Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor


Book Review
The Creative Habit By Twyla Tharp (
with Mark Reiter)

Reviewed by Erin Hartshorn
Erin Hartshorn

Book Review: The Creative Habit

Reviewed by Erin Hartshorn

We are frequently told of the need to write every day, to make a habit of it. The how-tos are often summarized as "butt in chair, hands on keyboard," or other equally pithy remarks. In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp goes quite a bit further. This book, published in 2003, delves into why habits work, how memories fuel creativity, where ideas come from, and what one can do when one falls into a rut rather than a groove. She explores her own creative history, as well as habits of friends (such as Maurice Sendak) and historical figures (such as Leonardo da Vinci).

The first chapter, "I walk into a white room," begins with Ms. Tharp working on choreographing a new dance. The white room -- no music, no sets, no dancers -- is the choreographer's equivalent of a blank sheet of paper or an empty file on the computer. She discusses how the hard work she's done in the past helps her to move into the work of a new creation.

In succeeding chapters, she discusses the importance of ritual -- "automatic but decisive patterns of behavior." These function as the first steps that move us past that moment when we might decide to flip on the TV or surf the Internet or whatever else we might find to draw us from the creative act. She gives examples of rituals -- Stravinsky playing a Bach fugue each day when he entered his studio, a painter playing pounding music to create, her own calling a cab to take her to the gym.

Rituals move us past our fears. She discusses her five biggest fears and how she combats them. This chapter introduces the first exercises in the book -- essays that require the reader to think and respond. Some don't need any answers, such as "Build up your tolerance for solitude," but Ms. Tharp explains why she believes each is conducive to a greater practice of creativity. Not every exercise will resonate with every reader. Her suggestion in "give me one week without" of going without looking in a mirror for a week struck me as unfeasible. I need to put in contacts, take them out. It's a reflex to look when I brush my teeth. However, I do applaud the principle of giving up things to decrease distractions and find out what's truly important in my life. (A similar idea is used in The Artist's Way, where Julia Cameron tells readers to go for a week without reading anything. I had problems with that, too.)

The quiz to explore one's "creative DNA" is long and detailed. I still haven't completed it, but the answers I have found so far have helped me look at my creativity in new ways. From here, she talks about memory, and then on to how she remembers and organizes her material. (She throws everything related to any single project into a labeled box.) She talks about scratching for ideas, planning for work, over-planning, and things that derail our best-laid plans: perfectionism and obligation, and using the wrong structure or wrong materials.

She even gives a recipe for getting out of a creative rut. It sounds very simple, but the first step, "Identify the concept that isn't working" is often a lot easier said than done. Her example of realizing her dance troupe was driving in the wrong direction because of the location of the sun is fairly simplistic compared to figuring out why the scenes in my outline do not work for the story any longer. Her example for challenging assumptions, on the other hand, is cute: Paul Newman telling the producers that he wanted to be Butch, not Sundance. That changed the way the film was shot.

An exercise that I find useful is titled "Build a bridge to the next day." A way to do this is to stop in the middle of a sentence, but that's not necessary. One only has to know what's coming next. That's Hemingway's trick. Ms. Tharp's version is to stop rehearsal before everyone's exhausted. Leave on a high note, with energy, rather than burning out and having nothing for the next day. I haven't got the practice down pat yet, but with repetition, I can make it a habit.

The last two chapters deal with failure and the long haul. She talks about the importance of failing -- preferably in private -- and of knowing how to recognize and recover from it. One of the chapters includes a lengthy discussion of problems associated with Movin' Out, which might be of interest to Billy Joel fans. (The conception of the show is discussed earlier in the book in sections on finding ideas and organizing material.) The juxtaposition of these chapters highlights the need for recognizing mistakes and embracing the possibility of failure if one wants to establish a creative career.

Careful study of this book and use of its exercises can help us establish the habit of writing every day. Then, we can stare at that blank document on the computer without being intimidated and let our fingers dance across the keys.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (A Practical Guide)

By Twyla Tharp with Mark Reiter

Simon & Schuster hardback published 2003.

ISBN 0-7432-3526-6