Improvisation for Writers

Kitty Sheehan:

Writers and storytellers! We hope you’ll apply!

Originally posted on Stephen Tobolowsky:

img_1421 Dartbrook Lodge, photo by Kitty Sheehan.

This October I am conducting a writing workshop in the mountains of upstate New York. Beautiful. I am thrilled about the change of scenery. I am excited about the workshop. I am going to be teaching improvisational techniques for writers.

I have 10 years experience teaching improv for actors and comics. It has been fun. I get a lot of good feed back. Several of my students have gotten jobs. Not necessarily in acting. I ran into one of my students about five years ago. I asked the standard teacher question, “So how are things going?”

“Great. I got out of show business.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes. It was your class that made me quit.”

“Oh…”

“No. It was a good thing. I’m a writer now. I’ve had two books published. Working on my third. I owe it all to your class.”

I was…

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A Bubble Bath for Your Spirit

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Paulette Goddard in Anna Lucasta.

Have I ever led you astray? Wait, people who knew me in my 20’s, don’t answer that. Or my 30’s. Or early 40’s. Ok, have I led you astray recently? I try not to. Leave it at that.

In a perfect world, Sunday is supposed to be a day to care for the spirit. I’d like to help you do that. Dig in, if interested.

There are quite a few things happening around me right now that are causing me to take a closer look at the big picture. My husband and I had a long talk about this today. As you get older, the big picture has less detail and becomes more abstract. For me, life’s big picture is about remembering these few things:

  1. Do something to make today better than yesterday. Even if it just means listening better. Especially if it just means listening better.
  2. NEVER say never.
  3. Try to say yes as often as you can.

As a way of helping to make your today better than your yesterday, here are my offerings.

This episode of The Mischke Road Show. I told you about this days ago. Why haven’t you listened to it yet? Thank you so much to those of you who have, and who have let me know. I assure you, it’s worth your time, and it will inspire you and change your day. (And a shout out to our children, who are doing their part in filling that bucket with drops. After you listen, you’ll know about the bucket and the drops.)

The website of the brilliant Taylor Negron. Spend time here, lift yourself up. He was so much more than a character actor and stand-up comic, as you’ll see. He was a bright, light soul who used his time here in astonishingly productive and creative ways. All the art on the website is by him, including the gorgeous paintings. An essay not to be missed: The Pink Gorilla (Tuesdays with Lucy).

And this. If nothing else, this. A Last Gift From The Genius Mind of Taylor Negron: Reflections On A Life Spent Playing Everyman: A meditation on saying goodbye from a master of the form.

A sweet song about why you should laugh more.

Hope you feel a little lighter.

And much appreciation to all who take time to comment here or to email me. It’s everything! xo

The Mischke Road Show

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I’m an AM radio geek. And I’ve been a fan of Tommy Mischke on Minneapolis radio for a couple decades.

Tommy’s show isn’t for everyone. I’ve been in a room with his other fans; I’ve seen a motley lot of us together in one place. I had a faint sense we were all a little unhinged somehow. Wait, who among us isn’t a little unhinged somehow — in one way or another? OK, yes, yes,  it is for everyone.

Mischke’s one of a kind, starting with his voice. You absolutely cannot match his distinctive, colorful and sometimes crazy delivery with anyone else’s. His unique takes on life are both wildly funny and deceptively profound. He’s that friend we all want to run things by, because you know he’s probably going to pose an angle you hadn’t thought of, a new way to connect the dots.

Up until 2013, Tommy’s then-gig was a nightly show on WCCO-AM that made me laugh, cry and think…usually on the same night. Then during one summer show that year, he announced he was quitting. Just like that. He told his listeners he knew he had to do something else, though he didn’t yet know what it was. We fans were in mourning, but we trusted him. We knew he was telling the truth and we wanted the best for him. We’d been through a lot with him, at least from our end. We hoped whatever it was he decided to do would be something we could share.

And it is. It’s the Mischke Road Show, a weekly podcast. It’s at once funny, informative, original and thought-provoking — and always unpredictable. You can find each week’s episode on his website. (Full disclosure: I created and designed his website along with my partner, Nan Tepper. How that happened is a Mischke tale for perhaps another day.)

You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and on Spreaker.

This week’s show, to me, is the epitome of what Tommy does so well, and is honing to perfection with his new venture. “The Fighter” is a story that will take you on a stunning journey, one you’d probably never thought of taking. That’s Mischke. He finds the people who have quiet, powerful stories to tell. And off we go. He knows just when to step in, to steer, and when to be silent. This episode is, as always, masterfully edited.

If you’ve never heard Tom’s show before, this is the perfect place to start.

Here’s hoping the joy and light coming from Rachel and Jason, the couple in this story, might warm your deep, dark winter night.

Click on the image below, to listen.

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Lucky

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Milestones.

Some of them are more like millstones. The death anniversaries, the birthdays of your deceased loved ones, the date of your first wedding when you’re no longer married to that person, the day the music died…whichever time it died. These dates hang over us commemorating what might have been, what should have been, what was.

We each get a birthday that’s supposed to be our day. The day we were placed on the earth to enslave at least one or two adults for the next 20 years or so. For me, this has turned into a day for which I have NO expectations, and then I’m not disappointed. My husband threw me off my game a couple years ago when he had a surprise party for me, damn him.

But some of us truly have a day that really DOES belong only to us. A milestone we can celebrate however we choose. Except one particular way: we don’t drink to it. It’s our sobriety date.

Today, September 9, is my 13th. Thirteen years since my last drink. That’s a grade school and high school education. That’s some marriages. A car replaced. At least two presidents, three if things are extra messy. Some new houses start looking old by then. Carpets certainly do. It’s getting up there.

Each year of sobriety feels different. I’m feeling grateful this year.

The first year or two, my mantra was the great Carrie Fisher quote from Postcards From The Edge: “Thank GOD I got sober now so I can be hyper-conscious for this series of humiliations.” Two months in, newly divorced, broke, with Christmas around the corner, I was fired from a job I hated. And things went downhill from there.

It was a humbling experience to get sober in my hometown after having lived away for 20 years. I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, “the poor man’s rehab” as we called it. Outside the rooms, I had little support from people around me when I stopped drinking. The lack of support varied. A couple of my friends said, “I never thought you drank too much,” and that was that. No questions asked. On the bright side, my daughter said the same thing. Eternal thanks for that one.

Others said, right to my face, “I hear you took the cure,” an expression I’d heard since I was a kid in my town. Anybody who “couldn’t handle” their booze and had to quit was taking the cure, those lightweights.

If I ordered a Diet Coke amidst a table of drinkers that included my mother, she’d nod in my direction and say, “There’s nothing worse than a reformed ANYTHING.” Always a big laugh.

So, maybe you can see why the Carrie Fisher quote rang true to me. This lack of understanding pissed me off, made me feel singled out, even sorry for myself at times. But as the years of sobriety have added up for me, the quote has changed from sarcasm to truth.

I really am grateful now that I’m sober to feel all of it – the humiliations, the joys, the sad things and the crazy things – without being numb. Numb is dumb, my friend Ray used to tell me. And I really hate to be dumb. Nothing much scares me any more. Terrible things happen, and we get through them. Some people don’t. We learn. We learn how to feel. We learn how to help other people feel. Nothing is perfect, nor will it ever be. People are mean; people are nice. Sometimes nice people are mean.

Simply put, the last thirteen years of sobriety have given me a life I could never have imagined, not in my wildest dreams. And my dreams were pretty damn wild.

A Master Class in Memoir

Would you like to spend 5 days in October working on your memoir with a master teacher? Come to one of New York’s most gorgeous Adirondack Mountain lodges and workshop your writing with eight other students, with a private chef, luxurious accommodations, amidst fall splendor.

Details are here, for the second annual Dartbrook Writers Retreat, a memoir workshop with writer Abigail Thomas.

A Master Class in Memoir.

Real-Phonic Radio Hour

As regular readers here know (and I mean you, Mary Ellen Gross), one of my cherished memories is Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, NY. It was the original event that took us to upstate NY for the first time.

Now in Minneapolis, we’re always on the lookout for live music. We’ve found an array of venues with a little something for everyone… if you look hard enough and are willing to skew the demographic at times.

Last fall, we learned Amy Helm was coming to town. She’s a favorite of ours from back in Woodstock. We were first introduced to her beautiful voice at a Midnight Ramble.

We were a bit puzzled by the venue. It was a library in St. Paul, and the show was described as a monthly event there. Hmm. Sounded interesting. After double-checking, we headed over to the James J. Hill Library for the Real-Phonic Radio Hour. 

As soon as we walked into the building, it was clear this wasn’t your ordinary library. Nor your ordinary music venue. The elegant open space had a stage set up on a platform in front of the three stories of book stacks. The audience seating was made up of rows of comfortable leather library chairs, small tables and couches. We sat down, and began to take things in. It felt like being in someone’s living room. Someone with a huge ornate living room. In fact, it felt a little bit like being in Levon Helm’s living room, which we observed aloud.

The show started, with the house band, Erik Koskinen. Emcee/producer Thom Middlebrook did an intro, cracked jokes, cued our applause, told us we were being recorded and introduced Erik, Paul Bergen, JT Bates and Lizz Draper. This band is one of the real treasures of the local scene — if you haven’t seen them, you’re in for a treat. Erik and Paul also produce the show.

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Next came Montana singer-songwriter Martha Scanlan, of Cold Mountain soundtrack fame. Her pure, sweet voice was a perfect match for the room. Her gift for storytelling via the stillness of her songs was a revelation.

Musician Molly Maher, who is one of the producers of each month’s show, gave a beautiful and heartfelt introduction for Amy Helm and Byron Isaacs.

It was a full circle moment seeing two of our favorite musicians from our beloved Woodstock, playing right here in St. Paul in this new-found magical setting. The show was fantastic, with lots of jamming (including Molly) and a full stage of incredible musicians. We could have listened for hours.

After the performance, I talked to Molly. It turns out she modeled this event after the Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, having been there herself twice. We were astounded. Kismet, karma, full circle.

We’ve been back several times, and each time has been another unique and wonderful experience. We’ve chatted with people, often the same people, about this best-kept secret in town for live music. We joke that we shouldn’t tell anyone else.

But for Molly’s sake, and yours too, if you’re a music fan, I’m telling you. You must go. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen, I promise. The quality of the music is first rate, and it’s an intimate night you won’t soon forget.

The most recent show featured honeyhoney, a duo from Nashville, aka Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe. And wow, are they good. Full of energy and joy, and life. Funny, talented, original and super nice. Jim Turner, one of my college friends, plays the Angel of Death in one of their videos, so I mentioned that to them. It was old home week after that.

Also featured was Brandon Sampson, a singer-songwriter from Rochester, MN, who has his own show called Americana Showcase. The audience, us included, loved him.

I’m not aware of another place in the Twin Cities where you can find such great shows, walk right up and talk to the band, have a drink and a few hours of kick ass fun for $20. Go. Oh, and you get 25% off the ticket price for bringing a non-perishable food item for their monthly food drive.

The Real-Phonic radio hour is held on the 3rd Thursday of every month, spring, fall and winter.

Check out some photos from the honeyhoney show. Hope to see you at the library soon.

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You Are, I Am

My husband and my friend Marybeth.

My friend Martha Frankel calls my husband The Friendliest Man on Earth. He wanders off when I’m with him to chat with strangers, while I sit and pretend to be involved in reading my menu or lately, my phone. Then he comes back and tells me he just met the guy who invented gum, or something equally interesting and outrageous. I wrote this as an assignment my teacher Abigail Thomas calls Two Pages. Her students write two pages on a theme she suggests. Often, the theme comes from a poem she shares with us; this one is inspired by the poem Litany, by Billy Collins.

You are the one who chats with the man in front of you in line at the grocery store check out.

I am the one who thinks every kind of store should have a self-checkout: tire stores, shoe stores, bakeries.

You are the one who knows the names of the doorman and his kids.

I am the one who knows the name of the doorman. 

You are the one who bumps into someone you know in almost every airport we pass through.

I am the one who keeps my earbuds in, sometimes even without music in them, so I don’t have to talk to a single person at the airport.

You are the one who takes 15 minutes to say goodbye. Even to the guy fixing the furnace.

I am the one who waits in the car.

You are the one who’s walking behind someone and notices their collar isn’t quite the way it’s supposed to be and gently fixes it, sometimes imperceptibly.

I am the one who curses slow-walking shoppers. 

You are the one who volunteers to clean out my mom’s pantry after she dies and makes me an orphan, mostly because you’re nosy.

I am the one who can’t bear to open its door.

You are the one who cries when watching Grey’s Anatomy.

I am the one who calls it High School Hospital.

You are the one who calls my daughter to see how she sounds.

I am the one who tracks your son online when he runs his first half marathon.

You are the one who buys me a comb when I mention I can’t find mine.

I am the one who frames a tiny picture of 9-year-old you and puts it on your desk. 

Woodstock Country Inn, Woodstock, NY

     It was hard to stop taking photos during our recent lucky fall stay at New York’s tranquil and beautiful Woodstock Country Inn. Located on gorgeous Cooper Lake Road, the 19th century farmhouse turned inn was built as the home of Woodstock artist Jo Cantine. Her paintings and handpainted furniture still grace the inn. Every window has been carefully placed to frame and enhance the unparalleled Hudson Valley light and landscape. And the details inside the house are as captivating as the view outside.
     The shared living room invites guests to cozy up to the fire, play cards and board games, or spend some quiet time with a book in a comfy corner chair. Each room offers its own unique amenities, including private entrances, cable TV, en suite baths, and private patios or balconies with breathtaking views.
     The surrounding hills and meadows allow for both brisk morning walks and captivating sunsets. The inn is located just two miles from the heart of Woodstock, but feels miles away when you’re tucked into your room overlooking the rolling wooded landscape. It was hard to say goodbye to this luxurious country comfort, but the memory of our stay will linger forever. And of course, we’ll be back.