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.  

writer’s block #1: sit your butt in the chair

A periodic lack of inspiration that can descend on the most experienced of writers and that results in an almost pathological inability to put pen to paper.

     ~  Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable.

Writer’s block.  The most frequent question I’m asked by writers of all levels, is how to deal with “it”.  Like “it” is a tangible thing.  A dense wall of concrete blocks that we must blast through to free our imprisoned words.  Or an insidious, malodorous force dousing us in deep shadow, like one of Tolstoy’s Dark Riders.

Ask 50 people to describe creative block and you’ll get 50 different responses.Writers Block: An Excuse

In fact, many psychologists claim there’s no such thing as creative block.

They say creative block is an excuse for not doing the work. That we’re not blocked, but lazy. Uninspired. Unmotivated.

Others say creative block is one of the simplest, yet most complex of maladies.

We’ll explore the complex in later posts.  Today I want to look at the simplest, yet often most difficult solution to writer’s block, and that is something many writers struggle with: The battle of getting one’s arse (as they say where I come from) into your chair!

Sit your butt in the chair—tie yourself there if need be—and do not get up until you’ve written something.  Anything!

For example, I couldn’t think what to write for this week’s blog post. Now, you could say I was blocked, but that would be pushing it.  Because truth be told, it’s Friday.  It’s been a long week.  I’m feeling somewhat worn out and uninspired.  I really want to goof off and go play on the beach with my dog and his buds.  And when you feel that way, it’s hard to motivate yourself.

Once I realized that lack of motivation was at the root of my reluctance to write, I followed my own advice. I sat my butt in the chair and said out loud:  “Bibi, you’re going nowhere until something’s on that blankety-bleep computer screen,”  i.e. this post!

Here’s how it got there.

writers-block-motivational-poster1I place my hands on the keyboard. Stare at my laptop screen. Stare at the big screen to the right, linked in to my laptop.  Stare through the window and over the water. 

I close my eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. Say Namaste in my head. Open my eyes and … nothing.

I give my dog a rawhide chew. Kiss him on the nose. Tell him to roll over; tickle his tummy. I twizzle my chair 360 degrees. Put my bare feet up on the desk. Decide I like the color of my toe polish—Sassy Missy. Lean back. Scan my bookshelves. Wonder if I should cut my hair. Nothing.Writers Block Mug

I shuffle forward and sip my cooling latte. Wish I’d bought a slice of lemon cake. What’s that grinding noise outside? Should I investigate?  I can’t … I’m not allowed to leave my chair.

I twizzle my chair to face the other side of the room. Smile at a photo of my baby niece, Alicia. Sigh … she’s gorgeous!

Sigh … I’m pathetic.

Really?  You have no ideas? Call yourself a writer? 

Maybe I can call it a day … I’ve been writing all week, my fingers ache, my shoulders are hunched, I’m not in the mood. Sun’s shining, might be raining tomorrow …

Oh … someone knocks on the door. But I’m not supposed to get up. Probably handing out pizza coupons or selling a fantasy; I ignore them. Twizzle to face my laptop. They knock louder. Determined. Maybe it’s important.

I leave my chair, walk down the hallway, peep through the spy hole. Mormons. Or maybe Jehovah’s?  Whoever they are, I don’t need what they’re selling; I open the door a crack, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I walk through the kitchen, pause at the fridge. Maybe I should eat something. Make a cup of coffee? Maybe I should make a sign and hang it on the door “Do Not Disturb! Writer at Work.”

Oh no you don’t.  Back to your chair.

I sit. Close my eyes. Place my hands on the keyboard. Run my fingers over familiar keys, imitating a dickenspiano-playing virtuoso.

I start typing. Words.  Meaningless. Misspelled. Random. Just words.  A phrase.  Another. 

Stuck. Stuckness. Writer’s block. BLAH! Unblocking writer’s block … simple. Complex. Motivation … movement … leads to action. Move. Moved. Stirred. Action.

Of  course!  And here we go … heading for the zone …

Now I’m in flow.

There’s sound logic behind the simple movement of making yourself “sit your butt in the chair”.  Firstly, if you sit there long enough, you’ll get bored enough to start writingyou won’t care that you’re not writing the next great masterpiece, at least you’re writing.  Secondly, when you look at the Latin root for the word motivation, this is how it translates.

Latin “motiva”  means motion, movement, moved, stirred;  “actio / actionis” means act, action, activity. So if you want to get motivated, start moving until you are physiologically and psychologically stirred into action: Movement + action => motivation.

How do you motivate yourself when you’d rather be anywhere than sitting in your chair writing?  How do you make yourself jumpstart creative flow?

still doing that brain surgery thing?

I rarely need to purchase books these days—one of the delicious perks of being a radio host. But I still embrace the meditative state of browsing bookstore shelves, trailing my fingers along the neatly aligned spines of multicolored book jackets, hoping to discover a new treasure, a new author, a new idea, a book written just for me.

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. I pick it up, glance at front and back covers. I let the book fall open to the page of its choice. I start reading. I look for a chair and read some more. I read as I wait in line to pay for the book. And when I get home, I lean against the kitchen counter and read as the electric kettle heats up.

I pour boiling water into my ‘special moments’ teapot, stirring lemon and ginger tealeaves, and leave them to steep while I curl up on the sofa to get lost in the mind of this exquisite writer.

Hours later, I Tweet Dani Shapiro and tell her Still Writing just made it to my ‘favorites’ bookshelf.  I invite her on the show and we exchange PR connections.  Booking confirmed, show notes prepared, here’s a little of our conversation.


Dani Shapiro, Author of Still Writing

Vicki: It’s an interesting title, Dani. I thought, “Why Still Writing?” Then of course, when I got to the end of the book I realized why you called it Still Writing. Let’s start there.

You have a friend, a sculptor whose name is Mark. People always go up to him and say, “Are you still doing that sculpting thing?”  You hear the same thing. “Are you still writing?”

Dani: Exactly. I remember the time that Mark came up to me, it was at a party in Connecticut where we both live. This is a guy who he’s 6’5”. He’s this strapping guy who works in enormous hunks of marble and granite. His work is in museums and the best art collections all over the world and on the campuses of great universities.

Somebody came up to him at this party and said, “Are you still doing that sculpture thing?” He came up to me sort of befuddled, crest fallen, that feeling of, “Really? Are you really asking if this is what I do with my life?”

There have been so many times I’ve been asked that. No matter how many books I’ve written, no matter what I’ve “achieved” as a writer or an artist in my life, I’m always asked, “Are you still writing?”

So many times I’ve wanted to respond “Yes! Are you still doing that brain surgery thing? Is that still working out for you?”

When I realized I wanted to do this book, the title was so clear to me.  I remember the moment it came to me.

There’s also the double entendre, which is the stillness required to do this work that we do … it’s very real. You can’t do it in a frenetic and noisy environment. There needs to be a quiet and solitude.

Vicki: Do you think it’s because it’s creative that people think it’s not sustainable, it’s not real work? As you say in the book, when is enough, enough? What do I have to do to prove myself?

Dani: It’s funny, because I’ve actually taken an informal poll of some of my very successful friends in various creative fields. My husband is a filmmaker and he just made a film with an actress who has been around a long time and has won Tony Awards and been nominated for Emmys and all sorts of stuff, practically a household name and I said to her, “Does anybody ever say to you, ‘Are you still acting?’” She just laughed and said, “All the time.”

I think the person asking it means no ill will, no harm. I think it comes from the feeling of … what can it possibly be to sit down on a daily basis try to make something out of nothing? It sort of flies in the face of the way that most people spend their daily lives. Yet for anyone who creates, for artists and writers, it’s the only thing we can do.

Vicki: I could relate to this book on so many levels. I love that you call it a companion to writers. It’s not easy. People joke all the time, “It’s okay for you guys in your PJs all day.” I certainly don’t work in my PJs even though I work from my own studio, but it’s not always easy to get yourself sat down in that chair. There is no real pressure on you unless you have a looming deadline. You talk about this a lot in the book.

Dani: Right, there is so much to distract … the longest walk of my day is from the cappuccino maker in my kitchen to my desk.

Vicki: I know Monday mornings are particularly difficult for you so I appreciate you being with us today.

Dani: Mondays are brutal. I’ve always kept very regular hours as a writer. It’s whatever works for you. Some writers can write in the middle of the night or don’t keep regular hours at all. Some work 7 days a week. I have always, from the very beginning of my writer’s life, worked Monday through Friday, when the rest of the world is working. I think it’s been my hedge against feeling too solitary or out of step or lonely.

That feeling of having to crack the code of this thing in your head … how to articulate it on the page. How to take this chaos, this longing and this vision, these bits and pieces, and create something that has coherence and integrity on the page. It’s so challenging to get your butt into the chair. Someone once said, “It’s not the writing [that’s hard]. It’s the sitting down to write.”

Much of what I really wanted to explore in the book is the way that I think so many of us get in our own way.

Often, some of my worst writing days are the ones that start out completely free of any other distractions or disturbances. Full day open to me, empty house, quiet, phone’s not ringing, no appointment, everything is just as it should be. Sometimes the pressure of that is just too much.

If left with nothing else getting in the way between me and my work, I can get between me and my work. I think that’s true of so many of us. It’s a struggle.

Vicki: I agree and it’s nice to know we’re not alone. I love that you have a sense of humor about this. In the introduction you wrote that a high school student had asked if he could come and observe you because he was interested in becoming a writer. You wrote, “Observe me? I had to decline. I couldn’t imagine what the poor student would think watching me sit, then stand. Sit again. Decide I needed more coffee. Go downstairs and make the coffee. Go back upstairs and sit again. Get up. Comb my hair. Sit again.” I thought, “Yeah, I can definitely relate to that sometimes.”

*2013 Interview excerpt with writer Dani Shapiro. Edited for clarity, length, and readability. Conversations LIVE with Vicki St. Clair.