The Creative Habit By Twyla Tharp (Condensed Notes)


1. Starting with nothing and working towards creating something satisfying is terrifying. Some people cannot deal with it; they procrastinate. Being creative is a full-time job with its own daily routines, which is as much a part of the process as the lightning bolt of inspiration. Hard work & perseverance. Discipline morphs into habit. Prepare to be creative. No one can give you your subject matter or it would be their creation. It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into reality, developed through exercise, practice, learning & reflection. Everything is raw material, relevant, usable, feeds into your creativity. But without proper preparation, you cannot see it, retain it and use it.

2. At the beginning of the creative process, when you are most likely to give up or go the wrong way, it’s vital to establish some rituals, automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour. You need to find a working environment or state, that’s habit forming and select the start-up ritual that pushes you forward.

(Ex 1) What is your pencil? What is the one essential tool that feeds your creativity? Do not leave home without it. Keep vital art materials accessible.
(Ex 2) Listen to your wandering thoughts for a minute. See if a word or goal materialises, something interesting. Seeking ideas from the unconscious. Try longer periods.
(Ex 3) What fears are holding you back? Are your creative efforts worth it?
“I’m not sure how to do it. I cannot do it. I lack the skill.” Concern, frustration.
“Once executed, the idea will never be as good as in my mind.” Remember doing it badly is better than not at all.
“Someone has done it before” but we all have something unique to say.
Having to let go of drawings & paintings, part of your heart & soul. “If I didn’t like it, I didn’t want anyone else to have it. And if I loved it, I wanted to keep it.”
“What if the painting I just finished may be my last?” “What if this is it and the creative well has run dry?” “What if that was the best I can do?” The fear that subsequent efforts couldn’t possibly live up to previous work.
(Ex 4) Avoid distractions for a week – subtracting, cutting off, retreating. Take a break from social media. Stop looking in the mirror, find your identity in other ways; what you do rather than how you appear. Most difficult, even impossible is not to check the clock. Try to stay engaged in what you are doing so time does not matter. A self-imposed silence, don’t speak. A reminder of what is and isn’t worth saying. You could limit background noise – peace & quiet. Avoid multi-tasking.
3. You have creative DNA / identity that governs what forms you work in & how you view the world, common threads in your artwork. You take mundane material & run it through your imagination. Involvement vs detachment. Immerse yourself, master the details but step back to see if the artwork scans to the audience. Don’t get so absorbed you lose what you’re trying to say. Dive In. Step Back. Zoe = general life without characterisation – Biology = a specific life, distinguishing features. Which do you tend toward? Where are you strong / positive? Where are you weak / self-destructive? Are you more suited to being a writer than an artist? Based on instinct / self-knowledge.
(Ex 6) What name would you choose if you could change it? Would it belong to someone you admire? Would it make a statement about what you believe or how you want the world to view you? Can it be shortened? There is power in names. If your name is original, it makes you strive for originality. A change in one’s name seems like a betrayal of one’s birthright or identity but the author disagrees. It’s a commitment to a higher calling, not uncommon amongst creative souls. Japanese masters were allowed to change their name once, when they felt they had become the artist they aspired to be. It was a sign of artistic maturity. It can be a rebirth or self-fulfilling prophecy, owners taking possession of heroes or heroines.
4. Mine your memory for inspiration. Connect with something old so it becomes new. Creativity = taking thoughts & finding new ways to connect them. Metaphor transforms the strange into the familiar. Genius is the act of perceiving similarity among disparate things. You are linking A to B to C to come up with H. You do not have a workable idea until you combine two. Copy / recreate great artists to imprint skill through muscle memory. Shadowing.
(Ex 9) Photograph. What do you see in the picture that is indisputably similar to your life today, to the person you’ve become? Why? What is vaguely similar? What bears no resemblance or suggests nothing memorable? What ended up the opposite of what you see? Why? Emotions? What artwork could you produce from this?
5. Any archive / storage system works as long as it lets you store & retrieve your ideas to use as a spark for invention e.g. Evernote, lever arch files. It contains your inspirations without confining creativity because it is unedited, unfiltered. Start each project with a stated goal & write it down. But don’t get stuck in the comfort zone of research as opposed to the hard work of creating. Procrastination.
(Ex 10) Where to begin? There’s a difference between a work’s beginning & starting to work. Start writing about a important point in the story & trust you will find the beginning eventually.
6. You need a tangible idea. It turns you on & keeps generating & improving. Scratching / digging through everything to find something. When you cannot wait for the thunderbolt. They come upon you mysteriously but there is always an ulterior motive behind them e.g. you want to catch people’s attention. Sometimes, you cannot imagine the artwork, you can only generate ideas when you put pencil to paper, brush to canvas. You improvise, no gap between impulse and action. Stop your mental filters from blocking your creative urges. Analyse / edit / fix later. After dreaming, write down whatever idea is in your head without your conscious mind censoring it. With reading you’re literally filling your head with ideas & letting your imagination sift them for something useful. Art is not about minimising risks or controversy. If you want inspiration from art, look at the masters; you will automatically raise the bar.
Read archaeologically. (Ex 12) Take an author or subject & begin with the most recent text, then work backwards. Start where the author ended & finish where he started. Transform the author’s book into your own! With a painting, it is useful to see what the artist produced before & after. Use a dictionary; digging into a word’s multiple definitions is useful too.
(Ex 14) Give yourself a little challenge like paint something based on a phrase in the first book you come across or only in shades of green. Having a handicap to overcome will force you to think in a new and slightly different way.
7. Planning is important but you have to allow for accidents & strokes of luck too. This is a skill. You have to be prepared to see it; something holds meaning only for the person whose mind is ready to draw an inference. 80% of success is showing up. Another trap is the belief that everything has to be perfect before you take the next step. This equals procrastination. Limits are a blessing and bounty can be a curse. Whom the gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources. Deadlines are useful if they get us moving with urgency & passion.
(Ex 16) Creativity is an act of defiance. You’re challenging accepted truths, principles & conventions in order to find your own voice. Pick a fight with the system, your routines / rituals. For one day, be contrary with anything & everything you do. Do the opposite to get your brain humming & rewire your circuitry.
(Ex 17) What are the conditions of your perfect world? Which of them are essential & which can you work around?
(Ex 19) New collaborators bring new energy / chemistry. If you’re a painter, it may be a model who inspires you, fellow artists or a gallery owner who eagerly shows your artwork. Somewhere along the line, you’re going to need the contributions and judgement of other people. Work with the best.
8. Every work of art needs a spine, an underlying theme, a motive for coming into existence. Discover it by recalling your original intentions and clarifying your goals. Try explaining it to yourself as if you are 10 years old. What was the first thing you dropped into your box for the project? Remember how you started.
(Ex 21) Pick a favourite work of art and try to determine what spine, if any, the artist built into it. Entering into the convolutions of an artist’s mind can be as bewildering as trying to explain a dream.
(Ex 22) The process by which we transform the meaning of one thing into something different is an essential part of human intelligence. Everything you create is a representation of something else and hence, enriched by metaphor. In creativity, MQ (metaphor quotient) is as valuable as IQ. Comparing drives metaphor. a) How many objects can you see in 3 minutes of cloud gazing? Visual translation. e) Study a word’s linguistic roots. Where does it take you? f) Find two works of art you can connect to each other. What is the connection? Is this what the creators intended or are you seeing something they could not? Find parallels between painters. You are making them your own by putting them together in new and interesting ways. This is curating.
9. Know the nuts & bolts of your craft. Skill allows you to execute your ideas, double your intensity, otherwise you are just full of unfulfilled ideas. It’s how you close the gap between what you visualise & produce. Craft comes before creativity. Network. Practice. Inexperience erases fear. You do not know what is not possible, therefore everything is. Unknowingness lets you to take risks. Rotating mediums & subject matter keeps things fresh. Analyse to see where you need improvement & tackle that 1st. Passion is important.
(Ex 23) Take inventory of your skills. What do you have, need & can do to develop it?
(Ex 24) Before you approach a piece of artwork, write down 20 questions. Learn as much as you can before putting paint to canvas etc to aid your imagination.
(Ex 25) Think what you want to accomplish in the next few months. How much do they overlap / conflict? Draw big & little circles depending on importance of task, with deadlines around. Use this method to prioritise your time.
(Ex 26) Remove a vital skill from your inventory. How would you overcome / compensate for this loss? What’s left? What artwork can you accomplish without it?
10. Ask yourself, “Am I in a rut or a groove?” If you are blocked, do something, anything. Maybe you feel frustration or relief when you finish instead of anticipatory pleasure of returning the next day. Perhaps it is due to a bad idea, timing, luck or sticking to tried & tested methods that don’t account for change. When a habit or ritual loses its potency, adapt. Review your efforts, where you have been, are now & if you are still heading in the right direction. If not, find a solution. Notice when optimism turns to pessimism. Has something happened in your personal life to trigger the shift? Change your environment or do something uplifting. Set yourself an aggressive quota for ideas; it stirs your juices, forces you to put your internal critic on hold. Discard bad ideas & identify good ones. Grooves are usually preceded by a break-through / epiphany so a leap forward in ability & vision occurs. It also happens in congenial material, a favourite character or comfortable subject matter.
(Ex 28) Build yourself a bridge to the next day. Leave yourself wanting more. Keep something in reserve. Your tired brain regroups & refreshes overnight. For maintaining a routine, some give themselves a creative quota like filling up a measurable section of canvas or clocking off at 5pm.
(Ex 29) Know when to stop tinkering. Exhibition deadlines help but otherwise trust your intuition. To let go & find closure, name the artwork, photograph & post.
(Ex 30) Turn ruts into grooves. Pick a bad habit & do something to make it good, even just viewing it in a positive light. Don’t eliminate, moderate.
11. “If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risks.” Private failures are great, the 1st drafts that lead to the one that clicks. The creative act is editing, exercising your judgement & removing all the lame ideas. Whereas failing in public teaches you to survive. You do your best work after your biggest disasters. The only way is up. It compels you to change. You can learn more from failure than success. It is easier to move on from something unsuccessful than acclaimed. Maybe you have a failure of skill (your reach exceeds your grasp), or concept, or judgement (you made a mistake), or nerve (you lack guts). Repetition of what worked may inhibit us from trying something bold & new. Denial is when you refuse to deal with something not working. Adapt to fix it. Tweak, cut & add, replace and reposition.
(Ex 31) At some point you will present your artwork & it will be found wanting but you always get a 2nd chance. Not every art form is forgiving & offers you the ability to rework. You must just absorb any criticism & do better next time. We could give ourselves a second chance by asking friends their opinion before it’s published.
(Ex 32) We all seek approval to assure us we are not wasting our time but that neediness fades as we get older & more confident. We become a better judge of our own artwork. Build your own validation squad. Pick people who a) have talents you admire greatly (so they have judgement), b) happen to be your friends (so they care), c) don’t feel they are competing (so they have no agenda) and d) have hammered your work in the past (so they are capable of brutal honesty).

12. Be in it for the long run. You can see continuity in all you do, everything is linked, connected, part of one giant piece of artwork. If ideas you lacked room for a particular time lingered and arose later, you are coming close to an ideal creative state, one where creativity becomes a self-perpetuating habit. Everything in your life feeds into your artwork. You can go into a bubble, eliminate every distraction, avoid the temptation of anything other than the 5 essentials: food, art, exercise, sleep & solitude. It does not have to mean exiling yourself but more a state of mind, a willingness to subtract anything that disconnects you from creating. You never know when you have achieved mastery & it may not help to feel you have attained it. Even in the worst of times, art sustains, protects & uplifts us, which is the most compelling reason to foster the creative habit.

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