Dance With Me, Part 2

Chagall exhibition at LACMA

 Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

Last week I shared my first post about Twyla Tharp’s wonderful book, The Creative Habit. Here is Part 2.

Part 2: Deprivation, picking fights, packages of time, anti-social = pro-creative

In her chapter “Accidents Will Happen,” Tharp writes “For my first five years, I choreographed to silence. I had no money, no scenery, no music, no stage to speak of.” “No deprivation, no inspiration.” I couldn’t help comparing her situation to the plight of writers just starting out, confronting the enormous indifference of the universe. For poets, the world is even more callous. The bravest thing we do is to write in the face of that disregard.

The exercise “Pick a Fight” appears in the same chapter. Tharp advises us to pick a fight, “with the system, the rules, your rituals, even your everyday routines. For one day,” she writes, “be completely contrary, to the point of orneriness, and belligerence, with anything and everything you do.” Challenge yourself with change; stimulate yourself with discomfort.

I tried this one myself. My usual routine is to be at my desk by 8:30, check email, browse a few news sites, see what’s happening on social media, and usually by 9:00, actually begin working. This time, I decided to read poetry from 8:30-9:00, ignore email until the end of the day, start working on a poem in a form I’ve never tried (the abecedarian, in case you’re wondering) and then get up from my desk and do some lunges. I made it to the letter “k” before I ran out of inspiration, then switched to working on an article. I continued changing things around through the day, and by evening I felt moderately disgruntled and curiously awake. The day seemed to go by slower than normally. I’m not sure I got more done, but it was an interesting experiment.

In “Package Your Time,” Tharp reminds us that “there is no deadline on a painting or a poem; it’s done when it’s done” (or abandoned, if you’re Valery). She’s a choreographer, however, and a performance has a deadline, and an audience waiting. I find it fascinating that Tharp thinks in circles instead of in linear dates – or the way I do, by making endless lists in composition books. Each of Tharp’s circles “rubs up against and enfolds the other circles” and that by looking at her circles, she sees where projects will compete with each other. The circle idea intrigues me. I’m curious to see if it works better than my lists.

The last takeaway from The Creative Habit that I want to share is Tharp’s idea of the bubble. She created her best work, she writes, when she “eliminated every distraction, sacrificed almost everything that gave me pleasure, placed myself in a single-minded isolation chamber…it is not a particularly sociable way to operate. It’s actively anti-social. On the other hand, it is pro-creative.” Tharp relates the story of Philip Roth, who “lives alone in the country, writes seven days a week,” and only leaves his studio to take long afternoon walks. He doesn’t care if someone else is missing him, or has been alone all day, and feels no need to be “entertaining or amusing.” It sounds like exactly what it is: the austere life of a writer who’s part monk, in spite of his books’ explicit content. He says it’s a wonderful experience. (Update on Roth: he stopped writing novels a couple of years ago).

I bring this up because I wish I could do it too, but I’m afraid my need for company is much greater than Roth’s, or even Tharp’s. My kids interrupt me all day long, whenever they please, the dog barks at the UPS man, or my own need for a break disrupts my concentration. But even in that slightly chaotic place, I try to make my own bubble. As Tharp writes further, “Bubbles can exist amid chaos. They can be mobile” – like a rock band on tour.

I enjoyed The Creative Habit because it’s well-written and interesting, but mostly because it made me examine my goals, work habits and motivations. Tharp is the best kind of teacher: intelligent, creative, and devoted to her craft. As she writes in the last sentence of the book, creating dance “permits me to walk into a white room…and walk out dancing.”

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