The Creative Habit: A book review by Bob Morris

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Twyla Tharp
Simon & Schuster ((2006)

Enjoy the pleasure of her company and the magic of her mind

As is my custom when a new year begins, I recently re-read this book and The Collaborative Habit. The insights that Twyla Tharp shares in them are, if anything, more valuable now than when the books were first published.

It would be a mistake to ignore the reference to “habit” in their titles because almost three decades of research conducted by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates at Florida State University clearly indicate that, on average, at least 10,000 hours of must be invested in “deliberate,” iterative practice under strict and expert supervision to achieve peak performance, be it playing a game such as chess or playing a musical instrument such as the violin. Natural talent is important, of course, as is luck. However, with rare exception, it takes about ten years of sustained, focused, supervised, and (yes) habitual practice to master the skills that peak performance requires.

Tharp characterizes this book as a “”practical guide” but she also frames much of its material within a spiritual context. The creative process can probably be traced back to the earliest humans and yet so much of it remains a mystery. When Henri Matisse was asked if he was always painting, he replied, “No but when the muse visits me, I better have a brush in my hand.” Of course, he was also prepared to transform an in inspiration into a work of art…and did on countless occasions.

In the first chapter, Tharp acknowledges what she characterizes as “a philosophical tug of war…It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.” She adds, “Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Throughout the remainder of her book, Tharp draws heavily upon her own personal as well as professional experiences (she would probably not make that distinction) while citing countless examples of other real-world situations that indicate “There are no ‘natural’ geniuses.” However, there are immensely creative people in every domain of human initiative. Therein, I think, is her primary purpose: To convince everyone who reads this book that they can be creative if they are willing to work hard enough.

Here is a representative selection of what she affirms:

o “In order to be creative you have to know how to be creative.”
o “Build up your tolerance for solitude.”
o “Trust your muscle memory” when physically exercising.
o “If you’re like me, reading is the first line of defense against an empty head.”
o “You never want the planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your work.”
o “Work with the best.”
o “Never have a favorite weapon.” (Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of the Five Rings, circa 1645)
o “Build a bridge to the next day.”
o “Know when to stop tinkering.”
o “Creating dance is the thing I know best. It is how I recognize myself.”

There is so much of enduring (and endearing) value in the book worth noting. Perhaps (just perhaps) this brief commentary helps to explain why I read The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit at least once a year and consult passages in them more often.  Oscar Wilde once advised, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Those who require proof of that need look no further than Twyla Tharp whose career is her art…and whose art is her life.

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Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest choreographers, began her career in 1965, and has created more than 130 dances for her company as well as for the Joffrey Ballet, The New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre. She has won two Emmy awards for television’s Baryshnikov by Tharp program, and a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Movin’ Out. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1993 and was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1997. She lives and works in New York City. Her books include Push Comes to Shove: An Autobiography (1992) as well as The Creative Habit and, more recently, The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together, also published by Simon & Schuster (2009). The last two are available in a paperbound edition.

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