The Creative Habit By Twyla Tharp (with
Reviewed by 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.