As part of my ongoing journey in creativity, I look to artists from all disciplines for inspiration. I find it intriguing to get a glimpse of their creative processes. Recently I read the book, The Creative Habit, Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp (2003). Tharp, now 67 yrs old, is an award-winning choreographer who believes that creativity is an act of defiance, a sort of childlikeimages-1 fearlessness, and that one needs passion, courage, instinct and the desire to do something great. According to Tharp, when creativity has become your habit, when you’ve learned to manage time, resources, expectations and demands of others; when you understand the value and place of validation, continuity and purity of purpose, you are on your way to an artist’s ultimate goal, mastery. And when it all comes together, a creative life has the nourishing power associated with food, love and faith.

Here are some notes I jotted down as I read the book:

Ritual and Habit

80% of success is showing up. Woody Allen

Preparation rituals may include something easy such as listening to certain music, drawing or painting loosening up exercises, asking yourself what color do I feel, and even physical exercises since movement stimulates our brains. Start each project with an end goal (ex: economy, tell a story, etc.). Have a “spine,” a key message or idea, as part of what you set out to do.


Metaphor is the lifeblood of all art. Perceive structures and harmonies in a new way. “Scratch mode” is looking for morsels of inspiration. Reading, conversation, environment, culture, heroes, mentors, nature—all are lottery tickets for creativity. Tharp practices “reading fat” (ex: not only reading a novel, but reading related texts). Pick fights, break out of the norm. Be generous, a generous spirit contributes to good luck. Rub up against other people – work with the best people you can find in your field of interest. Rotate your crops – switch your skill set.

Tharp references Harvard psychologist, Stephen Kosslyn’s work:

– Generate the idea (from memory, experience or activity)

– Retain the idea, don’t let it slip away – Inspect the idea, study it, make inferences from it

– Transform it, alter it to suit your higher purpose


Be prepared to be lucky. EB White

Before you approach a topic, write down 20 things you want to know about it. Learn as much as you can. The more you know the better you can imagine. Thoroughness is one of the most valuable skills. Develop your patience to accumulate details — it will keep you grounded and sharp. Skill gets imprinted through action. Hone your skills to create.

Ruts & Grooves

Monitor your momentum. Are you in a rut (spinning your wheels) or in a groove (moving forward effortlessly)? The surest sign that you’re in a rut is a feeling of frustration and relief when you’re done rather than anticipatory pleasure. Ruts can be the consequence of a bad idea or bad timing or due to bad luck or other circumstances. Often a rut = sticking to tried and tested methods. When you’re in a rut question everything except your ability to get out of it. See the rut, admit it and get out of it! We get into ruts when we run with the first idea that pops into our head, not the last. Coming up with a good idea is a process. Challenge your assumptions and apply pressure to your idea. Poke it, challenge it and push it around to see if it stands up. One exercise Tharp described as an example is to identify 60 uses for a stool.

A groove is the best place in the world. It gives us the freedom to explore. Tharp’s best works have been created in a state of mind she calls “the bubble.” During these times, she has eliminated every distraction, sacrificed almost all pleasures, placed herself in a single-minded isolation chamber and structured her life so that everything is feeding her work but subordinated to it. Bubbles can exist amid chaos.


You do your best work after your biggest disasters. Jerome Robbins

Understand reasons for failure. Is it a lack of skill or a failure of concept, judgment or nerve? Profit from defeat

images-4I’m sure Tharp has honed her process throughout the years, and she obviously gave it a lot of thought to be able to articulate it for the book. And what Tharp refers to as “the bubble,” is also described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, where he talks about the idea of flow and how it is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove where a person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing.

I’m not sure that mastery is my ultimate goal, for me it’s about the journey and all that. But as someone who has struggled with motivation, I like Tharp’s ideas about establishing rituals and habits. I’d love to hear about what you do to motivate your creative self, and what rituals or habits you engage in.