I used to be a cook for Head Start. I made breakfast and lunch for around two dozen kids and grownups every day. The gal who was the previous cook (she had graduated to classroom teacher), was hanging out in the kitchen one day. “I love watching you cook,” she said. “If I ever lost my measuring spoons, I would starve. You just throw things in.”
I do. It’s a form of improvisation.
What does it mean to improvise?
1. to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation; extemporize: to improvise an acceptance speech.
2. to compose, play, recite, or sing (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment.
3. to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available: We improvised a dinner from yesterday’s leftovers.
Verb (used without object), improvised, improvising.
4. to compose, utter, execute, or arrange anything extemporaneously: When the actor forgot his lines he had to improvise.
Clearly there are a lot of ways to improvise (and sometimes we may have a plan, but we don’t pin the whole thing down). Yesterday I said that improvisation is a skill that can be applied to many things. The more ways we practice improvisation, the more comfortable we become with it. I listed a few ways I improvise, but one of the most helpful (and satisfying), has been writing.
Writing can also be improvisation
In college, one professor made us freewrite for ten minutes. Every school day, Monday through Friday. For the entire term. This, more than anything, made me a better, more fluent writer, plus it helped me figure things out and solve problems. I was going through a very difficult time, and freewriting gave me a place to just spew what was happening. But what was really amazing was writing about problems and finding that the writing helped to untangle and resolve them.
The great thing about freewriting is that it is a quantity practice. Like our 20 minutes, you choose an amount of time and just write, without debating, stopping, reflecting, or anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s any good. That’s not the criteria. Just write for your time and see what comes out. In the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests 30 minutes every morning. In college we wrote for 10 minutes. It’s a good way to start.
Don’t cross out. Don’t worry about staying in the lines. No worries about spelling, punctuation, etc. Just let what’s in your head come out. If nothing comes out, just write, “Nothing is coming out. I can’t think of a damn thing. What stupid exercise…”
Because here’s the thing…
Any second-guessing, self-judging etc. is going to close up the little pipe in your head through which the words flow. And like a pipe, sometimes a lot of rusty crap has to get flushed out before the water runs clear.
Just like the dance
It’s not always great, but building the habit makes it more reliable. We practice so that it will flow on command. We learn to get into that state where it just comes out. In freewriting and dance, speaking publicly, sports, music, art, comedy, jazz, MacGuyver, anything that values an intuitive response.
I invite you to practice improvisation.
Freewriting is wonderful. If you don’t like writing or think you don’t write well, it’s a great way to increase fluency (ease of writing).
Or talk out loud to a wall for ten minutes or so. See what comes out.
There is also free-drawing. Take a length of time and just draw, with no particular goal. See what comes out.
Just give it time.
For more about freewriting, here’s a link to an excerpt from Natalie Goldberg’s classic, Writing Down the Bones. Read from page 5, “Beginner’s Mind” through “Writing as a Practice,” which ends on page 14.
And here’s some music. Mr. Saad Mohamed Hassan plays Umm Kulthum’s “Anasak De Kalam.” Composer Baligh Hamdi.