Creativity Information

Improvisation in Life and the Arts: What I learned from Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch

Can you be an artist while you're washing the dishes?

In this article I share some of my learning and impressions from a chapter of the exceptional book, "Free Play", by Stephen Nachmanovitch.

This subtitle of this book, "The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts", speaks of bringing the improvising we do as creative artists into our daily routines and interactions. The chapter we'll be discussing is titled, "Inspiration and Time's Flow".

At the end of the article I'll provide some in-depth questions to help you explore this topic further.

In "Inspiration and Time's Flow", Nachmanovitch challenges us to experience free play and creativity in our "ordinary" activities. He states the ideal existence as one of nonstop flow, and he quotes Balinese philosophy that "We have no art. Everything we do is art."

Here are 10 key points of learning from this chapter:

1. Conversation is a form of improvisation. The sentences we create may never be heard again. This is a delicious reminder that anyone is capable of improvisation in life and art.

2. In creating a work of art, there are two kinds of time - the flash of inspiration and the labour of capturing that in a form that can be shared with others. Performance introduces a third kind of time. It's so helpful to distinguish between these times because often when someone is struggling with their art it's with only one of these three (at a time). Artists can suffer from negative and distorted thinking which can convince us our creativity is in trouble, when really it's just one aspect of the creative process that has us temporarily stumped.

3. Improvisation exists in ONE time and outside of time. Everything happens at once; those rare and beautiful moments of being in the flow. Virtually all of the 19 creative artists I talked with for my Creativity Interviews book mentioned this state of flow. It seems like one of the main things keeping us in this sometimes difficult world of the arts - that glimpse of "flow" that we've all seen, some more than others.

4. Our aim is to improvise in our common day-to-day activities, without being attached to their outcome, "because the doing is it's own outcome". So often we think our job is to make things turn out a certain way, to control our own fate and to keep everything together. When we let go of that job and just concentrate on doing what's in front of us, we enjoy a freedom and enjoyment of our everyday tasks that can't be possible when we're focused on the future and how things might turn out.

5. Improvisation in day-to-day life means having heightened awareness, tapping into intuition and opening yourself to fate's will.

6. The teacher's art is to connect the living body of knowledge with the living bodies of the students in the room.

7. Scripts (a predetermined set of actions) are appropriate sometimes, and are a part of being committed and responsible i.e. to perform a concert when you said you would.

8. Once you've learned techniques or craft, it's essential to let them go and just relate to what's in front of you. Create through your technique and not with it.

9. Improvisation entails surrendering to the unknown.

10. Each moment is precious and can't be preserved, even though we tend to want to preserve what we create.

If you'd like to explore these ideas of "creative flow" and "everyday improvisation", spend some time answering the following questions.

1. When have you experienced "being in the flow" in your art or in your day-to-day life?

2. What precipitated that state? What helped you stay in it? What brought you out of it?

3. How do you best learn from a teacher? What have you noticed about learning based on a syllabus versus having the learning customized to your needs?

4. Where in your life is improvising not an option? When do you find it necessary to stick with a schedule or outside structure?

5. What do you think of when you imagine "surrendering to the unknown"?

6. What's been your experience in the different "times" of creativity? The flash of inspiration, the creation into form and the performance?

7. Which are the underlying techniques that you're grounded in (have learned so deeply that they're internalized), and that you need to "forget" when it's time to improvise?

8. What creative moment in your life do you most wish you had a record of?

So, can you be an artist while you're washing the dishes?

Watch your hands dance through the bubbles, watch the graceful movements of your arms, see the shining surfaces appear before your eyes, watch the precision as you stack your finished products, and notice how time both seems to stand still and pass effortlessly as you lose yourself in your task.

I think you can.

This article was originally published on the Muses Muse Songwriter's Resource website (April 2005)

(c) Linda Dessau, 2005. All rights reserved.

Linda Dessau, the Self-Care Coach, helps artists enhance their creativity by addressing their unique self-care issues. Feel like your creativity is blocked? Sign-up for your complimentary copy of the popular e-course, "Roadblocks to Creativity" by visiting

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