Book Review: Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

I’ve read a few books on creativity over the years, from the self-help variety to the more analytic titles that explore how creativity works. Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of creativity. It’s very different, but I enjoyed it and was challenged to stretch myself in ways I hadn’t thought about before.

I think a lot of it stems from the fact that Twyla Tharp is a choreographer, but not like any dancer I’ve ever met. She has a true appreciation of all the arts, not just dance. Yet she sees everything through the lens of dance and theatre, and by extension, film.

Creativity is a habit.

This is the main premise of the book. Creativity is something you do day in and day out, like exercising. It’s a lifestyle, really. And there are ways to nourish that creativity and keep it going, so that it keeps you going as well.

I picked up The Creative Habit about 3 years ago, read a couple of chapters, and put it back in the ever-growing pile next to my nightstand. I wish I had finished it sooner. But I think I read it at the right time. You know how these things go.

The book is visual from the outset. First off, I noticed the entire book is set in Bodoni/Didot(I know it isn’t Didoni) and certain words are highlighted in red. The first page gives you a sense of the space Twyla Tharp works in, describing an empty white room. This is her canvas. This is where she will compose dances. She explores the creative process, introducing some concepts I haven’t thought of before, such as the idea of spine.


I’m not sure how that parlays to painting, but it makes total sense for literature and theatre. Spine in this sense refers to an overarching theme or structure. For example, she mentions a fiction book about a baseball team that has as its spine the theme of the Holy Grail, specifically the legend of the Fisher King. And in one of Tharp’s dances, she built the spine around the story of Dionysus/Bacchus, though it ultimately didn’t resemble that at all. Rather, with six dancers, she built a theme around pride, arrogance, defeat, and rebirth.

So that is something I want to explore in my own art: how can I incorporate spine into my paintings? I suppose it has a lot to do with being clearer about my goals as a painter, what I want the painting to say.

If you’re an artist, I highly recommend it. Or even if you’re not an artist and you want to know how the creative process works. Or if you’re a business person and you want to come up with better ideas.

The end focuses on getting out of ruts, building a “validation squad,” as it were, and putting in the time and dedication to become a master.

Now that you’ve read this, go see what Merlin has to say about it: Twyla’s Box: It’s Where Everything Goes

Header image source: Maria Doval Ballet