I used to believe that creativity belonged to a privileged few. Those unicorn people who just knew what to say, how to dance, create art, or imagine a melody—all out of nothing.
I believed in the myth of creativity.
The myth that creativity belongs to a privileged few obscures the importance of skill. If you look closely at those people, we set upon a pedestal as models of creativity. You find hours of failure, hard work, and, quite often, a sense of play.
Jack Hart opens A Writer’s Coach by setting us straight on this issue.
Novices sometimes imagine writing as dark magic, something known only to some mystical inner circle. They pick up a professional’s finished work, marvel at its seamless perfection, and think, “I could never do that.”
That limiting thinking occurs across the arts and in business. We focus so much on the results of someone else’s work imagining a blissful mist of inspiration, that we lose sight of the process. As Jack explains, “the pain of writing stems from comparing your blank screen with the finished pages you see all around you.”
Or the blank canvas, wobbly moves en pointe, the blurry photograph, the false starts of invention—all have the look of hopeless endeavors. Every skill has a starting point. Think of it as the baseline.
I discovered skill and consistent habits give creativity a place to grow.
Whether in the classroom with students or in training sessions with adults, I noticed that creative activities came easily to some—not so much for others. I began to wonder what made the difference.
Why could one group tackle a problem-solving task and explore novel approaches, and others stare at the table bewildered and stuck? One characteristic emerged that held for students of all ages.
They looked at the world with curiosity. Habits, planned or serendipitous, kicked in when needed and seemed almost second nature. The “creatives” didn’t have exceptional abilities. Instead, they had cultivated habits that nurtured creativity.
You build a creative habit.
Twyla Tharp, dancer and choreographer for over 35 years, has created 130 dances and ballets. That’s a lot of creativity at work. Artists might look at a blank canvas, and writers a blank page. Twyla describes walking into a white room—a blank space.
Twyla didn’t spontaneously happen upon this successful body of work. In The Creative Habit, she takes you on a journey. Twyla doesn’t guarantee your success, but she does “promise that if you read through the book and heed even half the suggestions, you’ll never be afraid of a blank page or an empty canvas or a white room again. Creativity will become your habit.”
As I usually do when I read a book, I captured key ideas on 4”x6” notecards. By the end, I realized I had 32 activities to construct my creative habit.
Here’s your challenge. You can pick and choose the ones you want to explore or tackle them one-by-one every day for a month. How you approach the list is not as important as finding the activities that will support and expand your creative muscles.
31 habit-forming activities from Twyla Tharp
Everything starts with rituals
“The ritual erases the questions of whether or not I like it. It’s a friendly reminder that I’m doing the right thing. (I’ve done it before. It was good. I’ll do it again.)
1. Where’s your pencil?
Every artist has an essential tool that feeds creativity. It could be a pencil, a brush, a camera, a piece of music. What is the one item that you must have or risk feeling naked or incomplete? Use it to capture ideas, thoughts, or the sights and sounds around you.
2. Build up your tolerance for solitude.
Sometimes, you must be willing to sit alone with your thoughts and ideas. Stuff happens there—if you let it.
3. Face your fears.
We all harbor fears. There’s nothing wrong with having them, but don’t allow them to control your thinking or life.
4. Give me one week without…(mirrors, newspapers, speaking).
Eliminate distractions. As Anne Lamott advises, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes—including you.”
Discover your creative DNA
“I believe that we all have strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations…They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell and how we tell them.”
5. You can observe a lot by watching.
Go outside. What do you see? Take a closer look at your surroundings to discover what most often ignore. Rob Walker dedicated an entire book to The Art of Noticing. He has 131 ideas to get you started.
6. Pick a new name.
What would you choose, and why? The key is to answer two questions. Who are you? Who do you aim to be? Twla includes a template for your creative autobiography. The questions will give you a deep dive into yourself.
Memory is your friend.
There is the memory of events and lists of things, but memory can also fuel creative fires and connections.
“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.”
7. Name that muse.
In Greek mythology, the muses were the goddesses and inspiration for all arts and science. They were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. Now turn away and recite them.
Can’t do it? Try this sentence as a memory aid: Can clear earnest effort make proper things total up?
8. Trust your muscle memory.
Come up with 10 movements. Now get out there in the middle of the room and repeat them several times. On day 1, repeat the sequence five times; day 2 four; day 3, three; day 4, two; day 5, one. After a week, come back to complete the sequence. You will be surprised how your body remembers the movements.
The point? Your muscles are smart. You are training your muscle memory. Think about the number of words written, brush strokes, pliés.
9. Mine for memory in a photograph.
Pick a favorite photo. What memories come to the surface? Describe the scene, the background, the meaning, and possible significance of the moment. How does that photo connect with now?
Start with a box.
“Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box…”
When you don’t know where to start, pick a spot. Begin there. But if you don’t begin, you have nothing.
Scratching for ideas.
“The first steps of the creative process are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent definable end in sight…Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate because I have a habitual routine to keep me going. I call it scratching.”
11. Chaos and coins.
Take a handful of coins of any denomination. Toss them out on the table. Study the results, and even rearrange them into a pattern that seems right. Twyla envisions dancers. You could see a drawing or the shape of a poem. The idea is to warm up your brain to see patterns or make connections.
12. Reading archaeologically.
Choose an author or a topic. Begin to read all of their work from the most recent backward. Starting where the author ended and working back gives a different perspective of their development.
13. A dozen eggs.
Sit on the floor, bring your knees to your chest, curl your head down to make yourself as small as possible. You cannot become smaller, so every subsequent movement can only make you expand. For example, straighten your back to become a tall Egg, stretch out your legs to become a jackknifed Egg. You get the idea. This will challenge the less playful of us but give a go.
14. Give yourself a little challenge.
My children hate the song challenge I play. They say something, and I sing a song related to the word or phrase back to them. This goes on until they can stump me—they never do.
15. Take a field trip.
When you get stuck, take a walk.
Sometimes you plan, and sometimes accidents will happen.
“The most productive artists I know have a plan in mind when they get down to work. They know what they want to accomplish, how to do it, and what to do of the process falls off track. But there’s a fine line between good planning and overplanning. You never want the planning to inhibit the natural evolution of your work.”
16. Pick a fight.
For one day, be contrary—rebel against your routines and question the why. Do the opposite of what you know you should be doing. Fighting against reason can often bring back to the point where you can take your work forward.
17. Our perfect world.
If you create the perfect environment, the perfect set of circumstances, what would it look like? Which are essential? While our perfect world doesn’t exist, you might find that you are not as far off as you thought.
18. How to be lucky—be generous.
Giving, contributing, supporting draw good fortune toward you and those you helped.
19. Work with the best.
You are who you associate with. Collaborate, read, surround yourself with the best.
Find your motive—your spine.
“Spine, to put it bluntly, begins with your first strong idea. You were scratching to come up with an idea, you found one, and through the next stages of creative thinking, you nurtured it into the spine of your creation/ the idea is the toehold that gets you started.”
20. Make a picture that’s worth a thousand words.
Think of a movement or gesture. Twyla uses the example of the White Swan’s last exit at the end of Act II of Swan Lake. Pick a scene or gesture that would require many words to explain its meaning. Now describe it.
21. Spinal tap.
Pick a favorite work of art, music, or movie and try to determine what spine the creator built into it if any.
22. What’s your MQ?
Your metaphor quotient is the process of transforming the meaning of one thing into something different. For example, find two works of art you can connect. What is the connection, and what new meaning might come out of that connection?
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 will be…Craft is where our best efforts begin.
23. Take inventory of your skills.
List the skills required for your endeavor, writing, painting, or inventing. Where are you in your development of those skills?
24. Play twenty questions.
Before you begin on a topic or project, write down 20 things you want to know about it. Asking those questions guides your learning to build the knowledge you need for the work.
25. Package your time.
Plan your time. This might include starting with an end date and working backward to allocate chunks of time and set milestones. You might also dedicate time to specific elements of the project. The idea here is to manage time to meet your end goal.
26. Take away a skill.
If you took away a vital skill, could you carry on? How could you adapt without it? We sometimes misplace the importance of certain skills and allow others to languish. Those forgotten skills might be just the ones to differentiate your work.
Get out of your rut
“It’s going to happen sometimes: Despite all the good preparation rituals, the organizational tools, the techniques for scratching out pre-ideas and actual ideas, there will come a time when your creativity fails you…You are in a rut.”
27. Do a verb.
Pick a verb and act it out physically, such as “squirm.” As ridiculous as it seems, or you may look, the chemistry of the body influences the brain’s chemistry. Think of it as mental calisthenics.
28. Build a bridge to the next day.
Earnest Hemingway stopped writing for the day where he knew what came next. When Harry Truman wrote a letter, he put it in a drawer and waited 24 hours to see if he still felt the same way. Everyone has their own strategy for ensuring an easier beginning to the next day. What’s yours?
29. Know when to stop thinking.
Stop tinkering, stop overthinking. That behavior is a sure sign of perfectionism. Nothing is perfect. Finish your best work and deliver.
30. Brew ruts into grooves.
Ruts are bad habits that get in the way of your creativity. My bad habit is reading the news in the morning—a surefire path down numerous rabbit trails and despondency. Take steps to brew a new routine that oils your creative groove.
Make an “A” in failure.
“There is a therapeutic power to failure. It cleanses. It helps you put aside who you aren’t and reminds you who you are. Failure humbles.”
31. Give yourself a second chance.
Not every step into the arena will yield success. What matters is that you showed up. Acknowledge the failure, learn what you can, and get back into the arena.
Bonus: Build your own validation squad.
Who are the three to five people you can depend on to tell you the truth and give you the support and encouragement you need to face that truth? Brené Brown calls these the post-it people in your life. Their names fit on a post-it note, and you can depend on them to cheer you on.
“Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending.” —Carl Bar
You can’t replay your life, but you can start today by considering a few of these steps and making them a creative habit. Remember these closing words from Twyla, “this ideal creative state is not a random event, not a stroke of luck or coincidence.
It is within your grasp. You can construct it and control it.