Twyla Tharp

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

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

Renowned ballet choreographer and dancer Twyla Tharp (born July 1, 1941) gives us an energizing and stabilizing book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it for Life, 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. Tharp summons her best work from 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 habit
My creative beginnings demand a runway; a stretched path. This forest path at Chartwell House, Winston Churchill’s country home. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The exquisite creative writing teacher Dorothea Brande—who agreed with Tharp that genius could be taught—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.1

For Tharp, however, solitude is not the same as isolation. One needs an environment to create and the uninterrupted ability to perceive that environment—what Tharp calls “scratching.”

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 around in these back hallways.” and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.

I’m often asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” … The answer is: everywhere. It’s like asking “Where do you find the air you breathe?” Ideas are all around you.

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.”

Twyla Tharp, 2018 Cambridge MA. Photograph featured in Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit" in the Examined Life Library.
Twyla Tharp receives an honorary degree at the Harvard University in 2018. Photograph by Paul Marotta.

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

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

The human engine contains astounding productivity and possibility. 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 empurpled skies of life focus on what is still left to do.

Twyla Tharp, 2015. Photo: Ruven Afanador.
Twyla Tharp, 2015. Photograph by Ruven Afanador.

Tharp’s creative habit is highly directive and illustrative. It includes exercises and examples from Tharp’s long life producing highly original modern ballet and ballet and contemporary dance cross-overs. It also demands we work hard.2

Pair The Creative Habit 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 his self-esteem).