Getting in the creative habit

I always like learning how creative people structure their lives. Even if we work in different fields, I hope there’s something I can take from their discoveries. That’s probably why I really enjoyed reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, which was first published in 2003. Tharp is one of the country’s most innovative and prolific choreographers, probably best known recently for choreographing Movin’ Out, the Broadway show staged to Billy Joel’s music.

Tharp starts her book with a scene of her walking into a white room. She knows that tickets are being sold for a dance that does not yet exist. In five weeks, thousands of people expect to see something. What is that going to be? The rest of the book describes her creative process, which comes down to drawing inspiration from anywhere, working very hard, seeking feedback from people who are brutally honest and constructive, and learning to edit her own work. Though Tharp has been dancing and choreographing her whole life, she notes that she didn’t finally feel like a master craftsman until age 58. At that point, she knew that, walking into a white room, she could make a dance.

She has some great quotes. In coaching people around their usual excuses for not investing in their creative development, she tackles the “It will cost money” one head on. “Once your basic needs are taken care of, money is there to be used. What better investment than in yourself?” Good point! Like time, when it comes to money, I think we often focus on what we have to spend it on, rather than what we want to spend it on.

She tackles the art of practice. “Without skill, there is no confidence,” she says. “Confidence is a trait that has to be earned honestly and refreshed constantly; you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them…. The one thing that creative souls around the world have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit.”

She has some interesting thoughts on how many resources one needs to accomplish one’s goals. “I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat,” she notes. Waiting for the ideal confluence of resources is a fool’s game. Creative people do with what they have. “A good manager in business knows that there’s never a moment in the business cycle when a company’s objectives and resources are in perfect harmony. There’s never an ideal balance between how many orders you have and how much inventory you’re stocking. Your expenses and your income are never exactly in sync; one is always outpacing the other. Your people always demand more money, more resources, more investment spending than you’re willing to give; you always have more phone calls to return or paperwork to handle than time to get it all done. Good managers know this instinctively, so they never plan on an ideal harmony they can’t achieve. It’s better to be ready to go than to wait until you are perfectly ready.”

How did Tharp live this in her own life? She choreographed in silence for years because she couldn’t afford good stereo equipment. She choreographed wherever, because she couldn’t afford studio space. But within these limits, she found her voice — a voice expressed in movement. “Remember this the next time you moan about the hand you’re dealt: No matter how limited your resources, they’re enough to get you started. Time, for example, is our most limited resource, but it is not the enemy of creativity that we think it is. The ticking clock is our friend if it gets us moving with urgency and passion. Give me a writer who thinks he has all the time in the world and I’ll show you a writer who never delivers.”

Good to know whenever we face down deadlines. It’s all part of the habit of getting great things done.

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