Alan Arkin has appeared in more than 80 films, has written nine books, and continues to act and direct. But it was the powerful experience of conducting an improvisation workshop at the Institute for American Indian Art in New Mexico that led him to write his memoir, An Improvised Life.

How did the book come about? 

I actually sold it about four years ago. The editor made such stringent demands on me that it ran the risk of becoming something other than my own voice. So I tore up the check and [told the publishers to] mimeograph about 20 copies that I can give to my family and forget about it. It languished for about a year and a half and I didn’t really care.

Finally, my agent Susan Cohen called me and said the book was too good to forget. She asked if I would work with an editor, her husband [Barry Berg]. He wrote me a letter that was so moving that I started crying. He recognized it was an authentic voice and not just somebody telling anecdotes about their successes. We started working on it. He was so inspirational that it ended up being an infinitely better book than it would have been without his help. So I owe him a great debt of gratitude.

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The book flows from start to finish. Did the writing come easy?

When I write about my own life, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of impediments. I don’t think of myself as a writer. I’ve written nine books over the years, but the only time I’ve written was when I needed to get something out. It just comes pouring out.

The participants in your improvisation workshops come from many professions, not just acting. Why do they come?

They feel they need to let go of something. I hear it over and over. They say they want to re-learn how to play. They’ve lost some spontaneity in their lives and their work and they want to find a way back into it. 

And letting go is one of the hardest things to do.

In every spirit tradition that I know—and I’ve read about a lot of them, but mostly the eastern traditions—that’s the whole problem of human existence. Just letting go and seeing what occurs. Letting go of your agenda. Seeing who you are without any external impulse and [discovering that] the whole promise that’s deep inside is more exciting and glorious than anything you can invent. Letting go is really terrifying, and then when it does [happen], it’s a glorious experience.

Was it hard for you to let go as a young actor?

It was murder. Part of the reason I’m fairly lucid about writing about it is that [letting go] was so hard for me. I had to figure out why it was so hard and find ways to get past it. Discovering intention became an extraordinary haven for me. Initially the intention had to be filled with big emotion. As time went on and I got more comfortable on stage, the intention could get subtler.

Did life at home when you were growing up nurture your creativity?

Yes, my father was a painter and a poet. He had been an extraordinary poet when he was in his teens but he decided that wasn’t a fitting profession for a man and so gave it up. But his stuff was brilliant. My mother played piano and we were constantly surrounded by artists and singers.

In the workshop at the Institute for American Indian Art that sparked your book, the participants improvised a series of scenes that were tantamount to a fully realized play.

Not just a play but an extraordinary, brilliant evening in the theater. It just came from their passion, what was going on in their communities and their lives. I just wish somebody had written it down. Or tried to shoot it.

The experience suggests that within everyone rests the talents of writers and actors.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who wasn’t creative. The area they’re creative in may be so easy and spontaneous for them that they don’t think of it as creative. It’s one of the things I’ve discovered from the workshops and what I truly believe: Creativity is our birthright. Not just as actors and writers, but as human beings.   

Pub info:

An Improvised Life: A Memoir

Alan Arkin

Da Capo Press / March 1, 2011 / 9780306819667 / $17.00