I am in no way a book reviewer. I always imagine that if I were given that job, every piece would say either, “That was swell,” or “You know, I couldn’t get through the second chapter.” But I’ve been raving for the last couple of weeks about a book I just discovered, despite its having been out for several years. It was written by choreographer Twyla Tharp and it’s called The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. I was drawn to the book when I saw it because I’ve always loved Tharp and her quirky, sophisticated style, ideas, and creations. But what pulled at me most when I leafed through the pages the first time was her basic idea that creativity is a habit to be developed and honed and polished and met with confidence and discipline. This is the state of being I dream of while others may be fantasizing about winning the lottery.
Most of us grow up believing that talent is the key to creativity, and of course skill and aptitude are essential if we want to pursue anything in that realm. So, as much as I enjoy clarinet solos of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, I think me attempting to replicate one is pretty much useless. But Tharp—and many others like her—make it clear that if there is a creative practice at which we demonstrate some skill, it’s really our own hard work, routine, rituals, and tenacity that can bring it to life.
We want to build something, demonstrate something, make something,
or say something that will affect people in some real way.
Some of the book is common sense, but Tharp writes a lot about her own experience, which helped me visualize her advice and imagine her ideas at work in my own practice. She writes about “rituals of preparation,” for example, including, in her case, beginning at 5:30 each morning with a two-hour workout at Pumping Iron gym in New York. What I see when I envision this is someone honoring the work enough to get ready to do it. She also writes about her other common customs, including keeping everything related to each current project in one big file box.
I love it when Tharp writes about “scratching,” meaning digging through what you have or what you’re doing to find something you want to pursue. For creative artists, practically everything is scratching, looking around for the thing that sings for you. She definitely stresses the skills aspect of creativity and the importance of developing and honing those proficiencies. She says all creative people do this and that the common thread is “that they have mastered the underlying skills of their creative domain, and built their creativity on the solid foundation of those skills.” That tells me it's a good idea to stick with writing for now and leave the clarinet to the experts.
Tharp takes her own work apart—in some sections dance by dance—and introduces the reader to the “spine,” or the first big overriding idea you have about a project in which you’re engaging. She even pursues a look at “Ruts and Grooves,” and shows us her own, as well as how she moves through the difficult times into the “mega-grooves,” as she calls them.” Each chapter includes exercises to help readers manage their own processes. I stopped every couple of pages to take notes, to close my eyes and think about my own ruts and grooves, to delight, really, in being a person who wants to make something new.
If you’re as old as I am, you’ve probably read a lot of self-help or how-to books, as I have. But this one reached my hands at the perfect moment. For me, on this big new road I’m carving into my own creative land, Tharp normalizing creative challenges helps me to see my own process more clearly. Despite her enormous success and her unique access to creative opportunities—she lets me see her as someone who can be scared and apprehensive, just like the rest of us. I loved reading about her techniques and it reminded me to be mindful and thoughtful about creativity every single day.
It is not easy to create anything of any kind. But when we do, whether it is a ballet, an abstract painting, a short story, or an apple pie, we are human beings at our best. We want to build something, demonstrate something, make something, or say something that will affect people in some real way. We also do it because there is some part of ourselves that wants to be heard and seen. Tharp breaks it all down in this book and that reminds me that I need to do the same. I can’t just fly through some piece of writing and call it done. It requires so much more than that, but it’s that work, when we go back and refine our ideas, or make our image clearer, or fine-tune our characters, or add a little more sugar, that makes us want to create in the first place.
So don't read this as a poorly developed book review, but instead as an important discovery I've made about how most creative people struggle with the same challenges. On some level, I've always known that, but I took it in more fully when I read this. I think I love Tharp’s book most because much of it was in me already and she helped me sort it out and get ready for the real work of my next iteration.