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.