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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