Do the Work Every Day

“Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits,” writes Twyla Tharp in her book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (with Mark Reiter, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2006). Tharp lays out the habits that have worked for her in her career as a dance choreographer in New York City. She writes of the solitude, preparation, skill, and persistence necessary for creative endeavors. Tharp acknowledges that luck and chance play a large part in success but claims, “In creative endeavors, luck is a skill.” According to Tharp, hard work is the most important ingredient in one’s recipe for creative success.

When you have selected the environment that works for you, developed the start-up ritual that impels you forward every day, faced down your fears, and put your distractions in their proper place, you have cleared the first hurdle. You have begun to prepare to begin.

Tharp writes of the importance of ritual to her daily routine. Rituals give us a sense of control over things and events which we actually have very little or no control. In this way, they empower us to put aside our fears and get to work. Rituals are a way to eliminate the “why” and skip straight to the action. Tharp writes of her daily habit of waking at 5:30 each morning, getting in a cab, and going to the gym for two hours of stretching and weight training. The ritual is not in the exercise, the ritual is in telling the cab driver where to go. Making this a ritual eliminates choice, and that is the power of habit.

Forming and accessing a creative vocabulary is also important. Tharp writes that metaphor, the language of art, relies on memory. We have different types of memory. Muscle memory is skill imprinted through action. Virtual memory is the “ability to project yourself into feelings and emotions from your past, and to let them manifest themselves physically.” Actors use this memory to access emotion on stage. Sensual memory is a flood of related memories triggered by a sensory input - a smell, a texture, a color, a quality of lighting – that suddenly transports one to a complete scene from one’s past. Institutional memory is locked in the files and memories of people in a company, school, church, or other institution. Ancient memory is ancestral, genetic memory that is recognized through a gut feeling. “It feels right.” Access to all these memories grants the artist a large pool from which to draw ideas and inspiration.

However, “you need a tangible idea to get you going.” Tharp calls her search for ideas “scratching.” She thinks of scratching for ideas as scratching away a lottery ticket to find the numbers behind or scratching at the side of a mountain for a toehold. Lots of little ideas and one or a few big ideas go into any creation, so much scratching is needed for any project. Tharp writes that scratching is a place of desperation. It is the artist at his/her most vulnerable. So, she has rules for scratching: “Be in shape. Scratch in the best places. Never scratch in the same place twice. Maintain the white hot pitch.”

It is difficult to be desperate for ideas. It is near impossible to find the ideas you need if you are out of shape. Rust forms easily on our creative muscles. “You’re only kidding yourself if you put creativity before craft.” This is why a dancer must dance, a writer must read and write, a musician must practice his/her instrument, and an actor must manifest imagination through action every day.  “You may wonder which came first: the skill or the hard work. But that’s a moot point. The Zen master cleans his own studio. So should you.”

Daily persistence, hard work, continual improvement, and increasing creative output are the hallmarks of successful creative people. This book is a call to action. Through metaphor and anecdote, Tharp weaves an easily accessible book with solid practical advice for the working artist. She includes exercises to get the creative muscles working and plenty of autobiography. The Creative Habit is a must read for anyone wondering where to begin on their first or next creative project.

Brandon Brockshus