Books

Go to the archives

The Creative Habit

Twyla Tharp

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 12, 2013
Category: Self Help

The movies have done us all a great disservice. Here is Mozart the brat, tossing off a symphony. Or van Gogh, sketching frantically under a scorching sun. Or, more recently, Jackson Pollock, madly throwing paint.

In every case, it’s the same message: GENIUS AT WORK. KEEP OUT.

And we do. We dutifully accept that artists have skills not possessed by lesser mortals — and we plod along the more traveled path, coloring between the lines.

That is why Twyla Tharp’s book is so important: It explodes that harmful myth and, in the process, returns our creativity to us, whether we’re “artists” or accountants. And she does it in language that could convince anyone from a timid l6-year-old to a middle-aged woman who “wants to write” but has just never gotten around to it.

Let’s be clear: This is NOT a book about dance. Her biography as a choreographer may be vast — Tharp has choreographed 130 dances, five Hollywood movies and two Broadway shows, including the greatly acclaimed collaboration with Billy Joel called “Movin’ Out” — but there is almost nothing in these pages to suggest the glory of her career. Or even her brilliance. “The Creative Habit” is about one thing, and one only: the habit of working — and working hard — at something you care about. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

“Natural genius”? Tharp scoffs. Mozart became a “genius” because his father recognized the boy had talent — so he pushed him. “By the time Mozart was 28 years old,” she notes, “his hands were deformed because of all the hours he had spent practicing, performing, and gripping a quill pen to compose.”

So this is what Tharp wants you to know about her: Every morning at 5:30 , she awakes and goes directly to a gym where she lifts weights for two hours. Why? For physical strength. And more: because the ritual of lifting steel jumpstarts her creativity in her real work.

That’s right. Tharp sees creativity as a blue-collar work — as real, honest, sweaty labor. And in that work, repetition is crucial; you are, in effect, training your muscles to do the heavy lifting that creativity requires.

Ideas? They come last. That’s because they spring from all of your life experience, your reading and viewing and listening. There may be many false starts and dead ends. So you try things a different way.

Read this book with a pen in hand — you’ll want to mark it, for it is full of big ideas and helpful tips. Here’s a tip: “Fix the things you know how to fix.” And here’s a big idea: “I associate mastery with optimism.”

Proof that Tharp’s way works? Turn to the last page of the book. It’s 9/11. She calls her dancers to tell them they didn’t need to come to rehearsal the following day. But they all show up. “We could have easily become absorbed by the tragedy, lost in it and paralyzed by it, but what came back to us was the instinct to dance.” Her conclusion: “Even in the worst of times, such habits sustain, protect, and, in the most unlikely way, lift us up.”

Amen.

BONUS VIDEO

Martha Stewart interviews Twyla Tharp.