Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever. A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.
The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.
Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.
Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.
When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.
This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.
The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.