creativity & improvision (the art of winging it)

You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm – Colette

My first post about creativity (“The Creative Habit: Use It or Lose It”) discussed how creativity is the result of being disciplined and productive, among other things. Writing that—and the response I got from it—got me thinking about other aspects of the creative process, in particular, improvisation.

More than anything, at its best, improvisation is tapping into the flow. It’s about making a subconscious, non-judgmental, fearless jump into the void. It takes balls, but when it works, it’s worth it.

I just finished two books, both memoirs by two different yet equally talented artists and rebels from the baby boomer generation: Patti Smith and Keith Richards. Both books are good reads, but Smith’s book Just Kids, a National Book Award winner, is better written if you must pick between the two.

Both Smith and Richards write in different ways about improvising. Here is Patti Smith remembering a play she wrote with Sam Shepard called Cowboy Mouth, a piece that opened at the American Place Theatre just a few months after it was written:

One night we were sitting in silence, thinking the same thing. [Their relationship was about to end]. He leapt up and brought his typewriter onto the bed. “Let’s write a play,” he said.

“I don’t know anything about writing plays,” I answered.

“It’s easy,” he said. “I’ll start.” He described my room on Twenty-third Street: the license plates, the Hank Williams records, the toy lamb, the bed on the floor, and then introduced his own character, Slim Shadow [Patti’s nickname for him].

Then he shoved the typewriter my way and said, “You’re on, Patti Lee.”

Patti Smith

I decided to call my character Cavale. I got it from a French-Algerian writer named Albertine Sarrazin, who, like Genet, was a precocious orphan who moved seamlessly between literature and crime. My favorite of her books was called La Cavale, which is the French word for escape.

Sam was right. It wasn’t hard at all to write the play. We just told each other stories. The characters were ourselves, and we encoded our love, imagination, and indiscretions in Cowboy Mouth. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a play as a ritual. We ritualized the end of our adventure and created a portal of escape for Sam.

Cavale is the criminal of the story. She kidnaps Slim and holes him up in her lair. The two of them love and spar, and create a language of their own, improvising poetry. When we got to the part where we had to improvise an argument in a poetic language, I got cold feet. “I can’t do this, ” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say anything,” he said. “You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.”

“What if I mess it up? What if I screw up the rhythm?”

“You can’t,” he said. “It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”

In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life.

Powering up my laptop is like plugging in a guitar. It’s an exciting moment for me. I may have a vague idea of what I’m going to do, but I still don’t know exactly what will happen. I don’t get too hung up on what I’m going to say, I just focus on getting it down “on paper.” I can spend plenty of time honing the words and the message later, if that’s what I want to do.

Speaking of plugging in a guitar, here’s Keith Richards and Waddy Watchtel, the great studio musician, talking about winging it in front of the mike from Keith’s memoir Life. They never use the word “improvision,” but it’s definitely there in the recording studio with them. Here’s Keith Richards:

Keith Richards

“I’d never really written with anybody on a long-term basis except Mick [Jagger], and I wasn’t really writing much with Mick anymore. We were writing our own songs. And I didn’t realize until I worked with [Grammy winner musician and producer] Steve Jordan how much I’d missed that. And how important it was to collaborate. When the band was assembled in the studio, I often composed songs there, just standing up and voweling, hollering, whatever it took, a process that was unfamiliar to Waddy [Watchtel] at first.”

Waddy Watchtel: It was very funny. Keith’s concept of writing was this. “Set up some mikes.” “Huh? OK.” He goes, “OK, let’s go sing it.” “Go sing what?” And he goes, “Go sing it!” “What are you talking about? Go sing what? We don’t have anything.” And he goes, “Yeah, right, let’s go make something up.” And this is it. This is the routine. So Steve and I are standing up there with him and every so often he’d go, “What the fuck…that feels good,” trying to come up with lines. Throw everything at the wall, see if it sticks. And that was basically the routine. It was amazing. and we got some lines out of it too.

When you’re disciplined (and dedicated and passionate!) about your craft, you’ll become highly skilled at it. You’ll start to produce great amounts of work; the sheer volume of it will amaze you. That’s when you’ll have the building blocks in place for great creative flows of improvisational material. And you’ll be ready to produce something great when the improv muse strikes. Your work will just come up and out of your mind and body, effortlessly. Don’t get hung up on it being perfect when you’re in this space.

I’m paraphrasing the great artist Mark Bradford (who I’ve been meaning to write about—stay tuned) but when you’re bored with it, it’s time to move on, baby.

And on that note, I’m out!

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