A lot of people identify improvisation in music with speaking a language. I wholeheartedly agree with this metaphor, but it may be a bit over-used at this point. Instead, I like to think of improvising (and playing music in general) to that other favorite pastime of mine: carpentry. Consider the following:
A carpenter is often encountered with problems that must be solved by building things. Sometimes this involves building something new, from scratch. Sometimes this involves fixing something broken, with both old and new materials.
A carpenter uses tools to create the visions he sees in his head.
A carpenter uses technique to control the tools to do the job that he wills them to do. Good technique allows him to vary the force, angle, speed and precision of each tool he is controlling to get the appropriate result.
A good carpenter never allows the tools to control what he does or how he works.
A carpenter is often working with materials that must be shaped into various forms and permutations so that they may work with other pieces of the puzzle to be completed. If one piece doesn't fit, then it must be adjusted to work with the rest of the pieces.
The final product is the only thing that matters. If a carpenter's tools and technique are in good working order, then (and only then) will the completed work look appealing. Good tools do not guarantee good work, and good technique suffers if the tools are insufficient.
This philosophy of solving problems cleared up many doubts and questions in my mind when I finally figured it out. Many young musicians are initially frustrated by the amount of tools and technique needed to perform well. This is understandable and quite common, but everyone must acquire the necessary tools and skills in order to create a competent musical idea. Likewise, many players become obsessed with the idea of the tools and techniques as the final product. This is unfortunate. If I were constantly infatuated with my hammer's design, I would never accomplish anything as a carpenter. If I were constantly fascinated by the way that I was able to cut crown molding at a particular angle, all I would have to show for it would be many separate pieces of wood cut at various angles. It wouldn't add up to anything meaningful or significant. You must have both in order to complete the final task, which is the only thing that has any real value.
Have you been to a Home Depot lately? Have you seen how many tools are in that place? How many do you have in your arsenal? How are you using them?