“The only thing I fear more than change is no change. The business of being static makes me nuts.”- Twyla Tharp
She is a dancer and a choreographer who has produced over 130 dances and ballets over the last 4 decades.
She openly admits that some of her work was good (read genius or masterful here) and some of her work was less good.
She has worked with dancers in every imaginable environment and space.
She has worked in spaces and studios that were luxurious and expansive and in spaces that were gritty and not so clean.
She spent months working on a film set in the city of Prague directing and choreographing the dances and opera scenes of director Milos Forman’s Amadeus.
She has created and directed a hit show on Broadway and has run her own dance and choreography company for decades.
She has worked with dancers all over the world in the opera houses of Paris, Stockholm, London, Berlin and Sydney.
She is the inimitable Twyla Tharp and to say that I am a fan of her creative genius is an understatement.
I have always loved the unique blend of creative genius that Tharp brought to her choreography and her deep sense of understanding of the creative process.
It is very impressive that after all these years of exceptional work, Tharp firmly stands behind the idea that creativity is a habit that can be learned and implemented for the world to savor and enjoy.
This is a very reassuring and radical departure for the usual “ I am not creative” or “I am simply left brained” type of reasoning that has dominated thinking in the last several decades.
What can we learn from the creative wisdom and experience of Tharp?
This is part 1 of a two-part series on creativity.
Let us get started with the 12 tips on creativity from Twyla Tharp:
1. Activating The Muse Within By Creative Cues
“After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves — write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon — but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
What are some of the rituals and habits that you have around your creative practice?
You might be a morning person and carve out some creative time in your studio before the whole world has woken up.
You may be an evening person and work into the wee hours of the morning.
One important idea that I learnt from Tharp is that you cannot fit creativity into a “one mold fits it all” scenario.
You have to understand what sustains and motivates your creative practice and create rituals and habits around that.
Tharp gives the example of the composer Igor Stavinsky.
Stavinsky had a morning creative ritual that he followed daily. Stavinsky entered his studio in the morning and the first thing he did was to sit at the piano and play a fugue from his hero, the legendary composer Bach.
Tharp says that perhaps Stavinsky needed the piano ritual to get his “motor running” or seek the blessing from his hero, or perhaps he wanted to feel connected to his music and the various notes.
Perhaps Stavinsky needed the ritual to get his fingers moving and perhaps he needed to feel like he was a musician but whatever his reasons, the ritual got his creativity moving and his day started.
“A lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they start their creative day.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Research from Ann Graybiel’s lab in MIT has shown habits to be a loop that can be divided into a trigger, actions that follow and a reward that ensues.
It believe that Stavinsky’s morning ritual was a cue, a trigger inviting him into his creative process.
A trigger that got his creative juices flowing in the right direction of focus and concentration for the creative process to take place.
An invitation to create and get started.
A movement into the actions and rewards of the creative day to follow.
When repeated daily and firmly established in place, these innocuous cues or triggers serve as powerful intrinsic motivators towards habits and actions.
Tharp goes on to say:
“In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.” ― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Tharp believes that the reason why rituals that prepare us for the creative process are so effective is because they infuse self-confidence and the ability to rely on ourselves.
Tharp also dispels the idea that a creative bolt of inspiration or the “eureka moment” is the dominant reason for the creative process to move forward.
She says that the habits such as a painter finding her way to the easel or a researcher returning and beginning her daily experiments play an equally and if not more important part of the creative process as the proverbial bolt of lightning of inspiration.
2. The Creative Engineer
“Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way.”- Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
You have heard it before: engineers and executives claiming that they are not the creative type. Society seems to divide people into the creative types and the analytical people.
Luckily Tharp will have none of that. She says that between the philosophical tug and the debate that creativity originates from a divine and transcendental Dionysian type of inspiration or the idea that it originates from hard work, she is in favor of the latter.
“Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell.”
As an example to drive her point across, Tharp provides us the example of the movie Amadeus based on the play by Peter Shaffer. The play and the movie romanticize creative genius as having originated from divine sources.
Antonio Salieri, a talented musician finds himself cursed to live in the same time period as the genius Mozart who appears to be blessed by divine inspiration.
Salieri is tormented that someone unworthy in his opinion as Mozart was the chosen one to express divine creativity.
However, Tharp says that the idea that Mozart is a natural and divine genius is simply not true. She gives us a peek into the story of Mozart.
Mozart’s father Leopold was also a famous composer and a broad thinking man.
In fact, the young Mozart was taught counterpoint and harmony and was repeatedly exposed to people who wrote good music and could facilitate his musical advancement.
The father taught young Mozart pretty much everything about music along with encouraging the art greatly with him.
Tharp then describes how hard Wolfgang, the young Mozart worked.
By the time he was in his late twenties, his hands were deformed reflecting the long hours of practice, performance and writing compositions with a quill pen.
She says that Mozart himself wrote to a friend:
“People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”
In addition to the gift and genius that Mozart seemed to possess, he matched his talent with fierce focus on the art and immense discipline and unparalleled hard work.
I must say that this assessment from Tharp sits well with my life experience where I have seen numerous times that practice coupled with habitual discipline and passion can work wonders on any skill and art form.
I think that if you are intrinsically motivated in something and have cleared your path and time to put in the hard work and discipline and focus, most anything is possible.
3. The Creative Prologue
“Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by the thunderbolt and it will just leave you stunned.” ― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I have always had the question that Tharp brings up about creative preparation.
One strategy is to dive in and gather and improve upon skills in your field. Often, becoming better in a skill might lead you into different and seemingly new horizons and areas.
An example that comes to my mind is from the commencement address by Steve Jobs gave at Stanford.
Jobs dropped out of Reed College but stayed around as a drop-in on classes and was inspired to take a typography class which at that time seemed to have no practical value to him.
In retrospect, when he connected the dots, it was the class that brought the awareness and eventual inclusion of great typography into the Macintosh computer. The class prepared Steve for a creative inclusion into the personal computer later on.
The example that Tharp gives is from the movie The Karate Kid. In the movie, Daniel the teenager asks the master Miyagi to teach him in the arts of Karate.
Instead of teaching him karate moves, Mr. Miyagi asks Daniel to wax his car in opposite circular motions.
His next task is to paint the masters fence only in up and down movements. Daniel’s next chore is to hammer Mr. Miyagi’s wall to repair it.
Frustrated with the household chores that did not bear any resemblance to karate, the kid gets furious at his master.
Mr. Miyagi proceeds to attack the kid when to his own surprise he begins defending himself with basic movements of karate that he had learnt while doing the chores.
The point that Tharp is making is that we need to be prepared to be creative and the preparation may look nothing like the finished product as in the case of Mozart and Daniel.
I have realized that the skills that we add, refine and habitually practice may all lead to the creative habit and the creative life.
4. The Empty White Room
“I walk into a large white room. It’s a dance studio in midtown Manhattan. The room is clean, virtually spotless if you don’t count the thousands of skid marks and footprints left there by dancers rehearsing. Other than the mirrors, the boom box, the skid marks, and me, the room is empty.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
The empty white room is the large white room that Tharp walks in before her choreography practice and preparation sessions.
A lot depends on the beginning of the creative process and Tharp says that the public who go to see her choreographed performances, the dancers who dance in it and the presenters of the show all expect and depend on her to deliver.
And it all begins in the empty white room.
“To some people, this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. It’s no different for a writer rolling a fresh sheet of paper into this typewriter (or more likely firing up the blank screen on his computer), or a painter confronting a virginal canvas, a sculptor staring at a raw chunk of stone, a composer at the piano with his fingers hovering just above the keys. Some people find this moment – the moment before creativity begins – so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. They get up and walk away from the computer, the canvas, the keyboard.”
I agree with Tharp and the importance of staying with the chaos of the creative process from the beginning and allowing the fear and uncertainty to work in your favor instead of against you.
When confronted with this uncertainty and chaos, many of us just walk away or doubt or put it off for later because staying with the emptiness of the chaos is too much to bear.
I believe this is where habit trumps the getting away from the keyboard of the brush or the dance and staying with it.
I have found it in my life that it is easy to put off the creative process if it has not been made habitual and deeply ingrained.
Do you ever say that I feel chaos and uncertainty to brush my teeth today, perhaps I should go and do something else to procrastinate?
You simply brush your teeth and you are done just like that. You do not even think about it because it is habitual.
Tharp says that when she walks into the white room, she is alone with 10 items that have shaped her life and how she has learned to channel expectations into.
They are: Body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions and fears.
What shapes your creative process?
When you enter your white room or stare at the computer screen or shape that creative project, what are your items that you have learned to rely and channel your experiences into?
Let me know in the comments below or by sending me a message here.
5. Does Your Creative Process Have a Nemesis?
“The last two — distractions and fears — are the dangerous ones. They’re the habitual demons that invade the launch of any project. No one starts a creative endeavor without a certain amount of fear; the key is to learn how to keep free-floating fears from paralyzing you before you’ve begun. When I feel that sense of dread, I try to make it as specific as possible.”- Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Tharp says that her big fears are being laughed at, not being original, she will have nothing to say, that her work will be upsetting to a loved one and the idea will not be as good when executed.
My big fears are:
Approval of my work.
Being lost in my perfectionism.
Not being different and original enough.
Being not able to complete things.
What are your big fears with the creative process?
“There are mighty demons, but they’re hardly unique to me. You probably share some. If I let them, they’ll shut down my impulses (‘No, you can’t do that’) and perhaps turn off the spigots of creativity altogether. So I combat my fears with a staring-down ritual, like a boxer looking his opponent right in the eye before a bout.”
“Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century architectural theorist, said, ‘Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model.’ But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds.” ― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I admire Tharp for being so forthright and specific with her fears.
I think that when you define what it is that you fear and you are doubtful of and describe the process on how they limit you, you become aware of their influence in your life.
For example, I was a raging perfectionist and did not allow myself to launch for a long time for fear of being “not good enough.”
Now my policy is “not good enough is good enough.”
Over the years I became aware of the folly of the perfect way because none existed outside my mind.
I eased into letting things go and be released after I have given my best to them.
Sometimes the only way we learn is through feedback and failure.
6. The Art of Scratching
“Reading, conversation, environment, culture, heroes, mentors, nature – all are lottery tickets for creativity. Scratch away at them and you’ll find out how big a prize you’ve won.”― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Tharp says that the initial few steps of the creative process are not well defined and are random and chaotic like groping in the dark.
There is also the distraction of a lot of busy work and there seems no concrete end in sight. She says that at the initial stages, she looks like a desperate person who is tortured by the need of an idea to go along with.
It is not enough for her to begin dancing and hope that the creative process will find its way and come in place.
She needs an idea that is tangible that she can get a foothold with and get going on the process.
“You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. These are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however minuscule, is what turns the verb into a noun-paint into a painting, sculpt into a sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Tharp’s habit to keep going with the creative process is the idea that she calls scratching.
Much like scratching away at the lottery to see if it is the winning numbers, scratching for creative foothold is digging through things to find something to go along with.
Scratching is similar to the attempt to claw away at the mountainside to get a firm grip to place your toe and to move upwards and on the way.
“Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal, and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, ‘Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander in these back hallways…’ and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.”
This little first step of scratching can be different for different people.
For example, according to Tharp, a fashion designer is scratching when he or she is visiting vintage stores, watches videos and sits in a cafe to observe what people are wearing.
This view is supported by the famous designer Isaac Mizrahi who in his TED talk described a process very similar to scratching. He gets inspiration by watching movies and observing people and stores among others.
How do we get ideas? This question is eloquently answered by Tharp that we get ideas from everywhere.
Ideas are all around us, they are everywhere. She says that it is like asking where is the air that you breathe?
How does she get good ideas and recognize which ones are good ones?
Ideas that are good are open and turn you on rather than shut off the creative process.
A good idea has the power to build upon itself and grow into something bigger.
A bad idea according to Tharp is restricting and closes more doors than opening them.
For example she gives the example of the production of the movie, The Edge.
The idea for the movie cam from a conversation between producer Art Linson and writer David Mamet where they had the idea to make an adventure movie.
This idea transformed into something cartable like a story about two guys.
This was still not enough and Linson wanted more to go with and Mamet came up with two guys and a bear.
This was a start to the creative process and eventually evolved into the movie The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.
Two men in an adventure is not enough to produce a great idea but two men and a bear is much better because it has the power to grow into a story and go somewhere.
Big ideas just come and we cannot usually scratch for them but we can scratch for the little ideas and meet inspiration half way.
You start with a small idea and then it grows into something big if it is a good idea and gets its own life.
Scratching is also improvising according to Tharp.
We put pen to paper and brush to canvas to see if the strokes are pleasing and go from there building up and growing.
You have to keep moving from idea to idea to idea while scratching and not stop on one idea.
I believe from my own work that improvisation is action in motion and once we begin, we can in the wonderful zone of flow.
What are some common ways to scratch for ideas that Tharp recommends?
Looking at other people’s work.
In the footsteps of mentors and heroes.
Enjoying time in nature.
Changing the environment.
I have found in my own life whenever I had the intention of finding a toehold in the creative process and move forward with an idea, the above places have worked very well for moving along and building something bigger.
Tharp reiterates that the crucial thing about scratching is that you cannot stop at one idea and have to make the connections between different ideas and move along the process to the next step and to the next one.
This is the end of part one. Please share it with others of you enjoyed this post!
Read Part-2 here!
Now over to you my CREATIVE readers. How do creativity and the creative process work for you? Let me know in the comments below!