As a young dance student at Juilliard my favorite class was choreography. It was similar to a college writing composition class because it provided the nuts and bolts of creating, and in my case the creation was a dance. I studied ABA form, spatial patterns, musical timing, bodily shapes, and more. Now, decades later, as a writing teacher and coach, I still have great appreciation for the tools of craft. You can’t write a novel or memoir, or create a meaningful dance, without it.
But tools will only take you so far, because the act of creating is also an art. My favorite part about storytelling, whether with the body or on the page, is improvisation: throwing myself into unfamiliar territory, making stuff up, and discovering something new. Having studied the “rules,” I can, in the heat of composition, ignore them and experience something larger. What was once a formless inkling or curiosity is birthed through me into the world of form! In order for this to happen, I have to be willing to enter the unknown. If I’m doing it “right,” fear will be present. I expect it, even welcome it, but I don’t let it stop me. I know nothing, I tell myself, which opens me to receive and learn.
Sometimes my fear is mighty and strong and I have to sink into it slowly, like dipping my toe in the ocean and wading in gradually as I acclimate to the temperature. Other times I’m able to plunge in. Either way, it helps to be gentle and loving with myself as I enter deep, dark water.
A popular technique in comedy improvisation is to say the word “yes” when a new element is introduced into a scene or skit. “Yes!” the comic says, followed by the word “and.” This means, Yes, I accept the situation that’s been given to me, and, Here’s what I’m going to do next. Here’s how I’m going to respond and carry the energy forward. They do not say, “Yes, but,” which is a subtle “no.” Improvisation and life are all about the “yes.”
For years I’ve told my students that saying “yes” to their urge to write is like bathing—it has to be done on a regular basis. But what if we are that yes? What if yes resides at our core and is the permission we seek in our writing and in our lives? What if the reason we are transformed by our creative work is because we have pressed the pause button on our logical thinking minds, which are puny compared to our divine intelligence, in order to activate and engage with our creative essence? This is an artistic and also a healing act that goes way beyond craft.
I write for hours and lose track of time. Same with dance, meditation, hiking. But I sense that I can lose myself like this in my life more often than I do. Like the other day when I sat on my canopied porch swing staring and listening to the pouring rain. I was fully present, awake, and alive!
In her online course, “Life as Spiritual Theater,” Three Principlesteacher Dr. Linda Pettit opened my eyes to the fact that life itself is an improvisation. Sometimes we’re observing it, other times we’re deep in it, but just like facing a blank page, canvas, or empty space, in life we don’t know what will happen next. It’s best if we can roll with the punches, be fluid. Great if we can duck underneath giant waves of negative thinking, let them roll over us rather than fighting the tides.
We live in the feeling of our thinking. This is a liberating understanding. Thoughts and feelings come and go. They are not permanent, unlike our creative essence, which never dies.
The creative process unfolds every day in our lives; it is our lives. We are always improvising. It’s helpful when I’m able to release conditioned patterns of judgment about my experience and refuse to feed fearful thinking. When I flow from fear into love everything opens up. I’m free! What a relief. I lay down doubts and petty grievances and make space to say yes to dancing and writing, but more important than that—I live! Descartes had it wrong. I create, therefore I am!
Improvisation is creation and it’s available to us all, even when we forget and are distracted by rules or get hijacked by doubts. Keep coming back to presence. Simple awareness. Essence. This is the source of inspiration and improvisation. Every time I remember this, I set myself free. Go ahead and study your craft, and keep exploring the unknown and bringing forward your inner “Yes! And . . .” and watch what gets created through you.