Book review: A big new free happy unusual life (2.5/5)

Mal | Resources,Reviews,Universal | Wednesday, May 20th, 2009




Nina Wise is a performance artist who has “taught improvisation since 1972.” Her book, A Big New Free Happy Unusual Life: Self Expression and Spiritual Practice for Those Who Have Time for Neither, boasts one of the longest, most confusing titles I’ve ever read! Clearly, this is a book that aspires to be all things to all people.

I have actually owned this book for many years because a good friend (a free spirit, spritely, fairy of a friend) recommended it to me. In all those years, I have never been able to get through reading the entire book. I decided to give it one more shot before I parted with it, read it cover to cover, then sold it almost immediately after listing it for sale on amazon. I guess that speaks to (a) the popularity of the book, (b) the allure of the title, or (c) my incredible ability to miss the point.

You can read an excerpt of the book on Powell’ You can also skip the overview and get straight to my opinion.


Here is one of those books that encourages you to either read it all the way through or skip around at will. Its chapters are written in a self-contained way, so that you can take only what you need and leave the rest. The main thrust of the book is that modern life suffers from a lack of freedom and play. Wise has taught workshops for many years which encourage people to lose their inhibitions, try new things, express themselves, move, yell, twirl, and dance their way to personal insight.

If you’re having a hard time envisioning what that means, you may find this video helpful. In fact, there is an entire selection of videos of Nina’s work available to view on YouTube.




The reclamation of our creative spirits is an easy and enjoyable journey. We only need to devote a modicum of courage and short, but regular, periods of time to find our way back to our essential nature, which is unfettered, playful, and free. (p. 7)

Wise wants us to play and experiment and express ourselves. She divides the book into self-contained chapters that cover a wide spectrum of creative outlets, potential collaborations, and (oh, yeah, we almost forgot) spirituality. These topics are:

  • Dance and movement
  • Singing
  • Visual arts
  • Writing, words, poetry
  • Creating in pairs
  • Group play
  • Love and passion
  • Prayer
  • “Bringing art to life — Improvisational Being”

At the end of each chapter, she outlines a few activities and experiments for you to try. She helps out by giving some basic rules that are designed to facilitate freedom and expression while carrying out these activities.

  1. Begin each practice from stillness, and take a moment to empty the mind of thought.
  2. Be true to whatever you are feeling physically.
  3. Respond to emotional impulses as they arise moment to moment.
  4. Include everything.
  5. Surrender
  6. Surprise yourself.
  7. Take risks physically and emotionally.
  8. Make mistakes.
  9. Commit to what you are doing.

And once in a while, she even takes these rules one step further. For instance, apparently dancing newbies need a bit more instruction and cajoling in order to really get the full benefit. So, for the dancing chapter, you get even more recommendations.

  1. Commit to what you are doing, whatever it is.
  2. Don’t care if you are good at movement or bad at movement.
  3. “When you feel confused on your feet, rather than trying to push away the confusion, dive headlong into the morass. When you feel awkward, rather than trying to be graceful, forge deeply into the awkwardness. When you feel stuck, rather than trying to be free, melt into the center of stuckness. When you feel discomfort, rather than longing for comfort, surrender to uneasiness. Be more confused, more awkward, more stuck, more uncomfortable until you fully dissolve into the heart of these feelings. In the core of the place you have most avoided, the most unpleasant feelings dissolve and in their wake, the wildness erupts inside you and insists on speaking itself through your body.”

My take on it

Wise seems like a nice person — even a fun person, an engaging person, a silly, inspiring, “totally awesome” person. According to the book’s endorsements, she is close with some of my favorite writers (Natalie Goldberg, I’m looking at you) but aside from having taught improvisational workshops (whatever that means?) for many years, I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what her credentials are. Unfortunately, this comes through in the book. Most of her assertions are proven illustrated through anectdotes — experiences that she has had or she has encouraged her students to have. The idea here seems to be that, “Well, just trust me. I’ve seen this work.” Worse, her tone sometimes comes across as a little holy or boastful. It’s probably just me, but I found it to be grating.

It seems that Wise’s specialty is movement/dance, and (judging from videos of her performances) the integration of spoken word with movement/dance. That said, I’m unclear about why she has decided to write a book that encompasses these modes of expression plus visual art, singing, poetry, and other media. Even less integrated is the concept of spirituality (although the subtitle boasts it to be part of this amazing new life you are going to have) which is relegated to one chapter toward the end of the book.

I’m also concerned about her lack of training and expertise in the context of her role as a facilitator, teacher, and educator. For example, she tells the story of post-operatively being instructed to walk around her hospital ward. Well, she and her friends decided to take it one further and dance around the ward. This seems to have aroused glee, exhilaration, and general euphoria in the participants, but as a therapist who works in a hospital setting, I worry. This dancing is thought to have sped up her healing process, but there are many patients for whom this activity may pose a danger or risk. In short, if you can read this book as a general conceptual overview and not actual instructional expertise, you’re probably better off.

Listen, I’m sure that in the early days of licensure, medical doctors balked at the idea of becoming credentialed, licensed, and certified to practice medicine. Lawyers didn’t always have to pass the bar, did they? In this day and age, however, there are credentialing processes in place for becoming an expressive therapist — associations that have been formed to ensure that those who are trying to help others have completed certain levels of training, supervision, and education in their specialties. This is my bias (obviously), but I know a lot of other people who wouldn’t pay someone to even cut their hair unless that person were state licensed to do so. I’m sure the ranks of dance/movement therapists would be only too happy to welcome Nina Wise as a colleague, should she choose to pursue the credential.

I’m hesitant to be so critical. The suggestions and recommendations from the book that I’ve listed above are solid, and are concepts that I use with my clients and in my own art-making. Even still, I find the book to be a little too much — too many topics, too wide a scope, too broad a base. It’s pretty obvious throughout the book that dance and movement are her forte; even the “additional tips” in the dancing chapter lead me to wish that Nina had focused on her specialty instead of reaching out in every direction.



Overall, I give this book 2.5 stars.

The pros: Fun, “unfettered” suggestions to free up your creativity and launch you into creative expression. The author seems to practice what she preaches and has a passionate connection to the topic. There is a little “something for everyone” here, if that’s what you’re looking for.

The cons: Beyond personal experience, the author does not seem to have any credentials, education, or certification to back up what she suggests. The book tries to cover too much ground and to be all things to all people. Sometimes the message of the book gets lost in the author’s personal anectdotes and reminiscence.

Who is it for? I think you’ll benefit most from this book if you are an uptight, corporate, or tightly-wound person who has never made time for creative expression in your life. If you sense that some element of creativity is missing, but have no idea where to start or what might most appeal to you, this book is for you. It will give you a tiny taste of every major expressive media and encourage you to experiment. Then, once you have found a niche or a direction, maybe you can branch out and find your way. In other words, this book is best suited for absolute beginners in the world of creativity.


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