Highlights from The Creative Habit

While on vacation, I read Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit and found that it was full of advice that could easily be applied to many creative endeavors, from building kickboxing combos to journaling to writing code. Here are some highlights from my reading, grouped by themes:

Forward momentum:

Any approach that renews your self-confidence and keeps you moving forward is worth cultivating and repeating.

In every situation, at the beginning or end of the workday, you have a choice. You can look back or you can look forward. My advice: look forward.

Rituals / routines:

My morning workout ritual is the most basic form of self-reliance; it reminds me that, when all else fails, I can at least depend on myself. It’s my algebra of self-reliance...

...he connects to the next day with a fixed nighttime routine as well: Just before he falls asleep, he reads the last few sentences he wrote.

Multitasking

(I have a thing against multitasking, so this was validating):

You’re also cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything excellently. You’re compromising your virtuosity.

Metaphor:

Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions, and feelings we store away and finding new ways to connect them. What we’re talking about here is metaphor. Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art, if it is not art itself. Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it—for ourselves and others.

Metaphor, as Cynthia Ozick writes, “transforms the strange into the familiar.

Names:

Names are often a repository of a kind of genetic memory....The name change was a sign of artistic maturity.

Memory:

There are as many forms of memory as there are ways of perceiving, and every one of them is worth mining for inspiration.

That’s muscle memory. Automatic. Precise. A little scary.

Environment:

To get the creative habit, first you need a working environment that is habit-forming.

What are the conditions of your perfect world? Which of them are essential, and which can you work around?

Being in the bubble does not have to mean exiling yourself from people and the world. It is more a state of mind, a willingness to subtract anything that disconnects you from your work.

Luck:

If the luckiest people in the world are the ones who get paid for doing what they would otherwise do for free, I am already lucky. But I’m an optimist. My greatest dream is always to be luckier.

Your creative endeavors can never be thoroughly mapped out ahead of time. You have to allow for the suddenly altered landscape, the change in plan, the accidental spark—and you have to see it as a stroke of luck rather than a disturbance of your perfect scheme. Habitually creative people are, in E. B. White’s phrase, “prepared to be lucky.”

“Yes, I admit I was lucky. But I saw it and I was ready for it, whereas many people wouldn’t know a stroke of luck if it bit them on the nose.” - Mark McCormack

Process:

technical scheme of improvising (generating ideas), getting them on tape (retaining), watching the tapes later on (inspecting), and finding a way to use them in a dance (transforming)

Reading:

If you’re like me, reading is your first line of defense against an empty head.

I read for growth, firmly believing that what you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read.

It’s not enough for me to read a book. I have to “own” it. I scribble in the margins. I circle sentences I like and connect them with arrows to other useful sentences. I draw stars and exclamation points on every good page, to the point where the book is almost unreadable.

Overplanning:

Too much planning.... lulls you into a complacency that removes one of the artist’s most valuable conditions: being pissed. Art is competitive with yourself, with the past, with the future. It is a special war zone where first you make the rules, and then you test the consequences.

Role models:

Traveling the paths of greatness, even in someone else’s footprints, is a vital means to acquiring skill.

Change:

improvise in new rooms, turn on different music, change my reading habits, all in an effort to fight off old habits and shake myself up.

In its purest form, inexperience erases fear. You do not know what is and is not possible and therefore everything is possible....I want to maintain some inexperience. Giving my next dance a new set of specs is one sure way to do that.

In A Book of Five Rings, the sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi counseled, “Never have a favorite weapon.” Warriors know they need to enlarge their arsenal of skills in order to avoid becoming predictable to their adversaries.

Change—changing the work and how we work—is the unpleasant task of dealing with that which we have been denying.

We can fight the lockdown of our curiosity. We can sign up for the long run even if we might not cover the course as elegantly as our heroes.

The discomfort will stimulate your brain.

Skill:

Skill gives you the wherewithal to execute whatever occurs to you. Without it, you are just a font of unfulfilled ideas. Skill is how you close the gap between what you can see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce; the more skill you have, the more sophisticated and accomplished your ideas can be.

You double your intensity with skill.

Thoroughness, like discipline, is one of the most valuable skills. The patience to accumulate detail keeps you grounded and sharp.

If you don’t have a broad base of skills, you’re limiting the number of problems you can solve when trouble hits.

Failure:

Every creative person has to learn to deal with failure, because failure, like death and taxes, is inescapable.

The more you fail in private, the less you will fail in public.

All I have is the certainty of experience that looking foolish is good for you. It nourishes the spirit.