Sally Schneider is the creator of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about resourcefulness as a daily practice. She is a regular contributor to The Splendid Table and a featured blogger on The Atlantic Monthly’s Food Blog. The author of the best–selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, Sally has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.
How did you get the idea to write a book about improvisation as it's applied to cooking?
I had been a food writer for many years, having been a professional chef and a food stylist; I wrote for magazines and newspapers, as well as cookbooks. Writing a “straight” recipe seemed boring to me. I was more interested in teaching people the internal logic of the recipe, as well as the possibilities for making the recipe their own, saying by using different flavor combinations. I developed ways of helping readers think creatively about food, by outlining possibilities, and by developing an “open” recipe model that identified the essential structure, with variables that could be changed. When I taught this approach in seminars and online cooking classes. I discovered a great many people who wanted to improvise and cook more fluidly, yet were terrified by it. They needed a way “in”. I saw a clear need for a book on improvisational home cooking.
Why did you choose to expand your area of focus on improvisation in your blog?
My friend and agent Lydia Wills sparked the idea. She looked around my apartment and said “Sally, your whole life is improvised.” I’d managed to make a one-bedroom rental do a lot with very little money: it’s served as office, living/entertaining space, test kitchen and rental photo studio; photographs of it had appeared in numerous magazines.
It was kind of eureka moment when I realized the obvious: that I loved challenging myself to figure out how to do what I needed to with the resources I had, in a relatively stylish way. Just as I had learned to cook, to be a chef, a food stylist and a writer, all without formal training, I believed it possible to learn what was necessary, if you just have the courage to try, make mistakes, figure it out.
The central idea of The Improvisational Cook - of asking WHY NOT when you have an idea, and trying the idea out, despite any fears you might have - applies to the broader arena of everyday living. So I thought why not develop a web site devoted to that very idea: of improvising as a daily practice?
How would you describe improvisation's relationship to creativity (of any kind)?
One drives the other in an endless cycle. Once you orient yourself to the idea of living more improvisationally, you begin see things differently; you become more creative, looking for answers in the moment, in whatever is at hand (internally and externally).
The creative process is largely an improvisational one; it starts with a question or a problem posed, and follows a zig-zag path, one idea leading to another. Often you find yourself heading in unexpected directions, sometimes up blind alleys and into what might seem like mistakes. (“Mistakes” are great teachers, giving direct information of what works and what doesn’t.) And suddenly you find that you’ve created something, or written something, or done something you never thought you could do.
What are some of the benefits to adopting an improvisational frame of mind?
It shifts your worldview to an exciting and hopeful one, where anything is possible, where the answer lies within the moment - it just has to be found. Readers email me daily to say that reading the blog has changed the way they see things, and empowered them to try their ideas out. They find themselves opening their minds to solutions in ways they never had before. It is a really fun and illuminating way of living.
What advice would you have for someone who'd like to become more improvisational in their life, but is afraid to try?
Fear, of course, can put the kibosh on anything if you let it. People tell me they are afraid they will fail, make mistakes, look like a fool, not be perfect, break the taboo of who they are “supposed” to be …
I view improvising as a practice: when you have an idea you’d like to try, even if you think you’ll be terrible at it, or that it will be a failure, ask yourself why not? and try it. If possible, suspend the inhibiting idea of doing things perfectly. If you are afraid of people judging you, work in private at first, but do it, take the step to see what happens if you try out your idea. Just doing that much is liberating. With practice, it gets easier and easier, and then there’s no way you cannot continue, because it is thrilling and incredibly illuminating.
Are there any special books, music, blogs, etc., that you draw improvisational inspiration from?
I often read books and interviews about individual’s creative process, especially artists who are natural improvisers. The internet is a trove, not only of inspiration but of information and resources about how to do things. One of the best books I know of about freeing up your creative, improvisational self is Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
by Stephen Nachmanovitch.
But really, I find inspiring things everywhere. In New York City where I live, I see evidence of creativity daily on the street, in graffiti, and chalk drawings on sidewalks, in snow sculptures after blizzards, in original fashions and hair-do’s, or the rigged shelters of homeless people … Orienting your view toward improvisation makes you see it.
Is there anything else on this topic you'd like to add?
When you have an idea, I recommend asking yourself: “what would happen if ...?” and “why not?”, and saying YES instead of NO frequently. Perfection is overrated.