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Why Creativity's a Habit and Everyone Can Learn It

Choreographer and Broadway hitmaker Twyla Tharp tells us how.

OVER THE LAST 35 YEARS, I've created 130 dances and ballets. Some of them are good, some less good (that's an understatement — some were public humiliations). I've created and directed a hit show on Broadway. I've spent eight months on a film set in Prague, choreographing the dances and directing the opera sequences for Milos Forman's Amadeus. For three decades I've run my own dance company, working with dancers in almost every space and environment you can imagine. (I have even rehearsed in cow pastures.)

After all this, I've come to believe that being creative is as much a routine as it is the lightning bolt of inspiration. True, many believe that all creative acts are born of some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute. For me, though, creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. In a nutshell: Being creative is a full-time job with its own daily patterns and routine — a routine available to everyone.

I was 58 years old when I finally felt like a "master choreographer." The occasion was my 128th ballet, The Brahms-Haydn Variations, created for American Ballet Theatre. For the first time in my career I felt in control of all the components that go into making a dance — the music, the steps, the patterns, the deployment of people onstage, the clarity of purpose. Finally I had the skills to close the gap between what I could see in my mind and what I could get onto the stage.

Why did it take 128 pieces before I felt this way? A better question would be, Why not? What's wrong with getting better as you get more work under your belt? Living a creative life has the nourishing power we normally associate with food, love, and faith. My heroes are the artists whose bodies of work are consistently surprising and fresh. Verdi, for one, had more than his share of masterworks before surprising the world with the ineffable Falstaff at age 81. That he was still growing in his ninth decade makes the arc of Verdi's creative output in his early, middle, and late periods stand out in sharper relief. The same can be said of Cézanne or Matisse or Yeats. Their later work astonishes profoundly and means more because of how it shows their development from earlier efforts.

Creativity Is Not Just for Artists. It's for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; for engineers trying to solve a problem; for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way. We think of creativity as a way of keeping everything fresh and new, while habit implies routine and repetition. That paradox intrigues me because it occupies the place where creativity and skill rub up against each other. Without the time and effort invested in getting ready to create, you can be hit by a thunderbolt, and it'll just leave you stunned. That's why I'm a stickler about preparation. There's a process that generates creativity — and you can learn it.

Rituals of Preparation. I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

By making the beginning automatic, we replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine. An executive I know begins each day with a 20-minute meeting with her assistant. It's a simple organizational tool, but turning it into a daily ceremony for two people intensifies the bond between them and gives their day a predictable, repeatable kick-start.

Beethoven would start each day with a morning walk during which he would scribble into a pocket sketchbook the first rough notes of whatever musical idea inevitably entered his head. Having done that, having limbered up his mind and transported himself into his version of a trance zone during the walk, he would return to his room and get to work.

Athletes know the power of a triggering ritual. A pro golfer may walk along the fairway chatting with his caddie, his playing partner, or a friendly official, but when he stands behind the ball and takes a deep breath, he has signaled to himself that it's time to concentrate.

The Project Box. Everyone has his or her own organizational system. I start every dance with a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

The box documents the active research on every project. For a Maurice Sendak project, the box is filled with notes from Sendak, snippets of William Blake poetry, toys that talk back to you. There are separate boxes for everything I've ever done. This archive provides material to call on, to use as a spark for invention.

The box makes me feel that I have my act together even when I don't know where I'm going yet. It represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I've started work. The box also connects me to a project. It is my soil. I feel this even when I've back-burnered a project: My box may be away on a shelf, but I know it's there.

Most important, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn't write it down and put it somewhere safe.

The purpose of the project box also has to do with efficiency and ease of work. A writer with a good storage and retrieval system can write faster. She isn't spending a lot of time looking things up, scouring her papers, and patrolling other rooms at home wondering where she left that perfect quote. It's in the box.

Scratch Away. The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, busyness with no apparent or definable end in sight. For me, these moments are not pretty. One message thumps away in my head: "You need an idea." But even though I might look desperate, I don't feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going. I call it scratching. A fashion designer is scratching when he visits vintage clothing stores, studies music videos, and parks himself at a sidewalk café to see what passersby are wearing. A film director is scratching when she grabs a flight to Rome, trusting that she will get her next big idea in that inspiring city. The act of changing your environment is the scratch.

You can scratch through books. I once walked into the office of a four-star chef and his assistant as they were scouring through an enormous pile of international cookbooks — none of them in English as far as I could tell — obviously looking for menu ideas. They had a dazed, sheepish look — dazed because I had interrupted them as they were zoning out in their pursuit of a good idea, sheepish because no one likes to be caught in the act of scratching.

Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it's an essential part of creativity. It's primal and very private. It's a way of saying to the gods, "Don't mind me, I'll just wander around in these back hallways…" and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.

A Bridge to the Next Day. The only bad thing about having a good creative day is that one good day does not necessarily beget another. There are ways to increase the chances of successive successes, though.

Ernest Hemingway had the nifty trick of always calling it a day at a point when he knew what came next. He built himself a bridge to the next day. I always quit for the day when there's still some energy left in the room and I know where we would have gone if we hadn't stopped. A writer I know has a fixed nighttime routine: Just before he falls asleep, he reads the last few sentences he wrote. Without fail, he wakes up the next morning brimming with ideas, sentences, whole paragraphs to continue his story. You may find your own ways of bridging to tomorrow if only you look for them.

Excerpted from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. Copyright © 2003 by W.A.T. Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. This article originally appeared in NRTA Live & Learn, Winter 2006.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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