Books: Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

Just occasionally a book comes along that touches you. A book so powerful that you just can’t stop thinking about it, even though you may have finished reading it months before. These rare books make me feel as though I’ve ingested them rather than just read them. As if each of the words contained within the pages have become part of me and have left me altered somehow. Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit is one such book.

Twyla Tharp

I have read innumerable books on creativity and I find that, whilst many are interesting and illuminating, they are often too amorphous to be of real use. Vague instructions such as ‘go for a walk in nature’, ‘listen to some classical music’ or whatever may be helpful in putting us in a creative state of mind, but do not necessarily help us to physically extract an idea from the deep reaches of our brains. Tharp’s book is different, it is genuinely useful.

Twyla Tharp is a New York based choreographer. I assume that she is well known in the States but I have never heard of her, but admittedly my knowledge of modern dance is about the same as my knowledge of the inner workings of the combustion engine, i.e. non-existent. But no matter, Tharp’s methods and advice transcend industry and artistic discipline and can be applied to any subject matter.

The Creative Habit is a practical, truthful and deeply personal account of Tharp’s creative processes and those of her idols. It is intensely intimate and one comes away feeling that one has, for a few short days, inhabited the head and heart of a formidable, highly disciplined, and fiercely intelligent woman. I found the book, and the author, utterly fascinating and I have developed an enormous amount of respect and admiration for her.

Using examples from her own successful career and from those of creative geniuses such as Beethoven and Mozart, Tharp shows us that creativity arises from hard graft, serious discipline and the ritualistic development of creative habits. The importance of habit in our lives is well documented but it’s not something I would have thought would apply to creativity, more I thought it would hinder it.

There are no magic formulas in the book, no real secrets to share, but Tharp has a way of repositioning and packaging well homed advice in a way that is personal, achievable and measurable. There is an abundance of great advice on subjects ranging from the importance of religiously sticking to routines, how to ‘scratch’ around in our past and in other people’s work to find new ideas, and the importance of keeping  forensic records of all of our previous projects.

One piece of advice that has lodged firmly in my brain is the analogy of the tidy room. Tharp reminds us that when we tidy our bedrooms we make them just tidy enough, we do not strive for perfection. We busy about until our room pleases us but there may well still be washing in the basket, a stack of unread books on the dressing table and a broken chair. The point being that we should consider a piece of work complete when it has reached the same level of perfection as a tidied room.

For someone, like me, who is on a tumultuous, painful journey from the left brain to the right, saddled with a lack of creative self-confidence, Tharp’s practical approach is enormously helpful and dispels the notion that the world is split into creative and non-creative people. The book gives us useful, tangible methods to introduce habits which ultimately can lead to the complete eradication of creative self-doubt.

I cannot stress in strong enough words how much this book has helped me and I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who is struggling to gain a foothold in the creative side of their brain.

Whilst writing this post I have had an unshakeable image in my head that creativity is a big pink balloon floating in a summery sky. Most books on creativity tell you all about that balloon, how to find it, how to follow it, how to play with it. But Tharp’s book is different, it tells you how to nail that damn balloon to the floor and hold on to it for life.

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  1. Thanks Annie for the introduction. I too have read many books about “creativity” that are a tad on the vague side, so it’s nice to have the heads up on ones which look like they’re worth shelling out for x

  2. I read this book for the first time a few years ago when I took one of my early photography classes. It blew me away. I agree with you about creativity books. For me they’re either vague in the way that you describe or filled with funky fonts and wildly bulleted lists that make my head hurt. Twyla is just what I need. Precise, minimal, to the point, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s brilliant. I like specifics and case studies too, and I love that she takes you down *her* road. Oh dear….I think it’s time to pull it out again.

    I’m so glad that it meant so much to you.

  3. Like Lauren, I think it might be time for me to pull this one off the book shelf and give it another read. I loved it the first time around. However, I will be honest and say that I read the book at a time when I wasn’t ready for the discipline that Tharp stresses is so important to the creative process. This is my downfall – The discipline part and establishing my “creative routine” (as was mentioned in Richard’s great creativity post). I will enjoy reading the book the second time around with your review in mind. Thanks, Annie.
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