This Writer's Life

Dance With Me, Part 1

Group of contemporary dancers performing on stage

Dancers (Shutterstock)

Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

I’ve read a lot of creativity books, but none quite like The Creative Habit, Learn It and Use It For Life. The author, Twyla Tharp, is a daring and innovative choreographer. Her bio states that she “has choreographed more than one hundred sixty works: one hundred twenty-nine dances, twelve television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines.” She’s won numerous awards as well. Currently in her seventies, she is still creating.

Some interesting things about Tharp: she loves Beethoven, her mother named her after a country singer, and she spent part of her childhood in San Bernardino, California (as I did).

Besides discipline and hard work, what is the secret to this artist’s prolific output? And what can a person who moves humans through space teach a person who moves words around on a page?


I got so much from The Creative Habit that I’m writing two posts on it. Part 1 follows. Part 2 will come next week.

Part 1: Large white rooms, rituals, boxes and scratching

When I read the first sentence in the book, “I walk into a large white room,” I immediately thought of the dreaded blank white page. The white room is Tharp’s white page, which symbolizes “something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful…It’s no different for a writer.” How to conquer the fear of the white room or page? The answer: hard work, ritual, and habit.

Tharp is a firm believer that there are no “natural geniuses,” just talented people who work harder than anyone else. She herself is an example, rising at 5:30 a.m., and working out at the gym for two hours. When immersed in a project, she removes distractions – i.e., mirrors, clocks, newspapers, and even talking – from her life. She doesn’t watch movies, or engage in multitasking, or listen to background music, which “nibbles away at your awareness.”

One of my favorite things that Tharp does is create a box for every project. “I start every dance with a box,” she writes. “I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of that dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.” The box is her reference, her storage and retrieval system, a place for her research and even a few tchotchkes. You must, writes Tharp, “learn to respect your box’s strange and disorderly ways.” My notebooks are Tharp’s boxes, and yes, they are strange and disorderly, repositories for candy wrappers, stickers, quotes, and words like mammogram, fire, abruptly, downtown, and permanent.

In the middle of the book comes a chapter titled “Scratching.” Scratching is what Tharp calls looking for ideas. Finding, borrowing, appropriating, stealing – it’s “an essential part of creativity.” I do it all the time. I get ideas from reading, from watching movies, from taking walks, from browsing through weird little antique stores, from museums of any kind, and from attending readings. Tharp writes about the importance of scratching for little ideas, since without them “the big idea quickly shrivels and evaporates into nothing…A dance doesn’t hit me whole and complete. Inspiration comes in molecules of movement, sometimes in nanoseconds.” It’s like this with poetry too, with words and sentences sometimes crawling, sometimes jumping onto the page. Scratch in the best places, Tharp advises, and never scratch in the same place twice.

Tharp is a dedicated reader, but, as she states in “Scratching,” “I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.” Instead, she reads competitively, for growth, and for inspiration. She also reads “transactionally,” asking herself the question “How can I use this?” I read for pleasure, but also with a part of my brain open, looking for something I can use. When I read books I’m planning to review, I look for lines I can quote, themes I can comment on, and anything else that helps me “open” the book for readers.


Next week: Part 2 of The Creative Habit.

Categories: This Writer's Life

3 replies »

  1. I loved this post! As a writer and dancer, I appreciate the imaginative intermingling of the two art forms. Tharp’s idea that listening to music while creating “nibbles at awareness” is striking as I often write with a soundtrack. I’m currently working on a blog post on creative habits, so this comes at the right time. Thank you for introducing me to this book.

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