Improvising your life

I have a friend who is experiencing some anxiety. He has moved away to a distant country and has someone with him who’s an adult and who has chosen this adventure with him but when someone accompanies you to a foreign place of course you feel responsible for their happiness and thriving. He is anxious because the northern winter is coming and work will become more precarious and the northern winter is hard for the southern soul when the first exhilarated flush of going away starts to wear off.

Really, I think he is anxious because the momentum that took him boldly toward the unknown has slowed and now how he’s on the edge of it and it feels like something deep and dark and empty and cold, into which you can disappear and be swallowed.

I tried to give him advice but who really has advice to give? I’m as haunted and paralysed by the unknown as anyone else. More so, probably, because for me the unknown isn’t filled with nothing, it’s filled with the past. I forget now who said that every emotion is a memory, but I think it’s probably true, and for me it’s especially true of fear. When I don’t know what happens next, some dark and cowering part of me assumes that it will be some cyclical return of what has happened before: some repeating pattern from my life or my father’s life, some run of the mill catastrophe that when it occurs will seem both familiar and inevitable.

People like to say that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but I think it’s also true that people who expect the past are more likely to resurrect it, and I’m one of those people, so I try to sniff out ways to keep myself open, to remind myself that a feeling is just something you feel, not something real in the world.

Here’s one way: in Chicago there are two actors named Dave Paquesi and TJ Jagodowski, who perform a peculiarly terrifying routine. Each show starts with a dark stage, and when the lights snap on these two middle-aged men are standing there facing each other, looking silently into each other’s eyes. This silence lasts as long as it takes for the spark to happen and one of them to say something, then the other instantly responds. They do not plan what they are going to say, or what their characters are or what the situation is in which they find themselves. It may take some seconds to evolve who they are and what they are doing or feeling, but for the next hour, watched by several hundred people, they have nowhere to go and nowhere to hide, it is just the two of them finding a story that is funny and moving and coherent and consistent and ultimately profoundly and bewilderingly satisfying.

I first heard about them in an old episode of Radiolab and saw one of their performances in New York and it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of art and creative courage, but it was almost unbearable for me to watch because I was in such agonies of anxiety. How will they know what to do next? What if one of them dries up? What if one of them reaches for the next word or idea like a small child fumbling into a darkened room for the light switch, and it just isn’t there? How can they bear not knowing what comes next or where they’re going, and whether they’ll be able to find it?

There’s a documentary and about TJ and Dave called Trust Us, This Is All Made Up in which they explain how they bear it. TJ and Dave are just as fearful and self-doubting as you and me. If they thought they had to rely on themselves they would spontaneously combust in an ash-heap of shame and dismay before each show, so they’ve evolved a trick of the mind, a story to tell themselves that they simultaneously both do and don’t believe.

This is what it is: the characters they are about to become already exist. The story is already happening. When they stand in the darkness moments before the show they are surrounded by a swirling galaxy of cosmic particles, each particle an entire world swarming about them like some vast spinning wheel, and when the lights snap on the wheel stops and wherever it stops is the story they will discover.

The next hour isn’t a void – it may be as yet unknown but it already exists – they just have to find it between them. When they take each tentative conversational step forward they aren’t worrying about how it will end and how they’ll get there, they’re just looking for the ground beneath their feet. The story will unfold through their free choices and will take them where they were always going to go, and each step of the discovery will be surprising and delightful to them and therefore to the audience.

When they trust this process, they find nothing repeats, patterns don’t recur: there are as many variations and paths through the darkness of the stage as there are specks of cosmic dust. We repeat ourselves when we insist on only being ourselves, when we turn for our resources only to the poverty and limits of our own experience. We come up blank on the next step when we’re fixed too tightly on what comes after that.

Is this all mumbo-jumbo and claptrap? Maybe it is, but it works for TJ and Mike, and works for me, when I remember to remember it. When I was giving advice to my friend I didn’t think of TJ and Mike, and when I started writing this column I hadn’t remembered them either. I’m glad they came back to me, and I hope he will find them useful.

The Times, 13 September 2018