Review: The Creative Habit

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business book of interest.

The Creative HabitMany people in the information economy are creative workers. Writers. Programmers. Photoshop wizards. Bloggers. Photographers. Analysts. Businesspeople. Engineers. And many more. We all use the creativity locked within our minds to achieve amazing things. Things that inspire and inform the people around us.

I’m one of those creative workers. I spend my time trying to come up with and develop ideas into something compelling. I’m driven by the same need to be constantly creative that many others in the modern economy are. It’s led me towards reading many books like Thinkertoys and The Path of Least Resistance that focus on creative productivity. The Creative Habit is also in that group, and it may be the most compelling of the lot (and that’s saying something, because I found The Path of Least Resistance quite powerful, indeed).

The author of The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp, has the credibility to write a book like this. She’s a choreographer and dancer, a creative career if there is one, and she’s been amazingly successful at it, racking up a pile of Emmy and Tony awards on her mantle. Her general philosophy, as presented in this book, is that creativity is a habit, a product of preparation and effort, and not necessarily just a God-given gift that only some people have.

She spends the book laying out this philosophy in great detail. Does it work? Is there meat here that creative workers can take and apply in their own lives? I think there’s quite a bit, so let’s dig in.

A Walk Through The Creative Habit

This book is elegantly laid out: matte finish, gorgeous pages, and so forth. The content is solid, but aesthetically it would serve well as a coffee table book in the right environment.

1. I Walk into a White Room
The book opens with the idea that all creative people have a canvas upon which to work and we all use a wide diversity of tools to create something on that canvas. As Tharp puts it, “everything is a tool.”

The catch is that whenever people have a creative space in which to work, they need some degree of preparation to create a masterpiece on that canvas. Creativity requires planning on a lot of different levels. For example, if you read a well-written article (I won’t presume to say that this is one), you’re usually seeing the results of a lot of layers of preparation: the original nugget of an idea, research to support that idea (and often multiple layers of that), an outline of an argument, fleshing out that outline with supporting points and evidence, then building that outline into something interesting and exciting with carefully-chosen prose.

It goes even deeper. Each of those steps requires preparation. The translation of that outline into prose, for instance, takes a ton of practice and continuous exposure to inspiration and the talents of great writers. The moment when you make that translation may be creative, but it comes from a ton of preparation for that creative moment. That’s the basic idea of The Creative Habit.

2. Rituals of Preparation
Tharp argues that most people require some sort of ritual or routine to get into a creative state. She shares hers as well as the routines of several others.

I actually have a creative routine/ritual. I get up in the morning, spend some time with my kids around the breakfast table, get them ready to go for the day, meditate for a bit, make sure I’m in some comfortable clothes, then go into my office and shut the door. The click of the door is my mental switch. What’s yours like?

Another key part of this ritual is the elimination of distractions – not only environmental distractions, but distractions inside of us, like fears and self-doubt. Distractions just keep us from doing what we can do by providing excuses to not do it.

3. Your Creative DNA
Everyone draws creativity from different sources, but many people are completely unaware of where their creative bursts come from. Tharp argues that everyone has “creative DNA” – a mix of our natural born skills and key experiences that adds up to different sources for creativity for each person.

How does one tease out the sequence of this “creative DNA”? Tharp offers up a long list of questions to ask yourself; she refers to it as one’s “creative autobiography.” I was intrigued, so I actually answered all of the questions myself. Here are five of the questions and my answers to them.

1. What is the first creative moment you remember?
It was late in the summer of 1985 and I had just turned seven years old. I had received the He-Man action figure Roboto as a birthday gift from my grandmother and I was having a lot of fun playing with it. The action figure came with a comic book that told Roboto’s story, but I didn’t like it, so I spent some time coming up with my own elaborate story about how Roboto was built. I don’t recall any of the story, but I remember really getting into the story I was making up.

2. Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
I told the story to my grandmother out in the back yard. She was sitting out in the grass watching me play (she was probably there as I was making up the story, but I’m not entirely sure). She just sat there patiently listening to me belt out this story about a fighting robot man as told by an excited seven year old, but she listened so intently and watched me so carefully that I really believed she was deeply interested in this story. It made me feel as though I was doing something very good by coming up with this story, and it may have in fact been the start of my desire to write fiction that still blossoms today.

17. Which artists do you admire most?
The two that immediately come to mind is my favorite painter, Vincent van Gogh, and my favorite writer, Haruki Murakami. I admire them both because they describe a very bold reality, one that almost reaches out and slaps me on the face. They’re seeing the same world I see, but they’re seeing it just a bit differently, and their expression of that difference is so bold and strong that I can actually see it through their perspective.

28. What is your ideal creative activity?
Reading. Nothing beats it for me. Whenever I get lost in a book, every time I snap back to “reality,” I feel utterly ready to go do something creative. Something about it gets me going like nothing else.

29. What is your greatest fear?
My greatest fear is somehow losing my audience and not knowing why. It bothers me more than anything else, and it sometimes influences me to throttle back on some of my points and sometimes discard posts that I know will cause controversy. Every time I do post something controversial, I feel rather sick about it as it almost always results in people shouting about how they’re never reading the site again, etc. But, after some time passes, I’m usually glad I wrote it. I need to push myself a little bit more often to avoid this fear.

4. Harness Your Memory
Creativity is often borne from the things we remember from our own past. Writers recall things they’ve written before and things they’ve read. Programmers remember solutions they’ve heard about and code they’ve written.

What does this lead us to? Experience is vital. You need to explore your own area of creativity as deeply as possible, trying different things, exposing yourself to great works, repeating some of the basic techniques until they become reflex.

For me, that means that I don’t just read personal finance, I read a lot of materials. I particularly enjoy reading well-written essays – those “Best American” compilations that contain a nice collection of strong writings. I subscribe to The New Yorker and The Atlantic and The Economist (yes, I resubscribed to the latter) because these magazines contain brilliant essays in every issue. I read challenging fiction and nonfiction books almost constantly.

Together, all of this stuff forms a sort of “memory,” and I use this memory when I try to write creatively. I learn particular ways of organizing thoughts and new ways of phrasing ideas. Doing this over and over again builds your creative memory.

5. Before You Can Think out of the Box, You Have to Start with a Box
Tharp suggests here that, for each creative project you undertake, you make a collection of materials that will aid you in that creative process. In her case, she literally uses a box – when she begins a new project, she begins to put materials into that box that provide the information and inspiration she’ll need to push through that project.

Interestingly, I already do this with The Simple Dollar (and related writings, like my book). My box contains eight essential books, some of my old credit card statements, a letter from Amy Dacyczyn, some handwritten notes from readers (and a few printed ones, too), and some other miscellany. It seemed very natural to collect this stuff – I hadn’t considered that it was a source of inspiration, but it often is.

6. Scratching
“Scratching” is Tharp’s term for searching for that little tiny grain of an idea that will grow into something big. It’s that first little start towards a creative piece, that one little bit that sets it apart.

Here’s another way to look at it. You have all of that stuff in your box from the previous chapter, but without the spark of something else, it’s just stuff in a box. I might have eight books in there that are truly great, but without a little something else, they remain just those eight boring books.

Scratching is what I call writer’s block. You have all of those big pieces ready to go, but there’s nothing unique or interesting about them. It’s those little pieces, those little ideas, that make all the difference. You mix them in and combine them with the big pieces to create something new, like herbs in a cauldron of soup.

The chapter offers a ton of ideas about how to scratch more effectively: change your environment, do something completely different, have a conversation, explore nature, read an old and familiar book, and so on. I find that most of these work when I’m stuck – if I just get myself away from the keyboard and do something else for a while, eventually inspiration will strike.

7. Accidents Will Happen
There’s one brilliant quote from this chapter that I feel I must share with you. It comes from page 128, and it summarizes very eloquently the thought process behind whether a creative project is worth following or not.

“You only need one good reason to commit to an idea, not four hundred. But if you have four hundred reasons to say yes and one reason to say no, the answer is probably no.”

Virtually everyone who works on something creative eventually will find themselves working on a project that’s fundamentally flawed in some fashion. Sometimes we’ll recognize it and get out – other times, we’ll keep beating our heads against the wall and never make it right.

Twarp gives a lot of good ways to identify what’s wrong, but I basically feel this way: when I begin to feel sour about a post or something I’m writing, I stop immediately and put it aside for a while. That sour feeling happens when there’s something going wrong, whether I’ve consciously realized it or not, and if I keep pressing ahead, there’s a good chance that I’m completely wasting my time. Often, I’ll go back later and see the flaw in what I did; sometimes, I can even rescue the work and feel good about it again. But that sour feeling is almost always right.

8. Spine
Most creative works have a spine – a basic idea upon which the entire piece relies. That spine may or may not be visible to the outside observer, but to the creator, it’s the basis for everything.

A programmer, for instance, has an algorithm as a spine. An algorithm is a solution to a problem. The creativity of programming is in how that solution is actually written in code, in the ways that each little piece of that algorithm is pushed towards efficiency.

A writer (like myself) usually has a main idea as a backbone, something that can often be expressed in a sentence or two. Harrison Bergeron is one of my favorite short stories with a central idea that can be expressed easily: Equality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The beauty in Harrison Bergeron isn’t that central idea (that’s been stated in many places and in many ways), but what Kurt Vonnegut does with that core idea.

The backbone of this post is The Creative Habit, but it branches off from there. In some ways, it’s about expressing my own creative habits. In another way, it’s an attempt to excite you and convince you to chase yours. The spine is that book, but it’s not the body.

9. Skill
Tharp intertwines the idea of creative success and deliberate practice here. She makes the astute point that people who are truly gifted and creative have the nuts and bolts of that skill down cold. Great chefs can dice and slice faster than anyone else in the kitchen. Great writers have an immense vocabulary and understanding of grammar. Great fashion designers can sew and cut faster than anyone else in their shop. Great painters make their own paint. Great musicians can often not only break their music down to extremely tiny pieces, but can often assemble their own instruments.

I confess that this is where I am weakest at assembling a creative habit. I often feel as though I have barely scratched the surface of what I can learn as a writer and I genuinely yearn for more time to work specifically on the elements of the craft – writing different styles, trying out new techniques, and so on. Unfortunately, when you have a big pile of assignments on your desk and a family of mouths to feed, you don’t always find the time to do things like this that you may wish you had.

10. Ruts and Grooves
This chapter is about “ruts,” which I identify as extended periods of writer’s block where I forcibly crank out substandard stuff but I’m just not creating anything good, and “grooves,” which I identify as periods where the ideas and the words are flowing so fast that I can scarcely keep up.

How do you get out of a rut? Tharp offers several suggestions. My tactic is to write very little at all and go on something of a writing “vacation.” I do the minimum that I have to do and rely on stuff I’ve written when I’m in a groove (when I’m in one of those, I write as much as I possibly can and save up the extras).

How do you get into a groove? My best grooves usually happen at the same time I dislodge myself from a rut. Something very random will inspire me and I’ll subtly sense that it’s the calm before the storm. Sometimes, brainstorming works – I’ll try to list twenty posts I can write based on my most recent credit card statement, or I’ll spend a whole day just commenting on random blogs and try to extract three post ideas of my own based on what they said.

11. An “A” in Failure
How can a creative person handle something that simply doesn’t work? Trash it? Excise some of the pieces? I think it really depends on the kind of failure.

I have a folder of about eighty posts that wound up just being complete failures. In the end, there was some gigantic flaw with each one: it sounded like whining, it didn’t really have a point in the end, it contained too many ideas at once, it revealed more about my personal life than I’m comfortable with revealing about others, and so on.

The best part? Each and every one of those failed posts inspired at least one more that worked. Some of them have inspired several articles. One – by itself – inspired my upcoming book. The point? Failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often, it plants the seeds for later success.

12. The Long Run
All of these little habits and techniques add up to something bigger. They add up to the day-to-day workflow of a creative person. It is in the repetition of all of these habits and techniques – and understanding them, inside and out – that a person can go on being creative day after day, month after month, year after year.

It requires more than just repetition of the habits, though. Like anything long term, it requires devotion and commitment and persistence.

I often look at creative work as being a lot like a marriage. Sometimes you get along, sometimes you don’t. There are certain buttons you can push to make things go well, but there are also distractions and many ways you can derail your progress. In the end, it requires continual effort and a respect of the quirks of the situation.

Some Thoughts About The Creative Habit

It’s not about the lightning bolt of inspiration. Lightning is something you can’t control. This is more like going on top of your house and installing a lightning rod. That time investment in installing that rod is the preparation and effort a person puts into their creative projects.

I’m fascinated by the routines of other people. I loved the sections in this book that highlighted the creative routines of others. What do you do to get yourself in a creative mindset?

It’s hard to explain to others that I’m actually working when I’m scratching. Whenever I hit a big case of writer’s block, I’ll often do something completely different. I’ll work in the garden. I’ll call my mom. I’ll read a book. I’ll play with my kids. I’ll do the bills. I’ll go to the library and just mill around randomly. I’ll go on a walk. To many people around me, when I do this, I’m Not Working, even though in my own mind, I’m clearly working. If you’re in that situation, check this book out from the library and have them read the chapter on Scratching. It might help both of you.

Finding the little bits of creativity is almost always the hardest part for me. I try a lot of different brainstorming tasks, but the biggest help for me has been Made to Stick. Almost all of my creative fluorishes seem to start from seeds planted by that book. When I’m really stuck, I pull it out, reread it, and also reread some of my best writings just before bed. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll wake up and the creativity will be flooding out. What techniques work for you in getting through the drought?

Is The Creative Habit Worth Reading?

The Creative Habit is an excellent read for anyone who is consistently engaged in creative work. Almost every page made me think in some way about the habits I use in my daily work and whether or not those habits are genuinely effective as a writer. There are a number of quite useful exercises described in the book and many examples of how others apply the exercises and ideas in their own life.

Does it have reference value? That’s usually the big question I ask myself when I’m trying to decide if that book crosses the line between “a book to check out at the library” and “a book to own.” This one rides right on the fine line for me. I intend to return it to the library, but I also think there’s a pretty strong likelihood I’ll want to refer to it again at some point in the near future and will find myself checking it out again.

I strongly encourage you to give this book a shot if it sounds compelling to you at all. It’s a quick read with a lot of compelling thoughts within and a fairly unique perspective. That, to me, adds up to a book well worth your time.

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