Monday, March 11, 2019

Creativity and...Improv?

Missy Tippens

I'm re-sharing a post today from our Archives. (If you're not familiar with our blog, our archives are still available with 10 years of posts at www.seekervillearchives.blogspot.com.) This was a really fun post to research, and I've been thinking a lot about brain science lately so thought I would post it again...


Creativity and...Improv?




I’m fascinated by the brain and creativity. I read the most amazing article recently in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine. It was titled “What Makes a Genius?” by Claudia Kalb with photography by Paolo Woods. (Links to all articles will be included at the end). This article blew me away.

What sucked me in was how researchers have looked at slides of Albert Einstein’s brain tissue trying to figure out if it’s different from other brains. This led me to some really interesting ideas about creativity and writing.

A few things from Kalb’s article that stood out to me about genius:

--Geniuses are nurtured.
--Lone geniuses are rare (they’re usually seen in a network).
--Even with natural gifts and a nurturing environment, genius still requires motivation and tenacity (so personality plays a role).
--Angela Duckworth believes that a combination of passion and perseverance—what she calls “grit”—drives people to achieve. 
--Dean Keith Simonton says, “The number one predictor of impact is productivity.” (He uses the example of Thomas Edison having 2000+ patents.)
--Scott Barry Kaufman says, “Great ideas don’t tend to come when you’re narrowly focusing on them.” He talks about information coming in consciously but being processed unconsciously so that we sometimes get unexpected “aha” moments. (Yes! I love those!)
--Rex Jung says research shows that thought processes like daydreaming and imagining take place in the middle part of our prefrontal cortex across both hemispheres.
--Andrew Newberg’s research shows that the genius brain has an area that is twice the size of control brains (the corpus callosum, a centrally located bundle of more than 200 million nerve fibers that joins the two hemispheres of the brain and facilitates connectivity between them).



So, you and I may not be geniuses, but we can learn to nurture creativity, we can stimulate our brains, and we can hang around other people who are creative—those who challenge us, support us and inspire us. We can learn to increase productivity and to persevere.

The “What Makes a Genius?” article also sent me searching for more from Charles Limb. I watched a TED Talk called “Your Brain on Improv.” It’s based on Creativity and the Brain by Dr. Charles Limb and his collaborator Allen R. Braun.

Basically, they used a functional MRI (fMRI) to look at the brain activity of a jazz musician and a freestyle rapper in action (they developed a keyboard that they could put inside the machine). The experiment asked: What happens in the brain when doing something that is memorized and over-learned vs what happens in the brain when doing something that is spontaneously generated or improvised?

They found in the brain during improvisation:
--Lateral prefrontal deactivation (a decrease in self-monitoring)
--Medial prefrontal activation (an increase in self-expression)

With the jazz pianist, they also found that during improv, his language areas lit up, an area associated with expressive communication.

With the freestyle rapper, major visual areas lit up—even with his eyes closed. He also had major cerebellar activity (associated with motor activities). So, he had heightened activity in multiple areas of the brain.

In another article about Limb's research found in Peabody Magazine by Nick Zagorski and Keith Weller titled “The Science of Improv," they pointed out that during improvisation, the brain regions involved with all the senses lit up, showing a heightened state of awareness. The researchers said the people being tested “literally taste, smell, and feel the air around them.” They described a strange similarity to brain wave patterns that can be seen during REM sleep. So maybe there’s a connection between improv and dreaming.



What does this mean for us as writers?

The first thing that struck me (a plotter/planner), is that I’d like to try doing more “improv.” I’m sure I’ll still want to do my pre-planning. But I’d like to jump in on the first draft and write so that my brain’s self-monitoring turns off and self-expression turns on.

I’d like to try writing with my eyes closed (I do this sometimes already).

I’d like to let go of some of my writing methods that have become learned and practiced and let my brain go wild while creating.

I’d like to continue interacting with all of you who participate in the blog to inspire me and support me. To push me when I need it. You’re my genius network! :)

What about you? Who wants to try doing a little improv the next time you’re working on a new story? Have you had success trying this method already? I'd love to hear what you think!


Here are the links I promised. Enjoy the articles and video, but please come back to chat with us!
The Science of Improv (Peabody Magazine)--please note this article is no longer available in 2019.




Missy Tippens, a pastor’s wife and mom of three from near Atlanta, Georgia, has always been a bit of a science geek. Before staying home with her kids, she worked as a clinical microbiologist. Then the writing bug bit. After over ten years of pursuing her dream, she finally made her first sale to Harlequin Love Inspired in 2007. Her books have since been nominated for the Booksellers Best, Holt Medallion, ACFW Carol Award, Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, Maggie Award, Beacon Contest, RT Reviewer’s Choice Award and Romance Writers of America RITA®.  Visit Missy at www.missytippens.com, https://twitter.com/MissyTippens and http://www.facebook.com/missy.tippens.readers.

61 comments:

  1. Coffee and hot tea are on! (And Diet Dr. Pepper for those who love it like I do). :) I've also got fresh baked brownies to share.

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    1. you had me at brownies!!! also at "the brain and creativity!"

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  2. Missy, I was discussing the major differences in human development between Europe, Asia, the Mediterranean vs. Africa and the Americas... And the one major thing that stands out is amount of population vs. land space and talking, teaching, communing. So that idea that genius is rare in a vacuum, that a lone genius isn't the norm really spoke to me. The science, philosophy and mathematics that came out of those regions really set the bar high, and the difference in development is huge... And some folks were banished or ridiculed or tortured or killed for having radical "earth is round" type ideas.... but gosh, when it came right down to it, people started thinking more.

    I like creative thinking. I can imagine that brain lighting up! From the development of simple tools on....

    And I love it when science proves common sense to be right!

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    1. Ruthy, I love that you were just having this discussion. And that's really interesting to think about population density and land space. The great thing about the world these days is we have the Internet to connect us! It's especially great for creatives like us writers. :)

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    2. Ruthy, I've heard that all great advancements take place in the temperate zone.
      When the weather is too cold it takes everything to survive leaving too little time and energy for innovation.
      When the weather is too warm it's too easy to survive. Food hanging from the trees everywhere for example. And there's no urgent need for innovation.

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    3. Hi Ruth:

      The problem with common sense is that it works so well we tend to believe it even when it is lying to us! Common sense is that faculty that tells us the world is flat, the earth is at the center of the universe, the sun moves around the earth, and that heavy solid objects will fall to earth at faster speeds than lighter solid objects. Common sense also told the ancient world that the mind resides in the heart. And of course, the earth could not be round because the people on the bottom would fall off.

      However, given all this, wisdom is still thought to be common sense to an uncommon degree.

      As far as genius goes, I believe that it is more or less equally distributed everywhere. It's just that in some locations it is unlikely that word will ever get out! Michelangelo would still have been a genius even if born an Eskimo and very few ever saw his perfect snowmen.

      Besides my common sense still tells me that the Theory of Relativity is nuts and in a few hundred years it will be proven to be wrong.

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    4. Michelangelo's perfect snowmen. LOL great point. How many Eskimos were artistic geniuses and never got a chance to show it.
      That's sad kinda. But maybe they brought genius to their lives in another way. Brought beauty to their families, their homes for example.

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    5. I expect there is heightened ability or genius everywhere... but I think the genius was in talking about those ideas! Risk being stoned... hung... thought insane.... to examine philosophy and ideas and how things work.... and the best part of the wheel isn't the wheel, to me... it's the axle! Now that's an ingenious thing, to figure out how to string those round discs together, attach them to a surface, and create a moving machine! WHAT??? :)

      But I don't discount the genetics of these situations, either because those tiny bits of protein-friendly stuff get passed on from generation to generation. Some good. Some great. Some not so good!!!! :) But I think it's that density, the urge to travel, to learn, to check things out. And look what the apostles did after Christ ascended... they went out and taught and the whole thing went exponential!

      Jesus went viral!!!! :)

      There had to be something amazing in that proximity and genetics for those people from those lands to want to learn... We're talking 400 years BC for Socrates... what made that cradle of civilization shine? Was it one genius who thought and saw more than anyone else? Or just because he talked about it a lot? He taught others... and so one.

      It just amazes me.

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    6. Hi Mary:

      You wrote this:

      "But maybe they brought genius to their lives in another way. Brought beauty to their families, their homes for example."

      Wow! That is poetic, beautiful, and so true. They say now that there are many different types of IQ and I believe the same applies to genius.

      Besides: do you think Buckminster Fuller, who invent the geodesic dome, never saw an igloo?

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    7. Hi Ruth: I agree with you in the above except I think you are talking more about courage than genius. So many with genius ideas that were unpopular waited until after they were dead before they would allow their ideas to be published. Sure, they got Socrates but Aristotle left town! Aristotle said it this way: "I'm not going to let Athens commit a second sin against philosophy." And he was such a genius that for over 1000 years all you had to show to win an argument was that Aristotle said it! "Ipse Dixit" was written as a logic proof! Ari was no fool.

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    8. What an interesting conversation!

      And Vince, my son got to take part in proving part of Einstein's theory! He was an undergraduate research assistant (in data analysis) at Georgia Tech on the team working with the LIGO research group that first detected gravitational waves. He knew for months that they'd detected it but couldn't say anything while they confirmed all the data. He called one day to tell us to turn on the TV, that they would be announcing something big. It was so exciting! But I still couldn't believe he didn't tell him Mama first. haha

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    9. Typo alert. He didn't tell HIS mama first. :) (I was not trying to do baby talk haha)

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    10. Hi Missy: How exciting for your son. I can understand him not telling anyone, even his mama, because if word gets out and the data does not support the finding, then careers can be destroyed. Ask him about the so-called "cold Fusion" discovery! They released that too early and it very much hurt a scientist who had a stellar reputation. The test results were not duplicatable and that is the death knell of a 'discovery' and often a career. But I bet you're proud! Please let me know when they come up with the theory of everything. Now that I really want to know.

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  3. Very interesting. I haven't checked out the links, but I will. I've never thought of myself as a "creative"--I know that might sound weird for a writer--but I'm not really an out of the box thinker. I think years of negative self-talk has stifled that part of my ability to dream. I think some of this information could be helpful as I overcome some of those self-induced road blocks. Really great post (or re-post) :) Thanks!

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    1. Glynis, I totally understand how the negative self talk can affect how you see yourself. I hope you can try a little writing improv to help you learn to dream again!

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    2. I kind of like that label, Glynis. A Creative. I'm a creative.

      Strange way to put it. I've heard it before.

      I think of myself as having a very GOOD imagination. A more common way to put it.

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  4. I definitely need to learn to turn off my self-monitoring when I'm writing.

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    1. Sandy, I'm right there with you. I love how fun it can be to just write with abandon.

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  5. This is such a great blog post, Missy! I must have missed it the first time you posted it. I love this. It makes me feel more like there are things I can do to improve my creativity, that ideas and abilities are not finite and predetermined. I love that! Thanks for re-posting this.

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    1. Melanie, I'm glad you found it helpful! The information really inspired me. And of course, I'm a science geek!

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  6. I think I've got the grit and perseverence. As to genuis...well I have four sisters and three brothers who'd roll their eyes at the very thought. :)

    What pops into my head is Einstein, and I had to google to find who said this--if I was a genius I'd've probably remembered!

    Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

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    1. Mary, I had to smile about your siblings. Siblings never appreciate each other! haha

      Yes, I agree about the inspiration and perspiration. :)

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    2. Actually, I think that saying came from a Secret deodorant ad

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  7. I just got a review on my new release The Unexpected Champion that says, "Mary always writes the same thing. She needs to branch out."

    Did she not see the five book series of contemporary Texas Lawman.

    What do you think? All the pressure is 'stick to the brand.'

    Interesting comment. I was tempted to respond to it and try to engage. But I didn't. That's usually a mistake.

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    1. Mary, do you recognize the sheer PRESUMPTION of someone who proposes to tell an author of 50+ books what she should and shouldn't be writing? That person is probably a 2 on the Enneagram. (I'm studying the Enneagram personality scale lately. Really fascinating.)

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    2. Mary, I applaud your decision to not respond to that reviewer. Your "brand" apparently appeals to many, many, many readers so I would let this review roll off of your back. And, for arguments sake, the reviewer could have said "Mary has written yet another book that is her own unique style" if she needed to suggest branching out. I know you're able to wear your 'big girl panties' but I fear this person is a glass half empty person!

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    3. Good point, Connie!

      Mary, I think not responding is best. Smart choice!

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    4. One of the oldest romance writing clich├ęs is that fans want "the same thing, only different". Louis L'Amour always said you have to 'Ride for the Brand' if you're collecting your $30 a month. Besides you have branched out under different pen names. She might be reading you and really loving you without knowing it is you! Yea, that must be it.

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    5. There are a lot of people who will tell you that all operas sound the same. Given that that is the level of their appreciation it would not make much sense to argue with them. For them, all operas really do sound the same. But that's not Verdi's or Puccini's fault!

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    6. I took the Enneagram test. Who knows?

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    7. Connie, thank you. I love my brand and just WAIT until the next series because one of those books, mostly takes place in Chicago. A fish out of water. A cowboy off the range.

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    8. Vince I catch myself thinking Louis L'Amour's books are 'all the same.' Then I read a few of them and they really are NOT. I'm a huge L'Amour fan and re-read all one hundred books every once in a while.
      Plus I tend to re-read the whole Sackett series more often than that.

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    9. I love Connie's response, LOL! Mary, I love how you've branched out and I think it does make us better story tellers, but I ignore reviews that want to do my job for me... because they're welcome to spend the 8 years it took to get someone to say "Hey! Wanna write for us, chickie????" and not too many really want to put in that time. Ay yi yi....

      I do think that sometimes readers need to change up... it refreshes them, too! And then they come back and realize why they loved a particular style.

      I love your work.

      And I'm glad you stayed quiet. We smile, nod and move on.

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  8. Great post Missy. I will never be mistakened for a genius but I do understand the need to work hard, listen to others, and the importance of reading! Yes, reading. How many facts have I gained from my organized class study and how many more have I gotten from reading for pleasure? Yes, this is coming from a retired librarian but Reading is the key!

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    1. Connie, you're so right. I can't tell you how many times I've tossed out historical info and had my family look at me like, "How on earth did you know that?" And I always tell them it's from reading historical romance novels! :)

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    2. Missy, LOL, oh, the things authors know.

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    3. I love that! Connie you are smart and beautiful.

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  9. Mary's "stick to the brand" question is perfect for this discussion!

    I had been feeling a little stale in my writing, but I didn't realize it until I wrote a contemporary Amish novella (as opposed to the historical fiction with Amish characters that I usually write.)

    While working on that novella, I realized I was having fun like I had never had before. I was thinking outside the box I had put my writing in. So that was my improv, and it was energizing!

    That experience encouraged me to branch out more, and now I suddenly have three or four projects going at once (I almost feel like Ruthy!) I'm "sticking to the brand," but I'm setting more irons in the fire.

    And that really makes me want to get up in the morning and write!

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    1. Jan, that is WONDERFUL!! And really does point to how this theory of improv can work. After I wrote this post the first time, I did jump in a write a couple of novellas without so much plotting and had a great time doing it.

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    2. Jan, changing things like you did, also, I think, brings energy to your branded work. I do something different and I come back happier with the romantic comedy with cowboys. So don't give up on the Amish historicals altogether

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    3. I agree... and I fought that stick with your brand thing for years and got scolded by a lot of writers (who I shrugged off) and 50 books in, I'm still loving what I do.

      Jan, I hear you! I love writing those Guideposts mysteries because they're light-hearted and fun and for some weird reason I'm good at them!!!! Who knew???

      And I love my longer, deeper stories, too... and they can be heartwrenching...

      And I am thrilled to write the smaller Love Inspireds, too, because they gave me my start and my readers are so loyal... and we have fun together.

      I like mash-ups in music... and prayers/hymns... why not in what we write, ladies??? :)

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  10. My daughter is home for spring break (can y'all see my joy all the way from Georgia?), and I have some family that is in town today, so I'll be out a while this afternoon. Y'all have fun chatting about creativity!! I'll check in later.

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  11. Great post, Missy! I needed to read it again.

    Stories need to percolate with me. I'll go about my routine, thinking I'm procrastinating on a new story when plot points and character personalities suddenly pop into my brain at the most bizarre moments. I'm finally realizing that my mind is working--without my conscious knowledge--all the while. The problem is that those ideas take longer and longer to gel these days. Don't folks say that writing becomes more difficult the more books published? As if we're stretching a bit farther with each story. Any stats on that?

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    1. Debby, that's so cool how your subconscious works! I agree that it seems to get harder sometimes. But then I've had a couple of ideas come to me easier than the rest. I wish I could make that happen every time!

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  12. Very interesting read. Thank you for sharing.

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  13. .
    "While Necessity is the Mother of Invention, Creativity is the Father."

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    1. So Necessity + Creativity = invention?? :) I like that, Vince!

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    2. I totally agree... Like in The Martian when Matt Damon says "I'm going to science the **** out of it!"

      And he does, and he solves his problems, one by one and never gave up.

      I love that movie.

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    3. Ruthy, I, too, loved that movie!

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  14. I'm going to take this post as a good sign that all will be fine with my manuscript, even though it veered wildly off the synopsis! :) I'm just improvising!

    ;)

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    1. Yes, Erica! Tell your editor that your brain is at work proving your genius! :)

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  15. Great post, Missy! I'm a panster that tries to be a plotter, but my best work always comes when I've had a chance to daydream for a while. Thanks for such an interesting post.

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    1. Laura, I think being a combo is great. I have to go into a story with an idea and a plan in my head... but then I write the story and let the characters lead according to who they are...

      So if we know the beginning and the ending, our job is to script that middle by having them react to one another and situations around them.

      And that can be the MOST FUN OF ALL!!!! :)

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    2. That is so true, Ruthy! I'm so grateful for a chance to do this kind of work.

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    3. Me, too. We are so stinkin' blessed.

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    4. Laura, all my best ideas come from me daydreaming!!!

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    5. Hi Ruth:

      Here's a coincidence for you. You wrote:

      "So if we know the beginning and the ending, our job is to script that middle by having them react to one another and situations around them."

      Talking about the middle, today I read from 25% to 80% of "A Most Inconvenient Love" on my Kindle and I figure that's a good part of the middle you were taking about above.

      Here's what you were doing that I believe made the story flow so quickly.

      You kept introducing major anticipatory events, which normally would take several chapters to resolve, and you resolved them very quickly -- sometimes in the same chapter!

      Once resolved you quickly introduced another major event which I found totally unexpected only to resolve that one just as quickly. This is hard to do, I know, because you kept having to come up with really good plot twists -- each of which could have been extended to fill two to four chapters. Doing this requires more creative ideas per page and as such puts a high premium on being creative and really knowing who your characters are. I call this having a "surging middle".

      I really enjoy this way of dealing with the proverbial 'sagging middle' and I'm going to emulate it.

      Vince

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    6. Vince, you've got me really curious to read to see how Ruthy did this!

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    7. Hi Missy:

      I think you'll notice the AE's right away and how they speed up the story flow. I do feel a little like someone who is explaining how a magician does some of his best tricks but I think only other writers will be taking heed of this. They say a debt repaid early is twice paid and that's the sense of having major conflicts resolved or extended in a new and more heightened way a lot sooner than you would have expected. That's a way of exceeding reader expectations. Just think of the old soap operas where there is a big reveal coming up but they don't get to it before the show ends so you have to wait until Monday to find out! Well, a quick AE resolution is like getting to see that big reveal Friday! Enjoy.

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