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Notable Book: The Creative Habit


If you are planning to flex your creative muscles at this time of year, and looking for inspiration to get started, The Creative Habit (Simon & Schuster) might be for you.

Pioneering choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote this ambitious book with Mark Reiter. The author has created more than 135 dances for Twyla Tharp Dance, as well as for American Ballet Theater, Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and others. She is the winner of two Emmys and one Tony Award.

Tharp believes creativity is not just for artists. It is within the reach of everyone. All it takes is a willingness to make creativity a habit.

In the book, she shares what she has learned over four decades about planning, organizing and working with others. She explores her creative history and helps you discover your own creative identity through a series of practical exercises. She even gives a recipe for getting out of a rut. Tharp is frank about her own fears and struggles. In Chapter 10, she offers tips on how to recognize and recover from failure.


For Tharp, rituals are must-learn habits, especially preparation rituals. She wakes at 5:30 each morning, dons her gym clothes, steps outside her Manhattan home and hails a taxi. She tells the driver to take her to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where she works out for two hours. This ritual anchors her morning.

“The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.” Rituals are decisive patterns of behaviour: no thinking required. “It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it – makes it repeatable, easy to do.”

She gives examples of rituals: Stravinsky playing a Bach fugue each day when he entered his studio, a chef tending herbs in his garden to kick start his day, and the painter playing pounding music to get her into a groove.

Organizational tools

Tharp starts every project with a cardboard box, the kind you can get at Staples for transferring files. She throws everything related to the project into the labeled box.

“The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet.”

Take, for example, the box for her hit musical Movin’ Out (based on the songs of Billy Joel). Initially, it contained:

Demo tape to sell idea to Billy Joel;
Two blue index cards with stated goals for the show;
Videos of Billy Joel’s lectures to hear what he thought of his songs;
Movies from period: 1965 to1984, including U.S. Army training films from the Vietnam era;
Green beret that belonged to the military adviser, she consulted for the show’s night patrol sequence;
Earrings and macramé vest that sparked her thinking about costumes.

Eventually, the material for the show filled 12 boxes.

The box strategy can also be used as an evaluation tool. Tharp suggests you ask yourself the following questions after each project: How did I do? Did I get to my goal? Did I move beyond it? Did it change along the way? Could I have done it more efficiently?

Scratching techniques

Tharp finds it tough to come up with ideas for new works. To cope, she has developed an approach she calls “scratching”.

“You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece.”

She has two ironclad rules: only scratch among the best – the best composers, the best people and the best resources. And never scratch in the same place twice. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tharp believes the person you will be in five years depends on the people you meet and the books you read.

The artist scratches for ideas in everyday conversation and in nature. She browses through books and visits museums and exhibitions. She follows in the footsteps of her heroes and mentors – Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Dostoyevsky, Yeats, Cézanne, Kurosawa and Balanchine – hoping to discover ideas that will spark her own.

The Creative Habit is an unbeatable combination; it’s both an entertaining “how to” guide and a testament to an unwavering commitment to personal vision. It’s bound to bolster your own desire to live creatively.