a wandering woman writes

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Improvisation, and fateful encounters

"A walk, following your intuitive promptings, down the streets of a foreign city holds rewards far beyond a planned tour of the tried and tested.

Such a walk is totally different from random drifting. Leaving your eyes and ears wide open, you allow your likes and dislikes, your conscious and unconscious desires and irritations, your irrational hunches, to guide you whenever there is a choice of turning left or right.

You cut a path through the city that is yours alone, which brings you face to face with surprises destined for you alone. You discover conversations and friendships, meetings with remarkable people.

When you travel in this way you are free; there are no have-tos and shoulds. You are structured at first only, perhaps by the date of the plane departure. As the pattern of people and places unfolds, the trip, like an improvised piece of music, reveals its own inner structure and rhythm.

Thus you set the stage for fateful encounters. "

-Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (Line breaks mine.)

I can't recommend Nachmanovitch's book highly enough, for anyone who wishes to bring improvisation to music, or writing, or pottery... or travel. A poet, improvisational violinist and computer artist, he delighted me with images and lyrical prose while giving me new insight into my creativity -and the many masterful improvisers I have watched, among them my father, a professional musician.

And yes, yes, I say, travel, in a foreign city, along a pilgrim's path or just round your own hometown with a new pair of eyes, is improvisation. It doesn't flow from such a different creative surrender than art or music do, does it?

This passage reminded me of how I got started wandering. When I was in grade school I would ride my bike through strange neighborhoods, pushing myself a little further afield every time I reached familiarity, continually scouting out places and streets I hadn't yet explored. Every day I rode out of our garage with one goal: to get lost. I loved to be lost, with no idea what lay beyond those woods, or at the end of that street, free to head any old way I'd like at every intersection. Sooner or later, I'd reach a recognizable main street, and wend my way home.

The photo is Prats de Mollo, in the French Pyrenees. The fact that I inexplicably snapped the sign as a mirror image, from behind? Improvisation, I guess. The odd photo did lead to a memorable Spanish to Catalan conversation with the lovely old woman who owned the charcuterie.


  • I love the quote, Erin, as well as the concept of improvisational wandering. It's funny, but as much as this idea appeals to me, I find it hard to let go of planning and the known. Yet the times that I have allowed myself to wander have led to some of the best experiences. Thank you - I'm looking forward to checking out the book.

    By Anonymous Mark K, at 7:41 AM  

  • I think you'll like the book, Mark. I'm a musician, if not a masterful one;), so it totally clicked with me, but I think it will click for you as well.

    And drop the travel itinerary, hombre. :)

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 11:06 PM  

  • I sometimes find it hard to let myself wander and improvise, but when I do it, if find it so rewarding... great post, I think I'll have a look at that book.

    By Blogger con Ka, at 11:30 AM  

  • Thanks con Ka. The book was huge for me, huge. His writing clicked with me, and his examples - music, writing, poetry...

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 11:53 PM  

  • I loved this post and think I'll enjoy that book. Since I haven't traveled overseas I have only two comparisons with what you described here. I had improvisational walks in New York 14 years ago when I was there, alone, for two weeks. When I was a child I would take my sister on long detours from our regular route home after school. This was with the sole purpose of discovering new stuff, and we did. I remember finding a bird's nest on the ground at the base of a tree, with perfect, blue eggs nestled inside: a poignant moment.

    By Blogger Lydia, at 8:03 PM  

  • Hey Lydia,

    Yep, sounds like we improvise alike. I love the story of finding the two delicate treasures...

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 3:27 PM  

  • I would love to read this book. It's the photo that drew me in but the quote is lovely.

    I am enjoying your blog very much.

    By Blogger tangobaby, at 1:46 AM  

  • Thanks Tangobaby. My poor blog's a bit abandoned at the moment. Just can't seem to get here. I loved this book;I'm a (hack) musician which may explain how much I loved it, but if you like this little excerpt, pick it up!

    Welcome, and thanks for the comments.

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 6:33 AM  

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