Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Improvisation

Yesterday was my friend, Susan's, birthday. It was a beautiful day and we agreed to meet down in Lower Manhattan. We both wanted to be near water. We stopped in a grocery store and bought some humuus and vegies and crackers. We walked over to Battery Park where we had a picnic. For four hours we sat by the Hudson, chatting away.

Then it was time for Susan to meet up with her family who were taking her on the Staten Island Ferry. We said our good-byes, but I was hesitant to go home. The weather was still gorgeous. One of those days hot, sunny days without a drop of humidity that might not come again for a long time. A perfect end of summer afternoon. So I called my daughter, Kate, to see what she was up to, but Kate was almost home in Brooklyn. But she'd left some things she needed at her job in Union Square and said she was heading back out again. I could hear the fatigue and frustration in her voice. I told her not to bother.

I had time on my hands and didn't mind, tooling around the city. Besides the subways were messed up so it wasn't that hard for me to go uptown before heading down. When I got out of the subway at Union Square, I noticed a man on his knees and before him was a large elaborately-patterned drawing on the ground that I recognized as a mandala. A mandala is a kind of Buddhist drawing, made of sand, intended to exist for only a short time. In fact at the end of its making the mandala is intentionally destroyed.

The man was still working on it, laying down some scarlet colored sand so I asked him a few questions and he told me that he never knows what he is doing before he sits down to do it. That his mood and the moment dictates what he will create. He told me that he has spent his entire life learning how to be an artist, but never know what he's going to do until he does it.

I'd have to say that in a sense this is how I begin every day. I know I am going to write and I know more or less what it is, but beyond that what happens on the page is pure seredepity. As I listened to this man speaking, I couldn't help but think how this description of how he does his mandalas is true of every artist. Great cooks who never know what they're going to make until they've been to the market or checked what's in the fridge. Jazz musicians.

Of course it is one of the great myths of jazz musicians (especially as applied to black jazz musicians) that, like Indiana Jones, they are making it up as they go along. The truth is they might be riffing and going off in all kinds of different directions, but it is always within a form and jazz musicians spend a lot of time learning that form. A jazz musician will spend years on the blues scales, the chord progressions. He or she might appear to be improvising, but it is only after years of study and practice.

I guess improv = improve. Sort of. It's that way with writers and travelers, isn't it. Only hacks and tourists know what's going to happen before they arrive. (This is why I have never ever written an outline of a book I was writing). Real artists allow themselves the pleasure of surprise. As Flannery O'Connor once said, if it's not a surprise for the writer, it won't be a surprise for the reader. The cook may not know how these ingredients are going to go together, but somehow intuitively suspects that they will. (Think about whoever invented salty carmel ice cream.)

The art of improv as every comic knows has long been misunderstood. In college I read Frederich Nietzche THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY. I have to say I didn't read a lot of philosophy in college, but this one stuck with me. What I walked away with was this. First the Greeks had Dionysius - that naughty god of drunkenness and passion. But tragedy, and theater, wasn't born until the Greeks discovered Apollo, the god of order and form. The birth of tragedy comes from the "marriage' of these two impulses. Passion within the form that makes for art. So it is with the traveler. You know where you are going, more or less. But it helps if you allow room for detours. And I have often found that the journey, and the novel, can live in those detours.

This past summer Larry and I wandered home from a day in San Sebastian. As we returned to our little village, we noticed a lot of people, wearing purple and orange t-shirts, hanging out in our very very small town square. We were hungry and tired and anxious to be home but I said to Larry. "We have to see what's happening here." It turned out that a local Basque young man had won that day's stage in the Tour de France and our village literally exploded. We wound up spending the evening, drinking, hanging out, and marching through the cobblestoned streets, following the local marching band.

It was an evening out of Felini, but we never would have experienced it if we'd stuck to our plan. And, as far as the writer goes, I recall Michael Cunningham once saying that he sat at his desk five hours every day, no matter what, and eventually something's got to happen. Within the discipline, there is freedom.

Or as E.L. Doctorow once put it, being a fiction writer is like driving down a country road at night, guided by your headlights. You can only see what's right before you. You know what road you are on and where it is taking you. But how you will get there may be another thing. And what you encounter along the way may be a surprise. I went to Kate's work place where I picked up her forgotten items. On my way back through Union Square the artist and his wife were already sweeping up the mandala.

That emphemeral art was being put back into large plastic bags and carted away. I got on the subway and went home. When I arrived, I saw that the tree in front of our house had split in two. It had fallen about ten sections after Kate and her boyfriend walked in the door. Another few seconds and it would have struck them. I guess nature improvises too.


  1. So beautiful and true... a pleasure to read! Thanks for sharing. -emily