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Super Human Spotlight: Sarah Ashley on Using Improv to Write Compassionately

In the latest edition of our Super Human Spotlight series, our Marketing Manager Sarah Ashley talks about getting into character as a freelance writer and why it's important to indulge in the absurdity of life.

Read it, absorb it, and sign up for our monthly newsletter, The SHCoop if you're so inclined!

Katie Klein: Sarah Ashley of Super Human Collective - and my neighbor!

Sarah Ashley: For a few more days.

KK: You are moving a couple blocks away and I feel like you’re moving to California.

SA: I do too!

KK: Now, Sarah. I’ve always admired that you’re a writer because I don’t have a lot of patience for writing. I can’t spell. And I type weird.

SA: How do you type?

KK: One hand kind of goes like this and the other one is like this.

SA: Sure.

KK: It is embarrassing. But you were in a graduate program for writing.

SA: I’ll stop you there because “graduate” makes me sound more professional than I am. I got a certificate in creative nonfiction writing [from the University of Chicago]. I don’t have a degree.

KK: You have a certificate, so let’s not discredit. What was that program like?

SA: It was awesome. I needed something more. I was doing improv and comedy and I was working at an office job that I hated. I looked up two things: interior design programs and creative writing programs in Chicago. At the time, I was reading The New Yorker a lot during my commutes, getting pissed that I would have to get off the train to go to my job. I thought, “God, I would love to write stuff like this!” So, the writing stuck out to me. I’ve always loved to do it.

The program was all about dissecting what creative nonfiction is and practicing writing different versions of it, like personal essays, straight up reporting, lyric essays, memoir and what goes into it. It was really cool. I also took an elective true crime writing class that was awesome. I love true crime and nonfiction, so it was a very cool insight into how much research goes into making even the most basic crime story readable and reliable.

KK: True crime! Not false crime.

SA: No! Read an Agatha Christie if you don’t want true crime.

Photo by Emily Willliams Photography!

"As soon as you start judging, as soon as you start thinking, 'This is stupid,' you’re not going to have fun writing and no one’s going to want to read it."

KK: Honestly, very proud of you signing up. Now you do a lot of freelance writing for different types of blogs and websites. How does that work?

SA: I’m lucky that a good friend of mine from college, Dara Katz - who you also know because she went through improv classes with us - is a senior editor for this website called PureWow. I was between jobs at the time and she asked me to just pitch her a bunch of stories. I sent her a list of probably 40 ideas. This was when I was brand new at it and she was like, “These ones work and these ones don’t.” She has such a good eye for what’s going to catch people’s attention. I learned a lot from her even just pitching ideas. I might think it’s interesting to write a story about a type of facial that uses ultrasound technology, but she taught me even if it sounds cool, who is going to read it if we don’t pitch it in an interesting way? That was really educational.

Once I figured out the voice of the site I can hack into it as soon as I start on an assignment. It’s like a character - to draw a blatant connection to improv. You get into the character of the website and write as that person. I write a lot of stories about pets. So, if I’m assigned an article about dog boots, which I have written, I go, “Cool! What kind of PureWow voice do I need to convey how great these dog boots are?” It’s all about getting into the voice of your reader and the voice of the site.

KK: I love thinking about writing an article from the perspective of a different person than you. Do you think that your skills as an improviser make you a better writer?

SA: One hundred percent. Not only does improv require you to have fun with what you’re doing, you’ve got to commit and sell it. There’s that saying, “If you don’t look stupid you're the idiot.” What’s the saying? “If you’re not having fun you’re the asshole?” The writing I’m doing isn’t ground-breaking journalism. But, if I don’t believe in it and I don’t have fun with it, no one will read it and I probably won’t get assigned more stories. So, having fun and indulging in the absurdity is important. As soon as you start judging, as soon as you start thinking, “This is stupid,” you’re not going to have fun writing and no one’s going to want to read it. You’ll be miserable!

KK: That’s one of my favorite improv tenets. It’s something I teach a lot - for auditions especially. You can’t be grumpy when you get paired with someone you don’t think is going to be great, because that makes you the jerk! Our improv frame of mind is like, “Yeah! Yep! I love it. Let’s go for it.” Instead of, “Oh jeez, really?!”

SA: Yes, and it also forces you to be more compassionate. A lot of the assignments I get are based on search terms people are looking up. For instance, around the holidays people were searching things like, “Can dogs eat Christmas ham?” or “What can dogs eat during Christmas?” People are worried about their pets! If you put yourself into that mindset, you realize, “Oh my gosh, how many times have I Googled something absolutely ridiculous?” Well, someone had to write that article.

KK: Wow. I’m sorry for whoever is getting the assignments based on my Google searches.

SA: Google watches.

KK: And listens. Is there an article you’ve written or an assignment you’ll always remember for better or for worse?

SA: Recently I had to write one about positive mental attitude. I’ve gotten a slew of wellness articles lately, I think in part because we’re all mentally distressed during Covid-19. I don’t always do this for my PureWow pieces, but I incorporated some personal experience. I had a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Lovelace and on the first day of fourth grade she said, “Attitude is everything.” I remember as a fourth grader thinking, “That’s not true. If you’re having a bad day, you’re in a bad mood and you can’t change it.”

As I got older - and I put this in the article - I realized you don’t have to be positive all the time. You don’t have to “yes and” enthusiastically if you don’t believe in what’s happening. But, you do have to try to learn from it, make the best of it and have an attitude of, “This isn’t the end of the world. How can I get through this moment that sucks? How can I get through this scene that sucks? How can I shift my attitude and my outlook so that, at the very least, what’s the silver lining I can take away from it?”

KK: I love that. I’m thinking too about how it’s not permanent. None of these moments are permanent, which is really helpful to think about now - and in an improv scene.

SA: I’m also very grateful for variety. The two primary freelancing jobs I have right now are PureWow, which is upbeat, super fun, laid back. I’m also doing freelance writing for a criminal justice attorney in Chicago. I help him write mitigation packets. His goal is to get a reduced charge for his client, taking into account everything this person has been through, everything that went into the arrest that maybe is not apparent from the police report alone. I take into account this person’s whole life and write something along the lines of, “Hey, this person has dealt with some shit. Yes, they made a mistake. But, instead of sending them to jail right away, here’s an alternative option.” It’s nice to write in a completely different voice. I mean that is serious stuff. There are no frills. It’s nice to remember there are other things happening in the world besides cats who accidentally eat some watermelon.

KK: Well, that could tie in you know. There could definitely be some true crime mitigation reports about cats that ate too much watermelon.

SA: And who gave the cats the watermelon?

KK: Now we’re asking the important questions. I love that you’re using the skills you have to try to help someone else.

SA: It’s all we can do!

KK: That’s all we’re trying to do. One foot in front of the other. I just have one more question.

SA: Let’s do it.

4th Grade Sarah: A Cynical Procrastinator

"You don’t have to be positive all the time... But, you do have to try to learn from it, make the best of it and have an attitude of, 'This isn’t the end of the world... How can I shift my attitude and my outlook so that, at the very least, what’s the silver lining I can take away from it?'"

KK: Sarah, you do things. You create a lot of things and, for Super Human particularly, you’re self-motivated and you took it upon yourself to make these beautiful newsletters for us. If you’re not subscribed like and subscribe!

SA: Like and subscribe!

KK: Nobody asked you to. You just said, “I know this is a thing and I’m gonna do it.” During the pandemic I think a lot of people struggle with motivation. Especially as artists it's hard to feel motivated. But you seem to find that motivation. How do you do it?

SA: I’ve got to preface this with the fact that I am a lifelong procrastinator. I’ve struggled with procrastination forever and it is so detrimental to my mental health. I love to put it off. In the last couple years, I’ve tried hard to actively change that. In trying to move past it, I’ve found that when you actually care about something, it is a lot easier to just do it. Especially when there are other people relying on me, it's even easier to get stuff done. I don't think without deadlines or other people relying on me I would be nearly as productive.

For instance, I keep wanting to write new personal essays and I just don't do it. I’ll do it at the very last minute before Tartle at the Duke [the live lit show I co-host] because it doesn't matter to anybody except for me. But I know Super Human is a business I care about and believe in, with people I care about and believe in, so it's a lot easier for me to make the time. I made up the newsletter deadline. It goes out on the first Tuesday of every month. So, I know that if i want to look professional and I want our clients to get regular updates from us, that thing has to go out. Which is why this interview is happening right now! Because I realized we need something new. What can I do before that deadline? And here we are.

KK: I listened to something recently about… I feel like Jerry Seinfeld talked about it. He had this method for trying to combat procrastination. The takeaway for me was just do something for a minute. Then I think it builds.

SA: I think as improvisers specifically our art form does not require much pre-planning, so when you don’t have a weekly show or you don’t have a gig coming up, your schedule is malleable. You have to do self-imposed deadlines. Knowing I have promised you and Amber and Mary Cait The SHCoop every month, I have to do it now.

KK: I think it's a nice reminder that if you don't have a deadline, make it up!

SA: And tell someone about it! Then they can hold you accountable. And that's a form of teamwork. If it takes more than one person to get the job done and that’s okay!

KK: That's one of the best things about improv - we’re not doing it alone. Having that accountability is really lovely. I was going to make a book recommendation, but I’ll be damned if I can remember the name of it. It’s all about finding that motivation to do art and it’s like a fundamental book in the art world...

SA: Is it The War of Art?

KK: Yes!

SA: I have that and I've read it. It’s great.

KK: The War of Art. Let's put that as a recommendation.

SA: It’s going into The SHCoop!

If you're interested in a workshop with Super Human Collective, contact us!

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