A Creative Autobiography

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s fascinating guide to creativity, The Creative Habit and finding it both provocative and enlightening. Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, but she’s trying to provide a framework for anyone who wants to get more involved with their creative side. Her belief is that it’s all about turning up regularly to a place where you feel comfortable and open, and practicing your craft. She has some delicious perspectives, though, to get you thinking – for instance, chapters entitled ‘Spine’ about discerning the real core of your work, ‘Scratching’ when you are just doing the best you can with what little you have, and ‘An A in Failure’ about the way that mistakes may just be the most useful thing you can make. I’m definitely won over. One of the first things the book invites the reader to do is answer a questionnaire about their creative autobiography and I thought I would answer some of it here. The whole thing is too long for a post, so I’ll pick out some salient questions.

What is the first creative moment you remember?
I wrote a story in infant school, something about a giant. It’s the only piece of work I can remember doing, perhaps because it’s the only thing I can recall being really fun to do.

Was there anyone to witness or appreciate it?
Well, yes, unfortunately. I gave my book to the teacher, who read it and took it to another teacher, who also read it, and then they communed about my precocious talent over the top of my head. I think this set a standard of external validation that I have strived to recreate ever since and yet scarcely ever managed. Outside of my family I never received much positive feedback about being creative. My schools weren’t impressed, and then Cambridge is full of people infinitely cleverer than me. I don’t feel comfortable with wanting recognition for work, but in all honesty I’m sure I do, and I wish I could give it up. It would be so much healthier.

What is the best idea you’ve ever had?
Giving up my office job to return to Cambridge for graduate studies.

What made it great in your mind?
It was true to what I really wanted, it took courage to stand out against the orthodox routes and take a chance on myself, and when I made the decision, I realized how free I was to take my life in my hands and change it.

What is the dumbest idea?
Writing a PhD and building up an academic career with a baby.

What made it stupid?
It completely ignored the reality of my situation, caused me a great deal of pressure and stress and worked only because I ran myself into the ground whilst denying I was doing so. Returning to Cambridge was a great decision, starting a family at the same time, not so great. It really was the best of times and the worst of times.

What is your creative ambition
To find a form of writing that really works for me and which is flexible enough to use for a number of different publishing projects.

What are the obstacles to this ambition?
The current state of the publishing market, my own impatience and discouragement.

What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?
Experimenting, practicing, and finding the patience, time and energy for trial and error. Also networking within the publishing industry, but I absolutely hate it – I only want to get to know people because I genuinely like them.

What are your attitudes towards: money, power, praise, rivals, work, play?
Money – I just want enough to live on.
Power – Profound ambivalence; I run from the responsibility, but there’s so much I’d like to change.
Praise – I want it, but I tend to discount it.
Rivals – I don’t like feeling competitive. I’d rather feel solidarity with fellow sufferers in the creative field.
Work – Love it. It can be peace and contentment and direction in life.
Play – All for it, but I can forget to incorporate it all too easily.

When faced with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?
Not always very well, it depends on my mood. If I have a project I’m enjoying, then I just admire and respect superior achievement. If  I’m in that place of not knowing what comes next then I can feel downcast and doubt my own capabilities. But generally, I feel the good stuff is there to be learned from, and if I’m being a brat, I’ll always kick myself sufficiently hard to learn from it.

When confronted with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness or indifference in others, how do you respond?
Alas, they inspire a mad crusading zeal in me, which is a terrible response. They are none of them worth any expenditure of energy and emotion.

When faced with impending success or the threat of failure, how do you respond?
Impending success – relief at first, but then unease. Every success raises the bar of acceptable achievement for me.

Impending failure – complete horror at first, but ultimately relief. It’s very human to make mistakes, and accepting that you’ve done so puts you in a position of reassuring congruence with your humanity. Thinking you might ever exist without making mistakes is a suffocating delusion.

When you work do you love the process or the result?
When I was an academic I loved the result, but often found the process torturous. Now I write more creatively, I love the process but rarely like the result.

At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?
As soon as I start typing. Every idea is perfect until I begin destroying it in the transition to a tangible product.

What is your idea of mastery?
Feeling confident enough in my ability to write that I don’t hang my sense of self worth on it. I think whenever you are doing something new and experimental and important it tends to become mixed up with your view of yourself: if I were only better/cleverer/more skilled/more insightful, I could do this. The truth is simply that more thought and practice are required, but only once a certain level of achievement has been reached can you have the luxury of seeing that.

Which of your answers would you most like to change?
The one about responding to hostility, laziness, indifference, etc. I can’t change other people’s minds, not by arguing, so it would be great to find a different attitude altogether. One that sidesteps the entrenched views of the world in pursuit of better arguments to have.

18 thoughts on “A Creative Autobiography

  1. This book sounds like something that would be very valuable for me to read. I have lots of ideas about how I want to be more creative but often block myself by not getting started and giving up before I have a chance to begin. I enjoyed your answers that you shared and was thinking of how I would answer some of the same questions. I think that often times in life our best times are our worst times!

  2. I may have to add this to my Christmas list and indeed steal the questions for a blog post.

    I love your answer about instant crusading zeal – my reaction is always to laugh hollowly and turn my back.

  3. This is fabulous and I found your answers so insightful. “Every idea is perfect until I begin destroying it in the transition to a tangible product.” — What a statement! I feel the same way at times.

    I have this book on my shelf and read it a while back — you’ve made me want to revisit it!

  4. When it comes to praise-I’m with you. I say I don’t want it, but I suppose srecretly I do, but then I never believe it, because I’m sure I’m right and whatever it is I’ve ‘created’ is inferior to the way I wanted it to turn out. I think that’s an inherit flaw and I’m not sure how you fix it–contentment is not my thing lately. This sounds like a great book–a good thing for artists to take a really unflinching look at the creative process.

  5. I was so pleased when I discovered that money can buy you happiness only up to about $50,000 a year, and after that more money doesn’t make you any happier. It resolved my money ambivalence very pleasingly – turns out, my notion of having enough money to be comfortable was exactly right. :p

    This is an interesting set of questions! I’m curious now to see what the others were (and a bit curious what you said to them).

  6. ‘I only want to get to know people because I genuinely like them.’ I awwed at this, so lovely and such a nice attitude.I liked your answer about rivals too. Who needs them? Will they buy you Christmas presents? Then what are they for?!

  7. I’ve heard about this book and thought it sounded interesting. I hope you plan on writing more about it and whether you found it ultimately useful or not. I enjoyed your questionnaire answers. I have the same response to impending failure that you do. I so want to be one of those people who see mistakes and failures as opportunities but I have not been able to manage it yet.

  8. Okay, I’ve overcome the moniker hurdle and now read your post. Very thought-provoking, Litlove. Does Tharp offer any mechanism for reading one’s responses and – presumably – learning from them?

  9. Kathleen – oh I hear you! I’ve done the ‘lots of ideas but will any of them work?’ thing and discounted all sorts of possibly creative avenues! I really liked this book, and I’m not a great fan of how-to creative manuals. This had a different, fresher approach I appreciated.

    Charlotte – much better response. I think you’d get a kick out of this – do let me know what you think of it if if you do read it!

    Kristi – So glad not to be alone! And I didn’t realise what a popular book this was until recently. I’d love to know what you think of it, either from memory or a revisit!

    Danielle – I am definitely my own worst enemy in the praise stakes, and in much else! Hey ho. Always good to know that other people react similarly. And I’m really enjoying this book; not really my sort of thing, but it’s surprisingly good.

    Lilian – I am always curious about the way other people react to their own work. Creativity is such a tricky, difficult thing, even if there’s nothing better in the world when it’s going well. Shame it isn’t like that all the time…

    Jenny – the time my husband and I were both off/out of work at the same time was one of the nicest years we’ve ever spent. We didn’t have masses of money coming in but it didn’t matter at all. The important things turn out to be, really, the things that money can’t buy. It’s a great questionnaire – I missed out questions about successful creative projects, muses and inspiration, and umm, other things I can’t remember. I’ll have to buy myself a memory book next. 🙂

    Jodie – your comment made me laugh and laugh. Absolutely! Get them all on side!

    Stefanie – failure always sucks. Always. That’s not to say you can’t learn stuff from it or manage it well in the event, but I don’t believe anyone meets it with perfect equanimity. It wouldn’t be human! And I hope the book will provide matter for more posts – this was fun to do.

    Doctordi – I know! It’s a great name, isn’t it? Like an exotic anagram of something else, the way Ben Okri is an anagram of ink biro. The questionnaire is from a chapter entitled ‘Your Creative DNA’ and it does deal with all the bits and pieces of biology, history, imagination, fantasy, desire, etc that go into the creative act. It’s a cool book, I think, at least so far.

  10. This sounds like a marvelous book. In response to your answer to the last question I just wanted to share a very wonderful experience I had recently. I argued with a few people (not with hostility, but in that philosophical sense – there have been arguments that DID involve hostility, just not those) and managed to effect their views. A year ago, these friends and I took an intellectual journey, an attempt at communicating my ideals, the very openness of them, was a challenge and not one either person agreed with. While we have different approaches to the subject matter still there is a common ground and certain common values that weren’t had before. The important thing, in my opinion, comes in the form of whether or not you want to create change and for what purpose, then to assert if there is any value to be had from the time you spend supporting it. Many times it could be not worth it, but in the interest of making necessary philosophical points about an oft-maligned viewpoint it becomes worth it. My two friends certainly bolstering me and reminding me that there are people besides myself who listen and think. I can think of no better way of forming community than connecting on that level and understanding of our own humanity.

  11. I enjoyed your answers to these questions. I related to a lot of them. Especially the first one. I remember writing a story a primary school about a secret garden, which my teacher liked very much. I was always hoping for that level of appreciation for what I wrote after, and never really achieved it at school, except for an expository essay I did in form 4, which for some reason I didn’t think counted. I don’t usually like these sorts of books, but I do like the advice about “turning up regularly to a place where you feel comfortable and open, and practicing your craft.”

  12. I loved this post … and wondered whether I could have answered the questions as honestly and transparently as you did. Although the answer about laziness/intransigence, etc. in other people is the one you’d most like to change … it is also very touching, at least to me. While I do agree that your crusading zeal could probably be better used elsewhere — and that perhaps that zeal is a form of displacement that’s convenient to a part of you — I can’t help admiring the fact that you have that instinct to minister to the least among us, as it were.

  13. Pingback: Creative Attitudes « Quotidian Vicissitudes

  14. Kimberly – that sounds like a wonderful experience and I’m delighted you have friends who want that kind of intellectual engagement. I wonder whether we need to have the elasticity of a friend’s love to hear us properly on difficult or complex topics? But then, many friendships falter through disagreements, so perhaps it’s not that. But, whatever, I’m glad it strengthened your optimism.

    Naomi – I agree I’m not usually a fan of creativity manuals either. But this one seemed much better than the others (although I’m sure other people have said this about other books!) and I felt opened up by it, rather than channelled unwillingly down someone else’s preferred strategies! And oh, those formative experiences. I guess we can only look back with a great deal of compassion for our selves.

    David – that is so sweet. I love your comments and I am really touched that you have ‘caught up’ here, as it were! And yes, you’re right, the arse-kicking has wonderful intentions that don’t always come to useful fruition, but… that’s life I guess. It’s very comforting just that you see that.

  15. Pingback: The Creative Habit — Twyla Tharp « Neologistics Editing

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