“You may wonder which came first: the skill or the hard work. But that’s a moot point. The Zen master cleans his own studio. So should you.” ― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
This is part-2 of the two part series on how to be creative and actionable tips on creativity from Twyla Tharp.
Read Part-1 here.
A brief snapshot of Part-1:
1. Activating The Muse Within By Creative Cues
2. The Creative Engineer
3. The Creative Epilogue
4. The Empty White Room
5. Does Your Creative Process Have a Nemesis?
6. The Art of Scratching
Let us get going to the next part:
7. The Box Of Ideas
“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box”― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
What is your organizational system to collect, retain and implement your creative ideas?
Tharp says that she begins every dance with a file box and writes the project name on top.
As the dance project progresses, she fills it with news clippings, CD’s, videos of the dancers while they are rehearsing and videos of her alone in her office, inspiring pieces of art, photographs and notebooks.
The box is Tharp’s research documentation system and it also marks the beginning of a creative project. Every project gets a box.
The empty box with a project name on it is Tharp’s way of cutting the ribbon on her work and begin a commitment to the process.
This organizational togetherness is something that I can relate to.
More often than I have cared for, I have begun projects without the organizational system in place and I ended up losing a lot of important information that should have been documented and saved for later on.
In fact, I attribute a lot of my writing habit to the wonderful powers of organization of this great application called Scrivener. If you have not checked it out, you can do so in the resources page.
Having an organized system like the one with boxes is Tharp’s way of feeling connected with her project and the idea that the project is still there even though she is not actively working on it and she can go back to it.
“Easily acquired. Inexpensive. Perfectly functional. Portable. Identifiable. Disposable. Eternal enough. These are my criteria for the perfect storage system. And I’ve found the answer in the simple file box.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Tharp gives the example of Illustrator and writer, Maurice Sandak who has a working studio room with units that have pull out drawers.
Sandak works on more than one project at a time and prefers to keep his sketches, notes and articles of projects he is currently not working on out of his sight.
Tharp also provides the example of Beethoven, who was highly organized and used a notebook system.
Beethoven had a somewhat unruly image, but his notebooks spoke a different story about his creative process.
He had notebooks for the different stages of an idea while it was in the process of development and creation.
He had notebooks that would represent the beginning and rough ideas and he had notebooks for the middle stages that were improvements on the rough and he had notebooks for his late or well-developed ideas.
When Beethoven had a rough idea, he would scribble it and capture it in a pocket notebook that he could always go back to and develop.
When he was ready, he would revisit the rough idea and begin improvising, developing, pushing, adding and improving it into a bigger notebook.
Beethoven’s process was to shake up the ideas and re-energize them in the process of creative development.
“He might take an original three-note motif and push it to its next stage by dropping one of the notes a half tons and doubling it. Then he’d let the idea sit there for another six months. It would reappear in a third notebook, again, not copied, but further improved, perhaps inverted this time and ready to be used in a piano sonata.”- Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
8. Creative DNA, Zooming In And Zooming Out: Zoe And Bios
“In many ways, that is why art historians and literature professors and critics of all kinds have jobs: to pinpoint the artist’s DNA and explain to the rest of us whether the artist is being true to it in his or her work. I call it DNA; you may think of it as your creative hardwiring or personality.”- Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
What does your creative DNA dictate you to do and do you act accordingly?
Tharp studied with the distinguished dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham in her early years in New York.
Merce’s second floor studio had windows on two sides from where Tharp could see the chaotic and seemingly random traffic patterns of the city.
Merce’s dance also epitomized a randomness and chaos like the traffic, but in reality both were far from that and through the representation of the chaos, both worked in their own ways.
The point that Tharp is making and it is a good one is that Marce was comfortable with the playing of chaos on the street and in his work in a way that she was not.
It was not part of her creative hardwiring or her creative DNA.
Tharp gives the example of the great American photographer Ansel Adams, who was compelled to see unspoiled natural landscapes from vast distances and took his gear on long hikes and climb on mountaintops.
The signature wide view black and white panoramas that literally sparked the beginnings of the environmental movement were representational of Adams’s creative hardwiring and his unique DNA.
Tharp further says that there is a dichotomy of involvement in her creative process where she has a pull to dive in to commit details and then has an urge to step back and see the work from a different and a broader perspective.
Stepping back away allows her to see if the piece is working from a viewer’s perspective.
Tharp says that you should not get so caught up in the details and mastering different aspects that you lose sight of what you are trying to communicate or drive across.
I think that this is a wonderful way to look at creativity with a close up macro lens to focus on the details and also from a great distance using the telephoto lens.
I think this is the creative aspect of not losing the forest for the trees or vice versa. You need to dive into the details but every so often you need to step back and look at the big picture. Read more about that here.
This attachment and detachment are similar to the Zoe and Bios concept from the ancient Greeks that Tharp discovered from Carl Kerenyi’s book, Dionysos.
Both Zoe and Bios mean life, but with an important distinction. Zoe is life in general and Bios represents the specific life and what distinguishes it from other life.
Tharp says that Zoe is like seeing earth from space and bios is zooming into the details of a particular specific scene on earth.
Looking at ideas from a different perspective gives a fresh new take on them and I have found that this attachment and detachment, this stepping in and stepping out is essential to my creative process as well.
Sometimes, I get too caught up in the details of the project that I begin losing sight of the destination and the big picture. I have to remind myself to take a break and look at the project from a detached and a different piece of eyes.
I believe that you may be strong on looking at details or you may be strong on looking at the big picture where the details are not primary. Whatever your creative style is or your creative DNA compels you to do, you can benefit from looking at it occasionally from another view.
9. The Creative Doldrums
“It’s going to happen sometimes: Despite all the good habits you’ve developed, the preparation rituals, the organizational tools, the techniques for scratching out pre-ideas and actual ideas, there will come a time when your creativity fails you. You start at the canvas, the screen, the keyboard, the empty room — and it refuses to meet your eyes. It looks away as if it’s ashamed of you. You may as well be painting on shards of broken glass. Your screen shows nothing but wavy lines. Your fingers slip off the keyboard, never getting traction. The room turns dark and cold, and someone is locking the door behind you. You are in a rut.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I think that you can relate to what Tharp is saying here!
Tharp distinguishes between being in a rut and a groove. A rut feels like you just spin your wheels without any appreciable forward movement while in a groove, you have effortless forward motion.
She says that a rut is not exactly a writer or other creative block where your engine has completely stopped and the tank has become empty.
A block happens when we lose our nerve and the only solution forward is getting to do something or anything that gets the creative juices flowing.
I agree that a block happens because we have continually allowed fears, doubts, perfectionism and expectations to get the better of the creative process. Instead of going along with the flow, we have begun constantly second-guessing ourselves.
I know. I have been there too. I am the self-proclaimed king of the ex-raging and recovering perfectionist.
“When you’re in a rut, you have to question everything except your ability to get out of it.”― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit’
Tharp says that ruts happen due to several reasons, the most prominent of them being getting caught in a bad idea or the result of bad timing.
They also happen because of bad luck and doing the same time-tested method that worked for you or everyone else in the past but now things and people have changed.
Tharp recommends a three step process that involves seeing and becoming aware of the rut, believing and admitting that you are in a rut and then repairing or getting out of the rut.
I have found that admitting and becoming aware that there is a problem is very effective and sets the stage to do something different and shake things around a bit to see what works.
But if I do not admit there is a problem, I am deeply reluctant to come up with solutions.
Tharp says that identifying that something is not working and writing down the assumptions that you have about it is a good start. Then you need to proceed to challenge those assumptions and act on them.
Challenging assumptions and time-tested methods can be difficult, as I have found it in my life.
It is almost as if you have to tear down the invisible walls holding your beliefs in place that are fueling the rut and allow it to stay by being hesitant to do something different.
Let us be honest. This is not an easy process. It is very difficult and a greatly courageous process and action to bring down the walls of perception, habit and belief that blocks in your life and allow ruts to fall in place.
So give yourself a pat on the shoulder and some much needed self-appreciation.
Do you recognize if you are in a creative rut and how do you get over it? Give us your ninja tips in the comments below or on social media!
The goal is to find your creative groove and Tharp says:
“When you’re in a groove, you’re not spinning your wheels; you’re moving forward in a straight and narrow path without pauses or hitches. You’re unwavering, undeviating, and unparalleled in your purpose. A groove is the best place in the world. Because when you are in it, you have the freedom to explore, where everything you question leads you to new avenues and new routes.”-Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
10. The Art Of Creative Flow: The Pitfalls Of Creative Overplanning
“The most productive artists I know have a plan in mind when they get down to work. They know what they want to accomplish, how to do it, and what to do if the process falls off track. But there’s a fine line between good planning and over planning. You never want the planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your work.” -Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Are you a planner? Do you make lists and do you expect to make a certain amount of progress in your creative work?
Do you get disappointed if you do not accomplish your creative objectives?
I agree completely with Tharp that having a framework of what to accomplish and understanding how to do it is key to the creative process.
For example, if there are too few restrictions in the creative process, it may not take off at all or you may have great difficulty to focus into something meaningful. Read about it here.
However, if there are too many restrictions and plans and hurdles along the way, your natural creative style will be hindered and your creative abilities will struggle to see the light of day.
Tharp gives the example of the photographer Richard Avedon, who is a great planner and prepares carefully for every photo shoot.
Avedon plans every small detail ahead of time, including the background, the kind of camera and film and even insists that he meet with his subjects prior to the photo shoot.
Even though Avedon leaves little to chance, Tharp says that as soon as he walks into the room, he allows his creativity and his instincts to take over and does not determine from before how a photo should look like.
However, he has a good sense of tone or what feelings it should invoke and convey.
He plans ahead, but not so far ahead that it would stifle his natural creative process.
Avedon’s photo shoot with famed comedian Charlie Chaplin is a good example, points out Tharp.
Chaplin was leaving the country and was not in a great mood and it showed and he refused to show any emotion other than a blank stare.
A great deal of preparation would not account for a change of direction and plans gone awry.
In a slip of theatrical instinct, Chaplin used his index fingers to create horns above his head.
Avedon, undaunted continued working on the adamant comedian’s mood and as soon as Chaplin dropped his guard and transformed into a devil with horns and a smile, he took the shot.
Avedon allowed himself to prepare, but he had to use his creative judgment and deep instincts as a photographer to take a picture.
Tharp compares creative plan like the scaffolding around a building. After it is setup, the work on the interior begins and the scaffolding comes apart.
Similarly, planning and preparation needs to get the creative process on the right page, but you should not allow the scaffolding and plans to dictate the direction of the creative process for the fear of suffocating your creativity.
When you have an idea and another and you begin connecting them together to create something new, plans are important and planning is required but overplanning and overattachment to one outcome is futile.
Tharp’s assessment is very insightful here since she connects luck with preparation and believes that you need to allow for the change in plan and the accidental spark and attribute it to becoming lucky instead of lamenting the lack of your predetermined and perfect scheme.
She says that in creative endeavors, luck is like a skill and instead of lamenting the role of luck, you should accept and embrace it and be prepared for it.
“The key words here are “prepared” and “lucky”.” They’re inseparable. You don’t get lucky without preparation, and there is no sense in being prepared if you’re not open to the possibility of a glorious accident.”- Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
11. The Spine
“Yet for me, the spine was an essential preparatory step in the ballet’s creation. Without it, there would be no starting point, no coherence, no North Star to guide me-and ultimately no dance. My only mistake was that I should have kept it to myself.”- Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
What is the essence of the story that you want to tell with your creative piece?
Tharp calls this statement that you need to get very clear and tell yourself as the spine that essentially outlines the intentions that you have for your work.
The spine is the statement or the theme that you are trying to explore, it is the structure that you are attempting to stand and set up and it is like your guiding star.
Tharp’s Bacchae-inspired dance Surfer at the River Styx’s origins can be credited to the suggestion of a close colleague and choreographer Jerome Robbins that she choreograph a piece to an Euripidis play.
Tharp reread The Bacchae, the story of how king Pentheus rejects the divinity of the god Bacchus or Dionysus and has to pay for it by incurring the wrath of the god and his followers called The Bacchae.
Since she had only six dancers to do the piece, she could not depict and do justice to the entire scale of the conflict and tension of the story and had to scale it down.
Tharp sought to find the essence of the play and came up with the answer of hubris or the arrogance of the king.
Then the initial flimsy idea of hubris transformed into the spine of the dance as Tharp began casting the piece and assigning steps to the dancers.
The initial idea of hubris transformed into the spine of the dance as Dionysus poses as a humble person and attempts to regain his godly status and there is the triumph of humility over hubris and his status as a god is renewed.
Tharp believes that every creative work needs a spine at its beginning that can guide it as an underlying theme, and a reason to assist it to come into existence and allowing it to move along to maturity.
The spine is a reference point to yourself to move you forward in the creative process and ultimately when the piece is published, and whether your audience sees it or not depends on them.
And as Tharp says, the spine is the structural underpinnings of the creative piece that is her little secret that allows her to stay on message but it is not the message itself.
12. The nuts and bolts of the creative process: Skills that matter
“The great painters are incomparable draftsmen. They also know how to mix their own paint, grind it, put in the fixative; no task is too small to be worthy of their attention.” -Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
Are you building the various skills needed to be successful in your creative realm?
Do you feel sometimes like putting in too much time and effort in learning every aspect of your creative work is simply a waste of time?
Tharp will disagree. She says that Leonardo Da Vinci was busy with the formulas of varnishes instead of focusing exclusively on painting.
When Pope Leo X heard that the painter was not painting and declared that he would not be able to do much because he was already thinking of the end even before he had begun the beginning of the painting process.
Leonardo on the other hand, knew exactly what he was doing and it would be similar to what Stephen Covey said about “sharpening the saw.”
The point that Tharp is making is a very simple and yet vastly ignored idea of refining skills till that are so formidable that the world cannot help take notice. I agree completely.
I was very interested in cooking shows and how the great chefs learnt their arts.
One particular thing that fascinated me was that in any reputable cooking school like the Le Cordon Bleu, if you join them, they will have you chopping onions and vegetables for a very long time before a lot of other things are learnt.
Great chefs understand the importance of mastering skills like chopping and the attention to detail to those skills that make the foundation of the creative process.
Tharp says that great composers have to learn how to play an instrument very well before that are able to compose music and take it to dazzling heights of excellence.
She gives the example of Johann Sebastian Bach, who learnt how to build organs as a young man and this thorough knowledge of how the instrument worked inside out made him one of the leading experts of its sound.
The great fashion designers are masters of the needle and thread and are exceptionally good tailors. I found this to be very true myself when I joined Fashion design school many years before.
Quite immediately I was confronted with the prospect of cutting, drafting, sewing and stitching for periods longer than I would have cared to continue.
I ended up dropping out because I had an idea of glamour and glitz of the fashion design industry and designers without the knowledge of how much tailoring mastery goes into becoming one.
It was a well learnt lesson that to become a master in any field, one has to be able to able to take the smallest skills that build it up and master them painstakingly to excellence till you are the best in the room.
A great chef is a better chopper than anyone else in the room.
A great fashion designer can cut, sew and draft better than any of their assistants.
A great math teacher understands the innards of the problem inside and out.
A masterful engineer is a better draftswoman and problem solver than any other person around her.
Tharp points out that the best writers are also very well read, love words, know grammar very well and they have mastered the structure and usage of words and language.
The point that Tharp is making is that all the great creative people have put in the time and effort to attain mastery of their creative realm and their creativity and process is built on the foundation of all those skills.
I would also add that people who become masterful in their creative domains also undertake a life long learning process of their art.
Tharp says that Picasso once said while admiring children’s art:
“When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like them.”
I also love it that Tharp clearly distinguishes between craft and creativity and that we are kidding ourselves if we attempt to place creativity before craft.
However, simply the demonstration of great technique is not creativity, but the constant and consistent pushing of the boundaries of our creative realm and demonstrating genius that pushes the status quo.
Now over to you, my INSPIRED readers.
I know that this is a very long post, but I would LOVE to hear from you and your ideas on this post and what gets you in a creative rut and how do you find your creative groove?
The link to The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp or click below (Disclosure: Amazon affiliate link).