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February 10th, 2008

Book Review: “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp

I picked up this book per the recommendation of the “4-hour work week” book. At first, I thought to myself, how does dance choreographing have to do with business or engineering. As it turns out, to be creative in dancing is probably much harder since it’s so visible and yet subtle at the same time. This book taught me a lot of creative ideas. I like the creative exercises, especially “Do the verbs,” “Pick a fight,” “Play twenty questions,” and several others. The book is organized with several concepts followed by several exercises for each concept. The concept of “spine” is particular interesting. Overall, it’s a pretty good book – good to see the creative process from a virtuoso. I particular like the fact that Tharp spent a lot of time studying the famous ones’ (Beethoven, Mozart, and etc.) creative habit as well.

Here are the outlines of the book:

Develop your start-up rituals of preparations that impels your forward every day, faced down your fears and put your distractions in proper places: This arm us with confidence and self-reliance. You may want to subtracting distractions from your life, as Tharp subtract movies, multi-tasking, numbers (clocks, meters, scales, bank statements, etc.) and background music.

Exercise 1. Where’s your “pencil”? Where is the one tool that feeds your creativity and is essential that without “it you feel naked and unprepared? This could be your voice recorder, pen and notebook, postit notes such that when an idea comes to you, you’re able to jot it down fast.”

Exercise 2. Build up your tolerance for solitude. Sit alone for x number of minutes (start at 10 minutes and keep increasing) in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will. Then start paying attention your thoughts to see if a word or goal materializes – “quietness without loneliness.

Exercise 3. Face your fears. Identify and breakdown the ones that are holding you back. Don’t run away from them or ignore them; write them down and save the page. Don’t let it stop you in your tracks.

Exercise 4. Give me one week without. Take a week off without clutter and distractions such as mirrors, clocks, newspapers, speaking, telephone, computer, coffee, car and etc.

Your Creative DNA, the creative code hard-wired into our imaginations. For Tharp, it’s “focal length” – involvement vs. detachment – dive in, step back, dive in. step back… Bios (distinguishes between one’s life and another) vs. Zoe (the aggregate, life in general without characterization). If you understand the stands 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), and how you see the world and function in it. The 33-questionnaire help to decipher your creative DNA. I like Tharp’s answer on her idea of mastery – having the experience to know what you want to do, the vision to see how to do it, the courage to work with you’re given, and the skill to execute that first impulse – all so you can take bigger chances.

Exercise 5. You can observe a lot by watching. Two exercises: pick a scene (e.g. between a couple) and write down everything they do and then do the same except writing down what you find interesting. The differences between the two descriptions speaks volume about how you see the world. You will be revealed.

Exercise 6. Pick a new name. What would you choose? What would you want it to say about you? Done wisely and well, a change a name can be self-fulfilling prophecy.

Harness your memory. Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art. It’s our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what have experienced before. It’s how we interpret it – for ourselves and others. Muscle memory – more for acquiring skill than for developing inspiration. Virtual memory – ability to project yourself into feeling and emotions from your past, and let them manifest themselves physically. Sensual memory – the sudden appearance of a smell or taste or sound or color instantly floods the imagination with images from the past. Institutional memory – like going through old file folders would open up a torrent of memories and associations, where you can find a useful idea. Ancient memory – old arts that brings up the spirit of the ancestors. Just go over the old CD, movies, books, magazines – the “shadowing” process.

Exercise 7: Name that muse. Associate a series of objects with something you are familiar and with similar meaning,e.g. Urania sounds like Uranus, hence associated with astronomy. I often use this method to remember a list of answers to an essay question for my school exam.

Exercise 8: Trust your muscle memory. Learn to train your muscle memory, your ability to retain and repeat motion.

Exercise 9: Mining your memory in a photograph. Take a family picture, any picture, and study it. What do you see in it that is indisputably similar to your life today, to the person you’ve become? What is vaguely similar? What bears no resemblance or suggests nothing memorable? The goal is to connect with something old so it becomes new. Look and imagine.

Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box. Create a box that you can transfer files. Fill it up with every item that went into the making of a creative project. This box documents the active research on every project. Keep a folder or drawer that contains the “pre-ideas” – those intriguing little tickles at the corners of your brain that tell you when something is interesting to you without your knowing quite knowing why. E.g. Beethoven kept notebooks for rough ideas, notebooks for improvements on those ideas, and notebooks for finished ideas. In the box, you may have the index cards that outline the goals, all the research materials, notebooks, tchotchkes,

Exercise 10: “Begin!” Take a deep breath, stamp your feet, and shout “Begin!”

Scratching (like scratching a lottery ticket). It’s what you do when you can’t wait for the thunderbolt to hit you. As Freud said, “When inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.” When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Ideas can be acted upon 1) be generated, 2) retained, 3) inspected, 4) transformed to suit your higher purposes. Ways to search for ideas 1) Reading. The more you read, the more mentally fit you feel. 2) Everyday conversation. If you listen, you will hear ideas. 3) Enjoying other people’s handiwork. 4) In the footsteps of your mentors and heroes, using their paradigms as a starting point for ideas. Be careful not be become an imitator. 5) Amid nature. Observe how the birds waddle. 6) Don’t stop with one idea. Link A to B to C and maybe come up with H. A few rules to make scratching more manageable: 1) Be in shape. 2) scratch in the best places. For a sculptor, select the best stone to work with. 3) Never scratch the same place twice. If you scratch the same way all the time, you’ll end up the same place with the same old ideas. 4) Maintain the white hot pitch. Throw a tantrum at yourself. Anger is a cheap adrenaline rush. Scratching is where the creativity begins. It’s the moment where you ideas first take flight and begin to defy gravity. If you try to rein in, you’ll never know how high you can go.

Exercise 11: Chaos and Coins: gathering chaos into a satisfying order is a daunting challenge. Toss a handful of coins. Fiddle with the coins, moving them around into strange or familiar geometries.

Exercise 12: Reading archaeologically. “What you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read.” Read backward in time. Start with where the author ended and finish where he started, solving the mystery of how the write got that way. “Reading fat” – reading related texts surrounding the book – like Oxford English Dictionary.

Exercise 13: A dozen eggs. Sit on the floor, bring the knees to the chest, curl the head down to the knees and try to make yourself as small as you can. And then you have no choice by to expand and grow. When you stimulate your body, you brain comes alive in ways you can’t simulate in a sedentary position.

Exercise 14: Give yourself a little challenge. Give yourself a handicap to overcome will force you to think in a new and slightly different way.

Exercise 15: Take a field trip. imbuing the walk with a steeply determination to come back with something in mind. Places like museums, local gallery, walk in the woods, hospital ER room, bus terminal, library archives, police station, construction site, mall, blues club, dairy farm, open field.

Accidents will happen. A plan is like the scaffolding around a building. When you’re putting up the exterior shell, the scaffolding is vital. But once the shell is in place and you start work on the interior, the scaffolding disappears. Planning cannot take over as you toil away on the interior guts of a piece. Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan – the paradox of creativity. Habitually creative people are “prepared to be lucky.” In creative endeavors luck is a skill. Some of the problems that can derail you well-laid plans: 1) other people. Relying too much on others, even in the inevitably collaborative process makes you crazy. 2) Perfectionism at the start. Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. It’s better to be ready to go than to wait until you are perfectly ready. “No deprivation, no inspiration. No then, no now.” 3) The wrong structure. You have to choose the form that’s not only appropriate to you but right for your particular area. 4) A sense of obligation. Not an acceptable reason to stick with something that isn’t working. 5) The wrong materials.

Exercise 16: Pick a fight. Art is competitive with yourself, with the past, with the future. Creativity is an act of defiance. You’re asking 3 questions that mock conventional wisdom: 1) Why do I have to obey the rules? 2) Why can’t I be different? 3) Why can’t I do it my way? You need to channel your innate defiance productively to generate anger, emotion, combustion, and heat. So, pick a fight – with the system, the rules, your rituals, even your everyday routines. Sometimes, to force change, you have to attack the work with outrage and violence. You won’t always win, but the exercise is liberating.

Exercise 17: Our Perfect World: 1) quiet, 2) no one present who does not belong – no observers. 3) all the time in the world. No worry that you will be thrown out or that you will go into overtime. 4) No goal other than to try things. 5) no fear of failure; nothing will fail. 6) No obligations other than to do your best, 7) We entertain each other; I challenge them, and they challenge me. 8 ) Each day completes itself. The next day is new.

Exercise 18: How to be lucky. Be generous. To be a great choreographer (or teacher), you have to invest everything you have in your dancers. It takes courage to be generous like that. They involve their friends in their work, and they tend to make others feel lucky to be around them.

Exercise 19: Work with the best. You need to rub up against other people.

Spine. Begins with your first strong idea. The idea is a toehold that gets you started. The spine is the underlying theme, a motive for coming into existence. What am I trying to say? That is the moment when you will embrace, with gratitude, the notion of a spine. You can discover the spine in many ways: 1) with an aid of a friend, 2) induce it with a ritual, “explain it to me as if I’m ten years old. 3) recall your original intentions and clarifying your goals. 4) from music.

Exercise 20: Make a picture that’s worth ten thousand words. Create a gesture or movement that would need many words to convey its meaning. If you can do this, you have the skill to develop congruities and affinities. You can find spine. When words fail, spine does not.

Exercise 21: Spinal tap. Pick a favorite work of art and try to determine what spine, if any, the artist built into it – to seek out the hidden architecture of a piece. The spine is the one of the first places to look if you want to understand how a work of art gathers substance and integrity. If you can find the spine in work that already speaks to you, you can build better spines for work of your own.

Exercise 22: What’s you MQ (Metaphor Quotient)? The process by which we transform the meaning of one thing into something different is an essential part of human intelligence. Everything you create is a representation of something else; in this sense, everything you create is enriched by the metaphor.

Skill. Mastered the underlying skills of their creative domain, and build the creativity on the solid foundation of those skills. 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 your ideas can be. Craft is where our best efforts begin. Learn to do it yourself. It’s the only way to broaden your skills. Personality is a skill too. Perfect practice makes perfect. Art is a vast democracy of habit. The great ones never take fundamentals for granted. Concentrate on the imperfections. Inexperience erases fear; you do not know what is and what is not possible and therefor everything is possible. Hemingway’s quote, “… to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.” Analyze your own skill set. See where you’re strong and where you need dramatic improvement, and tackle those lagging skills first. “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 bout floundering. Combining the two is the essence of the creative life.”

Exercise 23: Take inventory of your skills. Before you can appreciate your skills and where you might need improvement, you need to take inventory.

Exercise 24: Play Twenty Questions. Thoroughness, like discipline, is one of the most valuable skills. The patience to accumulate detail keeps you grounded and sharp. Before you approach a topic, write down twenty things you want to know about it. The more you know, the better you can imagine.

Exercise 25: Package your time. Harding’s quote, “The most important thing is not what the author or artist had in mind to begin with but at what point he decided to stop.” Think of all things you want to accomplish in the next few months. Make the circles big or little depending on the importance of the task. Use this method to for prioritizing your time.

Exercise 26: Take away a skill, a vital one. Would you be able to create? How would you overcome the loss? How would you compensate? What skill would come to the fore to rescue the work? It’s the value of thinking hypothetically; it unleashes new talents and it forces you to face reality. E.g. Jack Welch’s valuable thinking; Take away new customers. What have you got left? Pick one of your skills from your inventory. Now remove it. What’s left?

Ruts and groves. There will be time when your creativity fails you. You are in a rut. It’s not a creative block. A rut is a false start or you’re spinning your wheels. You know you’re in a rut when you annoy other people, bore your collaborators and supporters, fail to challenge yourself, and get the feeling that you’re standing still. A rut can be the consequences of 1) a bad idea, 2) bad timing, 3) bad luck, 4) sticking to the tried and tested methods that don’t take into account how you or the world has changed. Dealing with ruts: 1) You have see the rut. You have to make a habit of reviewing your efforts along the way, seeing where you’ve been and where you are to make sure you’re still heading in the right direction, if any. 2) admit you’re in a rut. The more disciplined you are, the less you’ll be willing to cut your losses and stop the sanity. 3) Getting out of the rut. To get out of the rut. 1) You need a new idea. Give yourself an aggressive quota for ideas, like give coming up with 60 uses for a stool within 2 minutes. 2) Challenging your assumptions. Switching things around like 1) identify the concept that isn’t working. 2) write down your assumptions about it, 3) challenge the assumptions, 4) act the challenge.

When you are in a groove, you’re not spinning your wheels; you’re moving forward in a straight and narrow path without pauses or hitches. You’re unwavering, undeviating, and unparalleled in your purpose. There are groves where everything flows for days, weeks, months, and you knock out a finished work in record time. Finding your grooves: 1) a breakthrough in your craft, 2) in congenial material, 3) in a perfect partner, in a favorite character, 4) comfortable subject matter.

Exercise 27: Do a verb. Pick a verb and act it out physically, e.g. “squirm,” “dart,” “twirl,” or “chafe.” The big ten are: push, spin, run, jump, twist, roll, skip, turn, walk, and fall.

Exercise 28: Build a bridge to the next day – to increase the chances of successive successes. Hemingway’s trick – call it a day at a point when he knew what came next (to extend the mini-groove.) Try to stop while you have a few drops left in the tank, and use that fuel to build a bridge to the next day. Give yourself a creative quota. Write the leftover idea on a notebook and put it away. Start the next day by looking at your note.

Exercise 29: Know when to stop tinkering. Knowing when to stop is almost as critical as knowing how to start. For Twyla, she attaches the name to the work as the last thing she does.

Exercise 30: Brew ruts into grooves. A bad habit – i.e. one that doesn’t produce good results – is a rut. Exorcise the rut. Exercise the groove.

An “A” in failure. Every creative person has to learn to deal with failure, because failure, like death and taxes, is inescapable. A therapeutic power to failure. It cleanse. It helps you put aside who you aren’t and reminds you who you are. Failure humbles. Private failures (first drafts that get tossed in the wastebasket) are great. The more you fail in private, the less you’ll fail in public. Creative act is editing. You’re editing out all the lame ideas that won’t resonate with the public. It’s setting the bar a little higher for yourself and your audience. Jerome Robbins’ quote, “you do the best work after your biggest disasters.” It’s a tug of war. You have to forget the failure to get it behind you, but at the same time you have to remember and understand the reasons for it. Failures may be failure of 1) skill – develop the skill you need, 2) concept – get out while the getting’s good, 3) judgment – remember at all times that you’re the one who’ll be judged by the final product, 4) nerve – looking foolish is good for you. It nourishes the spirit, 5) through repetition – it forces us to cling to our past successes. 6) from denial – changing that work and how we work.

Exercise 31: Give yourself a second chance. By acknowledging failure, you take he first step to conquering it.

Exercise 32: Build your own validation squad. As we mature, we need to build criticism into the working process, as we do with failure. Look for people who are 1) have talents who you admire, 2) your friends (have your best interest in heart), 3) don’t feel they are competing with you, 4) have hammered your work in the past.

The long run.There is no long run without devotion, commitment, and persistence. Being in “the bubble” is elimination of every distraction, sacrificed almost everything that gave pleasure. When creativity has become your habit; when you’ve learned to manage time, resources, expectations, and the demand of others; when you understand the value and place of validation, continuity, and purity of purpose – then you’re on the way to an artist’s ultimate goal: the achievement of mastery. Mastery is an elusive concept. You never know when you achieve it absolutely – and it may not help you feel you’ve attained it. When it all comes together, a creative life has the nourishing power we normally associate with food, love and faith.

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Posted by Derek Tsai in Book Reviews

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