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Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art

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This book is about the inner sources of spontaneous creation. It is about where art in the widest sense comes from. It is about why we create and what we learn when we do. It is about the flow of unhindered creative energy: the joy of making art in all its varied forms.

Free Play is directed toward people in any field who want to contact, honor, and strengthen their own creative powers. It integrates material from a wide variety of sources among the arts, sciences, and spiritual traditions of humanity. Filled with unusual quotes, amusing and illuminating anecdotes, and original metaphors, it reveals how inspiration arises within us, how that inspiration may be blocked, derailed or obscured by certain unavoidable facts of life, and how finally it can be liberated - how we can be liberated - to speak or sing, write or paint, dance or play, with our own authentic voice.

The whole enterprise of improvisation in life and art, of recovering free play and awakening creativity, is about being true to ourselves and our visions. It brings us into direct, active contact with boundless creative energies that we may not even know we had.

224 pages, Paperback

First published January 11, 1990

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Stephen Nachmanovitch

7 books27 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 195 reviews
Profile Image for julieta.
1,138 reviews19.3k followers
May 7, 2021
Tenía mucha curiosidad por leer este libro, que parece ser sobre improvisación, y algo de eso cubre, pero es más sobre creatividad. Tiene cosas muy lindas, porque conecta la creatividad, y el arte, con cosas profundas, que van más allá de nuestra conciencia. Me encantaría que lo leyera cualquier persona que se dedique a la pedagogía, toca el Zen, habla de Jung, cita a e.e.cummings, a Henry Miller. Lo que quiero decir es que sus referencias son muy variadas. A momentos me parecía que idealizaba mucho es de “la vida de artista“, pero justo lo bueno que tiene es que lo abre hacia cualquier persona, y defiende que la creatividad es algo que tenemos cada persona que existimos, como parte de nuestra humanidad. Y con eso suscribo. El resultado puede ser bueno o malo, pero es el proceso creativo mismo lo que cuenta. Me hizo pensar en “Creative Quest“ de Questlove, un libro que también habla sobre estos procesos. Muy recomendado.
Profile Image for Janet.
Author 22 books87.7k followers
April 17, 2016
The right book at the right time saves lives. Man, you can say that about Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. The thing about play in art, is it's a sign of strength to spare, wind to spare, like someone running a marathon who breaks out into a pirouette. Sometimes working on a long project, the task just seems monstrous--like trying to build a gothic cathedral all by yourself. This book is a reminder, for a writer in long form, that it's not stone on stone, a heavy, exhausting thing. That play, like the free jazz that the violinist author Nachmanovitch loves, makes heavy work light. That there are other ways to solve problems, other ways to approach the page, and that improvisation, the lightness of it, the in-the-momentness of its playfulness, IS the 'air that falls through the net' that Neruda describes.

Here's my favorite part so far-- on editing.

"In producing large works… we are perforce taking the results of many inspirations and melding them together into a flowing structure that has its own integrity and endures through time…. We arrange them, cook them, render them down, digest them. We add, subtract, reframe, shift, break part, melt together. The play of revision and editing transforms the raw into the cooked. This is a whole art unto itself, of vision and revision, playing again with the half-baked products of our prior play. …

"Editing must come from the same inspired joy and abandon as free improvisation…. There is a stereotyped belief that the muse in us acts from inspiration, while the editor in us acts from reason and judgment. But if we leave our imp or improviser out of the process, re-vision becomes impossible. If I see the paragraph I wrote last month as mere words on a page, they become dead and so do I…

"Some elements of artistic editing: 1. deep feeling for the intentions beneath the surface; 2. sensual love of the language; 3. sense of elegance; and 4. ruthlessness. The first three can perhaps be summarized under the category of good taste, which involvers sensation, sense of balance and knowledge of the medium, leavened with an appropriate sense of outrageousness…."

I will definitely put Free Play on the shelf right next to The Art Spirit within arm's reach of my writing desk, to remind me about the air that falls through the net. I can't be reminded of it enough.

10 reviews3 followers
February 9, 2010
Did not get interesting until the middle, where there were some concrete suggestions on how to play around with limits, the interplay between creativity and judgement.

The beginning and the end of the book are weakest, in my opinion. They are filled with too much pseudo-spiritual riffs, or get off track with rants against mainstream society, neither of which did much for me.

All that said, I still think it was a worthwhile read for what was there regarding improvisation.
Profile Image for Ganesh.
77 reviews61 followers
June 25, 2009
In the fall, I discovered this book in my boyfriend's apartment.

As I was falling in love, this excerpt resonated deeply with me:

"Though love is a material act (whether sexual love, friendship, parenting, or any other kind of devotion, love is always an act), it lifts us out of the ordinary world into a kind of mystic participation with one another. We tune, more and more finely, our capacity to sense the other person's subtleties. We are willing to be infinitely patient and persevering. In a sense, genius equals compassion, because both involve the infinite capacity for taking pains. The great lovers, the great world reformers and peacemakers, are those who have passed beyond their individual ego demands and are able to hear the cries of the world. The motive is not self-gratification, but gratification of a bigger being of which we are part. Genius and compassion signify a transcendent, painstaking thoroughness and attention to detail--taking the trouble to take care of our body and mind and everyone else's body and mind.

This is exactly what we do when we set out on the adventure of loving another human being. We learn, the easy or the hard, to cultivate receptivity and mutual, expressive emancipation."

Profile Image for Malcolm.
1,720 reviews418 followers
April 27, 2016
During the late 1980s and early 1990s I worked in a bookstore that managed to survive the mega-chain onslaught and political shifts that killed off most of the independent literary stores and others such as the local specialist feminist and the Marxist/leftist book store as well as quite a few of the second hand stores. Across the road from us was another survivor, specialising in New Age and similar publications. Like many independents, we relied on the high turnover of a few titles to allow us to keep a broad set of literary and non-fiction books with a much lower turnover: now we’d call that a long tail. Every few weeks, at our regular staff meetings we’d discuss sections of the store we thought we’d like to know more about, and at most, if not every second of those, someone would observe that the ‘north west corner’ was a bit of a mystery, and we’d all nod, slightly perplexed by direction until we realised, this as the area labelled ‘self-help’ (although nowadays that is more likely to be ‘body, mind, spirit’ or some such (perhaps even popular psychology).

In my case, not only was this corner of the store a mystery area, it also seemed like a big pile of hokum – truisms for the desperate bundled up inside usually some crudely articulated version of ‘Eastern’ mysticism as a foil for the weaknesses of the ‘West’ with its ‘alienating rationality’. All this meant that I was more than a little unsettled when, acting on the advice of a musician friend whose work I respect, I picked this up to find the publishers had classified it ‘self-help’: my retail bête noir. The book has many of the characteristics of the ‘self-help’ style, at least those few I have dabbled in – the breezy knowingness, the magpie approach to various ‘Eastern’ religious concepts, the step-by-step progress through the problems of our inner being. To his credit though, Nachmanovitch manages to avoid the ‘here’s the answer to everything’ tone of many in the genre, or the serial re-visioning and restatement of one idea in book after book after…... A key aspect of this ‘avoidance’ is that in his day job he seems to be a practitioner of the cultural/creative work that he is dealing with. And it here that my recommender-friend comes into the mix: Nachmanovitch, the violinist, has been recommended to me by a singer, and voice teacher.

So, I read this adopting two standpoints: as a writer (OK, so academic writing but still that relies on a particular creative style), and as on who intermittently ventures into the scholarship of play (basing this on the title, Free Play). Of course, there is a whole bunch of play theories we call on but the one I kept coming back to is a set of ideas that sees almost anything as play if we approach it with the ‘right’ attitude – that is, an attitude of playfulness (a ludic disposition). We’ve all seen that, the ‘game’ that should be fun but is a dull grind – I see it all too often in sports matches – because the ‘players’ did not approach the game with a ludic expectation. A ludic attitude can make pretty much anything fun, but drawing on the work of one play scholar, the cultural historian Johan Huizinga, ludus is one aspect of play while the other paidia seen by French philosopher of play Roger Caillois as having four stages – disturbance, tumult, fantasy and imagination. By my reading, Nachmaovitch’s Free Play works best as paidia (there is an essay about this I have co-authored in a recent edited collection of philosophical papers).

Adopting this standpoint gave me a basis on which to make sense of Nachmanovitch’s approach and when I cut through all the dressing of the tao and Buddha and other ‘Eastern’ spiritual trappings this is a pretty good book about a ludic disposition and the limitations placed on its enactment by the constraints of the ‘way things should be done’. (btw: as a non-believer I can see many of the same ‘overcoming alienation’ ideas deployed from these religions in forms of monotheism – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – and they’re not that mystical.) What is more, it is full of pretty sensible advice about ways to deal with diversions, distractions and barriers to creative work – be it music, visual or plastic art, sport, writing, dance or pretty much anything else where we need to allow ourselves to be absorbed. That said, the third section of the four that make up the book (‘Obstacles and Openings’), did in places get a little prescriptive, although without falling into the trap of lists or imperatives.

Many years ago I recall sitting in my local pub with a (still) well-known poet. For some reason we’d got onto a long rambling discussion about organising cultural events – and I recall him saying that nothing was spontaneous, or rather that all spontaneity was rehearsed. Throughout this book I found myself remembering that conversation of over 35 years ago and realised that Nachmanovitch was explaining the rehearsal than Sam (the poet) had identified as the basis of successful spontaneity. What’s more, he manages to avoid the psycho-babble of so much of the current writing on creativity, but alas he remains stuck in an individualising discourse (there is little here about collective work and stimulating environments) but even with those limitations I expect I’ll be coming back to this quite regularly – even if it is to do more (or less) than seek inspiration for tasks for my students, who seem to park their ludus at the door.
Profile Image for Flissy.
127 reviews1 follower
April 13, 2009
A lot of things rang true with what I have come to believe about creativity and my own process. My number one creative mantra lately has been "All creative acts have value." Knitting, baking, drawing, dancing, doing yoga, making up silly songs to the cats... they all are equal in getting juice flowing, removing blocks, and revealing new things to incorporate in my art/dance/yoga. Another thing I found really interesting is that he stresses the importance of allowing your internal muse and internal editor to run parallel to each other. When the editor crosses the muses path, you can get blocked by negative inner dialogue, etc. BINGO. It's given me something to think about while I work out challenges in my dance, particularly.
Profile Image for gregor kulla.
113 reviews45 followers
January 25, 2021
mulle meeldib, kui rõõmsad viiuldajad (vioolaldajad...) kirjutavad oma loome(-tootmis)protsessist kui sest ainsast. sest see on nii relatable. isegi mulle (kõik on viiulit näinud ja julgemad isegi katsunud). aga iga sellise raamatuga, olgu selleks kasvõi Elleri või Oja biograafia, kus helid põrkuvad vaid keelpillikeeltel, mõtlen ma, et kui mina peaksin tulevikus kirjutama midagigi seoses oboemänguga, kaotan ma ka oma senise säästliku lugejas/kuulajaskonna. sest hautbois on pasun. see on pasun.

jälle raamat, mis sattus kätte täpppselt õigel ajal! ja kirjutas täpselt õigest asjast. vähemalt nii mulle tundub. nii mulle tundub, et selle raamatu ees kniksutades suudan tänasest õhtust alates klaveri taga oma potentsiaalseid frustratsioonikünniseid ületada. olgu nendeks probleemid arenduses, olematu või liiga lihtlabane ABA vorm või muusa puudus. mul tunne, et nüüd ma teen. teen nii, et endale meeldib jm! äsjamainitud loetelust hoolimata!
Nachmanovitsch improviseerib, kirjutab ja improviseerib. ja tegeleb zen-budismiga. viiteid oli Piacassost Pazini. tore sundimatus ja pretensioonitus, mis tihti pealkirjadega "... Life and Art..." kaasas käivad. soovitan kõigile, kes tahavad oma loomingulisust iivata, seda avastada või seda meelde tuletada! igati ~inspireeriv~ lugemine:)
Profile Image for Blaine Snow.
140 reviews98 followers
March 7, 2022
Two names sum up my my review of this fantastic book: Keith Jarrett and Gregory Bateson... well OK, and the fact that Nachmanovitch weaves together wisdom threads East and West, ancient and modern, in the arts and sciences to create this little masterwork on creativity. But if you know these two giants of creativity, you'll already know a lot about this book.

Keith Jarrett's life and work are a perfect example of Free Play in art music (jazz and classical) and Gregory Bateson's life and work (his friend and mentor and one of the founders of cybernetics) stand as a multi-disciplinary edifice of how to think about play, creativity, and freedom in the context of biological evolution, emergence theory, and mind-as-biological organization and embodiment. Embodied emergence, free play and the power of limits, yin and yang...

You Matter: feel inspired, create something!
Profile Image for Anna Granberg.
Author 10 books38 followers
November 22, 2017
This is an interesting read on creativity and improvisation to come back to. I read it with pen in hand and highlighted the parts that spoke to me. If I reread, I feel like I might find other parts that capture me next time.

Some parts of the book were too filled with spiritual flummery for my taste, and I didn't like that some is written like if it were the objective truth, even though it's the writer's opinion, theories and own experiences. The writing is also unnecessarily complicated, often I found I could rephrase a couple of paragraphs in just a sentence or two. Then I was like 'oh, was that what you meant, couldn't you just have said so!'

But all in all I found it well worth reading.
May 4, 2020
An essential read for anyone creative, and pairs well with The Artist’s Way; in fact, Nachmanovitch lays out some concepts around creativity much better than Julia Cameron does. Reading this is really helping me let go of music as a career so that I may regain it as a love and passion. It’s worth just reading it, but ultimately, it derails most of what I learned in school, and I can’t help wondering if I’d embodied this outlook sooner what my life would look like. Oh well!!
Author 24 books59 followers
July 26, 2010
One of my favorite books. I've reread it several times, and referred to it often. An inspiring reminder of what it means to be awake to the moment and to receive its possibilities with gratitude and imagination.
Profile Image for Sungbin Kim.
17 reviews
January 10, 2022
The theme of this book is that, for art, the process is more important than the result. Evolution is a "process" by which nature creates, and it models all arts. Everything is art when it becomes "play." Play is an activity that is an "end in itself" rather than a means. Play without rules does not produce art, so artists "practice" their craft and learn its rules. Too much practice can impede creativity, so artists should regard every practice as a "performance." The mathematicians' definition of "elegance" is producing great results from scant means. Similarly, art is more elegant "under constraint" than in freedom. "Mistakes" are inevitable during the process of creation because they are creations themselves. Artists fear failures if they are fixated on results, and "fear of failure" inhibits creativity. Sometimes "not doing can be more productive than doing" because being stuck is also a part of the process. Making art is like making love. It's a "commitment" and you must be ready to love it even when it is not yet complete. Art is beautiful when it's truthful, and you can't be true to yourself if you are more worried about the result than the process.
Profile Image for Holly.
121 reviews21 followers
March 26, 2010
I read this book at least twice. It worked. I was trying to be a serious musician and artist; I'd just discovered that I loved writing. I wish I could remember more, but there was something about the description of the human need to create though improvisation (play) that resonated with me.

I might just have to read it again.
Profile Image for Maria.
24 reviews
September 9, 2007
This is one of my favorit books! I go back to it often when I need a reminder about the role of play and creativity in life. This book is filled with stories, and lessons about the bigs and smalls of life. The take home message is: Relax, and bring play and into all aspects of life!
Profile Image for Kelley.
Author 31 books568 followers
August 19, 2010
Man do I love this book. No really. I've read it four times at different points in my life and each time I find something new and awesome. If, for some reason, you want to know my philosophy on creativity and the purpose of art, this is the book to start with.
7 reviews1 follower
July 30, 2009
If you are an artist of any sort, read this book.
Profile Image for Sabelka.
92 reviews4 followers
January 21, 2022
Atopei este libro por accidente, porque en realidade o que eu quería era que alguén me explicase cientificamente o que pasa no meu cerebro e no meu corpo mentres improviso. Porén, isto é máis ben unha carta de amor moi longa á improvisación no seu sentido máis amplo: unha carta de amor longa e preciosísima a un estado que é —e con esta idea eu resoo moi forte— "metabolic rather than conceptual".

De verdade, preciosísimo:

"I had found a freedom that was both exhilarating and exacting."

"Impulse, like improvisation, is not 'just anything'; it is not without structure but is the expression of organic, immanent, self-creating structure."

"The intensity of your focused concentration and involvement maintains and augments itself, your physical needs decrease, your gaze narrows, your sense of time stops. (...) You lose yourself in your own voice, in the handling of your tools, in your feeling of the rules. (...) When the self-clinging personality somehow drops away, we are both entranced and alert at the same time."

"Practice is the entry into direct, personal, and interactive relationships. It is the linkage of inner knowing and action. Mastery comes from practice; practice comes from playful, compulsive experimentation (the impish side of lîla), and from a sense of wonder (the godlike side of lîla). (...) This level of performance cannot be attained through some Calvinist demands of the superego, through feelings of guilt or obligation. In practice, work is play, intrinsically rewarding. It is that feeling of our inner child wanting to play for just five minutes more."

"In playing together there is real risk of cacophony, the antidote to which is discipline. But this need not be the discipline of 'let's agree on a structure in advance'. It is the discipline of mutual awareness, consideration, listening, willingness to be subtle. Trusting someone else can involve gigantic risks, and it leads to the even more challenging task of learning to trust yourself."

"I play with my partner; we listen to each other; we mirror each other; we connect with what we hear. He doesn’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where he’s going, yet we anticipate, sense, lead, and follow each other. There is no agreed-on structure or measure, but once we have played for five seconds there is a structure, because we’ve started something. We open each other’s minds like an infinite series of Chinese boxes. A mysterious kind of information flows back and forth."
143 reviews2 followers
December 4, 2020
"We now find ourselves, as individuals, as nation-states, and as a species, involved in a period of intense and often bewildering transformation. The systems of government, production, culture, thought, and perception to which we have become accustomed and that have functioned for so long are not working. This presents us with a challenge. We can cling to that which is passing, or has already passed, or we can remain accessible to - even surrender to - the creative process, without insisting that we know in advance the ultimate outcome for us, our institutions, or our planet. To accept this challenge is to cherish freedom, to embrace life, and to find meaning."


(Just a later paragraph that captures the zeitgeist of 2020 from 30 years ago. The rest is an expanded review after re-reading.)

At the core, Free Play is about wu wei, the Taoist and Zen principle of "action without action," pure awareness and responsiveness. It's a feeling Michelangelo channeled when he brushed the stone away from the statue inside - a feeling he called "intelletto," nonrational artistic awareness. Others call it "beginner's mind," "radical openness," or "oneness."

Nachmanovitch's book was the text for a senior seminar I took in transpersonal psychology (that would be the study of religious experiences, epiphanies, flow states, meditation, etc). It's as sonorous and streamlike as you'd expect from an admired improvisational violinist, but ten times more useful than you'd expect.

I've never found a more concentrated guide to creative processes. Inside out, outside in. If you ever feel stuck, this book tells you how to gently obliterate preconceptions. It goes into extraordinary detail on that easy thing that isn't easy, that difficult thing that isn't difficult, how and why you get blocked, avoidant, afraid. And it brings in oodles of great references, anecdotes, and poetic quotations that would be pretentious if they weren't so to the point.

If you're interested in ludology, he has a lot to say about the magic circle, which he calls temenos, ancient Greek for sacred grove. For those who don't know the magic circle by name, you do know it: it's any safe space where you are free to play, where you can enter a world of make-believe, something a little set apart from the rest of reality, with its own rules. It's the proverbial sandbox in all its manifestations.

Artistry goes beyond play, but without some form of play there is no art or invention. Play requires safety, or it isn't free and isn't really play; it's suffocated. Hence the creative blocks arise from fear. When people agree to play a game together (or simply let each other know they're playing around), as long as they cooperate and follow the rules, a new world appears in the midst of their imaginations. The rule-following (or at least not hurting anyone you're joking around with) corresponds to staying in the magic circle, and the imaginative world is the result. The metaphor refers to a magic spell cast in a circle of candles or a pentagram, and the rules (of play and safety) are the ritual of the spell itself, how it's cast.

The stage of a theater performance is part of its magic circle. When someone gets run through with a halberd on stage, you know not to worry too much, because inside that circle are found hypothesis, counterfactual, recapitulation, fantasy, performance, play, etc. When lights go off in a cinema, that's part of the magic circle. Dogs and wolves enter the magic circle by dropping on their front paws and wagging their tails; then everyone knows this is not a fight. Even formal debate occurs in a magic circle; participants shake hands to reinforce that what happens inside is a symbolic battle, a battle of ideas, not a display of personal animosity. This idea is shared across all the arts.

People are typically most creative in a state of free play, which might look very serious. The freedom is freedom to try something different - without any of that freedom, you can't. Removing heavy consequences makes experimentation possible. The magic circle is a metaphor, but it refers to the essence of what makes play itself.

Creative blocks can be analyzed usefully as fear in relation to that concept, though I wouldn't reduce the contents of the book quite so far as to say that's its entire thesis. It's a rich and faceted look at many kinds of creative processes and how they unfold, from a point of view that's both mystical and practical. It applies regardless of art form, and even on re-reading this, I found a number of surprisingly helpful suggestions and ways to subversively reframe things. Flights of fancy aside, it gives some very down-to-earth advice that anyone can follow.

The professor of the class I mentioned is somewhat famous for his lectures, a style of performance art I've never seen before or since. I liked them so much I took a second course with him, even though at the start of that, the seminar involving this book, he looked at all of us, then the ones he recognized, and yelled, "Why are you still here??? What are you doing? Didn't you learn the first time???" Anyway, his copy of Free Play was more inked up than the Hell's Angels. Whenever he read from it, he'd rest it in his palms carefully. An ancient, gigantic speckled moth. It looked like it might crumble if stared at.
Profile Image for Carolina Pinto.
36 reviews3 followers
April 13, 2021
a good prespective about the creative process. however, it felt a bit like a too romanticized ideia, it gave me the sensation that almost everything in art must be about pleasure. At times I felt that I was doing all wrong because creation in me is sometimes truly painful. It is a good book, it is the opinion of a person about improvisation and about art and of course with value.
Profile Image for Sunny.
738 reviews36 followers
March 2, 2023
6 stars. Incredible incredible book about the art of playing and how important “play” has been in cultures of past and present.


We all know how pearls are made. When a grain of grit accidentally slips into an oyster's shell, the oyster encysts it, secreting more and more of a thick, smooth mucus that hardens in microscopic layer after layer over the foreign irritation until it becomes a perfectly smooth, round, hard, shiny thing of beauty. The oyster thereby transforms both the grit and itself into something new, transforming the intrusion of error or otherness into its system, completing the gestalt according to its own oyster nature. If the oyster had hands, there would be no pearl. Because the oyster is forced to live with the irritation for an extended period of time, the pearl comes to be.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings. (Wow)

Love the process but fall in love with the rituals behind the process. There is a difference. Prepare the tools. From buying the tools to cleaning and maintaining and repairing them, develop an intimate, living, years-long relationship with them. Say good-bye to distractions. Let the session flow. The opening ritual, taking the violin out of the case, to setting up the computer, getting into the dance clothes, to putting your football boots on, opening the books, mixing the paints, is pleasurable in and of itself. I eventually learned to treat each solitary writing session home the same way I treat a live performance. In other words, I learned to treat myself with the same care and respect I give to an audience. This was not a trivial lesson. These rituals and preparations function to discharge and clear obscurations and nervous doubts, to invoke our muses however we may conceive them, to open our capacities of mediumship and concentration, and to stabilize our person for the challenges ahead. In this intensified, turned-on, tuned-up state, creativity becomes everything we do and perceive. (WOW)

Unless you have been thoroughly drenched in perspiration you cannot expect to see a palace of pearls on a blade of grass.

Addiction consumes energy and leads to slavery. Practice generates energy and leads to freedom.

The Sufis also speak of a related experience, samä, which means dancing yourself into ecstasy. In this state, body and mind are so intensely occupied with activity, the brain waves are so thoroughly entrained by the compelling and powerful rhythms, that ordinary self is left behind and a form of heightened awareness arises.da Vinci was one of the great pioneers of improvisation on the viola da braccio, and with his friends put on entire operas in which both the poetry and the music were made up on the spot.

Reading, listening, looking at art is a matter of active response, of dialogue with the material. (sunny: why we call reading “talking to the author” in our house)

I need energy to acquire skill, energy to practice, energy to keep going through the inevitable set-backs, energy to keep going when things look good and I am tempted to sit back and relax. I need physical energy, intellectual energy, libidinal energy, spiritual energy. The means to tapping these energies are well known: Exercise the body, eat well, sleep well, keep track of dreams, medi-tate, enjoy the pleasures of life, read and experience widely. When blocked, tap into the great block-busters: humor, friends, and nature. The specific preparations begin when I enter the temenos, the play space. In ancient Greek thought, the temenosis a magic circle, a delimited sacred space within which special rules apply and in which extraordinary events are free to occur.

New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity.
Therefore, O man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.

The only way out of the complexity is through it. Ultimately, the only techniques that can help us are those we invent ourselves. Nor can we talk about the creative process, because there are different personality types, and the creative processes of one are not the same as those of another.

and black-and-white photography may achieve greater power than color. I ragas, or solo jazz play, sounds are limited to a restricted sphere, within which a gigantic range of inventiveness opens up. If you have all the colors available, you are sometimes almost too free. With one dimension constrained, play becomes freer in other dimensions.

Limits yield intensity. When we play in the temenos defined by our self-chosen rules, we find that containment of strength amplifies strength. Commitment to a set of rules (a game) frees your play to attain a profundity and vigor otherwise impossible. Igor Stravinsky writes: "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit

The literature of Zen, on which I have drawn heavily because of its deep penetration of the breakthrough experience, abounds with accounts of kensho and satori moments of illumination and moments of total change of heart. There come points in your life when you simply kick the door open. But there is no ultimate breakthrough; what we find in the development of a creative life is an open-ended series of provisional breakthroughs. In this journey there is no endpoint, because it is the journey into the soul.

Every attempt we make is imperfect; yet each one of those imperfect attempts is an occasion for a delight unlike anything else on earth.

Emily Dickinson said in this regard that the poem is exterior to time. Improvisation is also called extemporization, meaning both "outside of time" and "from the time."

We can then say, with the Balinese,
"We have no art. Everything we do is art."

but we still have to give up our expectations and a certain degree of control- give up being safely wrapped in our own story. We still engage in the important practice of planning and scheduling-not to rigidly lock in the future, but to tune up the self.

The essence of style is this: We have something in us, about us; it can be called many things, but for now let's call it our original nature. We are born with our original nature, but on top of that, as we grow up, we accommodate to the patterns and habits of our culture, family, physical environment, and the daily business of the life we have taken on.
What we are taught solidifies as "reality." Our persona, the mask we show the world, develops out of our experience and training, step by step from infancy to adulthood.

when god decided to invent everything be took one breath bigger than' a circus tent and everything began when man determined to destroy himself be picked the was of shall and finding only why smashed it into because

The ancient Taoists spoke of one's own being while in the meditative state as an " unsculpted block of time." As stone is to a sculptor, so time is to a musician.

Spiritual traditions the world over are full of references to this mysterious juice: ch' in China and ki in Japan (em-bodying the great Tao in each individual); kundalini and brama in India; mana in Polynesia; orendé and manitu among the Iroquois and Algonquins; axé among the Afro-Brazilian condomblé cults; baraka among the Sufis in the Middle East; élan vital on the streets of Paris.

technique (techne from the Greek for “art").

Mastery means responsibility, ability to respond in real time to the need of the moment.

There is a German word, “funktionslust”, which means the pleasure of doing, of producing an effect, as distinct from the pleasure of attaining the effect of having something. Creativ-ty exists in the searching even more than in the finding or being found.

The word enthusiasm is Greek for "filled with theos
"_filled with God.

In the science of psychophysics there is a law (the Weber-Fechner law that relates the objective value of stimulation (a light, a sound, a touch) to its subjective value (the sensation we feel). The gist of it is that our sensitivity diminishes in proportion to the total amount of stimulation. If there are two candles lit in a room, we easily notice the difference in brightness when a third candle 15 lit. But if there are fifty candles burning, we are unlikely to notice the difference made by a fifty-first. If there is less total stimulation, each small change makes more of a differ-ence, or in Gregory Bateson's phrase, it's a difference that makes a difference.

I try things and throw them away, as many times as necessary. Brahms once remarked that the mark of an artist is how much he throws away. Nature, the great creator, is always throwing things away.

To create, we need both technique and freedom from technique. To this end we practice until our skills become unconscious.

When skill reaches a certain level it hides itself.

One of the many catch-22's in the business of creativity is that you can't express inspiration without skill, but if you are too wrapped up in the professionalism of skill you obviate the surrender to accident that is essential to inspiration.

we speak a language that uses nouns and verbs. Thus we are predisposed to believe that the world consists of things and forces that move the things. À horsemanship teacher I know has her beginning adult pupils ride bareback and without reins. She says she refuses to give them the physical means of controlling the horse until they first learn to control the horse without tools and aids, with gravity, weight, and thought alone. This means becoming one with the horse loving the horse.

After periods during which one has actively tried to solve a problem, but has not succeeded, the sudden right orientation of the situation, and with it the so-lution, tend to occur at moments of extreme mental passivity. . . A well-known physicist in Scotland once told me that this kind of thing is generally recognized by physicists in Britain. "We often talk about the Three B's," he said. "the Bus, the Bath, and the Bed. That's where the great discoveries are made in our science.


The word desire comes from de-sidere, "away from your star." It means elongation from the source, and the concomi-tant, powerful magnetic pull to get back to the source. In the Suf view, the beloved is the friend we love, while the Beloved is the Friend, God; and they are one. Love is a state of resonance between absence from and nearness to the be-loved, a vibratory, harmonized resonance between being two and being one. In the art of archery the desire of the arrow and the target to be together is such that they are, in the mind of the master archer, already one.33 In the same way, a fine baseball outfielder is already one with the ball long before he catches it. The archer is practicing a kind of intelleto every time he draws the bow, feeling the interpene-tration of self and object, self and tool; seeing the identity of the moment of longing, the moment of preparation, and the moment of fulfillment.

"The whole difference between construction and creation," wrote G. K. Chesterton, is this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.

Paradoxically, the more you are yourself, the more universal your message. As you develop and individuate more deeply, you break through into deeper layers of the collective consciousness and the collective unconsciousness.

Zen master Dogen, in the thirteenth century, said, "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to perceive oneself as all things. To realize this is to cast off the body and mind of self and others. When you have reached this stage you will be detached even from enlightenment, but will practice it continually without thinking about it. "

Profile Image for Marydanielle.
50 reviews3 followers
June 28, 2013
I have several guidebooks for living and this is one of my most precious. I've shared it, relied upon it, and re-read it. Interestingly, though it is by a musician, it is very apt and helpful in any field of endeavor. When I first read it I was working in a law office and had to design little interactive macros for legal documents so that attorneys could use their computers more easily and this book helped me do that. It has also helped me design my garden, decorate my house, find my way through a variety of puzzling projects, as well as allowed me to give good advice to my friends who find themselves confused and stuck. I recently recommended it to a person who works in the sciences and she found it helped her work through a difficult task she was confronted with. The concept that life is improvisation is very liberating, but it also is a challenge - it gives you a sense of agency and creative license - but maybe a sense of responsibility too, in a lovely way. The book is filled with the wisdom of philosophers and artists, so I always feel when I'm reading it that I've been immersed in an ongoing conversation with the greatest creative thinkers from all over the world.
Profile Image for Tine!.
130 reviews34 followers
May 14, 2013
Another book representative of my recently-favourite genre: "genre-less". Yes, it's sold as an improv skill-booster, but Nachmanovitch dips into every circle of the human hell and ties the ends together neatly with a taut viola string. When I mentioned to the friend who let me borrow this book ("it's meant to be passed around") that this was the author's only published book, he shrugged and riffed, "he said it all". Truth. Unfortunately, as the author is wailing away with his handsaw of personal experience into the fat tree trunk of collective experience, getting closer and closer to the core, I realized that I could read as many books about the incomprehensibility of life as I like and never have the "divine experience" myself: we can only ever allude with these imperfect words. Still, a great read, if you're into it.
Profile Image for David Sasaki.
244 reviews347 followers
February 9, 2017
I read this book back in 2002 when I aspired to be a roving, down-and-out, bohemian novelist. I remember staying up late into the night underlining passages that felt like a clear expression of a worldview I had never considered. Nachmanovitch asks us to treat every moment of our lives as an input to a creative project: be it a painting, a short story, a computer program, or a story to be re-told.

As I look back over my journals from that time of life, I constantly carried creative inspiration. My journals were filled with drawings of homes and cabins I would one day build, outlines of stories I would one day write, some photographic motif to explore, sketches of coffee shops I no longer remember. Now I occasionally feel the creative impulse come back to me after, say, visiting a museum, but I'm far from the book's appealing ideal of treating life as clay with which to shape art.
Profile Image for Gwen.
140 reviews1 follower
September 17, 2012
"A poetic embrace for the role that muse plays...beyond art. A refreshing balance to reductionist efforts to simply map our way into uncovering the mystery of creativity.

People interested in "the five steps to improving your creativity" will find this book highly unsatisfying. People who are intimately familiar with the angst of bringing the new into the world will recognize the undercurrents of brilliance and frustration that coexist with any true new undertaking or inspirational voyage.

Message with a broader relevance? Inspiration, creativity and discovery are made richer with complexity of experience and perspectives. The tension comes from trying to reduce the complexity to a pure, simple explanation that is so much greater than the sum of its parts.
May 6, 2021
Ο συγγραφέας είναι μουσικός και προσπαθεί να προσεγγίσει φιλοσοφικά την έννοια του αυτοσχεδιασμού αποδομώντας την και κατά καποιο τρόπο αποκαλύπτοντας οτι τελικά δεν είναι κάτι τρομερό να μάθουμε να εκαφράζουμε αυτό που έχουμε μέσα μας. Κάτι που έτσι κι αλλιώς κάνουμε σε διάφορες πτυχές της καθημερινότητας, καθώς όλες μας οι κινήσεις είναι μικροί ή μεγάλοι αυτοσχεδιασμοί. Στην τεχνη όμως και ειδικά στη μουσική είμαστε μαγκωμένοι, θεωρώντας ότι δεν "το χουμε".
Προσωπικά όντας μουσικός, το βρήκα πολύ καλό, σου δίνει μια σειρά επιχειρήματα και μεθόδους να βρεις τα κουμπιά που θα σε λύσουν ή θα σε βοηθήσουν να λύσεις τους μαθητές σου.
Profile Image for Kat.
78 reviews12 followers
March 4, 2009
Philosophy of improvisation--cool. The author is an expert in about 85 million different fields, and it helps him write a truly interdisciplinary book that will have some relevance to just about anyone. I only got half-way through this before returning it to the library. I plan to buy it; it's way too dense to read through quickly. The writing is clear, there are just too many ideas in this little book.
Profile Image for Beth Bacon.
Author 6 books26 followers
March 2, 2014
This book ruminates on the nature of creative genius and proposes that we all have genius in us, if we just transcend rational selfhood, express that unbounded expression, and translate it back out through practiced craft. He doesn't tell us exactly how to "transfer this receptivity, compassion, and free flow of mind to everyone and everything we touch" (p. 169) but it's inspiring to know that free flow is possible for all of us.
Profile Image for Lucy.
10 reviews62 followers
December 28, 2020
Surrendering to complexity and uncertain beauty ahead is encouraging. It takes stillness to let all the noisy signals to die. Most overwhelmed feelings stem from a discrepancy of resources(capability, team) and the challenge.

Revisit the book when I need inspiration for creating beauty. The book reminds me of the film Soul by Pixar.
Profile Image for Luisa Asiul.
22 reviews2 followers
January 28, 2015
A fine little book that I suspect I will come back to time and time again. Creation is hard work and Nachmanovitch will not do your heavy lifting for you, but he will point you to the moon (even—perhaps especially—if you have seen it before).
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