Notes on The Creative Habit: Hard Work and the Blank Page

“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.”

~Twyla Tharp

There is one book that I take with me on every trip: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.  It’s been my bible for a few years now.

I’ll admit that I’m a junkie for books on the creative process, but this one is by far one the best of the genre.   It is the most underlined book I own…

I’m mining the pages of this book once again, as I’m about to get into another season of writing and practicing.  Fall and Winter are my best seasons for solitary creative work.

hard work and the blank page

“It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or b) hard work.”

~Twyla Tharp

For Twyla, as a choreographer, it’s an empty room.  But whatever form it takes, the challenge is the same: to make something out of nothing. And making something out of nothing is just plain hard work.  It’s nearly impossible to create anything on a consistent basis without establishing some sort of routine (aka habit).

I love that in the first chapter, she criticizes Amadeus, a film she worked on as choreographer, for it’s portrayal of Mozart as a “naive prodigy who sat down at the keyboard with God whispering in his ears…”

Reality: Mozart was pushed into music from birth by his musician father, and he worked at it like a nut!  By 28, his hands were deformed from all the playing he’d done.  He was well educated in philosophy and religion, as well as music, and he was extremely disciplined.  He worked hard and often, and he worked to make money to feed his family. Twyla:

“It’s a great image for selling tickets to movies, but whether or not God has kissed your brow, you still have to work.  Without learning and preparation, you won’t know how to harness the power of that kiss.”

I’m preparing for the blank page….and for some hard work…and the empty practice room.

Preparing to be creative might seem like a strange idea, but some of the most successful songwriters I know will tell you otherwise. The really successful ones have it down. They rent a place for 2 weeks to write.  They have a goal.  That takes some prep work.

That’s partly what I’ve been doing here at the cottage.

Being away from the city for a few days has helped to clear my brain and focus on what I want to work on in the months ahead. And Twyla’s book is always my first go-to trusted resource when I’m on the cusp of a new creative season.

OK. Tea time!

(photos by Ali Eisner)

12 Responses to Notes on The Creative Habit: Hard Work and the Blank Page

  1. Mariko says:

    I think about that paradox/idea all the time as well. About how “creative” work is perceived as fitting into the working world. I think the image of an artist “working” as opposed to an artist “creating” – “labouring” as opposed to just “letting things flow from the fingertips” is a pretty rare one. There’s this one scene in the movie “Something’s Gotta Give,” where Diane Keaton’s character is writing a play and the scene just pours out of her in bursts of sobs and tears. This scene kills me in part because she’s clearly not even really typing. Maybe there are some writers who work like that, but most of the one’s I know don’t just pull their words/dialogue out of their weeping. You know? It’s more like welding or cooking than flying a kite or crying.

    I also like Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers for its analysis of the gifted and the naturally talented. What was it? 15000 hours or something? Sounds right to me.

  2. Elena says:

    I actually find the notion of the “idea fairy” or similar, borderline offensive, as it seems to disregard the amount of prep work that creative people do, as you describe. It’s why I really like the term “artistic practice,” because it takes into account all the steps involved.. including the fallow times.

    My favourite thought about this is a quotation from Louis Pasteur: “Chance favours the prepared mind.” Fitting, I think!
    Thanks for posting this, it sounds like a wonderful book!

  3. Michael-Owen Liston says:

    Thanks for sharing, Christine – you have developed a great insight into your own process. 🙂

    From “The War of Art”, by Steven Pressfield, a similar such bible for me:

    “Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. ‘Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.'”

  4. you guys!

    @mariko – I want to see that movie just for that scene.

    @robin – downloading it right now, thanks!

    @elena – “idea fairy” is offensive, indeed. And it’s true – preparation for an artist is basically preparing to be lucky.

    @michael-owen – that’s a great book, too. one of the 3 books I’ve read on the creative process that admit the truth: that it’s mostly hard work.

  5. Brad Holden says:

    Hey Christine…
    I saw you and Tuxedo in Creemore on Saturday and have also been lucky enough to be at the two Dunedin Hall shows. You guys are always great. I have a quick question, to which you may or may not be able to provide a quick answer… seeing as I’ve just picked up a lap steel, I’m wondering if you have any tuning tips. Perhaps you could do a blog post on the subject? I don’t know, perhaps it’s too “geary” a question for your excellent blog but I’d love to hear some advice re. the slightly overwhelming world of lap steel tunings…
    thanks and can’t wait to hear the new album…

  6. @brad – I actually only use one tuning:

    6G 5C 4G 3A 2C 1E

    so that’s a C6 (there are alternate versions of C6, too)

    I’ve dabbled in an open E tuning on an extra steel at home, but I prefer the C6.

    Maybe I’ll write a geary post soon!

  7. Brad Holden says:

    Thanks Christine! I’m going to try out the C6 as every time I start playing in open E it starts to sound like “In My Time of Dying”… that said, the one and only time I did try the C6 everything sounded like I was on a beach in Hawaii! Thanks for the tip, I’ll keep practicing. Looking forward to the Tuxedo album…

  8. Matt Roberts says:

    Hey Christine, I just ordered this book. If it’s been your bible for years, I figure it must be worth a read. I’ve picked up a few books on the creative process in the past, but for the most part I’ve been disappointed with them. Love your blog and looking forward to the new album!


  9. Christine says:

    @Matt – yay! I’m pretty confident in saying you’ll like this book. It differs from almost all other books on the creative process in that the author is someone who actually does this for a living – at a serious, prolific, world-class level. So the credibility factor is high.
    Enjoy it!

  10. Pingback: Notes on The Creative Habit (Part 2: Morning Rituals) | Christine Bougie

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