On Editing as Improvisation, a review
November 30, 2015
I can't stop thinking about a book I read this summer, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch, especially the portion on revision. In honor of all the writers editing their work this winter, I wanted to share this wonderful book with you, specifically about its treatment of the revision process. Good luck to all of you, I wish you good editing! The right book at the right time saves lives, and man, you can say that about Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch
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 -- 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 involves 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.
This review of Free Play first appeared on my goodreads page.