Improv

When I was 15, I thought I knew exactly how the rest of my life was going to go… when I was 18, I still thought so. I had everything written out in a neat little story in my head, exactly how I thought it was going to play out. I tried to anticipate the plot twists along the way, making sure they fit with where I saw the story ending. Now that I’m 20, I can proudly say that 15-year-old and 18-year-old me were completely, totally wrong.

I’m slowly becoming comfortable with throwing out the script I was so convinced was written for my life. In truth, I’m learning that the real script isn’t something I can just hole up and write, then distribute– it’s an (often messy) conglomeration of relationships, experiences, and events written by me and all the other people in my life. I don’t control the entrances, exits, and lines of the characters who appear in my story, and that has often lead to sudden and unexpected plot twists. That used to freak me out because those plot twists often didn’t coincide with the ones I’d written in myself… I was constantly revising scenes and writing in new material to keep up with the changes and try to preserve the destination I was working toward.

It used to be very difficult for me to relinquish that control, and some days it still is. I like to be able to peek ahead a few scenes to see where the messy bits of the plot are taking me, but giving other people artistic liberty over their roles means that I have absolutely no way of knowing where they might take me next. Letting other people in on the authorship of my story means trusting them, which is often difficult for me. Giving someone your trust gives them the power to break it, and if someone chooses to do that you might scrape yourself on the jagged edges. Those scrapes can get pretty deep, and can make it seem like the favorable option is covering up with bubble wrap and never getting near anyone ever again.

There are times when I package myself up so tightly that nothing and nobody can get anywhere near me… I cover myself up until I can’t see out and no one can see in. Some days, all I remember are the scrapes of past broken trust and past disappointment. I can still feel the hurt of those broken edges on days like that, and I remember every single time I was left or disappointed. Days like that make me wonder what I did wrong, and make me wonder how long I have before I get left or disappointed again. Those days are the days when the past comes back to pick on me just a little… those days are days when I’m a little scared. That’s when I wrap the bubble wrap around me and decide that I’ll just box myself up so no one can break my edges and I can’t break anyone else’s.

I am not an insecure, scared person. I am a person who believes it’s always worth trying again, because sometimes it takes a few chances to get things right (see my musings on the importance of revision). That doesn’t mean there aren’t moments where I feel insecure or feel scared… that’s called being human. I can be really tough on myself when I have one of those “human” moments, and sometimes I worry that every person who contributes to my story is just destined to eventually move on to a better one.

Some of my visiting characters have made me feel like a “vacation” from their reality, or a placeholder for something better, or a nice silver medal when they fall short of the gold. I kept many of those characters around for far longer than I should have because I had written them as integral parts to my story. I accepted the bad feelings that came with that poor treatment as mere byproducts of my journey towards a happy ending. Throwing out that script, I could no longer justify letting myself feel that way or be treated that way… I slowly began to toss all of those cracked pieces into the trash and move on.

A blank slate can sometimes be more intimidating than one filled with the wrong things because it’s hard to know where to start, but a blank slate gives you the chance to make it anything you want it to be. One of the most important things I’ve learned from my now-obsolete script is that there’s no sense keeping characters around who treat you like anything less than who you are. Characters who demand that you be a certain way or do a certain thing are not the kind of characters who will help you grow or help you reach your next scene. Those kinds of characters are often hard to shake, because they can easily be disguised in pretty packaging and pretty words.

There have been times when I’ve been deceived by that pretty and placed my trust in the wrong hands– those are the times when I found myself brushing aside broken pieces after the characters made their grand exits. It’s easy to remember the exits because those are the parts that hurt, and those are the parts that whisper over and over again that you aren’t good enough and that the only solution is to package yourself up into a bubble and never let any more characters in. Undoing the damage of those whispers is not an overnight job. Like it or not, the cuts of our pasts never heal in exactly the same way– it takes time and care to tell that voice to be quiet because you are enough and that no, you will not just shut everything out. It takes courage to let someone in and give them your trust after others have broken it.

I am often bad at letting people in and being vulnerable. It scares the living daylight out of me. Some days I want to go back and write a fresh draft of my script, because I think knowing the ending right now will take some of the scary, messy parts away… but like it or not, my script is a collaborative work. Each character brings their own creative direction, and sometimes those characters only stay for a few scenes. I don’t have a magical crystal ball to look into the future and stop every possible potential for pain, but I don’t think I’d want to even if I could. When I was 18, having a full-length script planned out let me justify bad characters and broken pieces– my script allowed me to justify being treated like I was not good enough to be part of someone else’s. That script is gone now, and I’m learning how to leave the bubble wrap on the shelf and trust the characters around me to come closer and contribute to my scenes. Sometimes those scenes have been painful, but I won’t ever let that pain stop me from working on the next one. Trust is scary, vulnerability is scary… but never letting anyone in and keeping every experience at arms’ length is even scarier.

If my script had worked out how I wrote it to, my life would be a lot different, and I don’t think I would like it one bit as much as I like where I am now. My bad characters have strengthened me in ways I did not expect– even if their methods were sometimes a little questionable. I have endured broken hearts and scrapes from trust placed in the wrong hands, but that just means it’s become easier to see what hands are trustworthy. My bad characters have taught me to recognize and appreciate the good ones… every day, that mean voice putting me down gets quieter as the voices building me up get louder. Letting my good characters in and sharing the experience of writing my story has liberated me from so much of the pain that kept me in place. I’m learning to improvise and roll with the changes, because every plot twist, unexpected or self-authored, has become an important part of my story. I might not know what scene comes next, but what a beautiful thing to revel in the possibility.

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