Summary of “The Creative Habit” : Creativity is learned, nourished and maintained; for inspiration to flow through us and spring forth from the mind, you must prepare, have rituals that invoke it, to know our creative DNA – what we are made for, use our memory and connect disparate things with each other, organize work documents so that we always know where to find them, know how to scratch the surface of things to extract the essential, use the accidents and incidents that that appear in our life, have an idea-base which serves as a backbone for our creation, use our talents wisely, recognize roadblocks and the moments that overtake us, know how to fail, and pace ourselves over the long term – to the very end.
By Twyla Tharp, 243 pages, published in 2003.
Summary and Book Report of The Creative Habit :
First of all, this book is nice. Not only from the point of view of pure aesthetic, like 45 Effective Ways for Hiring Smart but because of all the books I have read for my Personal MBA Challenge, this is the one that best that combines form and substance, using one to reinforce the other. Being a writer, I am especially aware of this: why are today’s books content to put sad black letters on a white background, while modern technology allows creativity? It is time that writers understand that their expression space is not confined to words alone, but also to the way in which they are represented.
The Creative Habit brilliantly manages to break out of this centuries-old canvas by using a sober and original framework to highlight key elements of its content. This is done by putting some words in color, or using a larger character that stands out from the rest of the sentence, free placement on the page, or at the bottom of the page, shaded gray, or strategically placed drawings to illustrate the work. This book is, therefore, a joy to read and it is much easier to glean the important parts from it – it is almost enough to read the big red words. A book which makes excellent use of highlighting – almost reaching utter perfection – is The October Man Sequence, but only the initiated know about it.
Great examples of highlighting in the book:
But the beauty of The October Man Sequence remains unsurpassed. It is a work of art unto itself.
Twyla Tharp is an American dancer and choreographer, born in 1941. She has created numerous ballets and musical comedies, most of which have been successful, and some of which have been seen on Broadway. She directed the opera sequences in the film Amadeus and she has been the recipient of many prizes in her career, which began in 1965. On Youtube there are numerous extracts of her work, and I invite you especially to watch this clip of Movin’ Out – a musical comedy based on the songs of rock star Billy Joel – to give you an idea of her work.
Chapter 1: I walk into a white room
For many people, the beginning, symbolized by finding oneself in an empty room, is something deep, mysterious and terrifying. It’s opening up your word processing software and finding yourself faced with a blank page. It’s picking up your brush and contemplating the immaculate virgin canvas. It’s taking your chisel and moving towards your block of stone in the rough. It’s being in front of the piano, fingers poised over the keys – to create rather than to play.
White space is perhaps humbling. Some people cannot handle it, and choose to avoid it. For Twyla Tharp, facing it is her job. She finds in a white, empty room a mix of challenge and trepidation, as well as peace and promise. Filling this empty room comprises her identity. She has become its roof.
However, creativity is not limited to artists. It is important for businessmen who are looking for new ways to sell, for engineers who are trying to solve a problem, for parents who want their children to see the world in a new light.
We can have a gift and be especially talented to create in a particular area, but whether we are gifted or not, there is no creativity without apprenticeship, without preparation and daily routines which become second nature.
To be creative, you must know how to prepare yourself to be creative.
That’s the objective of this book.
Twyla Tharp, therefore, shares with us the fruits of her 35 years of experience to help us develop, maintain and nourish our creativity, whatever it is. Every chapter, except the first one – is augmented with exercises, to help us practice the concepts that she has just outlined.
Chapter 2: Rituals of preparation
All artists have rituals – automatic and decisive habits – which help them nurture their creativity and renew it every day.
A ritual allows you to suppress the questions – why am I doing this? Do I like this? – which might come to mind when you wake up in the morning, your mind still foggy, when your motivation is at its lowest. If you have intelligently created your ritual, it is a matter of habit and you will accomplish every day without thinking and you will get a little closer each day to your goal.
For example, Beethoven began every day with the same ritual: a morning walk during which he jotted down the first notes of a musical idea that inevitably came into his mind.
The examples are many and not only for artists. Rituals are deeply rooted in the human soul and were probably invented in primitive societies to ward off fears, whatever they were. Rituals have changed somewhat since then, but their objective is the same. Create your own rituals, concentrating on the benefits that you want from them. Then stick to them.
Chapter 3: Your creative DNA
We have all have instinctive, creative talents, that Twyla Tharp calls our “creative DNA.” It shows up in different ways, and notably, in the distance from which you view the world – do you pay attention to detail or the big picture?
If you understand what your creative DNA is, then you can understand the story that you are trying to tell the world, and you can see how the story unfolds in the daily threads of your work. The author suggests 33 questions to help us define our creative biography and identify the underlying creative DNA.
Chapter 4: Harness your memory
Memory is one of the foundations of creativity, not in and of itself, it is not enough to be able to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart to become a poet – but it preserves facts, fictions, and feelings that we can then link to each other by finding the best way to connect them. It’s about metaphors.
Now, the metaphor is the soul of art, if not art itself. It is the ability to represent, to substitute concepts using symbols. Metaphors, as Cynthia Ozick writes, “transform the strange into the familiar. This is true even of the simplest metaphors – the somber sea is like Homer’s wine, for example. If you know what wine is, the picture says, you will see the sea.”
If all art is metaphors, then art begins in the memory. To fully appreciate the power of your memory, you must appreciate the most exotic forms it takes, hidden on the periphery. We remember more often than we think we do, in ways that we don’t think about:
- Muscle memory
Muscular memory is one of the most used forms of memory. It is how, after diligent repetition and training certain physical movements, your body can remember for years.. and even decades.. after you stopped doing something. It’s this process which is the work of dancers, pianists, athletes, painters when we ride a bike…
Muscular memory is used in the creative process, perhaps more to acquire skills than to develop inspiration. Thus, it is possible to train yourself to write by copying or by translating works by your favorite writers, to understand how the author structures sentences, arranges his words, builds his plot. Proust spent 12 years of his life translating and annotating the writings of the English art historian, John Ruskin, and he wrote in the Le Figaro articles imitating the style of 19th-century writers like Balzac, or Flaubert. Raymond Chandler wrote imitations of Hemingway’s style to absorb what he appreciated most about this writer. It’s the same process which is the work of a fine arts student who takes up his drawing pad and goes to a museum to copy for hours a master’s canvas. Skills are honed by doing.
Note: Being a writer, I find this suggestion extremely judicious, since up to now I have mistakenly associated it in my mind with the infamous cowardice of plagiarism. And yet, all writers are inspired by others they admire and have developed their style by reading first. And I learn a great deal by translating the articles of Léo Babauta on my French blog Habitudes Zen – I like his clean, colorful style that goes straight to the point. But I don’t really see what muscular memory has to do with it. For a sketcher or a painter, perhaps, but a writer? It seems to me that we retain concepts more by translating or copying, rather than a “flick of the wrist” which allows us to automatically write beautiful passages inspired by the style of such and such a writer.
- Virtual memory
It is the ability to project ourselves in the emotions and feelings of our past, and to allow the physical expression of ourselves – actors do this all the time. It can equally serve to visualize the future.
- Sensual memory
It is also extremely powerful, it is this at work when a smell or a taste or a sound or a color plunge you into your past. Its emblem is Proust’s “madeleine.”
We have all experienced it when we notice a smell that struck us during our childhood.
- Institutional memory
It is the collective memory of organizations, from the small neighborhood association to multinationals. It is found in archives and locked up in people’s brains. To access it, you must search the archives and really listen to people who have worked with them for a long time.
- Ancient memory
According to the author, it is the memory, etched in us, of what has gone before.
Thus, this image is a kaleidoscope of hundreds of pottery fragments collected by Doctor Yosef Garkinkel representing dance as it was practiced 5,000 to 9,000 years ago. When Twyla Tharp contemplates it, she gets an intense impression of déjà-vu. If you have ever danced in a group, you can feel in your gut that the people on the pottery are your ancestors.
Note : I don’t agree with the mystic approach of the author. There is no need to invoke some ancestral memory or other (where would it be kept? how was it transmitted?) to explain the feeling of understanding and empathy that a dance scene evokes, even after several thousand years. All human beings have universal fundamentals in common. Language, music and dance are part of that, just like symbolic thought and the ability to create tools. Humans talk. Humans sing. Humans dance. And have done for at least tens of thousands of years. Certainly we all have in common the genetic basis necessary for these behaviors, but this does not constitute a memory, however, at least not in the way that Twyla Tharp means it.
Chapter 5: Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box
In this chapter, Twyla Tharp takes a similar approach to Getting Things Done. But where David Allen has a dry style, very, or even too practical, Twyla Tharp suggests something more fluid, more open. But the fundamentals are the same: have an organizational system that lets you easily find all the documentation you need for a project. Memory, in spite of all its power, is weak. Before throwing yourself full bore into a project, you must document it the best you can in order to establish a solid base from which to create.
You just have to understand that a box is not a substitute for creativity. It can’t compose or write or create and can’t dance for us. It is a tool, nothing more. You must also pay attention that is doesn’t change into an engine for procrastination. Many people with a project are going to fill their file or their box with the fruits of a lot of research, research which becomes endless while the project reaches the point of death.
Chapter 6: Scratching
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, with a lot of work and no apparent results or definitive end. You cannot just dance or paint or write or sculpt. These are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to begin. This idea, as tiny as it might be, is what transforms the verb into a noun – to paint into a painting, to sculpt into a sculpture, to write into text, to dance into a dance.
To find this tiny idea, you just have to scratch. It’s like scratching a lottery ticket to see if you have won: it’s a matter of digging in everything to find something. Scratching takes many forms.
You can scratch by reading books, by paying attention to your environment, by changing your environment, by watching a film, etc. It is paying attention to certain little details that are going to inspire you, that give you small ideas that go on to feed your big ideas.
For this, you must open yourself up at the same time to the world. American psychologist Stephen Kosslyn says that all ideas can be broken down into 4 stages:
- Generate the idea, generally using memory, experience or an activity.
- Retain the idea. I retain my experience with chapter 5, that you must make a note of it as quickly as possible. In a good place.
- Examine the idea. Study it and make connections and deductions about it.
- Transform the idea. Alter it in one way or another until it best meets your objectives.
Note: I completely agree with the author on this point. I am always in my “writer” mode, which runs in the background all the time in my mind. I can have ideas for my writings anytime anywhere, listening to podcast or a radio broadcast, when I am working, dreaming, reading, meeting new people, discussing, etc. I make a point of noting down these ideas somewhere, then I arrange them in a filing system that I am familiar with and where I will know how to find them (I use OneNote software). I used not to do this, and many of these ideas evaporated before I was able to remember them. Don’t make the same mistake.
Chapter 7: Accidents will happen
It is important to plan your work in order to organize it effectively. But there is a difference between planning and stifling. You must not allow planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your work.
A plan is like a scaffolding around a building. When you build the exterior, scaffolding is critical. But once the body of the building is built and you begin to work on the inside, the scaffolding disappears.
This, then, is the paradox of creativity: in order to be creative, you must learn how to prepare yourself for creativity, but planning well is not enough to crown your efforts with success. You must be open to events, accidents, and changes. You must be open to opportunity. Opportunity is a skill. To be open to opportunity, you must fervently look for solutions to things and be alert to the smallest signs that lead you there.
To be lucky, you must improve your tolerance for ambiguity. Plan only up to a certain point. Leave room for luck.
What’s more, success is not only a factor of resources. Often, limits on resources – whether they are substantial or temporary – are secret blessings, because they force us to push ourselves and do the impossible, and thus to do our best. Because, as Earl Nightingale says in Lead the Field, desire is more powerful than the satisfaction of accomplishment. Having unlimited resources and carte blanche for a project can be a curse because that gives the feeling that it is “in the bag” and that we don’t need to struggle to succeed. Nothing could be more wrong.
Chapter 8: Spine
The backbone of your creation is your first strong idea. You have scratched and found an idea, you have worked it, and you have hatched it in the spine of your creation. It will be your little secret, that will be the underpinning of your creation and give you a framework around which you can build.
Your backbone can take many forms. The original Star Wars trilogy was thus strongly inspired by anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s works of mythology and the archetype of the hero and his initiation. The 33 Diabelli Variations that Beethoven wrote were all based on a small work by Diabelli. The novel, The Natural, by American writer Bernard Malamud, about the mysterious reappearance of a baseball player reported to have disappeared 20 years earlier, is based on the Quest for the Holy Grail.
Once you have accepted the power of the backbone in the act of creation, you will become much more efficient with your creativity.
Chapter 9: Skill
Once you understand the ins and outs of your craft, the better you can express your talents. The great composers are often amazing musicians. A great chef can chop and slice better than anyone in his kitchen. The best writers are those who read the best and the most. A successful entrepreneur can do anything and everything, store goods in the warehouse, negotiate with vendors, develop a product, create a marketing campaign, close a deal – as well, if not better, than anyone who works for him.
Know-how is what allows us to create a bridge between what we see in our mind and what we are able to produce. It is thus critical to be conscious of your strengths and talents – you can begin with Strengths Finder – because that will allow you to differentiate yourself, to send a message loud and clear that you have something to offer the world.
You must therefore constantly improve and refine your skills, not just by repeating and exercising them. Maintenance does not lead to perfection. Perfect maintenance leads to perfection. Once you have developed your skills as a whole, you will be able to rest your self-confidence in them. And personality is as much a skill as the others. You can choose to develop new ways to draw people to you and you make them want to help you learn and improve yourself. See Lead the Field.
But be careful that this experience is not the death of your innovation. Technique is not everything. Something more is needed – or perhaps something less. Effectively, often lack of experience erases fear – because it prevents you from clearly seeing the obstacles in front of you. Thus, it allows us to achieve things that we would have thought impossible with more experience.
If you find the perfect balance between developing your skills and opening yourself to luck and ambiguity, then you can reach a state of grace, complete mastery of your domain, that will make you an expert who is sought out and recognized.
Chapter 10: Ruts and grooves
Sometimes, it happens: in spite of all the good habits that you have developed, the preparation rituals, the organizational tools, the techniques to scratch at the first ideas, there is a moment when your creativity leaves you. You are in front of the canvas, the page, the keyboard, the screen, and nothing happens. You are stuck. In spite of all your efforts, your wheels spin without moving you forward, splashing everyone around you.
Getting stuck might be the result of:
- A bad idea. You should never have started this project.
- Bad timing. For one reason or another, you are not synchronized with the world. You might have had the most enlightened idea of the century, if the world is not ready to receive it, you could spin your wheels for years.
- Bad luck. Circumstances conspired against you.
- Because you stayed with tried and true methods, but the world has changed and needs something new.
It is not always easy to notice that we are stuck. We must first 1) see that we are, 2) admit it, and 3) get out of it.
If you notice that you are the prisoner of a real impasse, what you actually need is a really good idea. For that, Twyla Tharp suggests numerous tricks and tips. You can also practice what Earl Nightingale suggests in Lead the Field (again): take a piece of paper, and write your problem at the top, then underneath all the ideas that come to mind to resolve them. Don’t stop until you have written at least 20. Often, the first ones come easily, then after a certain point, which might be the fifth or tenth, finding them becomes more difficult, make that very difficult. However, it is often the nineteenth or the twentieth one that will give you the solution. Persevere.
However, stalemates also have their fast lanes. A fast lane is the best place in the world. When you are in one, you are free to explore, everything you question leads you to new avenues and new roads, everything you touch miraculously touches something else and transforms it into something better. When you get up in the morning, you know exactly how you are going to spend your day. It is what athletes call “being in the zone.”
The problem with the fast lane is that you hardly know where you are going before you get there. Anything can take you there, and sometimes the reasons seem mysterious. And the next day, the road has gone. It might last several days, weeks or months. You never know.
It is therefore important to make the best of it and be able to prolong it as much as possible. Twyla Tharp gives us several tricks and tips to get there.
Chapter 11: an “A” in failure
It is very important to fail. The best failures are the private ones that you experience in the privacy of your office. Private failures are kind.
What is so wonderful about these failures? It’s simple: the more you fail in private, the less you fail in public. In many ways, the act of creating is a matter of editing. You suppress or modify bad ideas that the public won’t like. That exercises our judgment.
Twyla Tharp gives us, then, an interesting personal experience of near failure by telling us the sad genesis of Movin’Out – the same show that you may have seen a clip of on Youtube at the beginning of this article.
Chapter 12: The long run
It wasn’t until she was 58 that Twyla Tharp finally felt like “a choreography expert.” For the first time in her career, on the occasion of her 128th ballet, The Brahms-Haydn Variations, she felt perfectly in control of all the elements of dance – music, steps, themes, placing people on stage, clarity of purpose. She finally had the skills to fill the space between what she saw in her mind and what was effectively happening on stage.
Achieving mastery takes time. Be patient. Never give up.
Book Critique of “The Creative Habit”:
This book is very refreshing. It is pleasant to read, filled with ideas, tricks and ways to develop and maintain creativity, in almost any area. It gave me numerous ideas for writing, for business and even for improving theater which I practice as an amateur. It is so rich that everyone will find something, and it will take you a long time to completely exhaust the exercises suggested at the end of each chapter. They can then serve as solid routines to stimulate your creativity in almost any situation. What’s more, the book is sprinkled with anecdotes and examples directly drawn from the life and career of Twyla Tharp, that often perfectly illustrate her point.
About the chapter on weakness, I will say simply that Twyla Tharp insists a great deal on the arts domain – not only dance, which, logically, is over-represented, but also in music, painting, and writing – and that creativity itself in business is not well mentioned. You cannot, however, blame Twyla Tharp for talking about what she knows, and almost all of what she says can be applied to any kind of creative situation – whether it is artistic or not. Further, like many artists, Twyla Tharp does not seem to have a very developed sense of science, and that is felt at times. The organization of the chapters and of the book sometimes seems a little packed, a little overcrowded. But these are minor defects with respect to the interest of the work.
I recommend it, therefore. This book would make a good companion for all your creative moments and serve as a first aid box in case of inspirational breakdown.
- Good book, in which the pleasant format judiciously adds value to the contents.
- Packed with ideas, tricks and ways to develop and maintain creativity.
- Full of practical exercises and practically inexhaustible.
- Twyla Tharp tells us about numerous relevant personal experiences
- A bit too much emphasis on purely artistic creativity.
- Some passages are not believable showing a certain lack of scientific knowledge in the author.
- The book is a bit too packed and crowded at times.
My score :
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