Week nineteen: Walk into the white room

It is week nineteen of 2019. How’s the writing going for you this week? I can just see my two-week summer road trip starting to appear over the horizon, which is helping me focus on what I want to accomplish before that big juicy break.

This week’s book is The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, by Twyla Tharp and Mark Reiter. (Because the narratorial “I” in the book is clearly Tharp’s, I’ll be attributing the ideas to her in this piece.) As a choreographer, Tharp’s work only comes to life if she can communicate her ideas to her dancers, and those finely honed directorial skills come through in The Creative Habit. Tharp’s voice is sharp, fierce, and honest. This is a woman who has developed the self-described “steeliness of character” and creative confidence to audition nine hundred dancers in order to hire four.

If you read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, you may remember her metaphor for handling her fears: Fear is allowed to come on the figurative road trip she is taking with creativity, but it’s never allowed to drive the car. Here’s the analogy Tharp reaches for: “In those long and sleepless nights when I’m unable to shake my fears sufficiently, I borrow a biblical epigraph from Dostoyevsky’s The Demons: I see my fears being cast into the bodies of wild boars and hogs, and I watch them rush to a cliff where they fall to their deaths.” If Big Magic is a cocktail, The Creative Habit is a shot of whisky, neat. You’ll know which you need. Here’s another hit: Worried that some other artist has already created the work you want to make? “Honey, it’s all been done before. Nothing’s really original. Not Homer or Shakespeare and certainly not you. Get over yourself.” Got it? And one more: “If you’re at a dead end, take a deep breath, stamp your foot, and shout ‘Begin!’ You never know where it will take you.”

Tharp’s courage and confidence come in part from the fact that she works in the high-stakes crucible of choreography. For a moment, imagine that instead of facing a blank page or a blank screen, you walk into a white room, knowing that in five weeks you will be staging a dance that you haven’t yet choreographed: “My dancers expect me to deliver because my choreography represents their livelihood. The presenters in Los Angeles expect the same because they’ve sold a lot of tickets to people with the promise that they’ll see something new and interesting from me. The theater owner (without really thinking about it) expects it as well; if I don’t show up, his theater will be empty for a week. That’s a lot of people, many of whom I’ve never met, counting on me to be creative. But right now I’m not thinking about any of this. I’m in a room with the obligation to create a major dance piece. The dancers will be here in a few minutes. What are we going to do?” Remember this scenario the next time you have writer’s block, and feel lucky that your stakes are not quite so high.

Alongside the straight talk, Tharp offers inventive exercises designed to work your creative muscles. For example, write a creative autobiography to uncover your creative DNA; observe a man and woman together, write down twenty actions they do, and then create a story about them; mine an old photograph from your childhood for memories; drop a pile of coins on a table and rearrange them in a pleasing pattern; write down a list of twenty questions you want to know about a topic you plan to write on; act out a verb. One that’s particularly well-suited for writers: Develop what Tharp calls your “metaphor quotient” by searching for figures in clouds, studying the linguistic roots of words, or connecting two seemingly unrelated works of art. “Metaphor,” Tharp says, “is the lifeblood of all art, if it is not art itself. Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it—for ourselves and others.” 

Tharp has the experience and wisdom to understand her own creative process and put it into words, something many artists, even writers, never achieve. She calls her initial explorations “scratching”: “It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.” Scratching can be reading, listening, improvising with an open mind and energetic spirit. “Scratching is real and tangible. It bloodies your fingernails,” Tharp says. 

After scratching comes planning, but overplanning can cripple your creativity: “Too much planning implies you’ve got it all under control. That’s boring, unrealistic, and dangerous. It lulls you into a complacency that removes one of the artist’s most valuable conditions: being pissed. Art is competitive with yourself, with the past, with the future. It is a special war zone where first you make the rules, and then you test the consequences.” The only goal in the planning stage is to identify the spine for your work – the core idea that will guide your intentions and creativity.

Tharp also has wise things to say about the ebbs and flows of creativity – what she calls “ruts” and “grooves” – and she has the most thorough, insightful discussion of the power of failure I’ve seen in any book on creativity. “Every creative person has to learn to deal with failure,” Tharp says, “because failure, like death and taxes, is inescapable. If Leonardo and Beethoven and Goethe failed on occasion, what makes you think you’ll be the exception?” Private failure teaches you to edit out bad ideas, exercise your judgment, and set higher and higher expectations for yourself. And when you do fail in public, “you are forcing yourself to learn a whole new set of skills, skills that have nothing to do with creating and everything to do with surviving.” This is how you become a stronger human, allowing you to take even bigger risks and achieve greater heights in your creativity. 

Above all, Tharp will remind you again and again in The Creative Habit that it is all worth it. The bloody scratching, those fear-pigs falling to their deaths, the private ruts, and the public failures – they eventually lead to magic. “When it all comes together,” she tells us, “a creative life has the nourishing power we normally associate with food, love, and faith. . . . It permits me to walk into a white room and walk out dancing.” Tuck that metaphor away in your mind and let it do its work. One day soon, I want to see you walk into that white room of the blank page and walk out dancing.

Here’s to walking into the white room, y’all,

Next week’s book: Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

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