In The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, Twyla Tharp shares her secrets for developing and honing your creative talents and provides you with thirty-two practical exercises based on the lessons she has learned in her remarkable thirty-five-year career.
1. Begin your creative practice with a ritual
Tharp starts her day by taking a cab to the gym. She says that having a ritual makes it a habit and for her, getting in the cab is the first very important step. She needs to be literally warmed up to get creative and her time at the gym does just that.
In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.
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.
The composer Igor Stravinsky did the same thing every morning when he entered his studio to work: He sat at the piano and played a Bach fugue. Perhaps he needed the ritual to feel like a musician, or the playing somehow connected him to musical notes, his vocabulary. Perhaps he was honoring his hero, Bach, and seeking his blessing for the day. Perhaps it was nothing more than a simple method to get his fingers moving, his motor running, his mind thinking music. But repeating the routine each day in the studio induced some click that got him started.
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.
2. Prepare to be lucky
Habitually creative people are, in EB White’s phrase, prepared to be lucky.
When creativity has become your habit: when you’ve learned to manage time, resources, expectations, and the demands of others; when you understand the value and place of validation, continuity, and purity of purpose—then you’re on the way to an artist’s ultimate goal: the achievement of mastery.
If you’re generous to someone, if you do something to help him out, you are in effect making him lucky.
3. Be vigilant about your practice
Confidence is a trait that has to be earned honestly and refreshed constantly; you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them. This means vigilant practice and excellent practice habits.
4. Scratch for ideas
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.
5. Learn how to keep free-floating fears from paralyzing
When I walk into [the studio] I am alone, but I am alone with my body, ambition, ideas, passions, needs, memories, goals, prejudices, distractions, fears.
These ten items are at the heart of who I am. Whatever I am going to create will be a reflection of how these have shaped my life, and how I’ve learned to channel my experiences into them.
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. Let me tell you my five big fears:
1. People will laugh at me.
2. Someone has done it before.
3. I have nothing to say.
4. I will upset someone I love.
5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind.
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.
1. People will laugh at me? Not the people I respect; they haven’t yet, and they’re not going to start now….
2. Someone has done it before? Honey, it’s all been done before. Nothing’s original. Not Homer or Shakespeare and certainly not you. Get over yourself.
3. I have nothing to say? An irrelevant fear. We all have something to say.
4. I will upset someone I love? A serious worry that is not easily exorcised or stared down because you never know how loved ones will respond to your creation. The best you can do is remind yourself that you’re a good person with good intentions. You’re trying to create unity, not discord.
5. Once executed, the idea will never be as good as it is in my mind? Toughen up. 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.
6. You have to work
Destiny, quite often, is a determined parent. Mozart was hardly some naive prodigy who sat down at the keyboard and, with God whispering in his ears, let music flow from his fingertips. It’s a nice image for selling tickets to movies, but whether or not God has kissed your brow, you still have to work. Without learning and preparation, you won’t know how to harness the power of that kiss.
As 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.”
7. Invest in yourself
Tharp reminds us that money is a tool. Once you have your basic needs taken care of, the rest is up to you – to invest in yourself and/or others. Whether you’re putting money into supplies, or taking the time for a class or workshop, the payoff is usually much greater than the expense.
I read for growth, firmly believing that what you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read.