I’ve been reading The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. She’s a world class dancer and choreographer. You might think that kind of life doesn’t relate to you, but she knows what it takes to do creative work. She learned the principles of creativity through dance but she writes about how you can apply it to writing, drawing, film, and on and on.
Here are a few of my highlights.
The box is not a substitute for creating. The box doesn’t compose or write a poem or create a dance step. The box is the raw index of your preparation. It is the repository of your creative potential, but it is not that potential realized.
I read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder last year1 and one part of it is about “The Board”. (There are a lot of terms like that in the book.) It’s outlining with index cards. Snyder even warns against overplaying at this stage because it’s pretty fun and it feels like the real work. You should start writing before you write that outline in granite. From Save the Cat:
In fact, I always like to start writing when I’m coming up on the end of finishing The Board, just before it gets too perfect. Like a Jell-O® mold that’s not quite set, you wanna start before it hardens.
Tharp hammers the point home. It isn’t the real work. You can outline and outline and outline but you’ll eventually need to research, compile, and write about every bullet you’ve put in that outline.
You can read about nutrition and workout programming all you want, but you eventually need to put the fork down and put the work in.
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.
I took a few online courses this year about fairly general self-development topics: success, motivation, building habits, focus, etc.2
My main takeaway: if you want to succeed in a field and short-circuit that success, find an expert who you can talk to regularly. That’s easier said than done. Start reading about how to do that.
In any case, talking to an expert will help you skip common dead ends that can take up so much time early on that don’t teach any useful lessons.
And it’s not just mentors you’ll want to find. Remember: plus, minus, equal. Find someone better than you. Find someone a few months behind you who you can teach. Find someone at the same level as you to share the struggle with.
Depending on the field, you’ll have some number of books written by those experts. You can find mentorship in books. It will be good but don’t mistake it for a replacement. For any logistical or tactical thing, the internet will be your friend, especially with video so readily available.
If I’m struggling for an idea, I often find myself leaving my studio, walking across Central Park, and ending up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Museums are my favorite field trips, and working in museum-rich Manhattan, I would be a fool to ignore the local resources.
Every time I go to The Met I feel like I should go there once a week. It’s invigorating. It’s humbling. You’ll have a hard time walking through there without feeling inspired in some way.
Go to your local museums and get inspired.
(This really is just a note to myself to go to museums more.)
Pope Leo X heard that Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with the formulas for varnishes instead of executing a painting. He declared, “This man will never do anything, for he begins thinking about the end before the beginning of his work.” However, Leonardo understood that the better you know the nuts and bolts of your craft, the more fully you can express your talents. The great painters are incomparable draftsmen. They also know how to mix their own paint, grind it, put in the fixative; no task is too small to be worthy of their attention.
This reminds me of Ryan Holiday’s canvas principle that he wrote about in Ego is the Enemy. Don’t ever think of yourself as being above a task. To master a craft, you need to know the small parts of it.
There was a time I saw a friend practicing layups while warming up. He was the friend that was the best at basketball. I was in middle school when he was a senior in high school. All the uncles knew him and how good he was at basketball.
By this time we were older and old enough that we had the same group of friends. He looked over while doing some layups and said this is how you get good. It looked so boring and I realized I never really practiced layups by myself in my life. That’s why I’m terrible at basketball.
So what does this have to do with Leonardo da Vinci? There’s something about tooling here. Okay, well, what I mean to say is you should make sure you can do a layup before you try the artistry of switching hands in traffic.
To force myself to let my creations go, I’ve developed a ritual that gives me satisfying closure: I name the piece. Attaching a name to the work is always the last thing I do. It’s a signal to myself that I finally understand it. As Tracy Kidder wrote in The Soul of a New Machine, “Good engineers ship.
I’ve been writing a lot in the past few months. Some of this is because one of the courses mentioned above was an article writing class. I’ve just been writing articles in private and I also just do a lot of free writing. I’m practicing letting my creations go. Like this post.
Some of that starts with writing with the intention that it’s going to be something I share. A lot of times I kind of sort of think that maybe I’ll share something I’m writing. But then when it comes to sorting through all these miscellaneous pages of writing I don’t feel like going through picking out things intended for sharing or not. And then thinking through whether I already wrote about that idea or not.
I’m just going to go ahead and let things go and try to develop a small ritual around it. The good thing is that these posts need titles too so that can be part of the ritual. So here we go, I hope you enjoyed these book notes on Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit in this post titled “Book Notes: The Creative Habit”.