When you search for “the best books about improv,” Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play is always near the top of the list. With more than 200,000 copies sold, it’s in its 30th year of publication and still going strong. Nachmanovitch’s long-awaited second book is finally here! The Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life shows exactly how the passion and immediacy of improvisation can be cultivated and how, in fact, we all improvise all the time. It is not a special act of genius of which few are capable but is in fact the natural activity of all humans, whether we’re driving a car or holding a conversation. People who might claim they could never improvise negotiate these tasks with fluidity and ease every day. We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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In the free play of words, thoughts, feelings, and images, we need not be looking for repressed memories, for answers to life’s conundrums, or for great art; we can allow spontaneous answers to take us someplace meaningful. The “free” of free association does not mean wild or random but free of deliberate purpose. No association is free of context and meaning, but it may reveal deeper truth if it is free of conscious (and often fearful) control.
Free association is also “free ass”: you are free to make an ass of yourself. If I’m afraid of this freedom, I won’t get up in the morning because I am sure to make an ass of myself at least a few times a day. Onstage and performing improvised music, the risk is nothing compared with my fumbles and mistakes in everyday life. Improvising thrives on our imperfection and how we integrate it into the flow of our activity. Everyone has problems, everyone is a mystery to him- or herself, everyone at some point begins to explore mind and feelings and relationships in some way, attempting to see the patterns that got us where we are. “I come,” Blake wrote, “to cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination.” By giving ourselves a space in which to slough off the veneer of perfection or professionalism, we can reach our next evolutionary step.
Freedom to make an ass of yourself might mean that your improvisation goes nowhere. It might peter out or go around in circles. In the creative context, as in the therapeutic one, it might mean bringing up awkward or humiliating material. We may feel that we are wasting our time with the music that wanders, the writing that no one will ever see, the drawing that we crumple up and throw away — but without these episodes we would never produce anything of quality. Vulnerability is a precondition of creative work.
Journeys may start with free association, but they don’t end that way. We discover a direction and follow it. We draw, write, paint, sing our way into clarity, into connections to other people, into the workings of nature. Themes of which we had long been unconscious gradually come into focus, like islands emerging in the distance.
Carl Jung, after his break with Freud, extended the practice of free association to include hands-on modes of artistic creation. He called his method active imagination, allowing ideas and correlations to take tangible shape through visualization. For Jung, the practice took the form of painting and writing; for other people, it takes the form of music, theater, crafts, tinkering with technologies and expressive arts of all sorts, old and new. Freud’s free association is a mode of mental-verbal exploration. Jung’s active imagination is a concrete mode of doing, making, creating. His was an enterprise of knowing the self in order to transcend it. It is a journey of revelation: uncovering patterns within and around us that cannot be seen or even known until we manifest them. “The patient can make himself creatively independent through this method. He is no longer dependent on his dreams or on his doctor’s knowledge; instead, by painting himself he gives shape to himself.”
In his own life Jung practiced this method of exploration in his massive work of fantasy, myth, painting, and calligraphy. The Red Book, created during World War I, is an illuminated manuscript that looks like it tunneled here straight from the Middle Ages. The Red Book was known about for decades but only published fifty years after Jung’s death. While leading a busy life practicing psychiatry, training analysts from around the world, and writing books, Jung managed to devote years to the arts of building, stonemasonry, and carving. Over decades he built a stone house with four towers at Bollingen on the shore of Lake Zurich, like a structure out of ancient times, new wings added as he discovered new patterns in his own personality, externalizing them in stone, in the form of alchemical carvings and other psychic symbols. On his seventy-fifth birthday in 1950, Jung made his way down to the lake, and with his wrinkled hands chiseled into the rock a fragment from Heraclitus: “Time is a child at play, gambling; a child’s is the kingship.”
An image pulls us into an interconnected network of patterns. Suddenly a fresh universe of thought and feeling is born. Curiosity and wonder motivate us to persevere. These pathways become a portal into Indra’s net: the jeweled lattice of interrelations that encompasses the cosmos but is reflected from myriad points of perception.
Free association is the booster rocket, allowing us to attain escape velocity. But with active imagination, we eventually find ourselves gravitating elsewhere, to a center that draws us in, and we start firing thrusters to navigate toward that place and explore it.
The work of active imagination allows us to bridge the gaps between conscious and unconscious, logic and fantasy. It opens pathways to collective patterns we share with other people. Follow impulse in creative expression, see where it leads, let images unfold into an extended drama. We go from island hopping to pursuing a story with a shape. We find our unique linkage to nature, culture, and psyche.
Improvising is inductive. Whether a monologue or a conversation with partners, it moves in time from tone to tone, word to word, form to form. Looking back at the improvisation, we feel the inevitability of the pattern as though it were intentional. In collective improvising or conversation, the inductive paths of two or more people thread around each other like strands of a double helix, open-ended and relational, mutually reinforcing and contrasting. Thus we follow the poetic process of research by which links are tracked, threads woven, as in Blake:
I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
Jung knew his paintings were not “art” in the normal sense but a vehicle for investigation. He discovered that as he relentlessly excavated into the most deeply personal material, he began to identify archetypes, universal patterns shared among many cultures. Paradoxically, the deeper we venture into the roots of the self, the closer we come to transcending our self-centeredness, precisely because what we discover is how inseparable we are from the total structure of being.
We mischaracterize the act of finding pattern in seemingly separate facts as “connecting the dots.” That metaphor implies that facts are separate entities, dots that stay still on a page. But each event is a wriggling thread of interactivity in spacetime, with its own past, present, and future. We spin them, or watch them spin themselves, into patterns that cannot be predicted.
Improvising is not “just” fantasy and imagination; it is what happens when our intentions meet the real world, with all its unpredictability. We smack into the limitations of materials and our abilities to manipulate those materials, the limitations of our relationships with other people, our collaborators or our opponents. Then what do we do? How do we pick ourselves up, change our shape, learn to do new or old tricks?
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Stephen Nachmanovitch is the author of The Art of Is and Free Play. He performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist and lecturer. Having collaborated with other artists in music, dance, theater, and film, he is passionate about creativity and exploring the spiritual underpinnings of art. He lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find out more about his work online at www.freeplay.com.
Excerpted from the book The Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life. Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Nachmanovitch.