The Creative Habit

I had a couple hours of gap at Stanford after touring the photonics and quantum computing labs, and before an evening programme on campus. Habitually I walked into the bookshop and found Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Reading the first couple of chapters was the best way to spend that time. There is always something remarkable in the air in universities, not just Stanford. Wandering around the campus, I feel free and bold to explore, to question everything, to dream big, and to think that the quest for knowledge is never ever over and that I can do whatever I set my mind on. That is a wonderful feeling. It is good to be lifted up by it after going down the trenches and focusing on some work for a while.

I had not known the name Twyla Tharp before picking up her book. She is one of America’s greatest choreographers, creating more than 130 dances over a thirty-five year career, winning many awards as the remarkable people do. I wanted to read this book because she is from a completely different profession. There is this fatigue of silicon valley, wherever you turn, you find yourself work and socialise with scientists, engineers or business people who try to build successful enterprises. A book by a dancer and choreographer is a fresh and delightful gift.

…This book is about preparation: In order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative. No one can give you your subject matter, your creative content; if they could, it would be their creation and not yours. But there’s a process that generates creativity – and you can learn it. And you can make it habitual. There’s a paradox in the notion that creativity should be a habit. 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. It takes skill to bring something you’ve imagined into the world: to use words to create believable lives, to select the colors and textures of paint to represent a haystack at sunset, to combine ingredients to make a flavorful dish. No one is born with that skill. It is developed through exercise, through repetition, through a blend of learning and reflection that’s both painstaking and rewarding. And it takes time. Even Mozart, with all his innate gifts, his passion for music, and his father’s devoted tutelage, needed to get twenty-four youthful symphonies under his belt before he composed something enduring with number twenty-five. If art is the bridge between what you see in your mind and what the world sees, then skill is how you build that bridge….

The Harvard psychologist Stephen Kosslyn says that ideas can be acted upon in four ways. First, you must generate the idea, usually from memory or experience or activity. Then you have to retain it – that is, hold it steady in your mind and keep it from disappearing. Then you have to inspect it – study it and make inferences about it. Finally, you have to be able to transform it – alter it in some way to suit your higher purposes.

The most productive artists I 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 if 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.

No deprivation, no inspiration. No then, no now.

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 see in your mind’s eye and what you can produce; the more skill you have, the more sophisticated and accomplished your ideas can be. With absolute skill comes absolute confidence, allowing you to dare to be simple. Picasso once said, while admiring an exhibition of children’s art, “when I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it has taken me a whole lifetime to learn to draw like them.”

Confidence is a trait that has to be earned honestly and refreshed constantly; you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them. This means vigilant practice and excellent practice habits…Perfect practice makes perfect. The one thing that creative souls around the world have in common is that they all have to practice to maintain their skills. Art is a vast democracy of habit.

Inexperience erases fear.

Never have a favorite weapon.

Without passion, all the skill in the world won’t lift you above craft. Without skill, all the passion in the world will leave you eager but floundering. Combining the two is the essence of the creative life.

Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art.