The Art of Is

“The Art of Is: Improvising As a Way of Life” by Stephen Nachmanovitch is now available from most booksellers. For more information on the book and Nachmanovitch’s work, go to FreePlay.com.

‘Improvisation” is a word filled with possibility.

You might feel drawn to observe improvisation — even participate. Or you might find the risk and uncertainty of improvisation to be frightening.

Our understanding of improvisation can vary depending on context, culture and other circumstances. For some, “improvisation” is associated with a comedy performance. Others might think of jazz music.

In truth, improvisation is possible in most actions or tasks. We can sometimes do it without thinking. In any medium or setting, improvisation encourages creativity and deeper engagement. It demands attention and assumes what’s next will be revealed by what we do.

Some believe improvisation creates chaos, perhaps even intentionally. Improvisation requires that we act in the moment and resist second guessing ourselves and others.

That’s frightening. Beyond that fear, we can see that improvisation pushes us to use what we brought to that moment — the experiences, influences and innate belief we will contribute meaningfully.

Artist Stephen Nachmanovitch explains this in his new book, “The Art of Is: Improvising As a Way of Life.”

“A painter stands alone in her studio,” he writes. “But the acrylic she applies today was bought yesterday after she argued with a friend. … Back, back into the past, a thousand social encounters enter the studio, layers of interlocution in counterpoint. That is how I feel when I play, speak, write, make a video of synesthetic combination of art and music.”

In this sense, improvisation taps vast knowledge, Nachmanovitch explains.

“Solitary work and collective work nourish each other, as we negotiate the dynamic interplay of self and other,” he writes. “My old friend … said the solo practitioner — craftsperson, mathematician, writer, painter, long-distance runner — is surrounded by a cloud of companions. Art arises from relationship and seeks relationship.”

We learn from these intersections.

Years ago, I attended a chapel service. A change was announced at the outset: The speaker had canceled, so hymns would replace the homily.

My friend hissed in my ear: “This is what’s wrong with you Lutherans. In (my denomination), someone in the congregation would be told to get up and preach.”

It wasn’t just having my Lutheran buttons pushed that made me feel uneasy. I shot back that the pressure of potential, improvised public speaking could lead someone to avoid worship services altogether.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about his reply: “Churches that think (your) way are dying. (Churches) that challenge people to live and profess their faith openly are growing and thriving.”

I refrained from offering a rebuttal. I wondered, was he correct, if not polite? Do humans who crave religious engagement prefer worship experiences steeped in spontaneity? Do they seek faith communities that literally go where the spirit moves?

I often pace such mental floors. In so many areas of life, I’m happily willing to wait and see. I believe I’ll arrive where I’m going. But when it comes to faith, I ask myself: How does following a script hinder my growth?

The answer is tough to accept: My sense of religious comfort — I cringe over possessing such a thing — is numbed by knowing what’s next. I don’t have to work hard when these prayers go here, communion is done the “right” way, we sing songs I like and services wrap up on schedule.

The irony isn’t lost on me: I profess religious beliefs based the ministries of wandering, wondering contextual heretics. Improvisation was their social convention and a leadership style. They didn’t seem to need a detailed script to trust they’d arrive where they needed to be.

Karris Golden writes The Courier’s weekly faith and values column. Email her at onfaith@karrisgolden.com.


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