I first learned of Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit from Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, when she quoted Tharp during a guest lecture for my memoir class. The quote? “You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas.” This line quickly became one of my beacon quotes* as it’s very much keeping with how I think. I enjoy exploring overlap. I’ve never met a Venn Diagram I didn’t like.
During bleak times (the U.S. Electoral College voted this week–argh), I return to the books that have brought me solace, and this week I picked up Tharp’s The Creative Habit once again. I just put it down long enough to tell you all about it because, dang, this book is helping me. In The Creative Habit, Tharp breaks down the creative process and offers insightful and unexpected approaches to the expected challenges. The book is a gold mine, but todayI just want to talk about two of the elements of the book I’m loving the most:
Reason #1: The Creative Autobiography
In this section, Tharp asks numerous searching questions about one’s creative history and then provides her own (really fascinating) answers. If you’d like to read Twyla Tharp’s answers to the questions, you can see them here. I’m sharing her questions below, and I urge you to set aside 45 to 60 minutes to write out your answers. Normally, I love to skip exercises no matter how helpful the book, but I did the creative autobiography activity, and it was time well spent. The answers I produced reminded me of what matters to me as a writer and how to wring more work out of myself (spoiler alert: deadlines!).
- What is the first creative moment you remember? Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
- What is the best idea you’ve ever had? What made it great in your mind?
- What is the dumbest idea?
- What made it stupid? Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea?
- What is your creative ambition?
- What are the obstacles to this ambition?
- What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?
- How do you begin your day?
- What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?
- Describe your first successful creative act.
- Compare them.
- What are your attitudes toward:
- Which artists do you admire most?
- Why are they your role models?
- What do you and your role models have in common?
- Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?
- Who is your muse?
- Define muse.
- When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?
- When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?
- When faced with impending success or threat of failure, how do you respond?
When you work, do you love the process or the result?
- At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?
- What is your ideal creative activity?
- What is your greatest fear? What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening?
- Which of your answers would you most like to change? What is your idea of mastery?
- What is your greatest dream?
Reason #2: The Chapter Called “Scratching”
One of the creative topics few teachers ever address is how we go from zero to sixty, from having no idea whatsoever to a tender shoot to a full-blown something. The truth is most of us aren’t sure how we go from nothing to something—even if we’ve done it a few times. In this chapter “Scratching,” Tharp starts by describing the feeling of nothing and then gives concrete ideas for how to scratch at the dirt and get something going. Most of us will relate vividly to the opening paragraph of the chapter that acutely renders the wasteland of pre-idea:
“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.’”
I’m sure this sounds familiar to you. But what comes next? “Scratching,” a territory familiar to Tharp as years of as a creative professional. During this period of scratching for an idea she takes walks, searches through books, looks to the work of heroes and mentors, scans everyday conversations, and noodles around.In the “Scratching” chapter, she uses her experience as a choreographer to build an argument about how ideas coming into being. Her three central points:
- Big ideas for big projects are rare.
- The way into big ideas for big projects is often through small ideas.
- We often discover these small ideas through improvising.
“Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one…
When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks…
It’s the same for me. A dance doesn’t hit me whole and complete. Inspiration comes in molecules of movement, sometimes in nanoseconds. A quick combination of three steps is an idea. A turn of the foot coupled with an arm gesture is an idea. A new way of collapsing to the floor is an idea. …”
To get these “small ideas,” Tharp improvises. “To generate ideas, I had to move,” she writes. She then describes her process trying out various steps in the studio before a mirror with no expectations about the outcome of these improvisational sessions.
But how do we let go of outcomes and expectations when we are working on long writing projects, I asked myself? What would equivalent activities be for a writer stuck midway through a book? (Asking for a friend!)
One activity**I recently did with a class encourages just this type of on-topic improvising:
- Write for at least 10 minutes on whatever you’ve been thinking about lately, especially worries/burdens/obsessions. What’s been keeping you up at night?
- Create a Venn diagram. In one circle, give a title to your current concerns and in the other, write the general topic of your current project.
- Now ask yourself: What’s in the overlap? How are these two connected? Is there a word that describes this connection? (You might need to dig a bit for the answer).
- Write that connecting word or a phrase that describes that connection at the top of a new page.
- Write for 15 minutes inspired by that connective word/phrase.
I’ve found this activity to be productive, but it’s also simply a low-stakes way to improvise with your bigger idea. If nothing useful comes of it, some vital warming up has occurred. You’ve spent some active time “scratching” and the practice of scratching inevitably leads to those small ideas.
* Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story is the source of another of my “beacon quotes”: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot. The story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” **This activity was inspired by Seattle author Suzanne Morrison’s talk called “Asking the Right Questions.” If you happen to be in Seattle, she’s teaching this class in February at Hugo House. See details here.