Twyla Tharp

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life

“I come down on the side of hard work.”

A lifelong ballet choreographer and dancer, Twyla Tharp (b. 1941) gives us an energizing and stabilizing book, The Creative Habit, to motivate the creative habit. The book speaks to anyone, Tharp quickly dismisses the question of talent being enough (or that genius cannot be taught), she notes “Nobody worked harder than Mozart.”

More than anything, this book is about preparation: In order to be creative, you have to know how to prepare to be creative. No one can give you subject matter, your creative content; if they could, it would be their creation and not yours. But there’s a process that generates creativity – and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual.

To launch the necessary process, hard work must be rooted in something, a kernel that can germinate beginning. In Tharp’s case, a naked space.

I walk into a large white room. It’s a dance studio in midtown Manhattan. I’m wearing a sweatshirt, faded jeans, and Nike cross-trainers. The room is lined with eight-foot-high mirrors. There’s a boom box in the corner. […] Other than the mirrors, the boom box and me, the room is empty.

Creative writing teacher Dorothea Brande believed writing demanded muscles that functioned in solitude. It is only in such a space that we mine experience and memory and project imagination plus ideas. The white room is a metaphor for Tharp’s belief that creativity is within us.

Tharp is not immune to the fear of creation – or other psychological hang-ups – but she doesn’t dwell on it. These are issues solved through self-intimacy: “Another thing about knowing who you are is that you know what you should not be doing, which can save you a lot of heartaches and false starts if you catch it early on.”

Once we realize our ideal creative state exists and our preferences are knowable, it falls on us to create the ideal conditions.

My preferred working state is thermal – I need heat – and my preferred ritual is getting warm… There’s also a psychological component to heart: It calls up the warmth of the hearth and home. In a word, it says “mother,” which is all about feeling safe and secure.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson claimed to have been astonished that humans created language. Italo Calvino believed our self-awareness was limited by visions for what we might do but never will. There is always something else. And indeed, many writings from those purpled skies of life focus on what is still left to do.

Indeed, the human engine contains astounding productivity and possibility. Tharp’s method of the creative process is highly directive and accessible. It includes exercises and examples from Tharp’s long life producing highly original modern ballet and ballet and contemporary dance cross-overs.

Pair this timeless book with Rollo May’s insightful guidance on creativity and fear or read firsthand the discipline it took for John Steinbeck to produce his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath in mere months (and what this discipline cost).