‘You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.’

photo 3Patti Smith and Sam Shepard are writing a play together. They’re young and early on in their lives and careers.They’re using the process of improvisation to write the play. At one point in the process, Patti freezes because she’s worried she’ll make a mistake. As Sam explains that there are no mistakes in improv, Patti captures the essence of what improv’s all about in the following passage from her 2010 book, Just Kids (p. 185):

 “I can’t do this,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say anything,” he said. “You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.”

“What if I mess up? What if I screw up the rhythm?”

“You can’t,” he said. “It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”

In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life.