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Driven By 'Yes:' Sarah Aswell And Kay Ryan Reflect On Saying 'No'

U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan

"One of the central tenets of collaborative comedy writing is the rule of 'Yes, and,'" writes freelance writer and occasional standup comedian, Sarah Aswell. "The concept is simple: when someone has an idea, you should not only validate that idea no matter its absurdity (by saying 'Yes') but you also add something new to the scene (by saying 'and').

'Yes, and' is the way that humor happens, the way that relationships reveal themselves and stories are told. 'Yes, and' is when I tell you that I am throwing a birthday party and you tell me that not only are you attending, but that you are bringing your donkey. 'Yes, and,' means that we aren’t just going to attempt a diamond heist, we are going to do it naked.

The rule of 'Yes, and' was so inspiring and instructive for me in comedy writing that I began to apply it to my entire life. 'Yes, and' moved me from the East Coast to the West like a chess piece hopping on felt across the states. 'Yes, and' propelled me into relationships that I would not otherwise had been bold enough to form–and then 'Yes, and' also sometimes broke them up again, just as boldly. 'Yes, and' was the acceptance of opportunities immediately followed by action, over and over again: two three-letter words yoked to a covered wagon, lurching my pioneer life wildly forward.

But life isn’t a comedy scene–and always saying yes can be just as limiting as always saying no: as Kay Ryan writes in her poem "Yeses,” it leads you through a series of diminishing doors, ending in one too small to enter. We are encouraged to say yes to everything, to be positive, to take on challenges, to add to the scene. But saying yes for the sake of saying yes means never stopping to make a decision.

Learning to say no again–in my business, in my relationships, in my writing, in my day-to-day life–might not get a donkey to my birthday party, but it is just as powerful as when I learned to say yes. No is also an opportunity. No can open up worlds."

"Yeses," by Kay Ryan, comes from her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection spanning 45 years of poetry, "The Best of It." Ryan - who served as United States Poet Laureate - writes verse that is succinct, wise, witty, and bold.  These intensely compressed introspections somehow manage to be funny and no-nonsense at the same time.


Just behind
the door,
a second.
But smaller
by a few inches.
Behind which
a third again
Then more
and more,
forming a
or niche of yeses
ending in
a mouse’s
with a knob
too small
to pinch.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 8/10/16 and 2/15/17. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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