Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

Earlier this summer, my husband and I were listening to a lot of early 80's music by King Crimson and the Talking Heads. I dug out a copy of The Catherine Wheel, a collection of songs and tunes that David Byrne and friends wrote and performed for a Twyla Tharp dance production. I was a big fan of Twyla's in the early 80's, when I was involved with a very amateur modern dance troupe in Albany, NY. We used The Catherine Wheel and a lot of Brian Eno's work as background music for our practice sessions.

THEN I remembered the book by Twyla that a woman gave me one day last winter. I was hiding out in a Russian teahouse on a narrow back street not far from the Green Man offices, nursing a steaming mug of spiced black tea and enjoying the warm darkness of the place while sleet tapped at the windows. A slender woman bundled in a large loose coat sat down at the table next to mine. When she took off her coat, I noticed that she was wearing a leotard, tights and leg warmers. As we talked, I discovered that she was teaching master classes at the School of the Imagination. I began reminiscing with her about my dance days. She took a copy of The Creative Habit out of her bag and handed it to me as she was leaving. So, inspired by The Catherine Wheel, I finally took it out and read it.

Just to make sure we are all on the same page, Twyla Tharp is a New York City-based modern dance choreographer. She staged her first performances in the mid 1960's, and has choreographed well over 100 pieces for her own company and several others. She has done choreography for films including Hair and Amadeus, and often bases her work on popular music (including rock and jazz, and most recently the musical Movin' Out based on the music of Billy Joel). Now in her 60's, she appears to make at least part of her living on the college speaking circuit. Other than an autobiography called Push Comes to Shove, this is her only book-length writing effort.

I would summarize Tharp's basic premise as this: you can't be creative if you work without structure. This structure can take many forms. One is the structure of daily routines or rituals. Tharp starts her day, every day, at 5:30 a.m. with a cab ride to the gym where she works out for two hours. Sometimes structure involves paring away unnecessary distractions. Tharp talks about Henry David Thoreau going to live alone at Walden Pond as a way of allowing his inner voice to be heard more clearly, and mentions that she often avoids watching films while she is in the middle of a project. Often structure takes the form of a record of the steps you took to get from the beginning to the end of a project. Tharp uses heavy cardboard file boxes to hold various artifacts that relate to each of her creative projects. She labels them and stores them on industrial shelving in her work area. Other people might use file folders or notebooks or electronic files to store these records.

Tharp's background as a choreographer and her obvious familiarity with the life histories of other creative people like Beethoven and Mozart and Buster Keaton and Thomas Edison and Jerome Robbins give her a good sense of the cycles common to all creative activities. We have to find good ideas or inspirations — Tharp calls this "scratching." Some people have more trouble than others with this step. Then we have to figure out how to transform that good idea into our own creative material. This is partly a matter of the medium of our creativity (e.g., words, music, visual art, cooking, gardening) and partly a matter of being able to move beyond the exact form of the original inspiration. In other words, copying someone else's work (or even your own work from an earlier period) isn't exactly creative. You need to be able to play with it.

One of the most interesting and useful concepts that Tharp introduces in this book is the distinction between ruts and grooves. Ruts are places where you get stuck. You do things the same way over and over again, even when it doesn't work any more. You're not going anywhere. Needless to say, Tharp provides counsel for getting out of ruts! Grooves, on the other hand, continue to provide inspiration and growth, even though they appear to follow a relatively narrow path. A groove is a creative place that, like a mother lode in a mine, keeps yielding new material.

The hardest part of creativity for Tharp and all the rest of us is taking risks and knowing that sometimes we'll fail — the idea won't work, the medium won't work, the timing isn't right, our collaborators won't cooperate. She reminds the reader that this happens to everyone. If we become so discouraged that we give up, to the point of abandoning the routines that form the foundation of our creativity, we're just done for.

I haven't danced in years. I don't paint or play music or write fiction. Yet I think of myself as a creative person, within the constraints of a life that doesn't particularly encourage or reward creativity. When Tharp talks about finding and maintaining a "white hot pitch" of creativity, I cringe, because this is not something that would work for me most of the time. Other than gardening, where I must collaborate with plants and weather and soil and creatures, the place where I am at my most creative is in designing learning experiences for undergraduates taking my sociology classes. I did get some ideas from The Creative Habit that I can use in my classes, although I doubt that Twyla would recognize them by the time I have transformed them.

The Creative Habit is a fast and easy read. Just under 250 pages long, it has relatively large type, lots of white space, and some interesting design features like the use of red type for some of the text and gray-scale or black background with reverse type on some of the pages. Each of its twelve chapters focuses on a concept related to creativity and ends with a series of exercises that the motivated reader can use to work on his/her creativity.

Although this is intended to be a self-help book, much of the narrative is autobiographical, with Twyla talking about her own experiences with creativity. She is an interesting character, and reading about her certainly isn't tedious. However, her advice to her readers is sometimes just a bit hard to swallow. Twyla has spent her entire adult life being a choreographer. She achieved significant success when she was still relatively young, and travels in some pretty high-flying circles. For example, in the exercise at the end of the chapter called "Your Creative DNA," Tharp asks a series of questions intended to stimulate the reader's thinking about his/her creative autobiography, then provides her own answers to those questions. One of the questions is: "Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?" I sat and thought about that one for a while before I looked at her answer, which begins: "Maurice Sendak. I talk to him every Sunday." Now, how many of us hope to rival THAT?

If I can believe Amazon, Simon & Schuster will release a paperback edition of The Creative Habit in January 2005, too late for holiday gift-giving, but early enough for graduations. I think this would be a fine gift for someone graduating from high school or college with interests in any field of endeavor where creative thinking is valued, whether that be film-making or landscape design or journalism or biomedical research.

[Donna Bird]