The Creative Habit

December 9, 2008

tharpAmong the award recipients at this past weekend’s Kennedy Center Honors was dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, maybe most widely known for her work with the Tony Award-winning musical Movin’ Out. I’ll admit that I’ve never seen her work on stage, but I very much admire her book The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life, which earned critical acclaim and became a national bestseller back in 2003. While the premise is basically encapsulated in the title, Tharp explains it clearly early on in the book:

After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves. The most productive ones get started early in the morning, when the world is quiet, the phones aren’t ringing, and their minds are rested, alert, and not yet polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal for themselves — write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desks until noon — but the real secret is that they do this every day. In other words, they are disciplined. Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.

Tharp returns to explore and expound on this theme throughout the book, drawing not only on her own life but also on the careers of other artists, writers, musicians and more. Additionally, the book offers up a wide range of exercises with an equally wide range of goals: stretching creative muscles, building awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses, working toward that creative habit.

One of the central exercises encourage you to write your “creative autobiography” by answering a series of 33 questions that plumb your past experiences, your future ambitions, and your most closely held values. Another exercise involves exploring the world around you and then exploring your own relationship with that world. I’ll reprint that one here, especially since it seems particularly directed at writers. 

You Can Observe A Lot By Watching

Yogi Berra said that, and it’s true. Go outside and observe a street scene. Pick out a man and a woman together and write down everything they do until you get to twenty items. The man may touch the woman’s arm. Write it down. She may run her hand through her hair. Write it down. She may shake her head. He may lean in toward her. She may pull away or lean in toward him. She may put her hands in her pockets or search for something in her purse. He may turn his head to watch another woman walking by. Write it all down. it shouldn’t take you very long to acquire twenty items.

If you study the list, it should be hard to apply your imagination to it and come up with a story about the couples. Are they friends, would-be lovers, brother and sister, work colleagues, adulterers, neighbors who run into each other on the street…? The details on your list provide plenty of material for a short story, but that’s not the goal of this exercise.

Now do it again. Pick out another couple. This time note only the things that happen between them that you find interesting, that please you aesthetically or emotionally. I guarantee that it will take you a lot longer to compile a list of twenty items this way. You might need all day. That’s what happens when you apply judgement to your powers of observation. You become selective. You edit. You filter the world through your particular prism.

Now study the two lists. What appealed to you in the second, more selective list? Was it the moments of friction between the couple or the moments of tenderness? Was it the physical gestures or their gazes away from each other? The varying distance between them? The way they shifted their feet, or leaned up against a wall, or took off their glasses, or scratched their chins?

What caught your fancy is not as important as the difference between the two lists. What you included and what you left off speak volumes about how you see the world. If you do this exercise enough times, patterns will emerge. The world will not be revealed to you. You will be revealed.

That done, I’m off to my own daily routine, revising yet another chapter in that novel-eternally-in-progress, hoping to turn it (soon!) into a novel, period.

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  1. I like the exercise.

    And I like the fact that you quoted Yogi Berra.

    • Ah, that was Twyla Tharp quoting Yogi Berra — the exercise was from her book. Sorry if that wasn’t clear! (But yeah, good quote.)

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