What building a table taught me about Improv and everything.

A mosaic table

I am not a carpenter.  I would go a little further and say that most things I have attempted to construct from wood in the past have stayed together more through optimism than joinery.  So when I conceived the idea of a bespoke bedside table for the rather unique space to my left as I sat in bed with nowhere to park my coffee, my first thoughts were to find a second hand something and wedge it in there, or pay someone else to do it.  Already the comparisons to improv and so many other areas of life start to flood in, but onwards for now.

My profession as an improviser musician has given me the privilege of seeing countless workshop participants, amateurs and professionals push themselves through the rollercoaster of emotions that seem to abound when we are playing at the edge, or out of our comfort zone.  The wild abandon of the complete novice, to the assured stillness of the veteran.  All of them at a particular stage of their craft, and a particular leg of their improv journey.

I decided to embrace the improv spirit, and to put acceptance and commitment above my own feelings of inadequacy.  I was going to build the table, and if there was one mantra I would carry with me throughout the process it was to be:

“It’s going to be shit”.

Please note that for me, this phrase was subtly different to:

“I want it to be shit”

“I can’t make it good”

“I don’t care about it” or

“I can’t be bothered to make it good”.

No, the phrase, “It’s going to be shit” was really there to free me from the doubting voices in my head.  That’s what they would say, and so I could respond:

“I know it will be shit, I said that, so it doesn’t matter, please continue…”

And so it was that I launched into collecting any piece of wood I could find in my immediate vicinity and lopping bits off with a saw.  I measured nothing, drilled holes and inserted screws with joyful carelessness, lined things up by squinting with one eye and then using guesswork.  Screws came through the side of the wood, edges failed to line up, wood glue dripped onto my foot, but I had a smile on my face as I had no expectation of it being good.  This was my first improv class.  You have been told that you cannot fail, and that all you have to do is throw yourself in and have fun, so hopefully you do.

All good so far.

But then…

The dissenting voices in my head must have had a crisis meeting as they came back at me with a devastating concept:

“It’s coming on quite well”

And it was.  I would stand back and look at it, make small adjustments, start to sand off a bit sticking out and begin to think harder about the finished design and the aesthetics of this piece.  And that is when suddenly it became harder.  Now I didn’t want to screw up my own work so far, it was starting to be something good so I must be careful not to spoil it now, after all, “I want it to be good”, that’s my mantra isn’t it, “I want it…”    WAIT WHAT? NO!

“I WANT IT TO BE SHIT”

How the hell did my brain swap out “shit” for “good” without me even noticing?  Right, that’s it, I’m going to recommit to making a shit table.

So back I went to the joyful space of not caring, of slapping bits on here and there, of not self-criticising and going with the flow, being in the flow.  I was tiling the top with broken bits of ceramic that I had picked up from anywhere and I could happily stick two bits of the same plate next to each other without worrying about whether it would look “wrong”.

And then some of my family were shown the incomplete emerging creation.

And they said it was good.

And I believed it was good.

And it was good.

And I wanted it to be good.

close up of mosaic table

Ooh look at those tiles

So I tiled a little more carefully, sat and looked at the patterns I was creating and made high-level creative decisions about whether to put this purple bit of glass next to the bit of orange plate, or over in the corner.  After all, I had to think about the varying heights of the tiles so when I put a mug down it would be well supported, and where my eye would fall when I was sitting in bed, and the fact that a white tile is no better than the grout really and so I should use more colourful tiles near the edge and NO you cannot “have a go” at putting some tiles on because I’ve been doing this for two whole days now and I have picked up KNOWLEDGE and EXPERIENCE and if you want to build a table you have to start at the beginning like I did and – Oh what did I even know then, Ha! I was so naïve then just jumping in like I didn’t have a care in the world and I even had some sort of stupid motto or something didn’t I? Like “I don’t give a shit” and that is all very well when you are starting out but now, now everything has changed………

I wanted it to be good again.  I mean it WAS good so…

As I entered the third stage of creative freedom I first became aware of the cycle I was in and how it relates to all the creative endeavours in my life.  I managed to “finish” the table holding on to a small amount of the spirit I had embarked with, but also a fair amount of the reticence that came through the process.  This cycle seems to be everywhere, even writing this.  It is so difficult to start something if we are beholden to the quality of that thing from the outset.

I am proud of my table.  It would not be there were it not for my original mantra.  I think it is good.  I think I wanted it to be good all along…

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