Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

Twyla Tharp – The Creative Habit – why read it, why care about what a dancer is saying even – or, more to the point, especially when you’re not a dancer? 

JAS: I didn’t think we’d be going to a dancer for written insight into being creative.  But, have to say, I’m incredibly impressed with Twyla Twarp’s ability to put her process of creating dance performances into words.  And then I’m doubly impressed that her writing speaks to anyone who seeks to turn a part of their life – or maybe their whole life – into being creative.  She truly makes creativity accessible.  Even the title of her book, The Creative Habit, brings creativity down from the idealized heights of exclusivity so often assigned to artists.  It’s like she’s saying ‘just make it part of your life like brushing your teeth.’

KC: Exactly. She is touting making creativity an ingrained habit whether you are making artwork or just plain living. So many artists and writers have ideas but how does one get from the dreaming to the doing? Twyla explains her process not in an ethereal way, but in a concrete way. The very first thing that caught me was how she talks about getting up every morning and going to the gym, no matter what. This one simple commitment to her body daily, right at the beginning of the day, sets the stage for her creativity to come. It’s like the saying they have for writers about just getting your butt in the chair everyday and the writing will come. I like this idea that we have to actively commit to making our dreams come true, dreams are nothing without action and focus and discipline.

JAS: Another significant part of thinking about creativity as a habit is that I felt encouraged to look for where I was already doing it in my life.  When I looked at it that way, I heightened my realization of being creative all the time – and I love the feeling that comes along with that.  Midst all the mundanity of getting through a day I found pockets of creativity I’d been including in my life as a matter of habit!  For instance, I regularly make little stories or art collages out of things around the house.  I have a Melissa Zink sculpture standing on a stack of poetry books with my grandmother’s gold-rimmed reading glasses positioned on the corner of my desk.  And then, as I was scanning for art we might like to include in Double-Mirror, I discovered this kind of object arranging is actually identified as ‘Art’ with a capital A.  It’s called “Comingling Realism and Imagination.”  Here’s an example. 

Cool, very, very cool…and these assemblages are all over my house…and they always have been.  I just didn’t know that such my mundane habit was an expression of creativity.  Perhaps affected by the denigration of “housekeeping” in our culture, I didn’t include it as part of my creative activity much less being.  Thank you, Twyla.   

KC: I love the idea of your assemblages. One of the things that Twyla talks about that set off a similar “aha” moment for me is her boxes. Whenever she gets a new seed of an idea that interests her, she will start collecting anything that pertains to that idea and put it into a designated box. This box becomes a catch all for inspiration, research, whimsical exploration, and notes until one day this incubation period and container begins to realize a performance. I realize that I already do this as well. Only for me, it’s folders on my computer where I keep my notes, articles, references, thoughts, research, etc. until I am ready to let the percolation produce a piece of writing or an art project.

JAS: I love to have my perspective shifted by what I’m reading.  Twyla does that.  Turning habit into creativity adds the quality of novelty – adds a little surprise and happy feeling to the every day routine of life.  I like visual art that surprises me too.  Sometimes I think the experience of surprise defines art for me.  Often a painting will set off a silent ‘wow’, or ‘can you believe that’ or after I’ve read the description that goes with a work of art, I’ll go back just for the sheer experience of looking through another lens. So, after Twyla surprised me and spoke to more than my “inner” dancer, her book speaks to my desire to have more awareness of creative opportunities in my life, I began to read her book with more openness, to let her message in…see more in what she was saying.  

KC: Yes, me too.  I like that the book doesn’t just express her philosophies but also gives sections of real exercises and questionnaires to get the creative juices flowing.  These are all tried and true methods that Twyla herself uses and you begin to realize that true success as an artist is as equally about a practice as it is about production.

JAS: Great, that’s great.  She is, for sure, practical.  When she unpacks an idea like “Scratching” (her term for how to come up with a idea worth pursuing as an art project), she gives you things to do that you like to do and may already be doing, just not with a sense of purpose.  For instance, read, listen or watch the very best of something you’re interested in.  And ‘do’ the art – do the ‘something’ physically – write if you want to write, paint if you want to paint, sing if you want to sing – for the sake of the activity itself.  I heard of a trucker who started making art out of the dirt he was washing off the back of his truck.  He evolved from washing to painting in the dirt and now he’s being recognized as an artist!  Twyla would love that.  She throws in exercises of all sorts to go from nothing to something.  One that I particularly like is getting on the floor and wrapping yourself up as tight as you can in a ball – she calls it Egg.  From there any movement you make is one of expansion and discovery and you’re inevitably in the heat of unfolding creative moments.  She recommends a pad and pencil nearby for the ideas likely to escape like a fresh egg  when you break the shell.

KC: I like the metaphor and it reminds me of another book we discussed called Cracking the Cosmic Egg. When you look at life as an endless opportunity to discover new ideas, the ideas that are floating around in our cosmic soup just waiting to be captured, and you actively trigger that place in your brain that is open to this discovery, you create a new neural muscle that is open to potential. Doing exercises like the Egg will bring you to this empty, open space where you become available for the brilliance to reveal itself. The Egg is like a blank slate to draw upon and from within.

JAS: Twyla both shares a lot of herself and then crosses the bridge to make it relevant to you – the you that wants more creativity in your life.  If you want to go further and be an accomplished artist, the one who wants attention and to make a pile of money, you’re in particular luck discovering this book by Twyla – she’s been there, done that and is adept at inspiring you with plans from her own life that include how to balance planning with not planning!  And again, with the practicality – she gives examples worth doing all by themselves without any particular artistic product. 

KC: Yes, anyone would benefit from reading this book. I bought it thinking I wanted insight into a dancer’s mind but what I got was a solid blueprint for making any life the greatest form of art.

JAS: And she’s serious.  This is not an ooly-wooly book about thinking whatever you do creatively is wonderful.  She’s not anything if not serious about you taking yourself serious.  Know your nuts and bolts comes up throughout the book.  Persevere. Look to exemplary artists as models for almost any obstacle you face.  Be it an empty mind, perfectionism, bad luck or a rut!  Her words – failure is inescapable, failure is humbling.  But back to nuts and bolts message, she puts it this way.  “The more you fail in private, the less you will fail in public.”  You have to love the smarts in that.  One thing I got out of Twyla Tharp’s book is the she wants you ‘out there’, putting your creative self into the mix whether it’s in simple conversation, intimate relationship, making a day a more interesting day to live or on a stage, a museum wall, a magazine or a bookshelf.

KC: Right, she’s giving away all her trade secrets to show us that creativity is not a precious commodity, it’s available to everyone.  She did it! This isn’t proprietary information. She’s sharing it freely because she knows that it is worthy information easily within everyone’s grasp. I’m guessing that people who read her book will be more inclined to take up the reins.

JAS: Twyla, nearing sixty when she’s writing this book, talks about how generosity grows with age.  She’s finally conceded (to herself) that she wasn’t the only one who could perform her works.  As the ideas in her mind went beyond her abilities, she’s not stopping.  She’s giving everything to her dancers…literally as well as illusionistically.  With this book, I believe she’s moved from encouraging dancers on a stage to the rest of us.  She thinks we’re all bouncing off one another and, as Bob Dylan is saying these days “Life is not about finding yourself.  Life is about creating yourself.”  I guess we can never get tired of hearing that – I know I can’t, especially as I’m passing eighty.   

KC: Life IS about creating ourselves. We tend to forget that. This book makes me want to be a creator more than a consumer.

There are excellent reviews of her book – we’re not the only people loving it.

1 thought on “Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit”

  1. Wow, this dialogue makes me think about the extraordinary possibilities of day-to-day living, where something as simple as arranging tomatoes in a bowl or stones on a shelf becomes a habit of making beauty, making prayer, making awareness. Little sparks of creativity kindled everywhere in one’s life. Thank you Jane & Kimberly & Twyla!

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