Patricia Ryan Madson has been working with actual live people since the 1970s, but I first "met" her via her wonderful book—truly the embodiment of a life's work—Improv Wisdom. Wildly inspired (not to mention entertained and enlightened), I wrote a glowing review on my blog, to which Patricia responded by not only leaving a much nicer comment, but following it up with a gift box containing her watercolor reproductions, a packet of notecards, and an invitation to lunch the next time I was in the Bay Area. Of course, she has the true genius's modest take on her own achievements, and, typical of so many of my favorite writers, thinks of herself as a teacher "first, last, and always."
When did you decide to become a writer?
It never occurred to me to “become a writer” and to this day I still don’t think of myself as one. I’ve always felt like a teacher . . . like the line from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “I am a teacher, first, last and always.” I fell into writing because there was something from my thirty years of teaching that needed to be shared, needed to be written. Students in my adult classes on improvisation kept saying: “You should write a book about this work. What we are doing in class is helping me to see life differently.” Well, I wasn’t sure about any promises, but there was a pounding imperative to write a small philosophy book about the principles we used to become improvisers. And the writing, rewriting, editing, reformatting, re-visioning and more rewriting went on for nearly twenty years until the happy little book, IMPROV WISDOM: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up emerged from the printing houses at Random House. It “takes a village to make a book” and I’ve been blessed with lots of help along the way. When I try on saying aloud: “I’m a writer.” I find myself feeling like an impostor. I can say: “I’ve written” which seems more honest than “I’m a writer.”
Who was your favorite teacher?
Miss Fentress in the third grade made us all memorize 500 lines of poetry each semester and recite it aloud to the class. Most students dreaded this assignment. I think she is responsible for starting my career in theater when she gave me an A+ grade for reciting “Casey at the Bat” (complete with gestures and emotions . . .) I’m sure that this reward made me see the payoff of being in the spotlight. I liked it. She wore a false mole that moved around her face from time to time. She had flaming red hair and used lots of peach-colored powder on her face. In my adult years I have greatly admired John Blofeld, the British Buddhist author/educator. He had a gentle way of teaching and he introduced me to the Tao and to the goddess Kuan Yin (Tara in the Tibetan lexicon). His lovely book, The Bodhisattva of Compassion belongs in my “all time list.” (Ed. note: see question 7)
What do you love to write about?
I love to write about appreciation for life, for ordinary things. I had an epiphany over twenty years ago in which I understood that I was receiving (all the time) far more than I could ever return. I was doing a practice called Naikan. It is a form of meditation and accounting that invites you to look at the details of what you are receiving from others at any given moment as well as in the past. Doing this inquiry I found my debt was unmistakable and huge. It’s not possible to perceive the glass as “half empty” ever again. And, on serious examination it is so much more than simply “half full.” Discovering this provides me with an unending source of wonder. In April of 2010 I started a blog titled: “Everyday life is the way.” For a year I wrote about ordinary life and took time to appreciate the small stuff. Since I did this as a daily practice for one year I must say that not all the writing is well considered or edited. But, I did stick to my vow and I wrote every day. That series ended in early April of this year, so if your readers are interested the blog is http://improvwisdom.blogspot.com (Go back to April 2010 to start the series.)
What has writing taught you?
I’m not sure what writing has taught me, but I know that having published a book has taught me a great deal. I’ve learned that words can move across time and space and culture and can find ways to help, inspire and heal. Publishing (whether it be an online blog or an actual or virtual book) allows our thoughts and experiences to enter the heart and mind of another person. Books have a magical life of their own--moving in someone’s backpack into a foreign land where it may be left on the nightstand of a guest house or sitting on the “new nonfiction” shelf of a small library in a Midwestern town. Books can be regenerative gifts. Give your favorite books to those you love.
How has writing made you stronger?
Having a book alive in the world has been for me like being a mother. It feels as if my book is my daughter in the world. She is traveling in foreign lands as well as in the fifty states. Readers who meet her write to me their thanks. This has given my life meaning and purpose.
If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?
I would tell myself to ALWAYS SAVE MONEY. I would explain the value and virtue of compounding and of being one who always saves part of what they have. I would encourage her to start putting away a percentage of any money that comes her way from the very beginning. I’ve seen more lives fractured because of unrealistic thinking and behaving around money. (Look at what is tearing our country apart at this very moment!). By saving money one is making a realistic investment in one’s own future. The second thing I’d advise is “to learn how to live within ones means” and to live thankfully at all times. Worrying about money can have a corrosive effect. We need more models of simple fiscal responsibility. Young people need to discover that “more is rarely better,” and that happiness isn’t a high but rather a calm satisfaction that comes from realistic living and using resources mindfully.
What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?
- A favorite blog by Diane Walker is Contemplative Photography. Spend some time going back on her site. Inspiration abounds.
- The books of Mary Rose O’Reilley (especially Radical Presence, Teaching as Contemplative Practice)
- The poetry and prose of John O’Donohue
- Billy Collins poetry—ALL of it!
- The novels of Alexander McCall Smith. I love his gentle, moral and kindly characters and his love of Africa.
- Anything by John Blofeld
Patricia Ryan Madson is the author of Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up (Bell Tower, 2005) and a professor Emerita from Stanford University where she taught since 1977. In their Drama Department she served as the head of the undergraduate acting program and developed the improvisation program. In 1996 she founded the Creativity Initiative at Stanford, an interdisciplinary alliance of faculty who share the belief that creativity can be taught. She teaches regularly for the Esalen Institute, and has given workshops for such organizations as the California Institute for Integral Studies, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Duke University East Asian Studies Center, and the Meaningful Life Therapy Association in Japan. Her many corporate clients have included: Google, Gap Inc.'s Executive Leadership Team, IDEO, Apple Computers, the Piedmont School District, and Price Waterhouse. For more on Patricia Ryan Madson, visit her website, Impov Wisdom.