Harry and Robert and I sat in a booth at the El Quixote sharing shrimp and green-sauce appetizers, talking about the word magic. Robert would often use it to describe us, about a successful poem or drawing, and ultimately in choosing a photograph on a contact sheet. “That’s the one with the magic,” he would say.
I was both scattered and stymied, surrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems. I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations. And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple. When you hit a wall, just kick it in.
I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated. He tattoos lightning bolts on the ears of his horses so the sight of them will remind him of this as he rides. I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine.
“Say anything,” he said. “You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.” “What if I mess it 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.