My fiancé is threatening to burn my books.
Well, not all of them. At least, not yet. Just the one I’m reading right now—Tocqueville’s 880-page Democracy in America. I complain about how long it is pretty much every night. Some of that whining is just to (lovingly!) push her buttons. But some of it is truly felt; it’s discouraging to wrap up reading for the night while feeling like you’ve hardly made a dent.
Democracy in America is not the first long book I’ve complained about (or that she’s threatened to burn). Before that, there was Rimini’s three-part biography of Andrew Jackson, Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth, and Chernow’s masterful biography of George Washington. It was that latter book that kicked off my love-hate relationship with longreads.
But before I finished it early last year, I’d bailed on an attempt to get through it in 2014. I only made it to page 250. Although the writing was brilliant and the storytelling was superb, I just wasn’t making progress fast enough. I gave up.
Ironically, the book’s author, Ron Chernow, couldn’t fault me for that:
“It’s a shameful thing to admit for someone who writes such long books, but I read so slowly that I almost subvocalize. I always sympathize with people who complain about the length of my books. It would take me a year to get through one of them. That’s why I dedicated Grant to “my loyal readers, who have soldiered on through my lengthy sagas.”
The book sat on my shelf with a bookmark toward the front for two years. It taunted me and tempted me. Eventually I decided to just do the darn thing. I set a goal for myself—two chapters (roughly 20–30 pages), every day. No excuses. Most of the time, I’d get those pages in before bed. But if I knew I’d be going out at night or otherwise be busy, I made sure to read them during the day. Twenty-nine days later, I finished the book, and I learned a whole lot about Washington.
It might have taken a while to get through, but I got more out of it than I put in. As Ryan Holiday says in The Joy of Reading Long Books:
“I could pick up any normal book right now and get something out of it. The process won’t be difficult—getting through a couple hundred breezy, friendly pages never is. It won’t test my limits. Or, I can pick something long. A book by Ron Chernow might spend a couple hundred pages just on someone’s childhood or the passing of a single bill or a minor battle. Can you push through that? Can you wait for the connection between some minor incident and its place in the person’s life or a nation’s history? Can you put together all these events to understand the larger picture?”
If you want to learn about a subject, truly understand it on a deeper level, where better to turn than a lengthy, exhaustive, well-researched, brilliantly written book? Yes, it takes a long time. But long things are easily conquered by a strategy that makes them smaller.
My second round of improv teaching ended this past weekend, and I wrapped up my Level 5 class with two lessons on monoscenes. It’s a fun but challenging form that features two characters, one location, and one 25 minute scene. That’s it.
At first, my students were intimidated. They couldn’t imagine how they’d fill that time. So I promised to side coach them through any rough spots; and when I did, I found that I kept asking them “why?” Their characters said things that, in shorter scenes, would be throwaway lines, but in these longer scenes, had to be explored. Everything carried so much more weight. Every piece of information about their character gave them more to explore. They couldn’t just stick to the surface level jokes and bs their way through like they would in a shorter scene.
It dawned on me that these monoscenes had a lot in common with the Six Sigma “Five Whys” exercise (where business people try to get to the root of a problem by asking—and answering—the question why five times).
For example, we could use the five whys to understand why students are afraid of monoscenes.
1. Why are students afraid of monoscenes? Because they’re too long.
2. Why are they afraid of long scenes? Because they’re afraid they won’t have enough to say.
3. Why don’t they think they’ll have enough to say? Because in some short scenes they don’t have enough to say.
4. Why don’t they have enough to say in short scenes? Because they don’t go deep enough into their characters.
5. Why don’t they go deep enough into their characters? Because they’re afraid of being vulnerable.
Using this exercise, we can see the real reason students are afraid of monoscenes. It’s not because they’re long; it’s because students are afraid of being real and vulnerable on stage. So the goal isn’t to focus on length, it’s to focus on creating an environment where students feel comfortable being vulnerable. When they’re more vulnerable, they’ll discover their character’s purpose. And that will drive the scene forward and give them plenty to talk about. Then, they’ll be successful.
Life, like an 880-page book or 25 minute scene, is very long. And just as we’re racing to get through long books and long scenes, we’re racing through our long lives as well. But instant gratification in life is impossible—in fact, it’s not even that desirable.
I’ve fallen into that trap many times. In fact, that’s partially how this blog started. After studying improv for one year, I wasn’t cast for my theater’s most prestigious show. I started writing to try to “show them” the mistake they’d made. Thankfully, I channeled that resentment into something positive. Thankfully, I kept studying, practicing, and writing about improv rather than throwing in the towel as I did with Washington. Because five years later, I moved well past the resentment, wrote a book, and started teaching at that same theater. And that was just five years. Imagine what will happen in five more.
It takes time to master a skill, fall in love, or get to the top of corporate ladder. You need strategy. You need purpose. And you need patience. You don’t want to take the shortcut because you’ll miss out on everything you might learn along the way.
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