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Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit with a journal and collages

The creative habit

Twyla Tharp’s book ‘The Creative Habit. Learn and use it for life’ is one of the books on creativity I return to again and again. I remember looking at it so many times before buying it. I was unsure whether it’s for me. Mainly because Twyla Tharp is a renowned choreographer. And I am not a dancer. In fact, dancing has always felt like a very strange, unlearnable language to me.

I’m so glad I eventually got it because her writing and teaching isn’t just for dancers, choreographers or people interested in dance. It is for everyone who is interested in nurturing and using their creativity. In her book, she says:

“Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way.”

-Twyla Tharp

Creativity is for everyone

Tharp’s writes about the benefits of engaging in creativity and the many shapes and forms of creativity well beyond artistic endeavours. Her broad definition of creativity aligns with my work and how I aim to introduce creativity into coaching or therapy sessions. I love that she challenges any notion of creativity being elitist or exclusive to people with certain talents, degrees, job titles or skills.

I have read many books about creativity and my favourite ones are usually those that give clear advice on how we can rekindle and nurture our creativity. This practical advice is what makes creativity more accessible. I have met no-one who said that they don’t want to be creative, but plenty of people told me that they don’t believe to be creative. Twyla Tharp is very practical when it comes to creativity and she shares so many examples of herself as well as other artists, writers, athletes, businesspeople, and many more who have all found their own creativity hacks.


Creativity as a habit

She is honest about the fact that creativity requires work and commitment. It requires steadiness, dedication and vulnerability. She shares her tricks of keeping habits in her life that nudge her to being creative. We are creatures of habit, but we are also creatures of convenience. Doing creative work isn’t always the most convenient way of spending time, especially when distraction and passive ways of consuming entertainment are everywhere. It requires a good amount of discipline to show up for your creative work. Tharp emphasises the importance of “automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”


Creativity as a skill

When visiting museums, I often find myself most drawn to artists’ sketchbooks, less to the final masterpiece. The sketches reveal how much preparation, planning and practice has gone into a piece which, in isolation, can easily look like the work of a genius, an accomplishment reserved for the most gifted. But we can learn to be creative.

In an interview for the Harvard Business Review Tharp acknowledges: “I create about six times more material for my dances than I end up using in the final piece.” In The Creative Habit, she also talks about the importance of practice as a way of building and strengthening one’s skill. She warns us from getting too stuck in our ways and quotes the sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi: “Never have a favourite weapon.”

When it comes to using creativity in coaching and therapy, I experience this as a fine balance. It is great to have some go to modalities, things we enjoy, that come to us more easily. Yet often the most surprising, significant and useful insights are reached when we use a modality we are not that good at or haven’t used before. It won’t surprise you that one of the most significant insights I personally gained in coaching was reached when I engaged in some movement. It was clumsy, uncomfortable, cringeworthy and… insightful.


Creativity as discovery

Even though creativity is something we are all born with, as we go through life, it’s easy to forget what our natural creative process feels like. We are unsure at which points we tend to get stuck and which phases of the creative process come easily to us. At the end of each chapter, Tharp shares exercises as an easy and fun way to explore your creativity.

She invites us to mine for memory in a photo, explore our creative DNA, and suggests removing one of our skills from the equation and see what we can still create or how we create differently.

Here are a couple of questions from her creative DNA exercise:

  • What is the first creative moment you remember?
  • Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?

My first creative memory is this: I was helping my mother bake Christmas cookies. I stood on a little stool to reach the worktop and used my favourite cookie cutter, a pig. I still have a real soft spot for pigs… My mother was there to witness it. I remember that she commented on my Christmas pigs… some were a bit wonky. I can still hear my mother’s Austrian accent and I remember that I was so excited to be helping with the baking.


Creativity for joy

Sharing a creative act with the world involves risk. Perfectionism is a way of managing the fear associated with such a risk. Perfectionism is a creativity killer that often gets in the way of joyful creating.

The inner critic keeps telling us we’re not good enough. As a result, we either judge ourselves harshly (no joy in that!) or stop creating altogether. It’s important to acknowledge that perfectionism can have its origin in deep attachment or childhood wounds. It can be a formerly useful, now unhelpful strategy to ensure one’s safety.

In my experience, trying to ignore the inner critic never works. It only gets more disruptive. The only way forward is to befriend your inner critic. We must see its interference as a safety exercise designed to protect us from the vulnerable experience of creating.

Twyla Tharp embraces failure as part of the creative process. In fact, she lists a range of failures in her book – but that’s a whole other article… She recommends gathering a ‘validation squad’. This isn’t necessarily a group of people who will love anything you do. They are people you admire for their talent, who care about you, who don’t compete with you and provide constructive feedback, with great honesty as well as substance and respect. This is an invaluable support structure if your creative endeavours are designed to fly out into the world, possibly to earn you a living.

When we think about creating in a more private setting, creating purely for joy is such a balm for our emotional wellbeing. I recommend a group of like-minded friends or people you find you can easily connect with. Often, deep friendship emerges from creating alongside and experiencing the vulnerable act of creativity together. 


Get creative

Maybe this has whetted your appetite to read The Creative Habit.

And I do hope you feel inspired to create!

art materials and stamped words including story, daring, courage, in the arena

More tips on how to rekindle your creativity can be found in this article about creativity as a work skill and in this one, where I share some information about the various reasons why many of us stop creating. My own journey back to creativity began tentatively after a twenty-year hiatus. Needless to say, I haven’t looked back!

Taking clients through an exercise of exploring the creative process, reflecting on typical blocks and ways to overcome them is one of my favourite ways to begin a creative coaching relationship.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

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