December 2003

Melissa Roy

scarlet woman of self-help

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Allow me to tell you a little story, which in fact is probably going to be a bit larger than “little” and may (although hopefully not) come across in the same tone as one of the proverbial “When I was young, I walked ten miles in the snow uphill in torn shoes with no coat just to get to school, whippersnapper” stories. When I was an undergraduate, I participated in a program which allowed students in my university’s Honors Program to work in pairs to facilitate (or teach) a one credit-hour class to incoming freshmen. When I was a freshman, the class was called “Inquiry into Learning” and had a syllabus of required reading on which we were to write papers. The class was intended as a “gateway” from the style of high school writing, for which most Honors students probably got back “Good job! Way to go!” comments from their teachers regardless of their true skills, into the world of Honors Program writing and discussion, which required independent and creative thinking. It was a class intended to keep the students from floundering in their three credit-hour classes and allow them to have a more relaxed venue in which to test the waters of a bigger world. In essence, it was required creativity.

The year that I became a facilitator, however, the class changed. It was now “Honors 101” and we, as facilitators, were essentially required to make a curriculum that focused more on all eight objectives of the Program (not just writing) and make the point of the class more obvious to students -- apparently not many other students besides me saw the value in a writing class. Due to more complaints from the students, that class failed as well. I’ve now heard from students who are still in that Program that the class has been through four changes in four years and is now in danger of being removed entirely from the curriculum. Just the other day I attended a meeting in which some of the current students were voicing their opinions about the class, the Program as a whole and, indirectly, the world at large. In their view the class, the Program, and essentially the whole University curriculum were too restrictive for their tastes and didn’t allow them any freedom. I actually heard a student say that he didn’t like writing his papers because he was required to use MLA format and didn’t understand why he had to use any format at all. I was indignant and filled with something close to rage. I found myself once again wondering where our future as a world lies when younger generations fundamentally lack the discipline necessary to get anything done. I liken it to being disciplined as a child: you may wonder why your parents have certain rules integral to both your safety and your personal growth, but there is a reason and, by and large, you will be able to see the benefit when reflecting on it as a “grown-up.”

You may now be wondering what in the hell this has to do with a self-help column. Well, I’ll tell you. I came across a book by choreographer Twyla Tharp called The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. Now, I don’t feel ashamed to admit an immediate and quite personal interest in this book; in fact, that’s what this column is all about -- me finding books that interest me and adopting their principles into my own life to find out if they’re worth your time. My interest was personal, however, because for years I’ve been feeling that creativity is missing from my life. It’s not that it’s being stifled (although I have spent most of my life being a parent-friend-teacher pleaser), it’s just that I don’t have time for it. I’ve been dying to learn to paint, to play guitar or piano, and to write more often (since I can’t really call myself a writer if I don’t). I recently started writing poetry, but find myself needing the validation of someone reading it to know if it’s good or not -- and I’ll be damned if I’m showing it to anybody. Anyway, so I was attracted to this book right away. My local bookstore only had it in hardback and I couldn’t afford to buy it at this point in my impoverished existence, so I spent a great deal of time in the comfortable chairs reading it, then leaving it on the shelf until I could return. But I did finish it, and what I learned from it was this: discipline is essential to the flourishing of one’s creativity.

If I didn’t see this as such a truth already, I can respect the word of Twyla Tharp, a woman know far and wide for her artistic vision and creativity, a woman who has made a living out of doing what she loves (and if money being directly attached to creativity can’t stifle it, I don’t know what can). The book is quite long and explores the idea of creativity, the meaning of it, but also gives you ways to get to it. I’ve heard many other creative artists, especially writers, speak of forced creativity: writing through your writer’s block, making time to paint even when you have nothing inspiring you, dancing even when you don’t feel the music. This book is about just that: learning the tools, the fundamentals, the basics and, above all else, learning discipline. This will allow your creativity to become educated, the same way a guess can be educated with the right information. You may not know the answer, but you can figure out what isn’t the answer.

In case you can’t tell, I really thought this book was wonderful and valuable, perhaps simply because it doesn’t necessarily fit neatly into the “self-help” box, which is already overstuffed with cookie-cutter books on making yourself a happy, healthy, sexually-satisfied, skilled overachiever. Tharp speaks to her reader in a language that any person, whether they are already creative or only desire to be, can understand and use for their own lives. It has improved my writing already… and hopefully I’ll get around to those guitar lessons soon. Maybe I’ll also suggest that it become required reading for all of those whippersnappers these days who can’t see the value of a little discipline.

The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp
Simon and Schuster
ISBN 0743235266
256 Pages