finding your creative dna

When Seattle artist Carla Sonheim joined me on the show last year, I asked her to share a key takeaway from a book that we both rank as one of our favorites – The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by award-winning choreographer, Twyla Tharp.

Sonheim said her biggest aha moment was discovering Tharp’s theory on “Creative DNA”.  And that once she recognized and understood her own creative DNA, it changed her life and how she works.

“Creativity is learned, nourished, and maintained; for inspiration to flow through us and spring forth from the mind, you must prepare, have rituals that invoke it … know how to scratch the surface of things to extract the essential, use the accidents and incidents that appear in our life, have an idea-base which serves as a backbone for our creation, use our talents wisely, recognize roadblocks and the moments that overtake us, know how to fail, and pace ourselves over the long term – to the very end.”

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit.

After reading Tharp’s book nine years TwylaTharpBookago, my key takeaway was a ritual she calls “Subtraction”.

During the beginning phase of a new choreography, Tharp places herself in a bubble of “monomaniacal absorption” where she’s fully invested in nothing but the task at hand.

“I list the biggest distractions in my life and make a pact … to do without them for a week.”

Tharp’s subtractions include

  • Movies
  • Multitasking (no reading on the StairMaster or eating while working)
  • Anything related to numbers such as contracts, bank statements, bathroom scales
  • Background music

When I first read this I thought, brilliant! Obvious, but brilliant.

I implemented the ritual of conscious subtraction right away and it’s become firmly ingrained as a natural part of my creative DNA. I apply it every time I enter a new project phase, or whenever I start feeling overwhelmed – assuming, of course, I remember to subtract in the heat of the moment!

For me, this isn’t a hardship or forced discipline. I find that subtracting for a week, or sometimes even a day or two, helps put me in a different zone where I gain clarity, lockdown focus, and accomplish much more. It creates a working version of the Buddhist state of “being still”.

My subtractions include

  • Newspapers, radio, and television (apart from work)
  • Personal email, snailmail, phone calls, texts — the smart phone’s turned off (yes, shocker, it has an off button!)
  • Socializing, networking, events, meetings, social media, lunch dates etc.
  • Shopping of any kind ( … so I need to get milk and cookies in tomorrow)

A few additions

As well as subtracting, I add a few simple things that feed my soul such as nightly baths dogbath full of really expensive bubbles. Evening candlelight versus electric light. Extended walks on the beach.  Gregorian chants. Nature sounds.

Oh … I should mention there’s one surprising and very pleasant bonus to the ritual of subtraction that might entice you to try it for yourself, and that is this:  If your honey participates alongside you, things can get wonderfully romantic without all those distractions.

Of course, that could create a whole other set of distractions …

So what’s your creative DNA? What creative rituals or processes work well for you? Do you add or subtract things from your week? What are your biggest distractions?


Carla Sonheim is a painter, illustrator, and creativity workshop instructor known for fun and innovative projects and techniques designed to help adult students recover a more spontaneous, playful approach to creating. She is the author of Drawing Lab for Mixed Media Artists: 52 Creative Exercises to Make Drawing Fun, and The Art of Silliness: A Creativity Book for Everyone.   

More about Twyla Tharp and her books.  

6 thoughts on “finding your creative dna

  1. I like this idea of honing your creative dna. I like that you call your ritual conscious subtraction and Twyla creates a bubble of monomaniacal absorption. It’s not about being selfish and that’s where I get stuck because when I say no I feel selfish. I think women are raised to put others first so I’m asking if that’s something you find problem too?

    • You’re right…it’s not at all about being selfish. It’s about setting yourself up for success. When it comes business (and writing’s my business) I’m pretty focused and have no problems setting boundaries. It’s sometimes more difficult in our personal lives because of other people’s expectations. If the people around you are supportive they’ll help create space for you. If they’re not supportive, or find subtle ways to sabotage you, then you’ll have to create space away from them for your writing…however that looks for you. But I hope you get the support you need, because you deserve to do what you love.

  2. Bibi!!!! Yoo-hoo, Mike C from NY ASJA conf here! Thank you for reminding me and my wife about this book! I read it years ago when my wife was still dancing and I’m gonna revisit it because I am about to start a new book (with S&S). The conscious subtraction makes perfect sense. We have to be still to open up. Have you read Twyla’s other book. Don’t remember the name but that also was a keeper.

    • Nooooo…. what a surprise, Mike! Yes, I’ve read Twyla’s other book The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together … I’ve always worked in a collaborative environment so I didn’t get as much from that book, but I have it on my shelves. I love her work, period. I had dinner in Portland with my agent on Thursday, and he mentioned your new series! CONGRATULATIONS!!! Really awesome news. Going to call you so you can tell me all about it. Love to all. xxx


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