I couldn’t remember what it was like to be happy. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling happy again. As well as the unfortunate life circumstances, I was approaching Thirty, and wondering what I’d done with my life. I find birthdays hard, but Thirty hit me real bad. I realised that even before the tragedy, I was feeling a low-grade misery all of the time. When the tragedy hit, I came out in a case of fully-blown Raging Misery. I had no misery antibodies, no reserves. All of this led me to the conclusion that I must change my life. And to do that, I must change myself.
For a long time, I’d wanted to be a writer. I worked as an Audio Describer, describing TV programmes and films for the visually impaired. I wrote and recorded the scripts, so I was writing everyday, but I wasn’t writing my stuff. Over the years, I’d written on and off, but I’d never really sunk my teeth in. I was afraid of failure. On my thirtieth birthday, my housemate at the time told me she’d bought me some writing lessons. After that, she never mentioned it again and I forgot about it. During these dark days too, another friend of mine did an improvisation class. She kept telling me I should do it, that I would love it, and she even put my name on the waiting list. I kept claiming I would do it when I could, but I was scared, and I never had any real intention of doing so.
About this time last year, I was suffering a particularly awful hangover. The kind that not only makes your gums stick to your teeth and your head pound, but also sends you into a spiralling into existential crisis. What is the meaning of all of this? Surely, there is more than just gin. At school I’d acted, and I wrote and performed sketches with a friend. I’d missed being on stage for twelve long years. But I’d told myself I wasn’t supposed to be a performer because if I were, I wouldn’t have so much fear surrounding it. But I’d missed it, I’d yearned for it like a skilful, long-lost lover. I was the wang at a comedy night sitting in the audience not laughing thinking ‘I could do this’. But I never got off my tubby arse and tried. It’s much easier to sit in the audience and be a critic than it is to stand up on the stage and be judged. So, on that day, I signed up for the improv class, desperate for something, anything else.
The week I was due to start my improv class, in January this year, I got a call from the housemate (who I no longer lived with). She told me that the writing class she’d bought me started that week too. I was so anxious, I couldn’t look at a sandwich without getting severe indigestion. If writing class was as scary as jumping off a cliff into the sea far below, then improv was like doing it after you’d spotted a dorsal fin poking out of the water. Going to my first improv class I repeated this mantra in my head: One day, Alice, you will have to face death alone, how are you going to do that if you can’t face an improv class. A friend also gave me these precious words – ‘doubt before the divine’. And so I went, doubting hard, and desperately hoping for the divine.
I have so much gratitude for those two friends who signed me up for writing and improv. It was exactly the right amount of endorsement and kick-up-the-ass I needed. Those two things changed my life for the better in more ways than I can ever tell you. Improv was the perfect way for me to get back into performing, because as terrifying as it is not knowing what’s going to happen, you’re never alone on stage. The basic building block of improve is saying “yes, AND”. Sometimes you think the idea you go out with doesn’t have any legs. But something happens – maybe your scene partner takes it to a place you never would’ve imagined, maybe just through the yes, AND principle, you do. Sometimes magic happens. Sometimes you leap off the cliff, grow wings, and fly. Sometimes, it’s not so great. And so you learn to fail, and be okay with it, because the world doesn’t stop turning after a shit scene, and everybody doesn’t hate you, and actually everything is pretty much the same as before you did the shit scene. It helped me so much with writing because it gave me the sweet freedom to just try something without knowing where it was going, without knowing whether it would fly or be eaten by a shark, and feeling kinda okay with that.
I did the whole novel writing course. I read out my stuff at the open mic night at the end. I might have cried and trembled at work before I did it, but a colleague persuaded me to go. What I read got a good reception, but what brought me the most pride was that I had done it. I had been brave, and said yes. I did three levels of the improv class. At the end we had a class show. That day, I wept. I told myself that it was easier for other people because they had partners to tell them everything would be fine. The real reason I was terrified is because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I went to a school that was obsessed with academic achievement, getting a B grade was a failure, and saying the wrong answer was an embarrassment. This is so contrary to the creative process, where you must fail, and the most important thing is to keep going, allow yourself to play, find your voice, and hopefully, eventually, hit upon something that works. Before I left the house for my first show, I vomited prolifically. Twelve years of fear and self-reprisal shot up from my guts and into the toilet bowl. I went to my show with a toothbrush in my pocket.
I did the show with my team. It wasn’t flawless, but people laughed. That feeling of being on stage and people laughing at something I said was incredible. When I came off stage, I felt amazing. The fear had dissipated because I’d confronted it. That’s the thing about fear. If you ignore it for twelve years, it still lingers. It won’t go away until you look it in the eye and do battle with it. If I could pass on two pieces of advice to my younger self it would be these two things:
1) Life is like a sandwich, you get out of it what you put into it. So stuff it full of everything you love.
2) You might think that one day you’ll feel ready to confront your fear. You won’t. You just have to do it.
Now I feel like I have some misery antibodies. I have reserves. The thing with your own creative pursuits is that they don’t rely on other people, or circumstance to some extent. Whatever life throws at me, I have my writing and my improv. Nobody can stop it, nobody can take it away. It’s all mine.
I am really grateful to all the people who have supported me in my new ventures this year, the new friends and the old. I’ve done so many things I never dreamed I’d do before: I’ve gone to a party alone, I’ve started a blog, I’m trying a new career, I’ve read my work out loud, I’ve pitched my novel to an agent, and I’ve stood on the stage and performed. As it turns out, the stage is just another place to stand. So be brave people, say “yes, AND”!
If anyone is interested in trying either of the courses that changed my life, I did two different courses with Anne Aylor who is a wonderful writing teacher, just click on the link. And I did my improv classes with Monkey Toast UK, run by David Shore and I can’t recommend it highly enough.