For many years it did not occur to me that anyone could have creativity on tap, a stream of high-pressured water joyfully sprouting in the air like a fountain perpetually active. At the time when my PhD was trickling towards the finishing line of the writing-up stage, I found myself proceeding in quicksand. The faster I tried to move and the deeper I sank into a well of repetitions, clichés, bibliographical inaccuracies and pointless quotations. I had always thought of my PhD as a creative endeavour of sorts, yet the sitting down at the screen was causing a degree of self-resentment I could not explain even to myself.
One day I left the computer at home and took a book to Starbucks instead, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. This is a book which casts to the flames the idea that the Muse will read us a lesson and will speak it loud, for it is only through habitual, even ritual, hard graft, sweat and blood that our creative work can evolve from germ of an idea to finished feat. You will have heard praises for this text far and wide, as Cathleen McGuigan of Newsweek said 'it isn't about getting the lightning bolt of inspiration, but rather [about] the artistic necessity of old-fashioned virtues such as discipline, preparation and routine' and Linda Winer of Newsday defined it 'as smart and eye-opening as her dance' (Twyla is a dancer and choreographer by trade).
There is much more in this text than I could address in one sitting without hitting five thousand words, and I shall probably return to it in the future, but if you have ever fought ruts, the thinking-out-of-a-box problem, the perceived lack of spine in your work, the planning and overplanning, the mastering of underlying skills or the fear to begin, Twyla addresses all of these in great detail. I must confess that it is thanks to this book that I found the focus and will to see my PhD to the end. What did strike me as particularly insightful the first time I read it is the potential subconscious fight against our own creative identities, which the author addresses in the chapter about 'Your Creative DNA'.
'Each of us is hard-wired in a certain way. And that hard-wiring insinuates itself into our work. That's not a bad thing. Actually, it's what the world expects from you. We want our artists to take the mundane materials of our lives, run it through their imaginations, and surprise us. If you are by nature a loner, a crusader, an outsider, a jester, a romantic, a melancholic, or any one of a dozen personalities, that quality will shine through in your work.'
In other words, your creative identity is what makes your work yours and nobody else's. It is the 'I' that sings from the page even when you cannot use it. It is the defining trait that makes your work unique. It is the line that connects the dots you spent a lifetime tracing. Yet, few of us recognise our creative identities and even fewer embrace them. When we catch a glimpse of them, we spend an inane amount of time fighting them. Instead of thriving on having unlocked the door that can take us from average to stellar, we obliterate the epiphany until we do not respond to it any longer.
For many years I wanted my writing to read like a scientific report. Yes, a report. Full of sterile facts, full of scientific evidence, full of droning on about this and that. I am not trying to put down medical writers here, but at some point I had to ask myself why, while writing non-fiction of the humorous sort or children's stories, I wanted to suppress my imagination, my creativity, my individuality so to read like a manual or an encyclopedia. Was this a relic of formal education? Was this a fossilised conviction that any writing should be footnoted every two lines? Was this a belief that only an objective piece of writing as dry as a three-month-old butter-less biscuit was worth sweating for? I already knew objectivity was impossible (as I said the other day), so why the self-inflicted drama?
I guess I was in denial. I thought sterile writing qualified as 'good' and my own, effervescent writing as 'cheap-and-trashy'. I had mistaken my sources of inspiration to the point whereby I was stifling my own voice in favour of sounds that I could never have replicated, not even after a lifetime worth of exercises. But I was younger and unable to read myself. As Twyla says:
'I suspect many people never get a handle on their creative identity this way. They take their urges, their biases, their work habits for granted. But a little self-knowledge goes a long way. If you understand the strands of your creative DNA, you begin to see how they mutate into common threads in your work. You begin to see the "story" that they're trying to tell; why you do the things you do (both positive and self-destructive); where you are strong and where you are weak (which prevents a lot of false starts), and how you see the world and function in it.'
To this end, the author devised a questionnaire, 'Your Creative Autobiography', intended as a self-appraisal of what matters to you and what constitutes your creative identity. It is fun to fill in and the results will surprise you. And one more thing about The Creative Habit: some people have scoffed and have commented that this book is full of anecdotal evidence only applicable if you are a dancer. To you, dear reader, I have this to say: if you can see past the end of your nose, buy it.