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Transcript: An Interview with Jorjeana Marie

This is a lightly edited transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Jorjeana Marie for the Grammar Girl podcast. Listen here.

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language—writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have an interview with Jorjeana Marie, the author of a fabulous new book called “Improv for Writers,” but she also does much more than that. She does voices for animation, she does stand-up comedy, teaches workshops, and has narrated hundreds of audiobooks, which just to orient you is what we’re talking about at the beginning of the interview. It got a little bit cut off, so we’re coming in just a few seconds after we started talking.

Mignon: Oh gosh, thanks. Well, this is your first book, right?

Jorjeana: This is my first book, although if you look me up on Amazon or Audible, you'd be like, "Wow, there's a couple of hundred on there." But those are the ones I've narrated. I haven't written several hundred books.

Mignon: Right. Well, I was going to say you've done a lot of other interesting things. So before we get started on "Improv for Writers," why don't you give the listeners a little bit of background to explain why you're so well suited to write this book?

Jorjeana: Oh, well, thank you. I have a background teaching improv to children of all ages, and I really kind of took what I learned from them and what I learned from improv lo these many years. Also as an actor, knowing how quickly we come up with ideas and can leave our performance where it was and not judge it after. I just thought there were a lot of really neat things to share with my writer friends, who I found out had some struggles, and I just thought, "Oh, maybe these two worlds can kind of meet and giggle a little together."

Mignon: Right. And I have listeners all over the world, and some of them might not know what improv is. And I'm not even sure that I completely completely understood before reading your book. When I saw the title, I was wondering how can...I think of improv as getting up on stage, and how can that help me write? So if maybe you could explain a little bit about just what improv is just to get us started.

Jorjeana: I would love to. So "improv" is short for "improvisation," and it's the art of making things up. Musicians have been doing this for just a really long time, and we've had it in theater as part of our theater for hundreds of years. Commedia dell'arte in Italy, and then here in the United States as it has morphed over the past several decades, and changed and become very modernized to what we sort of imagine of like maybe "Whose Line is it Anyway?" Where it's comedians making the funny happen. And it is so much more.

Jorjeana: And that's where knowing the history of jazz and how that works, where there's so much improvisation and so much listening that happens with a great band on stage in that particular art form. It's very similar with the group of improv performers. And it doesn't always have to be funny.

Jorjeana: I studied with Gary Austin who created The Groundlings, which is a popular school where a lot of comedy and animation and big comedians have come out of there. And also people who've won Academy Awards for writing and all sorts things have come from that school. But Gary, his first, when he was teaching me, my introduction was in a very dramatic scene with a scene partner. She was my sister in the scene, and he came over and he said a few things in my ear about our relationship, and it was all very dramatic, and we just did the scene from there. Very serious scene without a plan.

Jorjeana: So that's a very long answer to your question, but it's making stuff up, and there's no rigid structure or plan that we're going with. There could be structure in like the game of it, which is why I think it also lends to writing because we do need structure and people think, "Oh improv, it's willy-nilly, do whatever you want, fly by the seat of your pants." And it is all of that. But there's all these rules that if we learn them, make it possible to have that freedom. Because if we don't have those rules, it's just crazy town and people are like, "I'm an alien and welcome to my spaceship." And that is fun. But of course, and I love that kind of stuff, but our scenes can be really grounded and improvised even as we're writing.

Jorjeana: So I've just sort of taken all these rules and forms and and said, "Hey writers, do you want to check this out? You don't have to get up and do the robot dance." I mean you can if you want to, we'd love that. But you can just do this at your desk and set a timer. And it's amazing doing the book tour and doing these workshops all over and with all kinds of different people, the things that people come up with in a split second. And I always just say, "Look at that. You just did that."

Jorjeana: Because it'll be like somebody will read their work in a workshop after the timer goes off if we're doing a sharing time. And Mignon, these pieces are, they're really special, and I want to call attention to you just did that.

Mignon: Yeah.

Jorjeana: So I think writer's block is a different thing, and a big part of wanting to write this book is I don't feel like anybody should have to struggle if they really want to say something and they're not being able to get their ideas down on the page.

Mignon: Yeah.

Jorjeana: There's a solution, you know?

Mignon: Yeah, I can see how. I love that they're all, all the games or exercises are so short. I was sort of expecting they might be longer, but most of them just take a few minutes. So if you're stuck in your writing or you just want to do something before you get started, they're not going to take up a lot of your time. They're really quick. And I thought that was great.

Jorjeana: Thank you. I really wanted them to be very accessible, and have a little feeling of, oh. And you can get that in 30 seconds. You can get that in two minutes. So then you can build up.

Jorjeana: Towards the end of the book we do have a 45-minute exercise where at the end of it, you've written a one-act play. And I love that that's in the book, but it's a build toward this because we do that in, there's a division of or an area of improv called "improvised in the style of..." So I've done improvised Tennessee Williams where we'll do an entire one act in that slow sort of like, we're getting in there and we're playing all these characters and we're creating, and there's a whole mood created, and by the end of an hour or half an hour, we've done something in the style of Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare. And that's a real challenge as an actor, to build up the skills to be well-read enough and brave enough and all of the things that go with willing to take a chance like that.

Jorjeana: But it's also really therapeutic. So I think setting a timer for 45 minutes and going, "I'm going to write a one act play today." I think it's very freeing because it's about creating a lot.

Jorjeana: And my editor, Lisa Westmoreland, is amazing. She really wanted to push me to do a longer piece and I was like, I don't want to throw so much at people that they're like, I just, I don't. So I did a lot of games, and then I'm glad she pushed me to include that longer piece because I think ... I'm glad it's in there so people can build towards it or they can just dive right in and see what happens. What's the worst that could happen? You write a thing that's like an hour long. You spent 45 minutes and you made a thing.

Mignon: Yeah, yeah. No, that's great. And I love that it's so accessible. You talked about the rules or there being rules or a framework. It's not all willy nilly. And one of the ones that I found really intriguing was what you called "yes, and." So can you talk a little bit about the role that yes, and plays in improv?

Jorjeana: I would love to. This is ... "Yes, and" is a big rule that even people who haven't done formal improv classes where they've shown up and done strange things in a room with four walls, it's just kind of what is underneath everything.

Jorjeana: The "yes" part is agreement and supporting other people and especially ourselves. So it's very common for people who are beginning improv to be told, given a character or told something about their character to go, "No, I'm not. You're an idiot." And it's really funny how that happens. I've done it and I teach it. So I see it all the time with students. It is a human nature thing to just go no. And I don't know if it's leftover from when we were kids and we first found that word and we're like, "No. No." "Clean up your room." "No." And it feels good to just defy and be a rebel, and we're in this creative space so I'm going to be like, No."

Jorjeana: But what happens is nothing. Nothing can happen. So we want conflict in our writing. But when we're doing improv, we want to build something so that we can have something happen later. But if we stop it right away, nothing can happen.

Jorjeana: So the idea of even the slightest thing of somebody smiles at you on stage, instead of frowning at them you smile back at them, and then you see where that sort of mischievous joy can take you or whatever it is. It's whatever is happening, you're saying yes to it.

Jorjeana: And the "and" part is just crucial because the "and" part is the information. So yes, and, agreeing with somebody and adding information is the simple version of that. But it's also philosophy for life, you know?

Mignon: Right. So if in improv someone comes up and says, "You're a pirate," you don't say, "No, I'm not." You say, "Yes, and my ship is sailing tomorrow," or something like that.

Jorjeana: You've got it. That's it.

Mignon: OK.

Jorjeana: That is exactly it. And then because I'm listening and I hear you say your ship is sailing, then I know this is the last time we're going to see each other, and I know it might be too much, but I made you a present. I wrapped it myself out of this weird plant I found in the woods. I hope neither of us are allergic to it, but it should be OK.

Jorjeana: Then you pick up on that and you're like, "Oh," and you go to unwrap it and then you're like, "Ah, my skin," and we start building this strange thing that we're building just because we've been listening to each other and we're yes, and-ing the moment and each other.

Mignon: And suddenly you have a story.

Jorjeana: Yeah. Yeah. And there's the story, and then you have something that you can change or you can scrap all of it except for this one element of like, oh, I really like those characters. I really liked the whatever it is. There's always something that is a gem.

Mignon: And do you feel like the exercises are things that are better done with another person or can you do them alone at your desk really?

Jorjeana: Oh, both. But they're for sure meant for you can do this by yourself. But I will say that I've had a lot of fun making a plan with someone that, OK, let's just ... The hardest part is still starting. When in talking with writers, that is the hardest thing is that blank page. And even with the games it's like, oh, is this really going to work or how do I really have time? And just that momentum of even being with a writing partner or a friend just being like, "Hey, I'm going to do, I'm going to set a timer and do a game. This is what it is." And boom, you start it. And then we're both writing, and at the end of it, the sharing and like, whoa, that's what you came up with? Arrow as a suggestion? Oh wow. I came up with ... And, wow, we just did that.

Jorjeana: So I think it's still, there's always going to be the work for each individual artist of beginning. And what helps to complete these things is that timer. It adds the pressure, because it's like when you do improv live in a theater, there's a lot of pressure because people are watching you. And I thought-

Mignon: Right.

Jorjeana: How can we put a little, yeah, how can I put a little pressure on the writer because you could just get up and walk off? But nobody's going to get up and walk off when you set a timer for 30 seconds. No, you're going to write and scribble as furiously and as madly as you can to get as much done. Because it's just the thing that propels us forward. And then you see it.

Mignon: Right, yeah.

Jorjeana: And you're like, oh you see the words and then you're willing to play another one. So I just encourage everybody to just try one even if they don't have the book. Just set a timer. Everybody's got a timer now on their phone. Set a timer for 30 seconds. Take a take a thing you're working on and struggling with, and just 30 seconds, as many things as you can think of that you didn't know about your lead character.

Mignon: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I can see that this might be a great gift for a writer friend. It might also be something really great for writers' groups to get and then do the exercises together at a meeting or something. I know a lot of people are in writers' groups. So there are your other writers to work with.

Jorjeana: Exactly. Yeah. I've had a lot of people tell me that they want to do that and a lot of people on the book tour just, oh, here's one for me, and here's one I'm going to give this to my friend who's, you know. It's been both. It's like I'm going to give this to my friend or my sister who does improv, or I'm going to give this to my friend who is a writer.

Mignon: Yeah. Well the other thing you talked about is the three Cs and the power of commitment, that's one of the three Cs. It surprised me, but I also found myself kind of nodding along when I was reading the section about commitment and how it can be so powerful to help you move forward in your writing. So I would love to hear more about that.

Jorjeana: Oh, I love talking about commitment. I'm really do. It's my favorite thing. When I teach, I just get the most excited. I get the most excited when I'm talking about commitment and then when I'm talking about enthusiasm, which is my little bonus rule in the book. But commitment gets me just like bubbling up, because it's a saving grace. It's like when we commit to whatever it is, if it's walking in a room confidently, even just that small thing of like, I'm going to a networking event with a lot of writers who are wearing turtlenecks, I'm going to feel awkward and out of place. What do I do? Well, just even taking that moment to commit to, I'm going to have a great time tonight and I'm going to have a meaningful conversation with at least one person, and I'm committing to that. Everything I have, that is my intention and agenda, and I'm throwing myself into that. Do you think you're going to have a crappy night? No. No, you're going to have a great night because you committed to it.

Jorjeana: And now when in writing and performing, it's the same thing. If we're performing on stage and we'd take a really big risk, like giving ourselves a weird walk or something really broad that if you lost it halfway, the entire audience would see it and be like, well that's weird. Or like a big accent, it's like can I sustain this? But if you commit to it, you commit to whatever that character is, even if it's just trying to be someone other than yourself. Committing to that, it is the antidote to judgment.

Jorjeana: That's why I feel so powerfully connected to that because we can be so hard on ourselves, and if somebody doesn't like what we make it can crush us. It can keep us from sharing our light with the world. It can keep us from continuing what we're meant to do on this earth. And if we're committing, we save ourselves from that.

Jorjeana: If somebody has something negative to say about us, if we committed, we go, that's just their opinion. And it's easier to do that, it's like an herb that you take that kind of builds up. Supposedly vitamin C one day isn't going to do much, but if you're doing every day and you're sort of up your immunity, that's what commitment is to me. It's like committing to the small and the big things in life and on the page and with our characters.

Jorjeana: Over time, if we make a thing, and we send it to a publisher ,or we put it out there and somebody has something negative to say, if we did everything that we could to bring this into the world and we committed to it, we believe in it after. You become one of those people that, one of those stories that you hear. Oh, all these publishers turned it down, or they told me to change the ending. They told me to change this or that. But I just knew, I believed in it and I didn't.

Jorjeana: Then some the other person, the right home for this story or project comes along and celebrates it. Then so many people start celebrating, it becomes a big bestseller. I think that comes from the commitment to the story, the time writing, the characters through yourself.

Jorjeana: And there's so many different ways to commit. But I know it as an actor. When I walk on stage, I just commit to being someone, to being some other character and I give it everything that I have. And that enables me to leave an audition, leave a theater going, well, I gave it everything. I did a thing. And not be an actor who's banging, this happens, banging their head against the steering wheel on the drive home, tears running down their face. I should've done this. I should've done that. Or just in a quandary where well, what could I, you know?

Jorjeana: That just doesn't happen with commitment. That self-judgment goes away.

Mignon: Yeah. And that's the way it sort of spoke to me as a writer, is if you're writing something but you're always wondering if you should have done something different it's hard to move forward. But like before, if I said "I'm a pirate," and then suddenly, instantly I was wondering like, "Oh my gosh, I should've said I'm a cowboy. What if it would be better if I'm a cowboy? Maybe I should restart over and do the whole thing as a cowboy." Then you just can't focus and move forward.

Mignon: But if you just commit 100 percent to you are a frickin' pirate, then you can just keep going with it. And that just felt so powerful to me.

Jorjeana: Yar! But it's true. It's really true, and the more you do it, the less any inkling of "cowboy?" Comes in. It's just done, it doesn't exist. It only exists as a separate idea of like, oh well maybe let's for the next thing, let's do this because another idea came in. But not another idea instead of, another idea in addition to.

Mignon: Right.

Jorjeana: That's the difference.

Mignon: Yeah.

Jorjeana: So it's for those people with a whole bunch of projects. Because I meet people now with this book they're like, "Oh my God. I don't need a million ideas. I already got a million running around." And for those people I think that's great. But we, and I'm one of those people, but we have to finish a project too. So it's like the exercises help with just getting it done, getting the words on the page and honing and all of that.

Mignon: Right. Great. Well we're going to take a quick break for our sponsor, and when we come back we're going to talk about another thing I found really surprising about Jorjeana's book, and we're going to talk about a couple of the specific games that are in the book. So we'll be right back.

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Mignon: OK, we're back. So one of the things that surprised me so much in the book is that you brought up meditation. So I just started meditating a couple months ago for completely different reasons. I had always heard it's good for you, but then I saw the data and I was like, heck yeah, I'll spend ten minutes a day on this and build up some gray matter. But you say it's also helpful with writing and creativity. So I would love to hear how this thing that's so good for my health is also going to be good for my writing.

Jorjeana: Isn't it so nice to have science back up this thing that's like, oh, I think that would be neat. And then you see all this information and you're like, wow, you can reprogram yourself. You can move through these things. You can come up with all sorts of ideas.

Jorjeana: I started experiencing it when I would do yoga and the final meditation, when we would do that for a period of a year, I got, and it actually still happens, but it was happening so intensely that I was like, oh, there's something here. I started getting an idea or two every time I meditated at the end of a yoga class. And I was like, oh wow, OK.

Jorjeana: And then I began a formal meditation. Not formal, just being like I created a little bit of a structure for myself and decided I'm going to do this in the mornings and I'm going to commit to it, and just so many ideas coming forth.

Jorjeana: Then as I wanted to read more about that and see am I the only one, I started to discover I am definitely not the only one. There are a lot of other creative people out there who've used this as a tool to come up with ideas. And to be totally honest, I really used it as a tool myself to get through ... When I record audio books it's very ... They're long days and the more mistakes I make, the longer the session, and you really want to be a reader that doesn't make, an actor that doesn't make a lot of mistakes with the words so that it can be a smoother process.

Jorjeana: And I found the days that I meditated even just for five minutes before I went into the recording studio were completely different. I made way less mistakes. Everything went smoother and that was just like, just a money-time saving thing was like. Wow.

Jorjeana: Then not to mention all of the other wonderful benefits of it. There's all those physiological benefits that have been proven. But I just, it helps me get grounded. I'm a pretty wild individual just in the sense of thoughts this way and excitement. So it's nice to take a few moments before I write to just take a few deep, even if it's just a few deep breaths and center myself. And it really, when I do it in the workshops, it changes the whole energy of the room.

Jorjeana: So I mean I just think it has a lot of uses. But especially with before writing, just to create an environment for myself to like, OK, we're going to get it done and I'm going to be centered so that the characters I can really hear them rather than ignoring them or not giving them space to come in. And meditation gives, for me, I've found it gives me space so that when I set out, when I begin the process of writing, I actually can hear the characters and see them in a way when I don't, I just don't. Does that make sense?

Mignon: Yeah. It definitely clears your mind, helps you focus on what you're doing next. Yeah.

Jorjeana: And I write for, I write, yeah. When I write for animation and it's very visual, it's so visual. And my background before that was playwriting and so very dialogue, not a visual medium, mostly about the words. And so for me I found I got better and better at visualizing what the characters were doing, visualizing scenes, and being able to write in gags because I was present to sort of see what Minnie and Daisy are doing. And so it was just that kind of thing. It's been really helpful for me.

Mignon: Yeah. Yeah. Well one thing that jumped out at me earlier that you were describing, walking into a networking event and you talked about all the writers in turtlenecks, which was such a wonderful little specific description. And I know in your writing you're supposed to be descriptive like that, to give not just a room full of writers, but what do they look like, what are they doing? More details.

Mignon: And one of the games in your book I liked was that you called the five objects game. So I thought maybe if you describe that we could give the listeners a little bit of an idea of what the games are like.

Jorjeana: Oh yeah, let's do that. And let's play too. So five objects is-

Mignon: OK.

Jorjeana: OK good. Five objects is we get a suggestion of a place, and then as quickly as we can, we name off five objects that we'd find in that place. And then we do the second version of that. So why don't we ... Do you want to do you want to play it if I give you a place?

Mignon: Yes, and.

Jorjeana: Awesome. OK, good. Now and then just remember, don't think too much. Just just allow the idea to come and don't judge it as it comes in and you'll be great.

Mignon: OK.

Jorjeana: So I'm going to give you a place, and then in between I'm going to count. So as an example, I often I think even in the book is like beach. So if I say "beach" and you say "beach ball," I'm going to say one. So I'll count for you and then we'll get-

Mignon: OK.

Jorjeana: To five. So OK. Let's see. Oh, first thing that I thought of, graveyard. Five things in a graveyard.

Mignon: Oh. Broken headstone.

Jorjeana: One.

Mignon: Moss.

Jorjeana: Two.

Mignon: Homeless person.

Jorjeana: Three.

Mignon: Trees without leaves.

Jorjeana: Four.

Mignon: Ghosts.

Jorjeana: Five. Awesome. That was great. Really good job. Nicely done.

Mignon: That's fun.

Jorjeana: And then we start to paint a little bit of a picture too, don't we?

Mignon: Yeah.

Jorjeana: Now you are already doing some of that part of it, which was be specific. So I'm going to challenge you to do it even more. Like when you had on a couple of them, on several of them actually, you had more than one word about it, describing it. So I want you to ... You have all the time in the world and you have all the space you need so you can get ... We're not doing a monologue for each one. But feel free to take the lead of what you were just doing with describing a little bit more. So we add a little more specificity in here. So as a suggestion, I'm going to go with, oh, jungle.

Mignon: OK. A snake.

Jorjeana: And go ahead and give me some description of that.

Mignon: Oh, OK. Oh, we're being more specific. OK. A huge snake in a tree waiting to scoop down and get me.

Jorjeana: One.

Mignon: A squishy jungle floor where my feet or my shoes sort of sink in as I walk and it feels like they're sucking me down into the earth.

Jorjeana: Two.

Mignon: [inaudible].

Jorjeana: Oh.

Mignon: How about a sound? The sound of a strange chirping that I've never heard before, but sounds like it's getting closer and closer and louder and louder.

Jorjeana: Four.

Mignon: A smell. I feel like I'm cheating, but I can't think of objects. So a smell, the smell of verdant greenery, that's almost overpowering.

Jorjeana: Five. That was awesome. And I love that you started to go into the sensory, the sensory experience. I mean there's just ... And that's the thing with improv, it's like, OK, there are rules, but the whole point is to get moving like that. And you created a whole world and I totally put you on the spot and you just nailed it. I mean that's the thing is you committed to it, and then there's all of that.

Jorjeana: And then there's one more aspect that I have with that and this sort of lends to a little bit of comedy, is to play the game and then add something in there that doesn't belong there and to take a little pressure off you and be a good improv partner, why don't you give me a place and then do the same count for each.

Jorjeana: I'm going to just do something similar, but one of the objects is not going to ... It would be a surprise to find there.

Mignon: OK. How about a roller rink?

Jorjeana: Roller rink. Awesome. Rainbow striped roller skates.

Mignon: One.

Jorjeana: A little boy who's fallen and is crying.

Mignon: Two.

Jorjeana: Giant balloons in the shape of roller skates.

Mignon: Three

Jorjeana: A massive, one of those giant sheet cakes that says "Happy Birthday Bethesda."

Mignon: Oh, nice. Four.

Jorjeana: And a police officer.

Mignon: Five. Good job.

Jorjeana: So that-

Mignon: Is Bethesda a person or a place?

Jorjeana: Exactly. Who knows? I was thinking it was a person and then my thing that didn't really belong there was the police officer. But you see by throwing that thing that doesn't really belong in there, we can give ourselves a twist and then you start to go, you immediately start to story tell don't you? It's like, well, what's he doing there? Well, I can give you a few ideas what he's doing there, and then we're off to the races, you know?

Mignon: Yeah. That's fun. That's really powerful.

Jorjeana: I think so too. And I think it's like what you did with adding the sensory. That's the power of improv, is making it yours and adjusting it. Because that's what I've done with this book, and I think that's just like, it's a gift. I really do think that improv is a gift and it's changed my life.

Jorjeana: I was terrified of it when I first did it ,and I think I talk about that in the book. And I'm so glad that I took the time to see what it was about because it became the thing that, I don't know, I can talk all night and day about now.

Mignon: And you do. And you not only do you have the book, "Improv for Writers," but it sounds like you do workshops too. Is that right?

Jorjeana: Yes. Yeah. I've been delighted to get to go into studios and do workshops with the Scriptwriters Network, with nonprofit groups. I'll be doing one at Disney coming up, and then I got to go to LA Children's Hospital and work with the kids. And that was really, really meaningful. Just being with people so many different ages and different backgrounds, and I always learn. I've always learned from my students, and it's just, I don't know. It's, it's a really, it's a lot .... I do love teaching.

Mignon: That's great. Well the book again is called "Improv for Writers," and where can people find you if they want to learn more about how to get the book or how to find out about all the other things you do too?

Jorjeana: Oh, well thanks for asking. My website is jorjeanamarie.com. It's J-O-R-J-E-A-N-A, and I know it's an unusual spelling. But it's jorjeanamarie.com, and then I'm on the different social platforms, and I've been starting to put out the different rules and I try to find events and times where I can pop these little helpful tidbits in for people. Because sometimes just seeing a quick picture of something that says yes, commit can really ... I don't know. I think I've gotten nice responses from people with that.

Mignon: Excellent. Well, thanks again Jorjeana for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Jorjeana: Thank you for having me. This was really cool and thank you for your awesome questions and playing. That was fun.