The Creative Habit

Learn It and Use It For Life: A Practical Guide

Twyla Tharp, with Mark Reiter
Review by Irene Borger, Alpert Award in the Arts

2003, 243 pages, $25.00, Simon & Schuster,

From stage to film, downtown to uptown, tap to post-modern to bravado ballet, crossing over has been a mark of choreographer Twyla Tharp's career. Likewise, her latest book spans multiple genres. Part workbook, part behind the scenes autobiography, part self-help manual, The Creative Habit has a single message: If you dream of living a creative life, get to work!

Tharp's language, narrative and snappy, could never be confused with Graham's sibylline pronouncements or Balanchine's courtly asides and, in large part, this is why the book — ”A Practical Guide” — succeeds. Here on the page, the well-known-to-be-cranky Tharp has become a compassionate coach. (Did she actually write it even though her agent's name is on the title page? It seems so; compare the voice with that of her first book, Push Comes to Shove.) Revealing her own passions, ambitions, practices, and fears, even, and drawing on her four decades in the dance trenches, Tharp knows what she's talking about.

The book opens in a dance studio in midtown Manhattan where she's just started work on a piece that needs to be finished in five weeks. Moving from the white room metaphor to the white canvas and the blank page, Tharp advises readers not to wait for inspiration but to create a daily routine.

“The way I figure it, my work habits are applicable to everyone,” Tharp claims. Not all readers will follow her lead. Self-described as an “insanely committed” individual who moves into a “bubble of monomaniacal absorption” when she works, Tharp says straight out that she rises every single day at 5:30 a.m., hails a taxi to take her to the gym where she pumps iron for two hours. Get your ritual going at the beginning of the creative process, she counsels, “when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”

Action's not the only thing, of course. “You can't just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun — paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.”

Even for those of us who already know that it's a good idea to jot down our goals and create new folders when we start a project (“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with the box” is the name of one chapter) the book contains useful reminders. “A dance doesn't hit me whole and complete,” the prolific Tharp admits. “Inspiration comes in molecules of movement, sometimes in nanoseconds.”

Do-at-home exercises flesh out ideas and are positioned between chapters like extended sidebars in this beautifully designed, easy to read, large type volume. We are encouraged to write our own creative autobiography and provided with thirty-three questions to get us started. (“What are your attitudes toward: money, power, praise, rivals, work, play?” reads one.) If these exercises sometimes sound positively self-helpy (we're invited to analyze our own “skill set,” move in and out of the fetal position, move out of a rut in three steps, imagine a new name for ourselves) they might just work.

Perhaps a reviewer worth her salt would have actually tried out a Tharpian regime for a couple of months, establishing “automatic but decisive patterns of behavior,” challenging her assumptions on “the concepts that aren't working,” and “building bridges to the next day.” Plain old Tharp lovers — I'm one — can simply enjoy hearing her describe her work process as “clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold,” and take pleasure in reading how she turned a flawed Movin' Out into the Tony Award-worthy event. Future historians may be interested by her examples of twentieth century zeitgeist. (Paul Auster and the discovery of vulcanized rubber, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Raymond Chandler all make an appearance in these pages.) Her suggestion that we might try reading bodies of work “archaeologically,” i.e., chronologically backwards so we can see how ideas germinate, fascinates. While the book breaks no new theoretical ground, it's fun to read her perceptions about Jerome Robbins' middle-distance dances or her account of Charlie Chaplin in “Dick” Avedon's studio. And who knew Tharp watched Vietnam era army training films as choreographic research? Or that Stravinsky began his day by playing a Bach fugue.

Since this book champions practicality, one must ask: is it useful? Indeed. If there's anyone you know who still thinks that artists dream rather than work, this is a perfect antidote. It would also make a lovely gift for anyone who Wants to Write-Paint-Discover a New Continent yet believes in the thunder and lighting bolt theory of creativity. Then again, this generous work might also prove helpful for the lollygaggers among us. Habits, I've heard tell, take only six weeks to make.