The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘the creative habit


Scratching can look like borrowing and appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander around in these back hallways…”and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.
-Twyla Tharp, choreographer

Where do you get your ideas? How do you generate small ideas that lead to big writing projects? It’s springtime and as we put away our winter coats, boots and hats, we naturally desire to generate fresh ideas for our writing life. Twyla Tharp, world famous choreographer, in her understated, but powerful book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it For Life, uses the concept of ‘scratching’ as a method for finding and incubating new ideas.

‘Scratching’, she observes is what we do so we aren’t always waiting for the “thunderbolt” of inspiration to hit. Tharp says, “That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. 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.”

Twarp notes the importance of reading, as a place to scratch for ideas. Many writers reread the classics or work by mentors they love as a way to sharpen their senses and generate new perspectives. Tharp likes to read ‘archeologically’, backwards in time, working her way from a contemporary idea back to an ancient text.  When working on an idea for a dance she began with Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy which led her to Dionysus and then studies of Dionysus (worship of and symbols connected to), which led her to Euripides and his The Bacchae. These readings led to her choreograph ‘Bacchae’, a dance that explores hubris and is loosely based on the Euripides text.

Inspired by her strategy, years ago, I made a list of the subjects that I typically read about both as an academic and as a creative writer.

List:  self-help /’how to’ in yoga, health and wellness, women’s health, women’s empowerment, public speaking; craft of writing books; cookbooks; leadership; 18-20th century African American history, spirituality; creativity; women’s spirituality; African American women; black feminism; dreams; sociology of race; women’s and gender studies; elections and campaigns; feminist theory, history of the American university; genres: speculative fiction, thrillers, literary fiction

When finished with this list, I felt pretty impressed.

But then I asked myself, what are the subjects I rarely read in, have no working knowledge of, couldn’t put two sentences together about, or even avoid?

Here’s that list: general biographies, colonial American history, world history, geography, travel memoirs, animals, romance, celebrities, sailing, cars, history of language, math and science, sports, nature, children’s books, plays, poetry, Christian fiction, true crime, technical books

Doing this exercise motivated me to dig into many unexplored subjects.

What would your reading lists look like?

Here are three scratching strategies:

-Flirt with a different genre (or even subgenre)-It’s always fun to explore a different writing genre than the one that’s become your norm.  In a recent writing workshop, the instructor encouraged us to take a short piece that we were working on, keep the characters but rewrite it using a different genre. This exercise felt so liberating. I found myself exploring space opera with what had started out as a realistic story. I have little working knowledge of space operas, but it was fun to use my imagination to fill in the gaps.

-Visit a writer’s residence or historic site-Traveling to see a writer’s home is a kind of pilgrimage that can bring us fresh insights. A few years ago, I traveled to Edenton, NC to learn a bit more about Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive slave, writer and abolitionist who penned Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonym Linda Brent. My literary pilgrimage was so rejuvenating.

-Mine Magazines-Acquire ten magazines that you never read (you can buy some and collect others from friends, the doctor’s office, libraries, etc.) and read them from cover to cover. Keep a list about the trends, ideas and musings that spark your interest.

Where are you going to scratch for ideas this spring?


The close of a decade offers a time for reflection and taking stock of what has nurtured us, especially in our creative lives. Ten years ago, I had yet to become a creativity coach. I was a few years out of graduate school and adjusting to the relentless demands of professorial life. I was secretly working on a novel while researching my academic books that I needed to write. I have made several intentional and transformative leaps this decade in claiming a life as a coach, writer, and academic. The books below have been traveling companions and witnesses to those changes. They are books that I return to often and encourage my clients and workshop participants to read. As a whole they offer a fountain of ideas, techniques and incentives for accessing and maintaining creative states. Well-written and highly engaging, they provide ladders up from the ditches of self-loathing that creative people sometimes fall into, insights on how to quell doubts about one’s ability to create(at least long enough to get the next thing done), and sport new roadmaps in how we might shape a creative life for ourselves, if we dare.

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet, Matthew Fox: This is a jubilant philosophical discussion about the role of creativity in serving human evolution. Fox, a radical theologian argues for the necessity of creativity for the continued survival of the species. Fox makes a case for the spirituality of creativity, a commitment and practice that renews us and the culture as it fosters social justice, compassion and transformation.

Making Your Creative Dreams Real: A Plan for Procrastinators, Perfectionists, Busy People, and People Who Would Really Rather Sleep All Day?: SARK: How does one achieve a creative dream that feels impossible? SARK answers this question through her helping people tackle internal barriers (e.g. critics) and external realities (i.e. lack of time or money). I probably recommend this book more often than the others on this list. SARK has a gift for helping people overcome obstacles to creating. MYCR offers readers practical guidance about the stages of dream development (i.e. egg, hatched, infant or baby, toddler, child, adolescent, adult). Once you figure what stage your dream is in then you can find exercises to figure out what your dream needs in order to sustain itself. Bursting with color and confidence, this book is meant to awaken the dreamer (and doer) inside of us.

Coaching the Artist Within: Advices for Writers, Actors, Visual Artists & Musicians from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach, Eric Maisel: I’m convinced that by writing this superb book, Maisel wants to put himself and other creativity coaches out of business. He reveals useful techniques that teach us how to be aware of the habits of mind that we use not to create as well as to create. Maisel draws on vignettes from a diversity of clients to amplify the lessons presented. You learn how to be your own coach in a mindful and kind way.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it For Life, A Practical Guide, Twyla Tharp: This understated but powerful book should have gotten much more notice. Twyla Tharp, world famous choreographer, doesn’t believe that creativity is a gift from the heavens bestowed only on a chosen few. Unlike many creativity books, The Creative Habit is intellectual, incisive and doesn’t coddle. There’s no mention of affirmations or positive self-talk in this book. What’s offered up are more than thirty unique exercises for jumpstarting one’s imaginative musings.

On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity, Ellen J. Langer: I love books that blend neuroscience, mindfulness and creativity because they give us a new window for understanding how to break longstanding habits of mind. Langer presents psychological research that demonstrates how people typically undervalue their perceptions of themselves and the world around them–mindlessly. Mindless living affects our creative lives negatively. Mindlessness when creating might show up as tyrannical self criticism and evaluation, overreliance on social comparisons, and lack of interest in ambiguity. She argues for a mindful approach to creative endeavors that allows us to notice how our choices can arise from the context of our present moment(as opposed to following a mindless automatic script).

The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, Nancy Andreasen. This book helps us understand how the brain exercises everyday creative acts (i.e. the ability to have a conversation) and what possibly contributes to off the chart creativity (e.g. the lives of Martha Graham, Thomas Edison, Toni Morrison etc). Andreasean’s writing makes neuroscience accessible for a lay audience.

The Twelve Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor, Gail McMeekin: If an author puts the word secret in a title, it immediately makes me want to read it. This book doesn’t disappoint as it delivers up the life histories of women who have found ways to nurture and sustain their creativity. This book’s emphasis on finding role models, mentors and allies drives home the point that we need support to accomplish our creative dreams.

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, Diane Ackerman: Although not a book solely about creativity, Ackerman’s chapter on creativity, “Creating Minds”, is worth several other fluffy books on the subject. She writes with a poet’s sensibility and a journalist’s precision about our amazing gray matter.

Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert: I have taught this book in my undergraduate course ‘Women and Creativity’ for the past few years. I schedule the book to be read during a section of the class I call ‘creativity as life process’ which focuses on creativity as life-making. This book offers many lessons about the power of creative problem-solving, the importance of curiosity and exploration and using the self as a resource for understanding life. Gilbert produces a product—which is the memoir, but it is how she makes a life that is real magic.

The Creativity Book: A Year’s Worth of Inspiration and Guidance, Eric Maisel: This is a go-to resource when you’re out of ideas and bored with your current project. It presents a doable, one year plan for waking up your creative muses.

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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