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.