The Creative Habit - Critical summary review - Twyla Tharp

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The Creative Habit - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 9781480589834

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Critical summary review

Whether you’re a world-renowned painter or merely a student writing his debut novel, we’re pretty sure that you can’t help being anxious whenever you’re starting a new project. 

Also, regardless of your background, it’s probably a safe guess that you’ve been on one or two barren runs, and that at least one or two of your most promising ideas were, more than one time, stalled by the proverbial creative block.

Twyla Tharp, the author of The Creative Habit, is a New York-based dancer, and one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. Winner of two Emmy awards and a Tony, she is also (ever since 1997), an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In other words, she knows more than just a little something about the beauty and the misery of the creative process, and she is not afraid to share everything she knows about it, warts and all.

Drawing on her own experiences with creative hurdles and the methods of overcoming them, in The Creative Habit, Tharp offers a plethora of good pieces of advice which you will find to be both thought-provoking and applicable.

Moreover, if you are an artist (for the book can be used by engineers, businesspeople, parents and many other types of people as well), you will find both the analogies and the great creative geniuses mentioned in this book rousing and encouraging. 

And we guarantee you that you’ll want to try at least one or two of Tharp’s organizational techniques!

Stuck in a creative rut? Having trouble with discipline whenever you want to turn a big idea of yours into an even bigger project?

The Creative Habit is just the book for you. And, needless to add, for the very same reason, this summary is a must-read.

Nature vs. nurture: settling the debate

Let’s start where all books about creativity should: with the good old nature vs. nurture showdown!

For all intents and purposes (not just those of this section of our summary), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the archetypal child prodigy. In other words, people think that he was born with much more talent than they are ever going to acquire.

Their argument: Mozart was composing and playing keyboard and violin at an age when you were barely able to tell your left from your right hand. 

Clearly, they must be on to something!

Round 1: Nature beats Nurture to the first punch!

But do you know that Mozart practiced playing the piano—and wrote compositions for it—so regularly and so prolifically that by the time he died—and he died at the tender age of 35—his fingers were already deformed?

Round 2: Nurture strikes back!

Unsurprisingly, just like many other fights of the same sort before, this one too is a draw.

Regardless, Twyla Tharp will always be standing in Nurture’s corner, unwilling to ever throw in the towel. Because, as far as she is concerned, even though you can’t really do anything about the potential of your genes, triggering it is your job!

And that’s lesson number 1 for you, right there:

You can be born a genius, but just like a natural-born boxer, you’ll get nowhere in your life if you don’t flex your creativity muscle from time to time!

But, before you start stretching and toning it, you must discover it first! Because even if you have the knack for dancing like Twyla Tharp, you may never find this out if your father forces you into becoming a boxer.

Hey, wait a minute! 

That’s the plot of Billy Elliot!

Let’s work together toward the happily-ever-after ending, shall we?

Discovering your potential

As we said above, the first step toward realizing your potential is recognizing it. Which means that every creative journey begins with asking yourself who you are and what you really like in life. 

The Ancient Greeks pinned it in a much more direct and concise manner: “know thyself!”

An excellent way to start this process of self-discovery is asking yourself what would you want to be if there were no financial or logistical limitations to their desires. 

Even more creatively, you can ask yourself which name you would choose if you could (and wanted to) reinvent yourself at this very moment.

This exercise may look silly, but there’s a reason why Mozart played with variations of his name for most of his life, why Muhammed Ali is the greatest and Cassius Clay a footnote in history, and why the ancient masters of Japanese art were allowed to change their name once in their lifetime.

Changing your name is your way of saying, “I’m done with the person I was: I’ve just started my journey toward becoming this person.”

Have you ever heard of a guy called Eric Blair or a girl named Cicily Fairfield?

Of course, you have—those are the birth names of famous writers George Orwell and Rebecca West. The former changed it to shuck off the social class into which he was born, the second to appropriate the character of a feminist heroine in Ibsen.

“How right those names now seem,” wrote the essayist Joseph Epstein, “how completely their owners have taken possession of them!”

Discovering what you want to be is also sometimes a matter of revelation.

Twyla Tharp retells the story of an art student who experienced one of these moments during a creative exercise at New York’s Vassar College. She asked him (just like she had asked many other students before) to assign a list of colors to a certain dance/music improvisation. 

Instead of this, after just a few minutes, the art student read a 500-word exposé which included everything from his childhood to his friends and mentioned only one color: “limpid blue.”

“Do you realize,” Twyla asked him, “that you’ve just recited about five hundred words in an assignment about color?” Unsurprisingly, the average art student went on to become a great writer. Up to this moment, he was in a state of DNA denial. 

Correct, nurture may work wonders—but it’s better if it has a proper foundation.

On the necessity of routines and creative stealing (aka, originality)

One other thing about nurture: it only works if you are disciplined, i.e., if you chunk your progress down to a set of daily routines.

True, it may be tiresome from time to time (in fact, it will be for most of the time), but there’s a reason why they say “practice makes perfect”: that’s how your brain and your body know what you deem important enough to remember.

Bear in mind that playing a Bach fugue was Igor Stravinsky’s compulsory morning ritual for most of his life. And he was Stravinsky for the second part of it!

Why would he, the most influential composer of the early 20th century, bother playing other composers so late in his life?

Well, because that’s how originality is mostly born.

Contrary to popular opinion, originality has nothing to do with gods and muses and is not something mythical and unattainable. Quite the opposite, originality is something everybody can achieve through hard work only. 

And this hard work is nothing less—or more—than reading, analyzing, and copying the majestic works of art done by those before us. 

As T.S. Eliot quite wittily noticed, when done elegantly and creatively, in art (and in art only), stealing is not only legal but also desirable. Want evidence? How about the fact that all but one of the plots of Shakespeare’s plays were quite immodestly lifted by the Bard from someone else’s books?

Simply put: if you want to be original, learn how to steal. It sounds a lot worse than it actually is. Maybe that’s why Twyla Tharp uses the phrase “scratching for ideas” instead. In essence, it means saving, recording, and storing everything that sounds interesting and relevant to you in other people’s works. And rubbing away the dust until you see your face in the reflection.

Now, don’t get us wrong: even the Mesopotamians and the Ancient Hebrews thought that there’s nothing new under the sun, and yet, how much the world has evolved in the meantime, how different is the art of today when compared to the art of yore!

However, believe it or not, every single step forward was made through recombination! And each of the skills which allowed this to happen was developed through repetition.

So, what are you waiting for?

Start copying the past masters if you are a painter, start rewriting the poems of your favorite authors if you’re a poet. Because you’ll be able to move forward only if you get to the bottom of their endeavors!

“Know how to solve every problem that has been solved,” wrote the great physicist Richard Feynman in the last days of his life..

We guess this is what he actually meant.

Stealing from the past masters: some organizational techniques, tips, and tricks

The twelve chapters of The Creative Habit are sprinkled with quite a few practical exercises, and we feel obliged to share with you at least a few of them.

The one that got our most committed attention was Tharp’s organizational method, the one that has helped many authors (such as, say, Beethoven and Zola) to develop their most original and most ambitious ideas.

It starts with a simple, empty box.

Label it with the name of your most general project and list your main goals on index cards. Now, start filling it with everything that seems even remotely connected with these and somehow has gotten your attention. 

Check the box from time to time, read the notes and compare them with the newspaper excerpts or what have you, and try to find some connection between them. When that clicks—take out these things and put them in another box.

This second box now represents your current project, i.e., its main idea. Tharp calls it your spine. Develop it. See which skills are necessary to support the spine. For example, the spine of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a simple idea: “get the whale.” However, supporting it means finding out everything you can about writing great novels, hunting whales, sea life, obsessions, etc.

Which brings us to yet another point: persevere! There will be creative ruts, and there will be failures along the way, no matter what you do. But if you are as obsessed as Ahab with your project, sooner or later, you’ll get your eureka moment!

Though this organizational method helps a lot, it is important to note that too much organization may hinder creativity as well. 

Sometimes, you will have to find a way to enjoy the discomfort of deadlines and the uneasiness of the lack of resources! Just take Steven Spielberg for example: he got his best Jaws idea (to film from the perspective of a shark) because he didn’t have the money to build a believable, artificial shark!

Finally, let’s subvert one of Benjamin Franklin’s most famous pieces of advice: “Never leave that till tomorrow, which you can do today.”

Well, in the world of creativity, this is not always true. In fact, quite the opposite: it may be useful to allow yourself a bridge between days, to know your next step from the moment you wake up.

Ernest Hemingway, for example, intentionally stopped writing at the most exciting part each day—so as to get the necessary fuel for the next morning! He basically never started with a blank page, did he?

Final Notes

The Creative Habit is written by a person with admirable creative habits: even in her seventies, Twyla Tharp still goes to the gym after drinking her morning coffee. If that’s not a good blurb for a book with this kind of title—we don’t know what is!

Accessible and applicable, The Creative Habit is “an entertaining ‘how to’ guide” (Newsweek), an “exuberant, philosophically ambitious self-help book for the creatively challenged.” (The New York Times Book Review).

And, if you are an artist, it can, quite inevitably, change your daily routines.

12min Tip

Stop thinking of originality as something you’ll never be able to achieve: just start copying and recombining old ideas and, eventually, you’ll be as original as Picasso or Dali.

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Who wrote the book?

Twyla Tharp is a dancer and one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. Winner of two Emmy awards and a Tony, she is also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1997. She is m... (Read more)

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