Essential Books for Authors: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I know I really love a book when I have to read it with a pen and paper nearby, and by that measure Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit is one of my favourite books of the year. I filled up foolscap pages with notes and ideas and new ways of doing things, and I know that any creative person who reads this will do the same. The dynamic, legendary and prolific Tharp is a true powerhouse, and this book lays out some of her creative systems. It is absolute gold.

When traditions cross-pollinate there is often some very interesting results, and so it is with this book.  To have a dancer and choreographer giving advice to writers, poets and painters is quite unique, and this uniqueness makes the book all the better. Tharp has some truly original ways of cultivating, recording and maintaining her creative power, and she lays them all out in this book. If you are looking to be inspired, or remaining inspired, The Creative Habit is essential reading.

 She talks about distractions and fears, those two great enemies of the creative person, and ways we might recognise them, put them aside and defeat them. Because in Tharp's world it's all about perspiration. Dancers are used to discipline and hard work, and she doesn't really have much sympathy for creative people who aren't actually doing the work.

Twyla Tharp - photo credit Atlanta Magazine

 We are all surrounded by pictures and images, and Tharp suggests we actually put them to creative use. We should go through those files, those scrapbooks, those scattered paper memories that clutter up our work spaces. Creative inspiration lies everywhere around us, and in this book she explains how we can use rituals, enthusiasm and the creative work and histories of others to tap into t hat inspiration and start producing works of value and interest to others.

Here are 6 pieces of advice I gathered from The Creative Habit that I think you could put into operation immediately:

1. Keep working after a disaster - been rejected, or had to abandon a project? Got a bad review for something you did. Have a cry, suck it up, and get straight to work on the next project. Don't let weeks or even days pass before you start to use your creativity. Often this moment of frustration, heartache and uncertainty is the perfect moment to create something brilliant. Get working.

2. "Build your own validation squad" - have a group of people whose knowledge, taste and wisdom you admire, and run your work by them. Ask them to be honest always, and never get emotional with their responses or try to argue. Don't be such a loner, and stop hiding your work. Share it with your consultative committee and see what they might think.

3. Write a "Creative Autobiography" - she gives a whole list of stimulating questions in the book to help you record the things that have stimulated you and caused you to become a creative person. Spend some time doing this and go back to it occasionally. If you find yourself stuck, or lacking confidence in your talents and abilities, this little biography helps you situate yourself once more in the root causes of your work.

4. Ask your friends what's inspiring them and try new things - ever been looking for ideas, answers and inspiration everywhere and keep drawing blanks? Tharp describes how in the midst of her own, self-directed, research for a new piece of choreography she became lost, frustrated and blocked. Nothing she looked at was right. Then a friend suggested she listen to a piece of music she didn't know and voila! She found the perfect solution. We are often too self-protective, too certain of o ur tastes and prejudices. Trust the instincts of your friends and be open to new influences and opportunities. Actively seek to learn from others.

5. Have creative goals and put them in writing - this works at a number of levels. First it makes concrete your next project/s. And it also stops you from imagining a million different projects at once. One you keep a list you will see that you can't do everything in a year and you will start to pare back and concentrate. But you do need to be ambitious and you do need to constantly challenge and extend yourself. Write down those goals and stick them right above your desk and look at them every day. They're MEANT to make you feel guilty.

6. Work out the "spine" of the work - it's ok to be totally po-mo and be recording impressions, incidents and realisations as they happen. Heck, that's the way I write, mostly. But establish a spine, a central set of circumstances and motifs, a storyline, if you will, and keep coming back to it. It will stop you getting distracted and keep your eye on the main game. Be as creative, wild and spontaneous as you like. But build it all on a strong spine which will keep your work upright and all together.

The Creative Habit is the collected wisdom of a lifetime of creating dance and theatre, written by a woman who has reached the top of her profession. I can't think of anyone more qualified to be giving advice about the creative life. And as you would expect from someone who actually makes a living from their creativity, she is brutally honest about the problems and downfalls as well as the good stuff. The whole latter part of the book is about what to do when things go wrong, and God knows that's something I have been needing to read.

She teaches that creative possibility lurks in us all:

"I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations...They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them."
Tharp goes on to urge people to cultivate their memory, to deliberately try to remember things, and to constantly draw on, and create with, the memories they most cherish. Creativity, she says, is about connecting all the myriad things that crop up in our minds and our lives. Each of us has an utterly unique set of experiences, and we should rely on the dynamic chemistry of our own set of memories. We should also follow the example of those who came before us and see what we can learn through imitation. As she says, "get busy copying." What starts out as a copy normally gets twisted into something completely our own.

After reading The Creative Habit you will come away a new writer and a new person. You will start filling up boxes with ideas and raw materials for new projects. And you will, I am certain, be renewed by a new and different energy that comes totally out of left field. Just get the book.


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