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  • Writer's pictureLinda Pizzitola, Kauai, Hawaii

Free Play and Creativity

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

free play and creativity - Stephen Nachmanovitch

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” -Carl Jung

My husband read that quote to me and then the first paragraph of ‘Mind at Play,’ a chapter in Stephen Nachmanovitch’s dense yet liberating little book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. I was hooked. I’m fascinated with the creative process and adore being in it. Now I’m inhaling the rest of the book, and sharing some highlights with you. May it inspire your own inner child.

Here’s that first paragraph: “Improvisation, composition, writing, painting, theater, invention, all creative acts are forms of play, the starting place of creativity in the human growth cycle, and one of the great primal life functions. Without play, learning and evolution are not possible. Play is the taproot from which original art springs; it is the raw stuff that the artist channels and organizes with all his learning and technique. Technique itself springs from play because we can acquire technique only by the practice of practice, by persistently experimenting and playing with our tools and testing their limits and resistances. Creative work is play; it is free speculation using the materials of one’s chosen form. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves. Artists play with color and space. Musicians play with sound and silence. Eros plays with lovers. Gods play with the universe. Children play with everything they can get their hands on.”

Nachmanovitch, an improvisational musician, suggests that, although each art form comes with its own language and lore, there’s a kind of ‘metalearning’ and ‘metadoing’ that transfers across art forms, where the essence of creativity dwells.

No matter the medium of expression, “what we have to express is already with us, is us, so the work of creativity is not a matter of making the material come, but of unblocking the obstacles to its natural flow.”

He writes of creativity, knowing that “our subject is inherently a mystery. It cannot be fully expressed in words, because it concerns the deep preverbal levels of spirit. No kind of linear organization can do justice to this subject; by its nature it does not lay flat on the page.”

“We are all improvisors,” he observes. “The most common form of improvisation is ordinary speech. As we talk and listen, we are drawing on a set of building blocks (vocabulary) and rules for combining (grammar). But the sentences we make with them may never have been said before and may never be said again. Every conversation is a form of jazz. the activity of instantaneous creation is as ordinary to us as breathing.”

There is a zen quality to this material. Regarding being in the moment, Nachmanovitch notes, “When we drop the blinders of our preconceptions, we are virtually propelled by every circumstance into the present time and the present mind: the moment, the whole moment, and nothing but the moment. This is the state of mind taught and strengthened by the art of improvisation … We can depend on the world being a perpetual surprise in perpetual motion. And a perpetual invitation to create.”

He goes on to explore the nature of the ‘juice’ or raw material of creativity and the role of the muse. Play has been represented in myths by the archetypes of the Fool, the Trickster and the Child.

I was reminded of another book that lives at my bedside, The Muse Is In: An Owners Manual to Your Creativity, by Jill Badonsky. She has this to say about being a kid: “Play oils the process with mischievious ingenuity; it shuns perfectionism, and cajoles sacred brilliance out of hiding. Nurturing our kid-likeness means we are nurturing agelessness, optimism, curiosity, uninhibitedness, experimentation, good humor, and aspects of our personality that motivate creative action and ideas.”

In Nachmanovitch’s words, “Full blown artistic creativity takes place when a trained and skilled grown-up is able to tap the source of clear unbroken play-consciousness of the small child within.”

At this point in the book, the day’s hot sun was was setting, the trade winds were beginning to rustle the palms, and my 6-year-old next door neighbor rang the doorbell. “Aunty, can you play?” she asked. Even though I’m way behind on my (self-imposed) blogging schedule, the rest of the book can wait. It’s out for some spontaneous, imaginative play!

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