An Artist’s Bookshelf – “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp – Skinny Artist

An Artist’s Bookshelf – “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp

This is the second book in an ongoing series where we’ll be talking about a small collection of  amazing books that deal with art and the creative process.  These particular books were chosen because they have dramatically changed my perspective as both a writer and as a human being. I truly believe that any of the books in this series would be relevant for all types of artists including writers, musicians, visual artists, photographers, or anyone else who’s work is creatively inspired.

It is my hope that you will enjoy them as much as I have . . .

The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp

256 pages Simon & Schuster

Available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com

Follow Twyla Tharp on Twitter @TharpTwyla

If the book “Art & Fear” was intended to get your head on straight about creating your art, “The Creative Habit” will give you (or at least attempt to give you) the self-discipline  you’ll need to  have a long successful career as a working artist.

As a professional dancer and choreographer for over forty years, Twyla Tharp has little illusions about what makes a particular dancer, writer, composer, or artist great.  It’s her belief that greatness is more the product of hard work, habit, and perseverance than it is about talent.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. . .We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. ~Aristotle

Throughout the book the author does her best to debunk this whole idea of “natural talent”.  She uses Amadeus Mozart as an example. Even though most people see Mozart as this amazing child prodigy and natural talent, what she sees is an artist who developed deformed fingers before he was thirty years old from endless hours of practicing and composing.

She also talks about the value of having creative rituals, routines, and doing the necessary work even when you’re not in the mood to create.  She sees artistic success not as a gift from the gods, but the result of creative work habits that are developed from years of sacrifice and practice even when no one else is paying attention.

Throughout the book, Ms. Tharp provides us with some unique exercises to challenge our current perspective and creative limitations. She takes the act of creating art out of the mysterious magical realm and returns it to the practical sit-down-and-do-something world.

Here are just a few of the themes and excerpts from this amazing book:

Creativity is not a talent but a discipline . . .

“After so many years, I’ve learned that being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns.  That’s why writers, for example, like to establish routines for themselves.  . . . They might set a goal for themselves—write fifteen hundred words, or stay at their desk until noon—but the real secret is that they do this every day.  In other words, they are disciplined.  Over time, as the daily routines become second nature, discipline morphs into habit.  It’s the same for any creative individual, whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory.  The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bold of inspiration, maybe more.”

“Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits.  That’s it in a nutshell.”

“Mozart was hardly some naive prodigy who sat down at the keyboard and, with God whispering in his ears, let the music flow from his fingertips.  It’s a nice image for selling tickets to movies, but whether or not God has kissed your brow, you still have to work.  Without learning and preparation, you won’t know how to harness the power of that kiss.  Nobody worked harder than Mozart.  By the time he was twenty-eight years old, his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose. . .  Whatever scope and grandeur you attach to Mozart’s musical gift, his so-called genius, his discipline and work ethic were its equal.”

“It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavorful dish.  No one is born with that skill.  It is developed through exercise, through repitition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding.  And it takes time. . . . If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge.”

Creativity needs its rituals and routines. . .

“It’s vital to establish some rituals–automatic but decisive patterns of behavior–at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”

“The act of giving something up does not merely clear time and mental space to focus you.  It’s a ritual too, an offering where you sacrifice a portion of your life to the metaphoric gods of creation.  Instead of goats or cattle, we’re sacrificing television or music or numbers–and what is a sacrifice but a ritual?”

You need to follow your own creative path. . .

“I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations.  These strands are as solidly imprinted in us as the genetic code that determines our height and eye color, except they govern our creative impulses.  The determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.”

“I suspect many people never get a handle on their creative identity this way.  They take their urges, their biases, their work habits for granted.  But a little self-knowledge goes a long way.  If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work.  You begin to see the “story” that you’re trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive); where you are strong and where you are weak and how you see the world and function in it.”

Before you think outside the box, you have to know the stuff inside the box. . .

“Leonardo [da Vinci] understood that the better you know the nuts and bolts of your craft, the more fully you can express your talents.  The great painters are incomparable draftsmen.  They also know how to mix their own paint, grind it, put in the fixative; no task is too small to be worthy of their attention.  The great composers are usually dazzling musicians.  They have to know their instrument before they can make it sing the tune in their head. . . A great chef can chop and dice better than anyone in his kitchen.  The best fashion designers are invariably virtuosos with a needle and thread. . . The best writers are well-read people.  They have the richest appreciation of words, the biggest vocabularies, the keenest ear for language. Words and language are their tools, and they have learned how to use them. . . What all these people have in common is that they have mastered the underlying skills of their creative domain, and built their creativity on the solid foundation of those skills”

“Skill gives you the wherewithal to execute whatever occurs to you.  Without it, you are just a font of unfulfilled ideas.  Skill is how you close the gap between what you can see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce; the more skill you have, the more sophisticated and accomplished you ideas can be.  With absolute skill comes absolute confidence, allowing you to dare to be simple.”

“Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft.  Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering.  Combining the two is the essence of the creative life.”

The best never stop practicing their craft. . .

“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.”

“It’s the most acclaimed and skilled people who work the hardest to maintain those skills.  The greatest (and highest paid) athletes, like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, practice harder, longer, and better than their rivals.  Moreover they extend that discipline to the most basic elements of their craft. . . The great ones never take fundamentals for granted.  You may wonder which came first: the skill or the hard work.  But that’s a moot point. . . The real issue is conditioning.”

What do you think about “The Creative Habit”?

Even if you haven’t read this book yet, based on what you’ve read here. . .

  • Do you think Twyla Tharp is right and becoming a successful artist is more about hard work and perseverance than it is about talent and divine inspiration?
  • What creative rituals or routines do you use to get your creative juices flowing?
  • What role do you think self-confidence plays in creating your art?
  • As an artist/writer/musician how do you decide when to follow the rules and when to break them?

Tell us what you think!

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About the Author

Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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(11) comments

These are some fantastic excerpts. I think I really want to read this book, now. Thanks for recommending this.

Reply

* Do you think Twyla Tharp is right and becoming a successful artist is more about hard work and perseverance than it is about talent and divine inspiration?

I think talent without hard-work will yield nothing of consequence other than a wasted gift. I very much believe in talent which I read somewhere is simply the “love of something”

* What creative rituals or routines do you use to get your creative juices flowing?

I’m still working on that one. I need a set routine.
* What role do you think self-confidence plays in creating your art?

It’s huge. confidence has been a major roadblock for me and the growth of my work.

* As an artist/writer/musician how do you decide when to follow the rules and when to break them?

It all depends on the vision. The rules are subordinate to the message/vision. I think one should always utilize the fundamentals and foundations of their craft, but break the rules when it conflicts with what is trying to be said.

Reply
    Drew

    Thanks Kyle for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us. I think you’re right that talent and passion are very much interconnected. I think it was the big Buddha man himself who said (paraphrasing here) that whatever we focus our thoughts on is what we will eventually become. Like anything else, however, thought without action usually accomplishes nothing. As I’ve said before, I don’t know where exactly this line between natural talent and plain old-fashioned hard work is drawn, but I do know that I’d take a moderately talented artist who works her tail off over a highly talented artist who works sporadically any day.

    Thanks again Kyle :)

    Reply

Kyle,

Can’t wait to get my hands on this book. I am a person who has always had a natural ability to draw. I cringe inwardly when people look at my work and exclaimed how “talented” I am. Why, because it tends to marginalize the endless hours of practice and effort that have gone into creating my skills and vision, such as it is.

Based on your excerpts it also looks like Twyla’s observations will be interesting to juxtapose against the concepts in another great book about being exceptional achievers outside of the arts called “Outliers – by Malcolm Gladwell.

Reply
    Drew

    I think you’re right Frank that far too many people automatically categorize artists into the “talented” and “not talented” groups no matter what their creative field. It reminds me of that famous quote by Michelangelo who said, “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.

    It’s also interesting that you bring up the “Outliers” book because I just happened to do an earlier post on this site called “Are You Ready For the Big Time?” that references Gladwell’s “Outliers” where we talked about the preparation that is often required to make things look effortless.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

    Reply
Maria

I read this book as an freshman in college back in 2005. My professor shared many excerpts from this book throughout the semester. I loved them so much that I had to just read the whole book from cover to cover. It’s definitely left an impact on me and I look forward to picking it up again 6 years later…

motivation without skill is just as good as skill without motivation

Reply
    Drew

    Hi Maria it’s great to see you here!

    It really is one of those books that gets stuck in your brain and eventually you come back to over and over again. I can’t even really remember the first time I read it anymore, but I do know that I’ve reread various parts of it many times since. It’s always been one of those books that gives people like me faith that hard work and persistence will win out in the end.

    Reply

I really enjoyed the excerpts. If I have learned one thing in the last year of writing full time (for the most part) is that it is discipline above all else.

Something this book does not address and I would be interested to learn (especially as it may pertain to painters etc.) is what da vinci says: must know the nuts and bolts of your craft. I believe at least in the contemporary art world this has come to mean read and follow the “how to” books and guides instead of actually going to the craftsman themselves. For example, what we have now is most people reading: “how to get over your fear of…writing etc.” (which I can see as an important rung on the ladder of creativity) but not actually reading or re-reading works that has come before. So what I am saying is that part of this discipline is dedication to the craft but also sitting with what has been done. I am not sure how artists feel about this as compared to writers, but there may not be a distinction after all.

Thanks for your efforts and support.

~a.

Reply
    Drew

    It’s always a pleasure to hear from you Annie :)

    I think you bring up a good point about our tendency to look towards “instruction” rather than taking the time to absorb the masterworks that have come before us. I’m not sure if this is simply a indication of impatience for the natural learning curve in any creative art, or if it’s simply the fact that there is simply so much more of this instruction type material available to us now.

    Being a former teacher myself, I have always had a certain fondness for instructional work but I also think that these “how-to” books provide a certain degree of comfort as well. I don’t know about you, but I have always found myself to be a little uncomfortable and a tad envious reading great literature because it always makes me feel somewhat inferior and holds me up to a standard that I’m not sure I can achieve. In other words, reading great literature, doesn’t so much inspire me as it does intimidate me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do think we do need to be exposed to the masterworks in any art form in order to grow as an artist/writer/musician, but I can’t help but wonder how many aspiring artists have eventually given up their art because they end up comparing themselves to the works of the great masters at their peak. These artists never get to see the natural growth and development of these great masters, but only the final result from a lifetime of learning, experimentation, and effort.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us!

    Reply
Joseph

I saw a man with no feet run in a race in the Olympics last summer. I think talent is like that man. For some of us some things come more or less easily than for others doing the same things. Even men with two feet expend a lot of discipline and hard work to run in a race in the summer Olympics; imagine what a man with no feet had to face to get to the same place. They say the human spirit is capable of anything, I believe this to be true. We are all capable of achieving greatness in any field we choose, its just that for some it will take a little more discipline and hard work than for others.

Reply

    So many similarities between Twyla Tharp’s philosophy in “the Creative Habit” and the late Gyorgy Sebok’s teaching. I can’t help but wonder if she knew Mr. Sebok. “Gyorgy Sebok: Words from a Master” contains similar ideas in his quotes. Thank goodness we have these gifted and generous people in the world!!

    Reply
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