Maybe Worth Really Looking At…
I found it amazing. This advice came from a blog post Johnstone did back in 2020. Sadly, since that time he has done very few. He is 87 years of age and no longer teaching as far as I can tell as well. But he is an actor, a writer, and is known as one of the pioneers of improvisational theater. In essence, he is amazing.
One of his many thoughts in this random blog post of misc. stuff was called Five Ideas. You can read the entire post here… https://www.keithjohnstone.com/post/_misc
I was sent this part of the post and think it is amazing. Thanks, Paul.
Here it is by Keith Johnstone… Give this one some thought, folks. It might help you with critical voice issues as he says… And so much more.
At age twelve I thought that it was important for writers to be able to create similes and metaphors, so I invented a game that I’ll share with you. I’m very bad at it, but it may have altered me; people are surprised that I can so quickly replace one idea by another, that I’m not attached to my ideas: this game may be responsible.
Choose something, anything, and find a phrase to describe it. For example, ‘a dog’; a dog could be ‘a mouth on four legs’. It’s a description that could apply to many animals, but we’re not deciding good or bad, we’re just trying to get an underused part of the mind to operate. And, anyway, ‘a mouth on four legs’ might be exactly how you saw a dog that was leaping up to bite you.
That’s not the game. The actual game demands that you find five ways to describe something. They don’t have to be ‘right’, or ‘clever’, ‘or witty’ but you’re not allowed to say that you can’t think of anything. As a game for two people, you lose when you can’t think of anything, but when you play it solo you’re not allowed to lose – this forces you to ‘lower your standards’. (In improvisation there are no good or bad ideas: a good idea is one that you take somewhere; a bad idea is one that you don’t.)
Other people change the game. They lower the number of descriptions demanded from five to two – but then it’s hardly worth playing. Supplying five ideas is cruel (at least it is for me) but it forces bad ideas out of your subconscious – and that’s a different process. It helps you to by-pass the crippling self-censorship that demands only ‘good ideas’.
I’ll think of five descriptions for a dog: ‘your heart medicine’, ‘the thing that has to love you’, ‘your furry philosopher’,’ the member of the family,’ the guardian of the house’. My mind freezes here, but I’ll keep going by lowering my standards: ‘my bone cruncher’, ‘my rabbiter’, ‘the only creature I can trust’, ‘God spelt backwards’, ’the tyrant that makes me go for walks’. I could try for twenty, but I might start screaming. The point is that my mind wants me to do well, so it protects me from ‘bad ideas’ by insisting that it can’t think of ideas of any kind, and yet the suggestions I get when I ‘lower my standards’ may be better than the previous ones.
I’ll try ‘autumn leaves’: ‘memento mori’s from the trees’, ‘panicking crowds’ (as the wind blows them across the road), ‘a billion announcements of the death of Summer’, ‘the tears of the trees’, ‘nature’s dandruff’, ‘like walking through cornflakes’.
A version that you can play each time that you look through a newspaper involves covering the last ‘cell’ of a strip-cartoon and writing down five possible endings. I usually feel that I’ve failed miserably, only to find that I’ve had the same idea as the cartoonist, or a better one.
I realize that although I’ve never considered myself an expert of this game, no one else is even playing it. And if you play it all your life – as I have – you’ll certainly be less afraid of ideas. I’m proud of my twelve year old self for insisting on five ideas; where did I get the courage?
Joseph Conrad might have been a good player. Someone asked him to describe a woman entering a hotel bar: he said something like: “An exquisite woman with a speck of dirt on one nostril.” (But could he have done it four more times?)