Book Review: Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Do you sometimes struggle to get into a creative groove? Twyla Tharp’s thoughtful and considered approach to her own practice is presented here in a way that makes it accessible and valuable for any creative endeavours. Here’s my review of The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life.

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How do you find your creative flow? Do you ever get stuck in a rut? I know I can! See recent posts on the need for deadlines, and my National Novel Writing Month diary from last year, while creativity is always at the forefront of my mind, there is sometimes a tangible barrier that prevents it surfacing into the real world.

But this happens to all of us, right? Even the greatest writers suffer from writer’s block, or master painters need to find a new muse to inspire them. Well, yes, that might be the case for some, but on the whole that is a very romanticised view of the creative process. It is also the view that may be stopping you from creating yourself; this notion that only the tortured artist can produce quality work when the right inspiration hits.

Well, this quite frankly is a fallacy. A perversion of modern perception – the enigmatic creative genius. Do not make any attempts to understand them, or to attain such greatness yourself, their talent transcends the thought processes of mere mortals. Yeah, a fallacy, probably created and perpetuated by people who either don’t understand the artistic process, or have a misguided (probably narcissistic) view of their own role as an artist.

The truth is much simpler. It is laid out in the title of Tharp’s book: The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life. That is, creativity is not a divine spark of inspiration, but a habit. It is something we must learn, adapt, and, most importantly, use on a regular basis to achieve results.

Now if you are looking for a warm and fuzzy self-help book, then this might not be for you. That is not to say that Tharp, and her collaborator Mark Reiter, haven’t created a book that is beautiful to read. Not only do the descriptions of the process and Tharp’s connection to the artistic world ring true, but it is also a book that has been visually designed well – with complementary colours, dynamic font changes and clear segments of text. But it will not give you any quick or easy answers. The short version: if you want to be creative, successfully creative, you need to work at it.

A dancer and choreographer, Tharp, knows all about working hard. She describes the physical and mental processes, and the toll they can take through a variety of examples from her own career. Yet, this isn’t just a book that speaks to dancers. It creates parallels that translate to all aspects of artistic practice.

The theme of ‘habit’ is introduced early on, as Tharp describes how her morning routine of going to the gym sets her in the right frame of mind to create. This is a book filled with personal reflection and anecdotes from her career, but these are used as a basis to suggest ways in which the reader can translate into their own working life. This makes it an incredibly accessible book for any creative reader looking for inspiration.

What I found particularly useful were the sections at the end of each chapter that offered reflective exercises to try for yourself. Sometimes these are challenges to break up your routine – force you out of your comfort zone to help you reassess your approach. Other times, these are exercises to help you identify aspects of your creative practice and how to best utilise them. As with all things, some I found more useful than others. My particular favourite involved setting yourself a target, such as name thirty blog posts you could write, and then challenging yourself to achieve this number. Tharp calls it a ‘stretch’. That is, reaching for a target that you think is impossible, but using your creativity to do it anyway. She uses the example of ‘how many uses can you find for a chair?’ Of course, the first ten or so are fairly obvious, but if you set yourself a high number of uses to find you will unlock unfounded depths of creativity. 

It is because of these exercises that this book becomes more than just a one-off read. Since finishing the book myself, I have found myself dipping back in to find a new challenge to set myself to prod that creative beast into action. The small text that proclaims this a ‘practical guide’ is well-deserved. This book will serve the creative mind on many occasions and help you to kick start any creative slump. More importantly, however, it does not propose a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Like any good creative mentor, it challenges you to identify what works for you, to develop your own way of working, and craft your own creative habit. If these are things you are still struggling to find, then this book is a must-have on your shelf.

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