I have the habit of writing in the morning because that is when I feel the most awake, alert, and alive. This morning I did yoga then lifted weights, so my muscles sang with strength as I opened my notebook to write. Later in the day, I feel sluggish and thick, incapable of bright, interesting discourse, but in the morning my body feels both lithe and light, its strength and resilience reflected in the suppleness of my moving mind.
This morning I started reading Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. The book is favorably reviewed on Amazon, and I trust the taste of the friends who recommended it. But still any time I start a book by an author I’ve not read before, I wonder what I am in for. Will this person’s definition and practice of creativity differ from my own? Will there be breathy, New-Age aspects that clash with my down-and-dirty Zen approach–an insistence on praying to fairies, perhaps, or a pervasive belief in unicorns and leprechauns as totems of creativity?
I shouldn’t have worried. Tharp’s approach is as down-and-dirty as my own–no surprise, I suppose, since she is a dancer and choreographer, someone intimately acquainted with the poetry of bone and sinew and the languid beauty of shimmering skin. Tharp believes, as I do, that creativity is a practice–a habit–that thrives (as embodied things do) on ritual and regularity. Your Muse isn’t some ethereal spirit who imbibes rainbows and twirls with angels on the heads of every pin; it is a creature who must be both fed and exercised, as fierce and fragile as any animal.
I am already enamored with Tharp’s approach because what she says in her first chapter resonates so deeply with my own experience: not just what I believe, but what I do. Creativity doesn’t happen by magic nor by accident; it is a strength that must be exercised. Just as we all possess muscles that grow stronger and more flexible–more invigorated and alive–through use, so too does creativity thrive on habitual activity. No one lacks creativity any more than any of us lacks a muscular system. We all come with creativity as a standard feature–something factory-installed–but many of us never use the thing, so it becomes dull and dusty with disuse.
Tharp, who choreographed scenes in the movie Amadeus, makes an intentional effort to debunk the romanticized view of Mozart popularized by that film. Mozart’s creativity did not happen by accident, nor was it effortless. Any natural talent young Mozart possessed was honed by an attentive and at times overbearing father who exposed the boy to the best musical models and mentors while urging him to practice, practice, practice. Mozart himself denied the claim that writing music came easily to him; instead, his was a craft he honed through extensive practice and study.
This is a lesson Malcolm Gladwell emphasized in Outliers, where he argues both the Beatles and Bill Gates became great by practicing for 10,000 hours, and it’s a lesson underscored by Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who memorably remarked in an interview once that “The elite is the elite for a reason.” Mozart might have been born with more musical talent than the rest of us, but he would have made nothing of that talent had he not practiced. Practicing scales for 10,000 hours might not make me a Mozart, but it would make me far more proficient on piano than I currently am, without any practice.
Tharp begins her second chapter by describing her daily ritual of waking at 5:30, dressing in work-out clothes, then hailing a cab to go to the gym. “The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym,” she explains; “the ritual is the cab.” Regardless of what happens at the gym, in other words, the part of Tharp’s practice that matters is simply showing up. This rings so true to my experience, I wanted to shout “Amen” and “Hallelujah” when I read Tharp’s words.
“In order to be creative,” Tharp insists in a sentence that literally jumps off the page in large red print, “you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” Creativity, it turns out, is as much about preparation as it is about perspiration: creativity, in other words, is a phenomenon that starts the night before. This isn’t about sitting and waiting for your Muse to arrive on the back of a unicorn prancing down a rainbow; it’s about dragging your ass to the gym, the keyboard, or the blank page. Show up, practice your craft, then keep showing up and practicing. Judging from the opening chapter of The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp and I are kindred spirits.